Sixteen years after the adoption of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the international community decided to extend this protection to times of peace and curb the increasing illicit international traffic of cultural property. Under the provisions of the 1970 Convention, States cooperate to protect the cultural property on their territory and fight its illicit import, export and transfer. The Convention plays a three-fold role. First and foremost it provides States Parties with measures to be taken at the national level, such as drawing up inventories and export certificates, the imposition of administrative or penal sanctions and carrying out educational campaigns. Secondly, the Convention contains restitution provisions under which States undertake appropriate steps to recover and return cultural property illicitly imported after the entry into force of the Convention, and admit legal proceedings brought by rightful owners to recover cultural property, etc. Thirdly, it offers an international cooperation framework, stipulating that import and export controls can be undertaken when a Member State’s cultural heritage is in jeopardy from pillage and encouraging States to conclude bilateral agreements.
To date, the 1970 Convention has been ratified by 120 Member States, including many culture-rich countries as well as former focal points of illicit traffic. However, given the spectacular globalization of illegal trade of cultural objects in recent decades, it is essential that all countries join the ranks of States Parties to the Convention, to prevent further impoverishment of our common cultural heritage.
To take intergovernmental cooperation to the next level, UNIDROIT was asked by UNESCO to develop the Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995), as a complementary instrument to the 1970 Convention. In this Convention, States focus on a uniform treatment for restitution of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects and allow claims processed directly through national courts. It covers all stolen objects, not just inventoried ones which have to be returned.
To deal with cases outside the scope of the 1970 Convention, in 1978 UNESCO also set up the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation, a platform of negotiation, mediation and conciliation to facilitate the restitution of cultural objects such as the Parthenon sculptures of the Sphinx of Bogâzköy.
Today, and considering particularly the problem of illegal excavations and trade of archaeological objects, the 1970 Convention stands at a crossroads and a large number of UNESCO Member States wants to increase its visibility, improve its implementation at national level and carefully re-examine its future. UNESCO responds by organizing a media event on 31 January 2011. In addition, a conference will be organized in March 2011, with UNESCO Member States and leading experts in the field of illicit traffic and restitution of cultural property. Both events will take place at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris.