Art is often a forgotten victim of wars. As the toll of human suffering builds, worrying about the fate of paintings, sculptures, and antiquities might seem frivolous, even callous. But there is good reason to care about preserving culture both in conflict and after — and there are plenty of proponents of this view, including among governments. For instance, the upcoming movie Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, tells the true story of the group of individuals tasked by the U.S. government during World War II with finding art stolen by the Nazis and returning it to the rightful owners.
Today, a new conversation about how to protect the priceless when people are trying to survive is playing out, this time with regard to war-torn Syria. At a gathering this fall in New York, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. Department of State, and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced the publication of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects, which aims to prevent the transport and trade of Syria’s invaluable cultural goods.
Syria is rich with ancient and medieval treasures: Greek and Roman cities, Byzantine villages, Bronze and Iron Age sites, centuries-old castles, and ornate Islamic art and structures. But the State Department says that nearly 90 percent of these invaluable historical sites and objects are within areas of conflict.
Much like the Nazis, looters have taken note and ruthlessly pillaged Syrian cultural sites, seeking to sell treasures on the black market. Just last spring, a cobble-stone, columned street built by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the city of Apamea was plundered and damaged. Architectural gems have also fallen prey to armed conflict. In April 2013, the nearly 1,000-year-old minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque collapsed during an intense battle.
With these problems becoming more serious, the Red List is an initiative that notifies law-enforcement personnel, customs inspectors, art dealers, auction houses, and museums around the world of the types of pilfered objects that may be on the market and moving through legitimate shipping channels.
Speaking at one of America’s premier sanctuaries for cultural heritage, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard explained that the Red List includes nearly every object imaginable, such as ancient writings, vessels, coins, stamps, sculptures, and accessories. Giving notice helps prevent stolen objects from becoming ill-gotten spoils of war.
Red Lists have been created before for other countries. In the past five years, lists have helped French officials identify and recover cultural goods from Iraq and Togo. In 2007, Switzerland stopped the illegal online sale of a cuneiform tablet, one of the earliest examples of written language, thought to have been smuggled out of Iraq. More recently, U.S. customs inspectors recovered and returned stolen Afghan items, including a Roman wine pitcher, taken by looters. ICOM envisions the Red List for Syria will lead to similar success stories.
The rationale behind the Red List, however, extends beyond a desire to keep things where they belong. Indeed, there are other important reasons to protect Syria’s historical gems.
The preservation of Syria’s cultural heritage is critical to its reconstruction, reconciliation, and re-building of civil society, Richard argued at the Met event. Historical sites and objects “are a part of Syrian life — a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future,” she said. Losing its cultural history would rob Syria of the economic opportunities linked to tourism and cultural preservation; in 2010, tourism accounted for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and employed 11 percent of its workers.
The Red List is also part of a larger project to combat corruption and poor governance that benefits from illicit commerce, which the World Economic Forum estimates might include up to 15 to 20 percent of annual global trade. Illicit trade networks, which facilitate the exchange of trafficked persons and wildlife, ill-gotten funds, and cultural objects, also allow corrupt leaders and officials to retain and grow their power. And the need for international cooperation to combat regional and global illicit trade is paramount.
This is the reason that, halfway around the world from New York, political leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Pathfinder Dialogue in Bangkok met almost simultaneously to the Red List gathering. On the APEC agenda was a discussion of the global fight against illicit trade and corruption. Dialogue participants shared their best practices and agreed to support the drafting of new international documents and investigations to combat illegal commerce.
Together, the Pathfinder Dialogue and the Red List demonstrate the importance that the international community places on preserving art and artifacts. And as Monuments Men shows, this support is nothing new.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then supreme allied commander in Europe, took a particular personal interest in protecting, preserving, and repatriating cultural property in World War II. Led by American and British soldiers, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the Allied military effort included a collection of 345 men and women from 13 countries who recovered thousands of stolen artworks between 1943 and 1951, including works by Johannes Vermeer, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo.
Their efforts to protect and preserve Europe’s cultural history — now on display in the great museums of Europe — are a living legacy to those striving to protect Syria’s cultural relics. Much like our collective efforts in the 1940s helped preserve the foundation of European cultural identity, preventing looters and illicit markets from robbing Syria of its past will protect an important component of the country’s future, peaceful identity.
Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, served as head of operations of the World Bank’s StAR Secretariat. A former White House Fellow/special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Slobodan Milosevic prosecution team member, he served as international legal adviser to the Charles Taylor/Liberia asset recovery team, and leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group.