The Nicosia Convention: a criminal justice response to offences relating to cultural property

(Tempo di lettura: 5 minuti)

On June 15th and 16th, 2023, the international conference on the theme “Nicosia Convention: Criminal Justice Response to Crimes Related to Cultural Property” took place in Riga, organised by the Ministers of Justice and Culture of the Republic of Latvia, together with several Council of Europe Committees (Committee on European Crime Problems and Committee on Culture, Cultural Heritage and Landscapes). The conference aimed to analyse and assess the implementation of the Nicosia Convention and the repression of crimes related to it.

It is important to remember that the Convention is a fundamental transnational instrument for criminalising the destruction, damage, and illicit trafficking of cultural property, strongly supported by the Council of Europe. Therefore, the importance of other countries’ adherence to the Nicosia Convention is crucial for its success. Currently, the Nicosia Convention has been ratified by six European countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Latvia, and, outside Europe, by Mexico. In addition, there are seven signatory countries that have not ratified it yet: Armenia, Montenegro, Portugal, San Marino, Slovenia, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. The Conference served, therefore, as an opportunity for reflecting on the instruments that have already been implemented and discussing among different stakeholders, both institutional and non-institutional, to increase visibility and implement common actions and information exchange.

Throughout the conference, the value of historical and artistic heritage was emphasised: crimes against cultural property are a global problem that demands global solutions. Crimes against cultural property affect everyone, as cultural property represents not only the heritage of individual countries but of humanity as well. Therefore, it was highlighted that the monitoring of illicit flows of cultural heritage across national borders requires a high level of cooperation among all states and actors involved.

Joint efforts must be made to create mechanisms through which countries can share information and learn from each other’s best practices. Better coordination of law enforcement is needed to prevent and combat these violations. In this perspective, at the end of the conference, the objectives were defined as follows: 1. Encourage states to sign and ratify the Nicosia Convention; 2. Share opinions, concerns, and approaches of different stakeholders involved in the fight against illicit trafficking and destruction of cultural property; 3. Discuss the benefits and challenges of ratifying the Nicosia Convention; 4. Highlight the importance of national and international cooperation in addressing emerging challenges in this field. Therefore, it was a moment of high-level exchange, and the panel of speakers intentionally included various professionals interested in the protection of cultural heritage at an international level.

The Riga Conference was organised with a broad target audience, including politicians, government experts on cultural heritage, government and non-government lawyers, judges and prosecutors, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, cultural institutions, and members of European institutions. The topics ranged from technical discussions to political analyses, legal profiles, and references to ongoing conflicts, as well as data and statistics analysis.

The National Library of Latvia.

The conference was structured into four separate sessions, dedicated respectively to the prosecution of damages, destruction, and illicit trafficking of cultural property; the challenges faced by cultural heritage during conflicts; best practices and exchange of experiences; international cooperation in criminal matters.

In detail, the first session emphasised the need to ensure greater efficiency in the tools to combat cultural crimes, which still have a high rate of impunity. In this perspective, the change of focus offered by the Nicosia Convention was highlighted. The novelty of “in loco” protection now offered to immovable cultural property was especially showcased. The session included an explanation of legislative changes and statistical data from some countries, with a particular focus on Latvia and Italy. The symbolic role of cultural heritage in acts of terrorism, both domestic and international, was also discussed. Finally, the importance of new instruments offered by Artificial Intelligence in database management and research was emphasised.

The second session was mainly focused on the risk situation of cultural property in Ukraine. UNESCO data on the number of looted or damaged artefacts and the destruction of sites were presented, and representatives of the Ukrainian government provided their own data. It was noted, however, that the verification and collection of data are particularly challenging due to the ongoing conflict. A significant innovation, presented by experts from the Council of Europe, is the “Register of damage,” an instrument for collecting and accounting for cultural damage in armed conflicts, which could prove to be a valuable help in the fight against heritage crimes. Currently, it is being used to monitor the effects of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. This database was designed and managed directly by the Council of Europe. The efforts made by the Republic of Ukraine to digitise its cultural heritage, despite the current situation and the need to allocate financial resources mainly to military expenses, were also stressed.

The third session included an exchange of experiences and the presentation of good practices implemented by different countries. The perspectives of technological innovation in the field of transnational cultural crime were discussed. The results and challenges related to the restitution of illicitly trafficked cultural property were examined, with a focus on the situations in Italy and Cyprus.

The final session was instead dedicated to illustrating the instruments for the protection of cultural heritage available at the international level: from the dynamics within the EU to the relevance of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, to the Heritage Crime Task Force and the role of INTERPOL.

Finally, the principles elaborated by the European Court of Human Rights were briefly outlined, despite the limited jurisprudence on the matter, which mainly focuses on the recognition of the possibility of forced expropriation of assets in case of public interest and the social role of monuments and artistic heritage.

The conference attendees were also given the opportunity to explore dedicated paths within the National Museum complex, where workshops focused on the preservation of artefacts were showcased. These workshops included topics such as the conservation of items seized following criminal activities, and restoration-related practices.

The most interesting aspect to emerge from the Riga Conference is probably the potential for integrating traditional instruments with those offered by artificial intelligence and technological innovations, which are not directly mentioned in the text of the Nicosia Convention. The issue of their usability in court and the probative value of the data obtained, which is still unexplored, must certainly be solved. In fact, the evolution of computer tools could provide an important contribution to the protection of cultural assets worldwide, both in safeguarding monuments and sites and improving the search for illegally looted items. One of the most exciting prospects offered by the conference is the ability to anticipate future damages or thefts to nationally significant cultural assets, through the development of predictive models that would integrate previous statistics into databases.

However, it remains a fact that the limited number of countries that have ratified the Convention is the greatest challenge. The need to increase the number of signing countries to enhance the network of expertise was emphasised.

Therefore, the conference could not but conclude with an invitation to foster broader cooperation among countries, aiming to improve information exchange and the adoption of common policies.

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