Ways to stop looted antiquities funding the Syrian civil war

The problems of policing the theft of antiquities

The World Today Published 6 February 2015 Updated 5 January 2021 3 minute READ

Sasan Aghlani

Former Consultant, International Security, Chatham House

Sam Hardy

Archaeologist specializing in the illicit trade in antiquities

Tomb robbing is sometimes described as the second-oldest profession. It ebbs and flows as local and international conditions change, and it flourishes in poor countries. Carefully managed aid, development, education and policing can reduce it but, according to the experts, it has been growing steadily for the past hundred years.

Though the situation varies between countries and even within territories, from Cyprus to Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria, there is significant evidence that politically motivated armed groups are engaged in the illicit trade in antiquities.

The ancient treasures are commodities from which armies and paramilitaries make money by theft, smuggling or sale, or ‘protection’ – often called taxation – of those activities. It is cultural racketeering. Yet while the norm against trading in conflict diamonds has been institutionalized with some success, there is no such mechanism to suppress the trade in conflict antiquities.

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