Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), the leading Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations today announced that they have introduced legislation to improve American efforts to preserve cultural property around the world and cut off one source of funding to ISIL. The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (H.R. 5703) would take steps to coordinate efforts across government to preserve cultural artifacts where they may be threatened by conflict, instability, or natural disaster.
“Whether art or architecture or archived materials, cultural property plays a vital role in the heritage of peoples all around the world. When these materials are lost because of war or natural disasters, they can never be replaced and parts of those cultures are lost forever,” said Rep. Engel. “Since World War II, the United States has been a leader in protecting cultural property. Today, ISIL and other terrorist organizations have found a lucrative source of revenue in artifacts they traffic out of areas of conflict. America must respond by denying terrorists and criminals the ability to profit from instability by looting the world of its greatest treasures.”
Representative Smith underscored that too many times in world history aggressors have tried to erase the memory and identity of oppressed peoples.
“Our global cultural patrimony has all too often been targeted by extremists who want to wipe out the collective memories of ethnic and religious minorities from lands they seek to control and conquer,” said Rep. Smith. “Just this past July, ISIL destroyed the Tomb of Jonah in Iraq, which was a living link to the biblical prophet Jonah, on the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. The fight to preserve our common cultural heritage, as well as to deny extremists such as ISIL resources from the sale of blood antiquities, is yet another front on the global war against terror.”
The Engel-Smith legislation would create a White House Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection to coordinate and promote efforts by multiple federal agencies, including diplomatic activities, military activities, law enforcement activities, and the work of the Cultural Antiquities Task Force. It would also impose import restrictions on cultural property unlawfully removed from Syria, protecting the property at risk of loss or destruction at the hands of ISIS/ISIL and other international criminal and terrorist organizations.
The U.S. Armed Forces have long played important roles in protecting cultural property, including through Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) teams, known in the past as the “Monuments Men,” who were the subject of a recent film. The U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield supports implementation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
Cultural property has recently been lost in Egypt due to political instability, in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, in Syria during the civil war, in Iraq and Syria due to ISIS/ISIL, in Mali and Afghanistan from radical Islamist activity, in Haiti from the 2010 earthquake, and as a result of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.