Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Destruction and Trafficking of Cultural Heritage by

Ambassador Michele J. Sison
U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
November 30, 2017


Thank you for your briefings, and thank you to Italy for having organized this meeting.

Earlier this year, Iraqi soldiers discovered tunnels dug below the remains of the tomb and mosque of Jonah in Mosul that show that ISIS militants were excavating into an ancient Assyrian palace that is at the same site – this excavation being, of course, after ISIS had destroyed the historic tomb and mosque above in 2014. ISIS’s likely target? Valuable antiquities to loot and then traffic in global markets. I share this to illustrate how this nefarious activity has become, in effect, part of the ISIS business plan.

Even after liberation from ISIS, cultural heritage and antiquities remain under threat as fleeing members of ISIS will likely seek to sell artifacts that could continue to provide a substantial revenue stream. The ability to sell looted goods over the internet has turned a once cost-prohibitive market into one accessible by anyone with a cellphone or a connection to the internet.

The United States has been unwavering in its commitment to protecting and preserving cultural heritage. Our policy is clear: the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage and the trafficking of cultural property are unacceptable. We join the UN and Council members in affirming that countries have a responsibility to preserve and protect this heritage of universal importance and to prevent its exploitation for terrorist purposes and illicit financial gain. The United States continues robust implementation of our own domestic tools for putting an end to destruction of cultural heritage and the trafficking of cultural property.

The emergency import restrictions on Syrian and certain Iraqi cultural property remain in place and serve as a strong disincentive to would-be traffickers. The United States has also negotiated bilateral agreements with 16 countries to block illegal importation of archaeological and ethnological material into the United States.

We urge other States Parties to the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property whose heritage is in jeopardy to request the same type of protection. The Cultural Antiquities Task Force, created by the State Department, focuses on the recovery and repatriation of looted cultural objects and supports law enforcement agencies in these efforts. The United States FBI 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.

For several years, the U.S. government has provided funding to the American Schools of Oriental Research, ASOR, to continue its important work in Syria and northern Iraq. This year, we have expanded ASOR’s 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. U.S. funding has also enabled the Smithsonian Institution to train Iraqi cultural heritage professionals so they can be prepared to implement needed interventions when the security situation allows.

We remain fully committed to these efforts and look forward to coordinating with the United Nations and Member States, and with UN and international entities including UNODC, INTERPOL, and the UN 1267 Committee over the coming year on full implementation of Resolution 2347.

Thank you, Mr. President.