ASEAN Unites To Stamp Out Looting of Antiquities

ASEAN states pledged to work together to fight the illegal looting and trafficking of precious antiquities at an international conference that aims to stamp out cultural crime
Stolen Cambodian relics, which have been repatriated from the US, are on display at Nation Museum in Phnom Penh, July 13, 2022. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Stolen Cambodian relics, which have been repatriated from the US, are on display at Nation Museum in Phnom Penh, July 13, 2022. Kiripost/Meas Molika

Authorities have pledged to unite with ASEAN states to fight the theft and illicit trafficking of cultural property to sell on the international market, Prak Sokhonn, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, said on Tuesday.

Speaking virtually at the International Conference on Prevention and Control of Illegal Cultural Property Trafficking: An ASEAN Vision held in Siem Reap, Sokhonn said authorities will cooperate with other ASEAN states to fight the crime.

“We will cooperate with other ASEAN governments, international organizations, and private sector partners to put an end to this. We need to protect the soul of our cultural heritage and prevent the priceless antiquities from being further plundered, looted, and spirited away from the country,” Sokhonn said.

The conference aimed to discuss ways to prevent and control illegal cultural property trafficking, which threatens Southeast Asia's heritage sites, local communities, and national economies, all of which are important to the people of Southeast Asia.

The conference, which runs from September 5 to 8, was organized online and offline by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in partnership with the Antiquities Coalition in the United States.

Phoeurng Sackona, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, said the international conference is an opportunity to discuss in-depth incidents of illegal cultural property trafficking in the region and propose strategies for returning stolen cultural property.

She said many of Cambodia's cultural assets were illegally taken from the country and sold on the international art market during the war. This vandalism has severely harmed cultural heritage sites, undermining the comprehension of a nation's history and identity.

“Cambodia has previously been successful in reclaiming illegally exported national cultural assets through the efforts of the Royal Government and cooperation with other countries, particularly the US Government,” she said.

Cambodia and the United States signed a cultural property agreement in 2003. The two countries have worked together for more than 20 years to conserve, preserve, and honor Cambodia's heritage alongside Cambodian partners, American academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations.

Eric Catalfamo, director of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said that the United States has been a leader in cultural heritage protection and preservation for decades. Combatting the looting, theft, and trafficking of cultural objects is a high priority for the United States, he added.

“We are unwavering in our commitment to protecting and preserving cultural heritage around the world,” he said. “Our policy is clear: the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage and the trafficking of cultural property are unacceptable.”

He said that the Cultural Property Agreements with the United States provides a framework for international collaboration. It will assist countries to protect their cultural heritage and encourage the legal exchange of cultural property for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes.

“In countries with agreements, we work together on programs that build capacity, strengthen site protection, enhance inventories, build professional networks, and engage communities, as well as promote the temporary and long-term exchange of cultural property,” he said.

“The United States welcomes requests for cultural property agreements from ASEAN member countries and the closer collaboration these agreements bring,” he added.