UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property

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Template:Infobox Treaty

Template:Copypaste The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property[1] is an international treaty. It is the first international instrument dedicated to the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property. It was adopted at the 16th General Conference of UNESCO on 14 November 1970 in Paris and came into force on 24 April 1972.

As of March 2016, 131 states are parties to the treaty.[2]


Together with the trafficking in drugs and arms, the black market of antiquities and culture constitutes one of the most persistent illegal trades in the world. Thefts, illicit excavations of archaeological and paleontological sites, illicit import and export or Illicit trafficking on the internet of cultural property poses major threats to the preservation and protection of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The illicit trafficking of cultural property generates a lucrative underground market with a great percentage of stolen artifacts never being recovered. As long as a demand for cultural property items exists, the market will continue to flourish. This situation poses a threat to the physical items, though looting and destruction, and also reduces the wealth of knowledge that could be gained from discovering such items in their archaeological surroundings. It causes irreversible damage that has lasting effects on the ability of societies to develop, take shape, and recover from crises.

The 1970 Convention is the most important pioneering multilateral international agreement concerning the protection of illicitly traded cultural objects. It offers legal and political tools to be implemented in the national Law and permits broad and sustained international cooperation.


The idea of protecting cultural property only came about in the first half of the twentieth century. Newly independent states were trying to recover important cultural objects that are mostly found in the museums of their former colonizing state.[3] Spiritual and material value was being accorded to cultural property during this time, justifying the protection of cultural property.[4] Also, a market was created for cultural objects that command high prices on the international market due to increasing interest in cultural diversity.

Aware of this problem, UNESCO deployed normative, ethical and operational mechanisms to provide appropriate responses to these challenges. In April 1964, UNESCO appointed a Committee of Experts from some 30 States to draft preliminary recommendations for the establishment and implementation of a Convention. Four years later, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted Resolution 3.334[5] which authorized the convening of a committee to draft a Convention. The UNESCO Director-General appointed a principal expert and four consultants from different regions of the world, to perform the drafting of the text for the Convention; IN August 1969, the UNESCO Secretariat circulated this 'draft' (the original draft) for comments by the UNESCO Member States. It was then revised in light of those comments, and the text was then sent to a Special Committee of Governmental Experts which prepared a final draft by April 1970.

61 States attended this meeting. As stated above, the Convention was adopted at the 16th General Conference on 14 November 1970.[6]


What is protected?

Cultural Property is defined in Article 1 of the Convention[7] as property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories:

  1. rare collections and specimens of fauna, flora, minerals and anatomy, and objects of paleontological interest;
  2. property relating to history, including the history of science and technology and military and social history, to the life of national leaders, thinkers, scientists and artist and to events of national importance;
  3. products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine) or of archaeological discoveries;
  4. elements of artistic or historical monuments or archaeological sites which have been dismembered;
  5. antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals;
  6. objects of ethnological interest;
  7. property of artistic interest, such as: (i) pictures, paintings and drawings produced entirely by hand on any support and in any material(excluding industrial designs and manu-factured articles decorated by hand; (ii) original works of statuary art and sculpture in any material; (iii) original engravings, prints and lithographs; (iv) original artistic assemblages and montages in any material;
  8. rare manuscripts and incunabula, old books, documents and publications of special interest (historical, artistic, scientific, literary, etc.) singly or in collections ; (i) postage, revenue and similar stamps, singly or in collections;
  9. archives, including sound, photographic and cinematographic archives; (k) articles of furniture more than one hundred years old and old musical instruments.

Each State is granted the right to specify the scope and content of the definition of its own cultural property, under the condition that it must be of importance and within the categories defined above.

Three main pillars

The provisions contained in the 1970 Convention aim to protect cultural property against theft and looting while emphasizing the restitution of such items. The Convention stresses three main principles for States to follow.

1. Preventive measures Firstly, States Parties are requested to take preventive measures to impede the illicit import and export of cultural property from their territory. These measures include, among others, inventories, export certificates, monitoring of trade, imposition of penal or administrative sanctions and educational programs.

2. Restitution provisions (Art.7 of the Convention) Secondly, States are requested to return cultural property. Under the restitution provisions of the Convention, States Parties take appropriate steps to recover and return cultural property illicitly stolen from the territory of another State party to the Convention and imported into their territory after the entry into force of this Convention for both States concerned. Innocent purchasers and persons with a valid claim to such cultural property are entitled to a just compensation. Restitution requests are made through diplomatic offices.

