Cultural Heritage Programme

The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime and has become a worldwide phenomenon high on the list of priority concerns for WCO Member administrations. In this regard, it is widely recognized that international borders still offer the best opportunity to intercept stolen cultural artefacts, and to that end Customs plays a fundamental role in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural items.

Cultural heritage smuggling diminishes national patrimony and steadily deprives society of experiencing some of the most significant and precious cultural treasures. Every year, thousands of artefacts disappear from museums, churches, private collections or public institutions. Other objects are constantly being looted, providing the black market with fresh supplies from all over the world. From antique weapons to paintings, from coins to watches, from religious objects to archaeological finds, tens of thousands of specimens forming part of the world’s archaeological and cultural heritage are stolen and pillaged. Safeguarding cultural heritage is a critical part of the human identity and an important component of the road to reconciliation and peace building efforts.

Clear linkages between this form of crime and tax evasion and money laundering have been evidenced over the past years. Estimates of the size and profitability of black markets in looted, stolen or smuggled works of art are notoriously unreliable, but specialists agree that this is one of the world’s biggest illegal enterprises, which has naturally attracted the interest of both organized crime and criminal ‘entrepreneurs’.

The diversification of the financing of terrorist organizations through the trade in cultural goods is also a focus of attention for law enforcement agencies. Moreover, conflict zones have become attractive targets for criminals, and some of these regions suffer from looting on an unprecedented scale.

With a view to protecting cultural heritage, the WCO is encouraging effective co-operation and partnership with other international organizations such as the International Council of Museums (ICOM), UNESCO and INTERPOL, as well as national law enforcement and security agencies, with the aim of exchanging information and preventing this illegal activity. To accomplish this mission the WCO relies on the competencies and daily efforts of Member Customs administrations, as well as on its Regional Intelligence Liaison Offices, i.e. the RILO network.

One of the most important tools developed and managed by the Programme is a secure communication network codenamed ARCHEO hosted on the WCO’s CENcomm platform. This network is dedicated to the prevention of trafficking and theft of cultural objects by providing operational support and means to exchange information and intelligence on current investigations. The network is open for Customs and other law enforcement professionals and experts. The tool has been recommended for use by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347/2017 as well as by the Resolution 10/7 on Combating transnational organized crime against cultural heritage of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

Cooperation with relevant stakeholders is at the heart of the WCO Council Resolution on the Role of Customs in Preventing Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Objects, adopted in July 2016. The Resolution outlines a set of concrete measures aimed at assisting the global Customs community to counter illicit trafficking of cultural objects. Besides calling for more cooperation with relevant stakeholders, such as experts in the field and cultural institutions, it asks countries to conduct an analysis aimed at identifying and closing the gaps in current legislation and techniques. It also encourages the wider use by Customs authorities of export certificates for cultural objects in line with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-WCO Model Export Certificate.

One of the areas addressed by the WCO’s 2016 Resolution was a lack of specialized training in this field of enforcement. Therefore, since 2017, the WCO has started the deployment of its new training Handbook on Prevention of Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Heritage (PITCH). This specialized training package for frontline Customs officers is currently available in four languages, namely English, French, Spanish and Russian. The WCO is continuing to deploy the PITCH training throughout the world, on both the regional and the national levels.

In cooperation with INTERPOL, Europol and national law enforcement agencies, the WCO also continuously organizes and coordinates regional and global operational activities to prevent illicit trafficking of cultural objects. WCO Members regularly contribute to the European regional Operation Pandora, and to the global WCO-INTERPOL Operation Athena which is organized every two years.

Apart from the confidential analytical products provided for Members, the Programme also contributes to general awareness-raising on trends and patterns in illicit trafficking of cultural objects, through a dedicated Chapter on Cultural Heritage in the WCO Illicit Trade Report.

Contact

For further inquiries regarding the Programme and its activities please contact: Ms. Mariya Polner, Senior Policy Advisor, Enforcement and Compliance, WCO

Model export certificate

Model Export Certificate for Cultural Objects [en] [es] [ar] [ch] [ru]

Awareness raising campaign