Expert recommendations - Fighting the looting of Syria´s cultural heritage

Expert recommendations from the conference: “Fighting the looting of Syria´s cultural heritage”, Sofia, 16th September 2015. A conference organized by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Sofia and the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), under the patronage of UNESCO and in cooperation with the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior and the Embassy of the Republic of Cyprus.

The experts, who took part in the concluding summing-up session at the conference, made the following recommendations, addressed to governments and international organisations. The recommendations are made as “ideal recommendations” with an understanding that differences in legislative traditions and political settings between the nations are going to inevitably affect the reception and eventual implementation of the recommendations offered.  The recommendations are made solely on behalf of the experts and not on behalf of UNESCO or any government represented at the conference.  

Recommendations for immediate action:

  1. We recommend a change of perspective and rhetoric concerning the destruction and looting of Syrian heritage. Instead of granting the perpetrators the status they seek as barbarian enemies of modern civilisation, we should denounce them for the damage they do to the future of the Syrian people by destroying its heritage.
  2. We recommend defamation of illicit antiquities trade in general through awareness raising campaigns fronted by an international high profile goodwill-ambassador.
  3. We recommend initiating information campaigns nationally as well as internationally targeting “innocent” buyers of illicit traded goods, warning them of their responsibilities and advising them of what type of objects they should avoid, and what standard of legal documentation they should demand.
  4. We recommend that the burden of proof for “clean” purchases of antiquities irrespectively of their place of origin should be both with the seller and the buyer/collector in correspondence with the principles laid out for EU-member states and their heritage in EU-directive 2014/60[1]. The documentation should include a paper trail accounting for the history of each object from its place of origin, including how it was extracted from there, if extracted after 1970[2], and including its different ownerships from then until the present.
  5. We recommend that insurance companies should be required to demand documentation for “clean purchases” before accepting to ensure a collection. They should be required to report finds of illicitly traded objects in a collection to the authorities.
  6. We recommend to support the establishment of a web based service for sharing information on looting of and trade with Syrian artefacts. Purpose: to create an overview that can help the dispersed environments working with this internationally to share information and assure that their limited resources are not wasted on efforts already made elsewhere.
  7. We recommend that pre-war foreign archaeological expeditions to Syria make their inventories available to assist efforts to identify and intercept objects looted from their stores.
  8. We recommend European professional networks and organisations within archaeology, museums and heritage management to engage in campaigns against illicit trade.
  9. We recommend that transparent safe havens shall be established for housing intercepted illicit traded or threatened Syrian antiquities until they can be safely returned to Syria. Inventories should be kept updated and made available to UNESCO.
  10. We recommend that ways of supporting the people who are working to protect cultural heritage inside of Syria should be developed.
  11. We recommend stepping up support for national customs- and border authorities in all affected countries including Syria’s neighbours in an increased effort to stop trafficking of illicit antiquities. Support should be in the form of education, training and access to information and advice from experts.
  12. We recommend that European legislation against illicit antiquities should be harmonized and at least brought up to the current German standard.
  13. We recommend that globalized initiatives are launched to take out of the market the globalized criminal networks that combine illicit antiquities trade with other types of transnational criminality.

Read the report from the conference

Recommendations for post-conflict action:

  1. We recommend initiating preparations for supporting reestablishment of a well functioning heritage management in Syrian lands in accordance with the post conflict political order.
  2. We recommend initiating preparations for countering continued looting in the immediate post-conflict situation. This task could be part of an eventual international peacekeeping operation.
  3. We recommend initiating preparations for an international aid program for restoring damaged cultural heritage in ways that involve the local population and can be accepted as balanced in not taking sides by giving disproportionate attention to the heritage of particular segments of the population.


Carsten Paludan-Müller, Conference moderator


[1] Directive 2014/60, on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State and amending Regulation (EU) No 1024/2012.

[2] 1970 is the year of the “UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”