3. International cooperation Lastly, the Convention strives to set up an international cooperation framework to strengthen ties between States Parties to the Convention. In particular, such cooperation allows for States whose cultural heritage is in jeopardy due to pillaging of archaeological or ethnological materials, to ask other affected States for assistance, through the creation of import and export controls and general measures to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

The non-retroactivity nature of the Convention

Under the provisions of the 1970 Convention (in particular Article 7 b) ii)), a State Party can seek the recovery and return of any illegally exported or stolen cultural property imported into another State Party only after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned.

However, the 1970 Convention does not in any way legitimize any illegal transaction of any nature which has taken place before the entry into force of this Convention nor limit any right of a State to make a claim under provisions of relevant national legislations or international instruments.

States Parties to the Convention

As of September 2015, there are 129 State Parties[8] to the Convention.

A constant concern for UNESCO is the increasing number of States to ratify the 1970 Convention. Harmonization of the legal provisions aimed at combating trafficking in cultural property is made possible by such ratifications, and by the transferral of the Convention’s provisions into national law. The aim is to prevent traffickers from using loopholes in national legislation to launder their trafficking by placing stolen or illegally exported property on the legal art market circuit. By ratifying the Convention, States send traffickers a signal that they are stepping up their monitoring in terms of the legal protection of cultural property and the fight against its trafficking, as well as surveillance of itineraries and transit hubs for cultural property.

Statutory bodies

Meeting of States Parties

The Meeting of the States Parties to the 1970 Convention[9] is the sovereign body of the Convention, composed of all the States Parties to the 1970 Convention. This monitoring body provides strategic orientations for the implementation of the Convention and takes all measures it deems necessary for the promotion of its objectives.

Subsidiary Committee

The Subsidiary Committee of the Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 Convention[10] is composed of the representatives of 18 States Parties (3 by UNESCO regional group). The election of the Committee abides to the principles of equitable geographical representation and rotation. The members of the Committee are elected for a 4 year-term. Every 2 years, the Meeting of States Parties renews half of the members of the Committee.

Its functions are to:

  • promote the objectives of the Convention;
  • review the national reports[11] submitted to the General Conference by the States Parties to the Convention;
  • share good practices, prepare and submit to the Meeting of States Parties recommendations and operational guidelines that can help in implementing the Convention;
  • identify difficult situations resulting from the implementation of the Convention, including topics regarding the protection and return of cultural property;
  • establish and maintain coordination with the “Return and Restitution Committee”[12] in connection with capacity-building measures to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property;
  • inform the Meeting of States Parties of the activities that have been implemented.

UNESCO Secretariat to the 1970 Convention

The UNESCO Secretariat of the 1970 Convention provides assistance to the State Parties in developing and consolidating international cooperation, notably by:

  • organizing statutory meetings for the Convention and the Intergovernmental Committee for the Return/Restitution;
  • providing support to States in emergency situations[13] (armed conflict, natural disasters etc.);
  • organizing national and regional capacity-building workshops[14] to translate the principals of the 1970 Convention into national policies and programs;
  • developing legal and practical tools;[15]
  • producing promotional and awareness raising material (publications,[16] videos,[17] pedagogical material...);
  • identifying and mobilizing funds to support capacity building activities and awareness campaigns;
  • communicating and liaising with key partners[18] and the media.

UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP)

To handle cases outside the scope of the UNESCO 1970 Convention or other international agreements, UNESCO set up the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP)[19] in 1978 as a permanent intergovernmental body. 22 members of the Committee are elected from the pool of UNESCO Member States. Every two years, during the UNESCO General Conference, half of the 22 members are elected for a mandate of 4 years.

This platform of negotiation, mediation and conciliation facilitates the restitution of important cultural objects and develops means to prevent and raise awareness against illicit trafficking of cultural property. This intergovernmental body has an advisory role, and provides a framework for discussion and cooperation. Its recommendations concerning States' disputes are not legally binding.

Within the framework of strategies designed to facilitate the work of the Committee and to enhance the process of restitution of cultural objects, particularly in the context of dispute resolution linked to cultural heritage, the UNESCO General Conference adopted, at its 33rd session, a Resolution (33 C/46 in 2005[20])that explicitly articulates the mediatory and conciliatory functions of the Committee. At its 16th session in September 2010, the Committee reviewed and adopted the resultant Rules of Procedure for Mediation and Conciliation.[21]

The International Fund for the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation

The International Fund for the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation[22] was established to support Member States in efforts against illicit trafficking of cultural property, particularly in training and strengthening preventative measures in museums. The fund is financed by voluntary contributions, and requests are evaluated by the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property.

UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995)

The UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally exported Cultural Objects[23] has been drafted, at the request of UNESCO, to develop a uniform minimum body of private law rules for the international art trade to complement the public law provisions of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. This instrument reinforces the provisions of the 1970 Convention, supplementing them by formulating minimal legal rules on the restitution and return of cultural objects. It finds a solution to some of the problems of private law which were interfering with the implementation of the provisions of the 1970 Convention (notably problems linked to the bona fide acquisition (cf article 7 (b) (ii) referring to an innocent purchaser)). As a consequence, the two Conventions are both compatible and complementary to one another.

The aim of the UNIDROIT Convention is twofold:

  1. it seeks to deal with the technical problems resulting from differences among national rules and to draw upon the progress that has been permitted by the evolution of ideas;
  2. it is intended to contribute to the fight against the increase of the illicit traffic in cultural objects and to show how the national protection of cultural heritage may be adapted to, or accompanied by, enhancing solidarity between States.

Key partners in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property

The fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects involves the mobilization of a growing number of specialized partners and stakeholders. Such cooperation is essential for tackling the many forms of trafficking, which are rising under due to the internet, globalization and the booming art market, as well as the lootings and thefts of cultural objects during conflicts or natural disasters.

Intergovernmental Organizations

Non-governmental Organizations

UNESCO also develops valuable partnerships with National Cultural Heritage Police Forces and several Research Institutes.[25]

Specific tools available to countries

Practical and juridical tools have been devised by UNESCO and its partners in order to facilitate and improve the implementation of the UNESCO 1970 Convention.

* UNESCO-UNIDROIT model provisions on state ownership of undiscovered cultural objects[26] - 2011

The UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to Its Countries of Origin or Its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation and the UNIDROIT Governing Council and their respective Secretariats worked together to improve the protection of cultural property. The resultant Model Provisions and their explanatory guidelines are available to the relevant domestic bodies and legislatures to help them establish and recognize State ownership of undiscovered cultural objects.

Model export certificate for cultural objects (UNESCO-WCO)[27] - 2007

The model certificate has been drawn up by the Secretariats of the World Customs Organization (WCO) and UNESCO, and corresponds to the requirements for identifying and tracing cultural objects without, however, being too restrictive for exporters and customs.

Basic Actions concerning Cultural Objects being offered for sale over the Internet (INTERPOL-UNESCO-ICOM)[28] - 2007

Faced with the growing trafficking of cultural property on the internet and the difficulties encountered by national authorities to control this phenomenon, UNESCO, in close cooperation with INTERPOL and the International Council of Museums (ICOM), have provided countries with basic actions concerning cultural objects on sale on the web.

UNESCO Database of national cultural heritage laws[29] - 2005

The free access database, available in six languages, presents the national cultural heritage laws of its Member States. Itcurrently contains more than 2500 texts from more than 180 countries. UNESCO Member States are invited to send copies of all legal texts concerning the protection of cultural objects to the UNESCO Secretariat for their inscription in the UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws. By updating this Database the States can obtain good practices in any particular given field.

International code of ethics for traders in cultural property[30] - 1999

Built on the principles of the UNESCO 1970 Convention, and based on various national codes of professional ethics and Dealers' Codes (such as the code of the International Federation of Art and Antique Dealers’ Associations (Confédération internationale des Négociants d'Oeuvres d'Art, CINOA).

The OBJECT-ID standard[31] - 1997

Object-ID is an international standard for describing cultural objects. It is the result of years of research in collaboration with the museum community, international police and customs agencies, the art trade, insurance industry, and appraisers of art and antiques.

The logo for the 1970 Convention consists of two simple silhouettes: a hand palm is superimposed on a vase without handles. The logo aims to convey the importance of stopping (indicated by the position of the hand) the illicit trafficking of cultural property, symbolized by the vase (representing an archaeological object) in conformity with the principles of the 1970 Convention. The pictogram symbolizes also the action of looting, which deprives an individual or a community of its cultural heritage and, therefore, of its identity. The clear outline set off against a white background contributes to making the logo easily legible and universally understood.

See also



External links

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