Endangered Patrimony of Iraq and Syria
Deputy Secretary of State
Good afternoon. Tom, thank you. As you all know, this past week, we’ve been in a series of meetings in hotel rooms. This is a marked improvement. But I have to tell you the Department of State is proud to call you our partner and to be working once again with one of the premier institutions in the world.
I am particularly pleased that Director-General Bokova will be joining us. At a time when modern barbarians seek to turn back the clock on history, UNESCO’s role as a guardian of our cultural heritage is needed now more than ever.
Carving caverns of inhumanity in its wake, ISIL has murdered, raped, and enslaved its way into Syria and Iraq—towns, villages, cities. They have not only killed, but as you all know, they sought to erase the identity of those they have killed. To supplant centuries of culture and history with their own ideology of nihilism and terror.
The Assyrian winged bulls in Nineveh. Historic lions in Raqqa. The great city of Palmrya.
Each satellite image of scorched earth, each photo of barren land that shows what we have lost and lost potentially forever gnaws at our hearts.
It was in this region, a cradle of civilization, that our roots first came together—roots that bind us not only to our ancestors but also to each other. Without the enduring reminders of our past, the ground beneath our feet feels a little less certain and the world we will pass onto future generations becomes greatly impoverished.
Each ancient artifact—rich in memory, rich in meaning—conjures a story that we can ill afford to loose. A story of survival through the millennia, through conquest and triumph, through floods and famines, until these precious treasures finally come under our generation’s stewardship and become our common responsibility.
It is the story of a single ivory plaque carved by skilled craftspeople from an elephant tusk in the Kingdom of Assyria nearly 3000 years ago. When foreign invaders destroyed the royal arsenal at Nimrud around 614 BC, the ivory panel fell from the roof into a lower room.
And there it lay. Encased in collapsed brick. Undisturbed, until the autumn of 1989—when it was discovered, documented, and painstakingly restored.
And then, after surviving 30 centuries, it was looted last year, as ISIL fighters overran the Mosul museum and took power tools to other priceless antiquities.
But just as it was about to be lost forever, the ancient plaque was recovered deep in Syria and safely returned to Iraqi preservation experts.
Unfortunately, as you know so well, for many, indeed most, antiquities, that story ends differently. What ISIL has not destroyed, it has looted and sold through a highly methodical, highly efficient excavation operation to finance its twisted ambitions.
These ancient coins, stone, glass, and mosaic fragments travel organized routes through black markets in the Middle East, Europe, and the Persian Gulf. The profits return to line of the pockets of these extremists—funding more savagery, more terror, and more devastation.
This afternoon, you’ll hear from my colleagues as they offer details on ISIL’s ongoing destruction—including some information that has not been made public until today. In the face of this truly unprecedented crisis, it is vital that all of us—governments, international organizations, museums, auction houses, and collectors—take concrete action to both reduce the demand on the world market and cut off the supply.
That’s why the United States has developed Red Lists with the International Council of Museums to help law enforcement officials recognize looted objects.
It’s why we have stepped up our efforts through the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL to encourage greater action against the illicit trade.
It is why the United States seeks reelection on the UNSECO Executive Board this November, so that we can continue to promote coordination and action at the highest levels.
And that it’s why we are working so closely with international law enforcement agencies here in the United States and around the world.
I think many of you know something called the Rewards for Justice program. It encourages people to provide information that prevents terrorist acts or helps put terrorists behind bars. Today, on behalf of Secretary of State Kerry, I am pleased to announce that the Rewards for Justice program will offer—for the first time ever—up to $5 million for information leading to the significant disruption of the sale and/or of the trade of antiquities by, for, or on behalf of ISIL.
This is one more step in bringing the weight of justice down on those who seek to advance ISIL’s destructive agenda—and in opening the eyes of the public to this unprecedented menace.
In this effort, we’re grateful for the active involvement of two giants of the art market, Christie’s and eBay, which are both represented here today. Their determination to educate their clients and the general public can serve as an example for dealers and collectors around the world.
We also welcome discussions among collectors, museums, auction houses, online marketplaces about collectively pledging to maintain the highest standards in handling antiquities—especially from regions in crisis like Iraq and Syria. Refusing to deal in conflict antiquities is both a moral imperative and a legal obligation.
With such great need and urgent challenges in our world today, it is critical that we also hold fast to the fabric of our humanity—to our gifts of reason and wisdom, our expressions of art and culture, and our universal values of civility, freedom, and dignity. These are exactly what ISIL seeks to destroy—unwittingly unleashing the very forces that will be its destruction.
Thank you very much.