Washington, DC – Today, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and David Perdue (R-GA) introduced legislation to restrict ISIS’ ability to profit from the sale of antiquities. ISIS has ransacked cities and pillaged historical artifacts, as it did in Palmyra, and then sold those antiquities on the black market. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has reported that this trafficking may be the group’s second largest source of revenue. The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, would give the Administration the authority to impose import restrictions on Syrian antiquities. Ordinarily the process of restricting the sale of illicit historical artifacts could be done through the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, but since the U.S. lacks diplomatic relations with the Assad regime in Syria, additional authorities are needed.
“The artifacts representing our world’s cultural heritage shouldn’t be used to finance ISIS’ terrorist and criminal operations,” Senator Casey said. “This legislation will not only help to cut off a major source of ISIS’s funding, but will also work to prevent them from continuing to pillage historical sites and destroy precious cultural heritage.”
“Since World War II, the United States has led the international effort to protect and preserve cultural property during times of conflict and crisis,” said Senator Perdue. “This legislation supports efforts to halt ISIS and other terrorist groups from profiting off of instability in Syria and to save priceless cultural heritage, artifacts, and sites. We cannot allow ISIS or anyone to demolish these key pieces of the world’s rich history.”
“We need to do everything we can to stop terrorist financing,” Senator Grassley said. “This bill would help cut off a source of the funding that supports terror and instability in Syria and beyond. The Senate should pass our bill as soon as possible.”
ISIS Antiquities Smuggling
In recent months, a series of reports have indicated that ISIS and criminal opportunists in Iraq and Syria have sought to profit from looting antiquities and selling them illegally on the black market. According to the State Department, on May 15, U.S. Special Operations Forces recovered a cache of hundreds of archaeological and historical objects and fragments during a raid in al-Amr (eastern Syria) to capture ISIL leader Abu Sayyaf.
There is evidence that ISIS collects a tax on antiquities excavated and smuggled out of its territory. Artifacts are sold to IS-approved dealers, who complete the transaction and are then granted safe passage through IS territory.
While government officials say that the majority of the trade is run by the ISIS, reports suggest that many groups, including portions of the Syrian government, other combatants, criminal networks also smuggle or trade in antiquities.
Why do we need legislation?
The U.S. is a party to a 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In 1982, Congress passed the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), which enabled the U.S. government to implement the UNESCO convention.
The United States is a market for antiquities. One provision of CPIA gives the State Department authority to enter into memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with foreign countries to help protect their antiquities by restricting the import of certain items to the United States. Since the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, a traditional MOU cannot be entered into. Section 8 of the legislation gives the Administration the authority to impose import restrictions on Syrian antiquities, waiving the provisions of current law that require a request from the country of origin.
The House of Representatives has already passed a partner bill, authored by Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Representative Ed Royce (R-CA).