Thursday, August 25, 2011

Did NATO Plans to Help Libyans Topple Ghaddafi Include Inducements to Protect Libyan Archaeological Sites?

This UNESCO statement warning authorities in and neighboring countries to guard against looting of their archaeological sites raises some important questions. With Libya now more or less liberated from Ghaddafi's tyranny, what will happen to the extraordinarily rich archaeological sites there now, with the country in what may be a protracted period of instability? I am ashamed to say that I do not know enough about Libyan politics to be able to say whether archaeological police were part of a hated governmental ministry (as was the case in Egypt and Iraq), but in any case the sites are almost certain to be left less well-protected than they should be. Are there any short- and middle-range steps that could be taken at this point, beyond issuing statements, to help the Libyan people protect their own (and the world's) archaeological heritage from the market-driven looting of antiquities that spikes during such periods?

NATO has certainly thought about this problem (as in this excellent conference held a few years ago in Tallinn), but it is pretty unlikely this thinking has been translated into the very politically constrained operational planning structure under which NATO must be operating in Libya. Let's be clear: No U.S. or British or Italian tanks are going to be rolling to the gates of Leptis Magna. This is not Iraq. But one could imagine a number of other stopgap measures that might be taken, if the planning had been done over the past month or so. These possibilities include:
a) helping the ministry of culture to organize and enlist Libyans, preferably locals for each major site, into site-protection groups who could camp out in large numbers on the sites and act as a deterrent.
b) helping the ministry of culture work with the antiquities police units directly
c) providing real-time aerial and/or satellite monitoring information
d) placing import bans on antiquities from Libya
e) with the permission of Libyan authorities, bring the carabinieri over to help the antiquities police cope with the heightened threat
f) providing Libyan archaeological police and site guards with material support in the form of walkie-talkies, remote monitoring devices, helicopters, etc.

Readers of this blog may have other ideas to add.

These suggestions are about what NATO and the community of nations could and should be thinking of doing. But -- and it is a big but -- there is no reason why many of these suggestions could be pursued by cultural heritage NGOs, if they were a little less focused solely on sustainable tourism and more attentive to the threats that looting poses, even to World Heritage sites. I would add that it would be wonderful if a wealthy collector or major foundation recognized this as a problem they could help solve, but I am not holding my breath on that one.

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