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Essay: The illicit trade of cultural property (focus on Turkey)

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  • Subject area(s): International relations
  • Reading time: 3 minutes
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  • Published: 28 July 2022*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 783 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)

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The illicit trade of cultural property remains an imminent problem for the international community amidst the controversy defied by its repatriation whilst granting rightful ownership amongst foreign museums and countries of origin. In recognition of the significance of cultural property protection (CPP), Turkey stands amongst the 141 countries that have ratified the 1970 Convention, closely administering its principles within the country’s international and local attempts at experiencing a ‘cultural revitalization.’

Turkey strongly believes in the fact that the magnitude of this crime extends beyond the funding of interdicted operations; the right to embark on the historical legacy of cultural assets within legal, strategical, and ethical development, stolen from natives. Within this UNODC Conference, Turkey aims to incentivize the House on the grounds of its current security measures whilst addressing activity that jeopardizes its objectives constructively.

Presently, The Ministry of Culture and Tourism describes a notable 305 unresolved reported incidents of theft dated 2004 onwards including the looting of the Museum of Divan Literature in Istanbul subsequent to the ceaseless approval of excavation licenses throughout the late-nineteenth century. Turkey’s leniency in allocating the country’s resourcefulness throughout previous decades has been mistaken as an invitation for illicit digging by both local and foreign organized crime; conceded as one of the country’s most important issues for over a century.

Turkey’s earliest record of action emerged from its alliance into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, which outlined the implication of CPP within the military protocol and human protection in the 1954 Hague Convention; responded with Turkey’s accession. Turkey’s government has shown has been seen through criminal and civil laws protecting against the export of cultural assets as early on as 1869. Law No. 2863 on Conservation of Cultural and Natural Property was reenacted in 1983 as Turkey’s latest iteration, supplemented by a variety of regulations at a nationwide scale. Furthermore, the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage Museums, based in Ankara, operates as a curated task force for protecting cultural property in Turkey; sanctioned with 63 specialized regional Directorates in coordination with 138 archaeological sites for the safeguarding of cultural valuables from locally administered looting.

At the national level, Turkey signed the Cultural Property Agreement with the United States on the 19th of July 2020 upon the basis of a memorandum of understanding (MOU), granting the U.S law enforcement the ability to repatriate trafficked objects back to Turkey whilst postering interchange of Turkish cultural heritage with U.S Institutions. Turkey’s objectives align closely with those of INTERPOL, adjoining Operation Pandora V; the anti-theft initiative executed at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to combat the radical surge in cultural property crimes. The successful outcome can be evaluated from a recent arrest of 78 suspected members of an underground antiquities trafficking ring; over 23,000 cultural valuables seized under the suboperation, ‘Anatolia’.

Recognizing the importance and value of its cultural patrimony, Turkey has been demanding the repatriation of cultural property from foreign governments; alleging rightful ownership over archaeological finds that were stolen mid-1950s, wherein Western influence was eminent as a result of a global trend in conducting excavations within Eurasian provinces.

Likewise, Suspicious activity has been surmised from the previous excavations initiated by Germany, wherein 2.1 percent of illicit trafficking of antiques has proven legal prominence. Smuggled artifacts include the Temple of Pergamum and the Treasures of Troia; respectfully accommodating private collections and leading museums. As a result, Turkey has threatened to revoke multiple excavation permits under private researchers, prohibiting the travel of its exhibitions overseas within the recent years in a form of self-help restitution of cultural artifacts sought to be illegally exported. By the words of Zenyep Boz, the head of the anti-smuggling department of the Turkish General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums; “Turkey has never been passive when it came to the repatriation of cultural heritage. But we became stronger and more assertive as global awareness increased,” acclaiming justification to the protective measures on securing the cultural property.

Exploring possible solutions for the effective conservation of cultural property stems from the mutual understanding that an international effort is required to limit the negative global impact this crime has on the global economy and education. Turkey will put forward resolutions that benefit foreign countries in an amendment to its efforts in preserving its identity through heritage, taking advantage of advanced technology in delivering fully-fledged, interactive, virtual studies to fill in the gaps within aspects of human development in a manner that does not place artifacts at vulnerability to loss. Moreover, Turkey shall implement the necessary education of citizens alike regarding the basis of understanding the significance of their background as advised by UNESCO in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of local cultural property crimes.


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