WCO steps up efforts to deter the illicit trafficking of cultural objects

15 July 2016

Illicit trafficking in cultural objects is one of the oldest forms of cross-border crimes. Moreover, for the World Customs Organization (WCO) and its Member Customs administrations it has been identified as an emerging risk due to its growing scale and impact. The rapid growth in looting, pillaging, destruction and illicit trafficking of cultural objects, particularly from conflict zones, and the involvement of organised criminal groups has garnered increased attention leading to the issue being addressed by different international bodies. For instance, the United Nations Security Council adopted in 2015 two Resolutions (2199 and 2253) that focus on the illicit trafficking of cultural objects.

During the last two years the WCO has held a number of high level and expert level engagements and consultations with other international organisations that have a mandate in this area, namely, United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), INTERPOL, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) and International Council of Museums (ICOM) as well as regional organisations, such as Europol. A number of activities and coordination efforts have taken place along with brainstorming on the possible ways to enhance the Customs response to the problem of illicit trafficking of cultural objects.

Stemming from these steps, the issue of the role of Customs in preventing illicit trafficking of cultural objects was directly addressed at the WCO Council Sessions on 15 July, where the Directors General of the 180 Customs administrations from around the world unanimously adopted the WCO Council Resolution on this matter.

The Resolution recognises possible linkages between illicit trafficking of cultural objects, money laundering, other criminal activities and terrorism, which move this type of crime higher on the political agenda. It also underlines that international borders still offer the best opportunity to intercept stolen and looted cultural artefacts, thus enforcing the role of Customs as a vital contributor in fighting against this scourge.

The benefit of using the UNESCO-WCO Model Export Certificates, enhancing and developing information sharing and closer cooperation at national, regional and international levels among all stakeholders, including regional cooperation efforts through the WCO’s Regional Intelligence Liaison Offices (RILOs), were underlined. The WCO also encouraged its Members to actively use ARCHEO, a CENcomm-based platform that serves as a communication tool for the exchange of information and to assist in the identification and verification of cultural objects. In particular, ARCHEO was modified to accommodate the latest functionalities and enhance user experience during the expansion of the platform to other enforcement agencies (such as Police) and academia.

Having recognised a lack of specific training for Customs enforcement officers in this area, the WCO committed to support its Members through the development of necessary tools and training curriculum in cooperation with partner organisations.

In this vein, on 15 July 2016, the WCO, represented by its Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, represented by the Director of the Office of International Relations and Global Programmes, Ms Molly Fannon. The Smithsonian is one of the globally recognised leaders that have accumulated a wealth of expertise and knowledge on the preservation of cultural heritage. This partnership is particularly aimed at the development and delivery of the training and capacity building programmes for Customs officials around the world; development and enhancement of WCO tools addressing cultural property; information sharing to assist Customs administrations to identify cultural objects that may have been looted or trafficked; and developing joint public awareness campaigns aimed at preventing illegal trafficking of cultural objects.

"Customs agents and officials stand in the first line of defense in the fight to stop the illegal trade in cultural heritage," said Molly Fannon, director of the Smithsonian Office of International Relations and Global Programs. "This MOU between Smithsonian and the WCO is part of a growing global partnership between museums and cultural sector organisations with Customs enforcement. We must marry our skills and work together to stop this threat to our global cultural history and heritage."

"Through our work we came to an understanding that the only way for the global Customs community to help in safeguarding our common cultural heritage is through partnerships with the global leaders in this area, including museums, academia and research institutions. The Smithsonian combines all these features and we very much look forward to building this unique partnership", said the WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya.