In the 1990s “blood diamonds” financed often barbaric civil wars in West African countries. Today, what one archaeologist calls “blood artifacts” are a prime source of finance for members of the Islamic State. Their looting of ancient sites occurs primarily in Syria and Iraq where its pretend caliphate continues to occupy significant territory and rule in a few major cities. ISIS destroys some antiquities but traffics others as a source, with oil revenue from captured production sites, of finance.
On September 24, Asia Society organized a forum on antiquities trafficking and terrorist financing in conjunction with the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly. High-level representatives of concerned countries — the foreign ministers of Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, plus UNESCO’s Director General, Irina Bokava — depicted a situation of continuing thefts and sales on the international black market in addition to the pulverizing of religious and other relics and explosion of ancient ruins.
ISIS’s goals involve physical and cultural slaughter: to eradicate other religious groups and minority populations. Such atrocities are an attack on collective identities, a kind of genocide in which we all are concerned because relics of human civilization are not the property of any one country or people. They are treasures of our collective past in the evolution of human civilization.
To destroy World Heritage sites are crimes against culture (a better term might be crimes against civilization), and should be recognized as war crimes under international criminal law. The International Criminal Court (ICC), it was suggested, should launch an official investigation in which ISIS leaders could be tried for cultural war crimes as well.
The meeting began with a minute of silent tribute to Khalid al-Asaad, former chief of antiquities of the Palmyra ruins, who was brutally killed by Islamic State fighters in their signature method of decapitation, doubtless having refused, even under torture, to reveal where movable Palmyra relics had been hidden. ISIS obsession with destroying religious relics, Shi’a mosques and ancient ruins (such as the Temple of Baal at Palmyra in August) is not random nihilism but a part of a millennial struggle between Sunni and Shi’a over reverence for idols. Sunni fundamentalists, ISIS among them, consider all Shi’a to be idolaters, worthy of death unless they “repent,” i.e. convert to Sunnism. Asaad’s executioners attached a sign to his body that called him an “apostate,” “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, guilty of attending foreign conferences with “infidels”.
When ISIS is eventually destroyed, however, the general problem of trafficking in antiquities will remain as it has for decades. Selling and buying antiquities stolen from various countries on an international black market, sometimes in auction houses, is a problem of long standing.
Various types of international anti-trafficking action were suggested. One is to criminalize buying of trafficked antiquities as well as theft of them. If there are a few convictions this may have some impact because particular wealthy people might get sent to prison. (This resembles the problem of white-collar crime, e.g. in banks and other financial institutions found culpable in the financial crisis. Fines of the firm don’t deter individual behavior very well.) The Antiquities Coalition proposes a Blacklist to identify and shame individuals, organizations and countries involved in trafficking. Cultural swat teams are another suggestion, as are “Blue Helmuts” for culture (i.e. give UN peacekeeping troops a mandate), creation of an “Archaeologists without Borders” group that would get into conflict regions to organize saving monuments, and even “asylums for antiquities” that would hold rescued objects until they can be gotten back to the countries involved.