Remarks at G-7 Culture Ministerial

Bruce Wharton
Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Palazzo Pitti
Florence, Italy
March 31, 2017

(As prepared for delivery)

It is an honor to join the G-7 Culture Ministers for this first ministerial meeting of the Italian G-7 Presidency and the first G-7 Culture Ministerial. The United States greatly appreciates the initiative of the Government of Italy in providing this important opportunity to discuss critical cultural heritage issues. We sharethe belief that culture is an“Instrument of Dialogue among People.”

I particularly want to thank our colleague,Minister of Cultural Heritage, Activities and Tourism Dario Franceschini for having the vision to put cultural heritage on the G-7 agenda. The United States has worked closely with the Government of Italy on cultural heritage preservation and protection for many years, and we are proud of the bilateral agreement on cultural property that our countries have supported and enhanced since 2001, and renewed just last year.

I would also like tothank all of our G-7 partners, UNESCO, and the other organizations present here today for your role in advancing our cooperative efforts to safeguard cultural heritage at risk in order to preserve this priceless inheritance today and for future generations.

We live in a world where armed non-state actors use terror, violence, murder, and theft to assert their warped ideologies and finance criminal activities. Last week in Washington, at the invitation of Secretary of State Tillerson, foreign ministers and senior officials from 68 member countries of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, gathered to discuss priorities for multiple lines of effort. Those includemaking military progress, stemming the influx of foreign terrorist fighters, countering terrorism financing, countering ISIS messaging and recruitment, and stabilization of liberated areas.

A potent, dual-edged weapon of ISIS, one that other terrorist groups have deployed to good effect but that ISIS has taken to new levels, is the destruction of cultural heritage and trafficking in antiquities. With dynamite, bulldozers and sledgehammers, ISIS has flaunted its destruction of iconic world heritage sites, buildings, monuments and collections, ostensibly in the name of religion. At the same time, ISIS has hypocritically looted archaeological sites for objects to traffic through criminal networks.

Let’s be clear: whether cultural heritage is destroyed for ideological or financial reasons by such non-state actors as ISIS, countries that constitute the major markets for art of all kinds have a responsibility to preserve and protect humanity’s history and culture, and to prevent its exploitation for terrorist purposes and illicit financial gain. As President Trump has said about ISIS, the United States “will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”That includes extinguishing its ability to loot cultural heritage sites and profit from stolen antiquities.

With our G-7 partners, we are working to ensure full implementation of the multiple UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit all forms of financial support to ISIS and other terrorist groups. Preventing the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property has been repeatedly recognized by the Security Council and by other international organizations and groups as an important step in cutting ISIS revenue sources.

The United States and other countries have concerns about some of the remedies that have been proposed to prevent cultural heritage destruction – including the concept of third-country safe havens. That said,the unanimous passage last Friday of UN Security Council Resolution 2347 on the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the context of Armed Conflict was a milestone in the international community’s efforts on behalf of protecting and preserving our global cultural heritage.The United States was pleased to co-sponsor the resolution and expresses its appreciation to the Governments of Italy and France for presenting it to the Security Council.

I note that it is long-standing U.S. policy to preserve cultural heritage in place, whenever possible, and to avoid removing cultural property from its country of origin. In cases where removal from a threat becomes a necessity, we could envision situations in which a sovereign state might request assistance from another sovereign state to temporarily provide safe haven for cultural property. But other arrangements raise complex legal, conservation, and historical issues that we believe merit further discussion.

In addition to our work internationally, the United States is advancing efforts on the national level to protect cultural heritage. In accordance with legislation, the United States placed emergency import restrictions on Syrian cultural property in August 2016. At the same time, we launched an interagency coordinating committee to increase collaboration among U.S. government agencies and the Smithsonian Institution to protect and preserve cultural property at risk from “political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters.”

The Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee, chaired by the State Department,is the principal body for coordination and implementation of cultural heritage protection and preservation initiatives across the U.S. government. This committee already has an ambitious training, communications and public outreach, and law enforcement cooperation agenda.

