The survival of Libya's most important heritage structures, amidst the tremendous losses inflicted on life and property by brutal conflict, has brought a sense of relief. However, the organised looting of some of Libya's treasures has raised serious concerns about the implementation of international conventions that are meant to protect monuments and curb trafficking in antiquities. Ever since the armed uprising and NATO bombing commenced, concerns have been expressed over the state of Libya's rich historical heritage, including Greek and Roman antiquities. A recent report of the International Committee of the Blue Shield, an independent group of cultural organisations recognised by UNESCO, has confirmed that most of the heritage structures, including the World Heritage site of Leptis Magna, a Roman city, are largely intact. This is so not because the fighting forces abided by the Hague Convention (UNESCO, 1954), which makes it obligatory for combatants to protect heritage structures during armed conflict, but because committed people in local communities showed ingenuity. For instance, at Leptis Magna, shepherds were invited to camp inside the archaeological site with their animals — and land mining of the area was averted. However, the looting of the ‘Benghazi Treasure' — a priceless collection of ancient artefacts — could not be prevented.

As evidenced in recent conflicts, state parties that are signatories to the Hague Convention have not complied with it fully. Neither have the attacking forces, NATO in the Libyan case, provided ‘expertise and logistical support' for the protection of heritage. The Convention must be reviewed in the light of such experiences and exacting obligations imposed on occupying forces. In addition to protection, they must contribute to the mitigation of damage and restoration of heritage structures. State parties, on their part, must improve protection by adopting vital measures such as thorough documentation of artefacts. Libya's failure to do this is going to be a major impediment to the recovery of the priceless Benghazi artefacts. Unbridled trading in illicit antiquities continues to be a leading factor in encouraging heritage theft. Even reputed museums and auction houses in rich countries such as the United States seem to be intentionally slack in checking out the provenance of antiquities. Recently, the head of a Roman statue stolen from Libya in 1990 was auctioned in London. Museums and private collectors in developed countries must rethink their ethical practices — and stop being enablers of the hugely profitable traffic in stolen antiquities.

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