BEIRUT: Trafficked archaeological objects intercepted by security forces have filled warehouses in Beirut as conflicts in Syria and Iraq have raged on. Now those same storage rooms lie empty as Lebanon became the first country in the region to repatriate the looted artifacts to their countries of origin.
According to the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities, security forces seized over 300 objects between 2012 and 2014 alone.
This included a truck carrying 79 objects, some of which belonged to the ancient site of Palmyra that had been overrun by Daesh (ISIS).
Each retrieved piece is examined by the DGA to determine where it came from. A list of objects is then submitted to the country of origin and, upon its request, a plan for repatriation is agreed upon.
“If the competent authorities [in the country of origin] send us a repatriation request, we must comply with it,” Anne-Marie Afeiche, Director of the National Museum of Beirut, said. “These objects are part of the cultural heritage of that country and we are responsible for their safety only as long as they are on Lebanese soil.”
The “export and transfer of ownership of cultural property” is illicit under the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The same regulation also states that “cultural property deposited in another State Party’s territory for the purposes of protection against the dangers of an armed conflict should be returned at the end of hostilities to the authorities of the territory from which it came.”
However, returning objects while hostilities are still ongoing is a matter left to the discretion of each signatory state. “If Syria is requesting the objects to be returned and Lebanon agrees, then this is a bilateral matter,” Edouard Planche, program specialist with UNESCO’s Section for Movable Heritage and Museums in Paris, told The Daily Star. “UNESCO requests that the objects are not sent back if there is a danger of destruction or looting. It is sometimes better to keep the objects abroad in a safe haven, with the agreement of the state of origin, rather than send them back and expose the heritage to threats.”
Lebanon has so far been the only country in the region to repatriate looted archaeological objects from Syria and Iraq. According to Ahmad Deeb, director of museum affairs of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus, the Syrian authority has filed repatriation requests to a number of countries. However, so far only Lebanon has acted upon them. “Until now, no country other than Lebanon has given us a list of [retrieved] artifacts coming from Syria,” Deeb told The Daily Star. “The objects sent back by Lebanon are being stored in safe places within Syria,” he said, adding that so far the Syrian authority has managed to preserve almost all of the objects kept in museums.
Another reason return of archaeological objects in times of conflict is complex is that a repatriation agreement is conditional on the maintenance of diplomatic ties between the countries in question. Many countries have cut ties or maintain strained diplomatic relations with Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.
According to Planche, this might explain why other countries currently holding artifacts have not yet sent them back to Syria and Iraq. “Restitution would mean first of all the re-establishment of embassies in the concerned countries,” Planche said.
The international police organization INTERPOL estimates that several hundred thousand artifacts have already been excavated and removed by criminal entities and possibly terrorist groups. Its works of art database contains details on nearly 50,000 objects and is accessible by law enforcement, customs authorities, international organizations and the private art industry, in an attempt to assist member countries in identifying, locating and repatriating trafficked items.
In a statement sent to The Daily Star, INTERPOL recognized Lebanon’s efforts in the global fight against the trafficking of archaeological artifacts in line with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2199/2015.
The resolution calls for countries to take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in stolen Iraqi and Syrian cultural property. “To this end, the Lebanese authorities often return the cultural artifacts seized at its borders,” the statement said.
Nicholas Saad, head of Lebanon’s Bureau of International Theft, echoed this view. “The antiquities coming from Syria and Iraq are excavated – they do not come from museums,” Saad said. Objects stored in museums – including those that have been looted and recovered – are identified and catalogued, making them more difficult to sell and therefore less appealing on the black market. According to Saad, the number of cases of trafficked objects dealt with by the bureau increased significantly following the onset of the Syrian conflict, going from a maximum of one case per year up to 25 cases annually.
In 2015, the United States also repatriated looted artifacts, sending more than 60 artifacts back to Iraq.
The American ambassador to Iraq at the time said he had “no concerns” regarding the safety of the objects once they had been returned to their country of origin. However, storage in museums is not always a guarantee of safety. At present, Iraq is still trying to retrieve a large portion of the 15,000 objects looted following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In an interview with the National Geographic in March 2015, while the U.S. was in the process of returning objects to Iraq, Margarete van Ess, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s Iraq field office, conceded that repatriating objects in times of conflict can be “disputable,” but that “always waiting for better times will not solve problems.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2017, on page 3.