GAO: Art world wants US to better protect artifacts in Iraq, Syria

GAO: Art world wants US to better protect artifacts in Iraq, Syria
© Getty Images

Art-market experts want the Defense Department to get more involved in preventing the destruction and looting of cultural artifacts in Iraq and Syria, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Monday.

ADVERTISEMENT
The recommendation was one of seven suggestions experts gave the GAO for ways the U.S. government can better protect artifacts from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other groups, including creating a comprehensive, governmentwide strategy on protecting cultural property.

“Art market experts suggested that an overarching strategy on cultural property protection would communicate and emphasize U.S. priorities on the issue of cultural property protection and that it should include diplomatic and law enforcement elements,” the report says.

ISIS’s destruction of art and other cultural artifacts in the territory it has seized has grabbed headlines as an example of its barbarism and has been called the worst cultural heritage crisis since World War II.

Additionally, ISIS has looted and trafficked artifacts as a source of revenue, though the GAO report notes, “There are no reliable and publicly available estimates of the revenue ISIS earns from trade in stolen cultural property overall.”

In addition to ISIS, other terrorist groups; Iraqi, Russian and Syrian airstrikes; Kurdish groups; Syrian opposition groups; and other individuals have damaged cultural sites and property, according to the report.

U.S. agencies and the Smithsonian Institution have worked in five areas to protect cultural property, according to the GAO. The agencies include the departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury and Defense.

Their efforts include raising awareness, sharing information among agencies, bolstering law enforcement efforts, building capacity overseas and preventing destruction.

But 26 art-market experts who responded to a GAO questionnaire identified seven high-priority ways to improve efforts.

For one, they said, the Defense Department could assign a point person for protecting cultural heritage and take more of a leadership role in enforcing a 1954 Hague Convention on protecting cultural property.

“They believe that DoD efforts appeared to be disjointed among different combatant commands and suggested that the primary point of contact to coordinate all of DoD’s cultural property protection work could potentially be in the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” the report says. “One art market expert noted that DoD does not appear to have an approach to cultural property protection globally.”

In a response included in the GAO report, the Pentagon said the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy’s Office of Stability and Humanitarian Affairs is available as a point of contact for the issue, but that protecting cultural property can involve many different Pentagon offices.

“Thus, DoD officials concluded that they are not certain that a central point of contact through which all inquiries about cultural property must be routed is necessary or would result in greater efficiencies,” the report says.

Also, the Pentagon said in the report that it is a “misperception” for art-market experts to say it is not effectively implementing the Hague Convention or does not have an effective and coordinated approach to protecting cultural property.

The experts also recommended U.S. agencies further increase information sharing among themselves, collaborate more with foreign countries to share law enforcement information internationally, improve U.S. Customs and Border Protection guidelines on importing cultural property, increase law enforcement training, and work with private organizations and foreign governments to create a database of items in museums or storage sites.

U.S. officials generally agreed with those suggestions, according to the report, except for the need to collaborate more with foreign governments on law enforcement, with officials saying they are already able to obtain information from foreign governments.

The experts also suggested the United States create a governmentwide strategy on protecting cultural property.

“Many art market experts we spoke with commented that U.S. agencies currently do not appear to have clearly delineated roles, and these art market experts were unclear which agency would be responsible for addressing certain cultural property issues,” the report says.

U.S. officials had “mixed views” on that suggestion, the report says.

“Specifically, State officials noted that a strategy on cultural property protection could potentially increase coordination between different agencies,” the report says, “but could also be difficult to implement, potentially restrict agency flexibility in meeting new challenges, and might not achieve any new goals.”