Koichiro Matsuura, the Director General of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said the fate of the plundered treasure “lies in the hands of the international community as a whole, and the only way that we will be able to safeguard these treasures and give them back to humanity is if we can count on the cohesion, coordination and determination of all concerned, at every level.”
The appeal came at a meeting of international experts convened at the agency’s Paris headquarters.
Matsuura called on “all States to adopt the emergency legal and administrative measures required to prevent the importation into their territory of any cultural, archaeological or bibliographical object having recently left Iraq.” He also implored museums, exhibits, and art collectors not to buy any of the stolen goods.
Matsuura said he will request that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan bring up the matter in the Security Council, “so that a resolution can be adopted which imposes an embargo, for a limited period, on the acquisition of all Iraqi cultural objects and calls for the return of such goods to Iraq if acquisitions or exports of this kind have already taken place.”
Looters ransacked and emptied multiple museums in Baghdad and other cities in the final days of the war, completely destroying some of the most ancient, rare, and valuable artifacts in the world.
“The pillaging has ravaged the irreplaceable Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections that chronicled ancient civilization in Mesopotamia, and the losses have triggered an impassioned outcry in cultural circles,” the Associated Press reported.
The Mesopotamian region was home to some of the most ancient and revered civilizations in history. The area is sometimes referred to as “the cradle of civilization.”
Experts at the Paris meeting said people who had access to the collections and knew what they were looking for did some of the stealing.
“It looks as if part of the looting was a deliberate planned action,” said McGuire Gibson, a University of Chicago professor and president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad, told the Associated Press. “They were able to take keys for vaults and were able to take out important Mesopotamian materials put in safes.”
Gibson added that he thinks an outside country may have organized the robberies.
Some historians and cultural experts have been critical of U.S. and British forces for not doing more to protect the museums. UNESCO has said it warned the coalition that the artifacts might be in danger.
U.S. officials have said various groups that were concerned about the museums had contacted them. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers said U.S. commanders avoided targeting the museums.
“We tried to avoid hitting those sites…to my knowledge we didn’t hit any of them,” Myers said in a Tuesday briefing.
Responding to complaints that U.S. ground forces stood by while the looting took place, Myers said the small number of forces used and their concentration on military objectives, which included saving military and civilian lives, kept them from guarding the museums.
“I think as much as anything else it was a matter of priorities,” Myers said.
Matsuura admitted that it is hard for governments to concentrate on preserving artifacts during a war.
“It is always difficult, when communities are facing the consequences of an armed conflict … to plead the case for the preservation of the cultural heritage,” Matsuura said.