06 October 2015

A time to act...

Destruction at Palmyra
by Marc Masurovsky and Ori Z. Soltes

On September 28, 2015, at the United Nations, President Obama proposed to fight ISIS and other forms of “violent extremism” using a savant blend of targeted air strikes, ideas, jobs, and good governance. As if DAESH/ISIL cares one bit.
President Barack Obama at the United Nations, Sept. 2015

It’s hard to imagine how one can square those well-intentioned thoughts with the devastation that is reshaping forever the map of the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Jordan are but a few of the countries directly affected by the apocalyptic and sustained outbursts of violence unleashed upon them by militants from DAESH/ISIL.
ISIS zones of influence in Syria and Irak, 2015
Nearly as important is the eradication of cultural icons, described by every figure of international politics as “belonging to humanity.” Sites that have survived thousands of years of military conflicts, droughts, and societal mischief are now being razed by gangsters posing as religious fighters wishing to establish a pure version of their faith. This is not the place to comment on the merits of their plan, rather the consequences of this plan being implemented by means of the tools of our digital age combined with ruthless, genocidal violence. DAESH/ISIL has been able to recruit followers from one hundred different countries who are willing to give their lives to their cause. This is no small feat. 

Luckily, President Obama is no Neville Chamberlain, the famously appeasing British Prime Minister who wished the best of luck to Hitler in September 1938. His proposal to co-exist with Germany’s Chancellor proved to be at the expense of Europe writ large; the purpose of the appeasement of Germany was to keep Britannia intact and not to shed a drop of British blood, in the hopes that Hitler would be reasonable with a neighbor willing to declare itself a benign ally. We know how that story ended.

Chamberlain (left) and Hitler (right), 1938

Are we now facing the same predicament? While we take time to invest in ‘ideas, jobs and good governance,’ the entire Mediterranean region may be revamped by DAESH/ISIL and both its followers and those fleeing its clutches.

Since there is no international political will to send hundreds of thousands of troops to the Mideast to combat DAESH/ISIL, what can be done in the short- and mid-term to stanch the consequences of the genocide? How can we safeguard the artifacts and sites that embody thousands of years of history in what we habitually call “the cradle of civilization” while protecting the lives of those who live and coexist with them within that “cradle”?
Iconic sites in the "cradle of civilization"--Mesopotamia
World War II provides us with useful examples of responses and initiatives that were put into place to combat and defeat the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan—and their allies). If adapted to our current predicament, managed, staffed, and financed properly, these measures and initiatives could have a measurable deterring impact on the financial and intelligence networks of DAESH/ISIL, and stop the reaping of enormous sums that this horrific organization obtains in exchange for looted antiquities and precious objects.

1/ Economic warfare and countervailing strategies aimed at choking the financial, and commercial capacities of DAESH/ ISIL.

During WWII, the United States and the United Kingdom initiated or refined measures aimed at establishing or strengthening barriers to the Axis countries’ ability to trade and obtain cash and commodities needed to supply the Axis war machine:

a/ the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) in the U.S., as amended, prohibited all financial and commercial relations with anyone directly or indirectly associated with the Axis. Translated into terms relevant to 2015, the TWEA would likewise prohibit nationals from countries where the TWEA is enacted from entering into transactions with anyone directly or indirectly connected with DAESH/ISIL. Current measures in place must be strengthened to reflect the wartime intent of the TEA. 

b/ specific directives were passed in the U.S. (Treasury Directive 51072 in particular) which aimed to regulate the importation into the U.S. of any asset worth 5000 dollars or more (in 1940 dollars). The purpose was to regulate, if not prohibit, cultural and financial assets in order to prevent the recycling of loot in the US and its monetizing to the benefit of the Axis. Such directives can be enacted in the US, purposed to regulate and/or prohibit the importation of cultural objects from conflict areas. (The British government imposed similar restrictions and its Ministry of Economic Warfare (MEW), together with the Exchequer and other departments became the locus of financial and commercial intelligence collection on the Axis for the duration of WWII).

With the help of Customs (today’s DHS), these objects would have to be accompanied with full documentation attesting to the objects’ geographic origins and the identity of the various owners in order to preempt the resale and/or display of these looted objects on US soil.

c/ the publication of a Proclaimed List (US)  (or Statutory List in the UK) of individuals who have done or are doing business directly or indirectly with the Axis powers. This list was meant to act as a deterrent and as reference for anyone wishing to transact with individuals who might be linked with “violent extremism.” Create such a list of individuals, companies and officials connected directly or indirectly with DAESH/ISIL.

