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Customs’ role in preventing illegal trafficking of cultural heritage stressed at international conference in Cyprus

28 octubre 2019

At the invitation of the Council of Europe and the Government of Cyprus, WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya visited Nicosia, Cyprus on 24 and 25 October 2019, to attend the “Act for Heritage!” Conference promoting the Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property (“Nicosia Convention”), opened for signature in 2017.

At the Conference’s opening session, Mr. Nikos Christodoulides, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus, welcomed participants while underlining the importance of this initiative to support the preservation of culture.

In his speech, Secretary General Mikuriya talked about the background to Customs prioritizing the trafficking of cultural heritage as an evolving risk area linked to security and safety, following the destruction of cultural objects in Iraq and Syria by so-called “Islamic State”.  He explained the WCO programme on Cultural Heritage, launched in 2015, which consists of three layers:

- At the strategic level, awareness-raising and advocacy of Customs’ role in this domain of enforcement and enhanced collaborative ties with policy makers and other law enforcement agencies, resulting in the adoption, in 2016, of the Council Resolution on the Role of Customs in Preventing Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Objects;

- At the tactical level, specialized training for frontline Customs officers with the PITCH (Prevention of Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Heritage) Handbook, already delivered in several regions suffering from violence and conflicts;

- At the operational level, through ARCHEO (the WCO’s closed communication network for law enforcement), facilitation of operational activities and contacts, as Customs at the borders need prompt feedback from art experts to identify the possible trafficking of cultural objects, and cooperation with Police.

Analysing the seizure record, Dr. Mikuriya observed that most cultural objects had been seized in Europe, demonstrating the region’s heightened awareness of Customs-Police cooperation and expertise in art markets. In this context, he suggested that the Nicosia Convention could fill the current gaps in the fight against the trafficking of cultural objects by criminalizing these offences, thereby raising awareness by preventing them from being seen as “victimless crimes” and helping law enforcement agencies to tackle the criminal organizations and armed groups behind global illicit trade supply chains.

The Conference participants shared study results and national experiences on this important topic, in order to identify best practices.  Cyprus Customs officers, under the leadership of Acting Director General Ms. Kyriaki Myrianthopoulou, attended the Conference to show Customs’ contribution in protecting cultural objects at borders.  After the opening session, art experts and representatives of other international organizations approached the WCO to pledge support.

Secretary General Mikuriya took the opportunity to visit Cyprus’s Department of Customs and Excise for a meeting with the senior management team.  He also met with Mr. George Panteli, Permanent Secretary General of the Ministry of Finance, who confirmed the active participation of Cyprus Customs in WCO meetings.