The State Department also leads the Cultural Antiquities Task Force, established in 2004 to combat antiquities trafficking and looting of archaeological sites by identifying and supporting effective law enforcement practices, as well as diplomatic and other programmatic measures. Among other efforts, this Task Force has supported the publication of “Red Lists of Cultural Objects at Risk” by the International Council of Museums. Red Lists serve as practical guides for art and heritage professionals and law enforcement officials and raise public awareness of cultural materials at risk from looting and theft. They have been published for cultural property of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Mali, among other countries.

Through the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the State Department has directly supported preventive conservation, disaster risk reduction, and post-disaster recovery of cultural heritage sites and museum collections around the world. Projects supported through the fund since 2001 have included the seismic strengthening of monuments in Kathmandu so that they could withstand earthquakes, as well as capacity building for Libyan archaeologists and museum professionals.

Protecting the cultural heritage of religious minorities is a U.S. priority. The State Department has partnered with the Smithsonian Institution to launch an unprecedented program for religious leaders and NGOs in northern Iraq in order to understand their specific preservation needs and assist in mitigating the impact of conflict on the cultural, historic, and artistic heritage of religious minorities. Similarly, we sponsored a high profile symposium at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the margins of the UN General Assembly in 2016 to underscore the need to protect the cultural heritage of religious and ethnic minorities.

Negotiation of bilateral agreements to block illegal importation of archaeological and ethnological material into the United States is another way that we have coordinated with partners internationally to reduce the incentives for looting and trafficking of cultural objects. Import restrictions are put in place once a cultural property agreement is concluded with another States Partyto the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The agreement with Italy which I mentioned earlier is a model example.

We have concluded 16 such agreements with countries in Central and South America, Europe, Africa, East and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. We were very pleased to conclude our most recent agreement with Egypt in November, placing U.S. import restrictions on the archaeological heritage of that country and charting further U.S.-Egypt cooperation in areas of antiquities protection and preservation. I encourage other States Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention whose heritage is in jeopardy to request the same type of protection for their cultural patrimony from the United States.

My colleague from the Department of Homeland Security, Assistant Director Raymond Villanueva, highlighted earlier today our broad engagement in international law enforcement cooperation. The Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Investigation maintains the National Stolen Art File, a computerized data base of stolen art and cultural property, and makes its information available to law enforcement agencies around the world.

The United States has uncovered and shared evidence of the role that antiquities looting and trafficking has played in the ISIS business plan. This evidence is criminal activity is substantiated by the recent discovery of tunnels by Iraqi soldiers below the remains of the mosque of Jonah in Mosul that show ISIS militants were excavating into an ancient Assyrian palaceafter razing the historic building above. The likely target was valuable antiquities to remove and traffic.

For several years, the U.S. Government has provided funding to the American Schools of Oriental Research to continue its important work in Syria and northern Iraq. This year, we have expanded its work to also include Libya. With this funding, ASOR monitors cultural heritage sites in those areas using satellite imagery, human intelligence, and public information to document evidence of destruction and looting by ISIS and other actors. This important documentation is publicly available for stakeholders and scholars, in the region and around the world. Our funding has also enabled ASOR to train Iraqi cultural heritage professionals so they can be prepared to implement needed interventions when the security situation allows.

The United States is very proud of partnership of over a decade with the Iraqi government and other stakeholders to protect and preserve Iraq’s rich cultural heritage. I am pleased to announce today that the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Centerand the Smithsonian Institution are committing approximately $400,000 to provide for emergency stabilization, protection, and preservation of heritage sites in recently liberated areas of Iraq, beginning with an initiative at the site of ancient Nimrud, near Mosul. We are working closely with our partners in the Iraqi government and making use of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil for consultation, planning, and specialized training purposes.

In closing, I want to touch upon cultural heritage in the United States. We have a representative on our delegation from the Smithsonian Institution, one of America’s premier repositories of U.S. history, culture and art. The two newest museums in the Smithsonian constellation are the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian. Just as we are intent on protecting cultural heritage abroad, so, too, do we seek to preserve and protect irreplaceable objects of cultural legacy at home. In this regard, we are concerned about the cultural patrimony of Native American tribes that has been subject in recent years to sale in international auctions under controversial circumstances. We are pursuing diplomatic efforts and other avenues to protect and recover these items and curb such sales.

Clearly, daunting challenges remain for preserving and protecting cultural heritage in countries racked by conflict, as well as in market countries such as those of the G-7. We are committed to this work over the long term, and gratified to have such dedicated partners as you.