2/ The implementation of trade and other barriers:
During World War II, the British government oversaw the imposition and enforcement of a naval blockade in the Atlantic Ocean.aimed at deterring traffic between Europe and Africa on the one hand and the Americas on the other that the Allies deemed of benefit to the Axis powers. Blockade enforcers boarded ships and inspected their goods, commandeered those ships to vetting stations, confiscated and sequestered suspicious cargo, worked with shipping companies to ferret out suspicious individuals and interdict dubious shipments from leaving European shipping points through a navy certification (navicert) program.

Blockade-like measures could be adapted to today's more complex international environment along land, sea and air routes to preempt plundered assets from reaching international markets around the world.

In that regard, as a more practical and enforceable measure, a 120-day renewable moratorium could be imposed on all transactions involving cultural, artistic and ritual objects with a direct provenance leading to the zones occupied by DAESH/ISIL, regardless of their “cultural significance” and if they have earned the coveted label of “national treasure.” (The new AAMD protocols on "safe harbor" for "conflict antiquities" reflect this extremely limited view of objects worth protecting).

Such a moratorium would prohibit all transactions outside of the conflict areas involving those objects, regardless of their purpose—trade or display. The moratorium could be established for a period of 120 days, and, if efficacious, could be renewed at will until no longer needed.

3/ Tightening up due diligence and documentation rules for cultural and artistic objects:

Cultural institutions, members of the art trade, individuals and/or corporate entities, have historically been lax when faced with the acquisition of rare and unique objects whose aesthetic and historical value might trump a defective provenance due to lack of documentation. Such laxity is rampant through the art world and, although some museums and auction houses have increased their vigilance, most are not operating at a level of diligence that meets the ethical smell test.

In order to preempt the entry of looted antiquities into private and public collections, documentation accompanying these objects must be considered a precondition to their sale and/or display in areas outside of the zones occupied by DAESH/ISIL. This is a critical measurable way of preventing a contaminated object from entering a collection or a display case.

4/ Military intervention to protect sites that we deem critical to humanity:

In order to put an end to the devastation wrought by individuals and organizations bent on reshaping the planet and its societies to suit their own narrow vision of life, one has to become somewhat selfless and recognize that some issues are worth the ultimate sacrifice, because of their larger significance.

Complacency and idle chatter are the enemy now. For every day that goes by where another international conference seats the “stakeholders” to debate endlessly about how to stop the onslaught, is another day of victories for DAESH/ISIL whose henchmen amuse themselves by destroying monuments, some as old as several millennia, that had stood unmolested since their creation.

DAESH/ISIL do not believe in dialogue. They can only be defeated with force. And so must it be. Does the international community have what it takes to “take them on”?

Let’s face facts: we cannot do away with extremism. It is here to stay, it has always been with us and will always be, as a virulent extension and manifestation of human nature.

Social and economic inequities, political and religious intolerance and persecution, all manners of discrimination based on creed, belief, cultural and linguistic background, sexual and other orientations, constitute the petri dish from which groups like DAESH/ISIL sprout and spread. The eradication of DAESH-like movements can only happen through a radical overhaul of how we globally conduct business and how we treat one another.

Until then, let’s consider the following as deterrent countermeasures to DAESH/ISIL-controlled trafficking in artistic, cultural and ritual objects extracted illegally from territories that this movement occupies and/or influences:

-economic warfare,

-regulation of the antiquities trade,

-publication of lists of individuals and companies known to do business directly and indirectly with DAESH/ISIL agents and representatives,

-beefing up import and export restrictions on poorly documented antiquities originating from zones held or influenced by DAESH/ISIL,

-120-day renewable moratorium on all trade of antiquities from conflict zones,

-ground-based, naval, and air blockades to preempt traffic of looted assets from DAESH/ISIL zones of occupation,

-strengthening of human and signal intelligence capacities,

-military protection of cultural sites “dear to humanity,”

-building broad coalitions around minimalist goals aimed at preempting the looting and plundering of lands under DAESH/ISIL occupation and containing the hydra towards a view to neutralize it and roll it back.

It is time to act.