Training to Stamp Out Illegal Trafficking of Cultural Heritage Launches

US-funded training on eradicating illegal trafficking of cultural relics has kick-started in Phnom Penh in a bid to preserve Cambodian culture
Training on eradicating illegal trafficking of cultural relics. Kiripost via Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts
Training on eradicating illegal trafficking of cultural relics. Kiripost via Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts

A U.S. funded training on preventing illicit trafficking of cultural antiquities began on Tuesday with American experts sharing best practices with Cambodian counterparts on preserving precious cultural heritage.

Funded by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, the training takes place in Phnom Penh and Banteay Meanchey province from February 7 to 13 where participants will learn best practices from U.S. archeological land management strategies to help them establish methods for recording, documenting, and monitoring archeological site conditions over time.

Phoeurng Sackona, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, said that due to the historical values of the country’s heritage and the political instability of some regions, the black market for art trafficking has been a lucrative business with growing demand around the world.

“Causing countries like ours and others to be exposed to the illegal exportation of cultural arts,” Sackon said at the ceremony on Tuesday.

“These unique historical sites are the testimony of our rich culture, and it is a shame that throughout history it has suffered from human illegal activities causing the loss of pieces of evidence for the study of our civilization,” she said.

Sackona said that countless types of these artifacts, including hundreds of ancient Khmer objects, sculptures, elements of architecture, and artifacts in ceramic and bronze, have been and are still being sold illegally on the international art market.

She added that the effective measures to counter the illegal trade of artifacts and cultural objects depend on close cooperation and interaction between key stakeholders, including cultural authorities, police, customs and excise authorities, museums, dealers, and, not least, art and cultural experts.

“Cooperation at different ladders among neighboring countries is crucial for us to combat the illicit trade of artifacts and preserve our history and culture. The preservation of our artifacts is the conservation of our history allowing future generations to understand the richness of their cultures and encouraging them to protect their heritage,” Sackona said.

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy, said at Tuesday's ceremony that he was thrilled to kick-off the training and Covid-19 may have delayed it, but teams were determined to implement it this year.

“American experts here today for training are members of the U.S. Cultural Antiquities Task Force. They hail from diverse U.S. cities, have substantial experience in archeology, law enforcement, and cultural heritage,” Murphy said.

Murphy said that the training is critical to help prevent illegal looting of priceless antiquities and it came after a return of 27 antiquities from the U.S. Despite these efforts to prevent theft of priceless antiquities, illicit movements across international borders continue, Murphy said.

Murphy added that trafficking in antiquities is a multi-billion-dollar transnational criminal enterprise and since 1997, the U.S. has returned more than 100 antiquities, more this year, is all possible due to joint efforts by the Cambodian government, U.S. government at the federal and local level.

U.S. archaeologists have contributed key research in helping understand ancient Cambodian art, Murphy said, adding that many Cambodian experts have studied or traveled to the U.S. to share information and collaborate with these and other American experts.

The training will introduce processes for creating and maintaining records for site preservation and for monitoring practices, Murphy said, adding that the goal is to enable Cambodia to establish a national site inventory system.

At completion of the workshop, participants will deepen understanding of Cambodia’s heritage protection laws, including legal framework; provide an integrative overview of all Cambodian government bodies involved in heritage management and law, he added.

Participants are applying their knowledge through field exercises in Banteay Meanchey; an area of Cambodia most prone to illegal activities.