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Activities to protect Afghanistan’s moveable cultural property

UNESCO assists the Afghan authorities in preventing the illicit trafficking of cultural property. 

UNESCO's policy on the protective safekeeping of cultural property is straightforward.

Where there is a serious danger to the survival of heritage, and at the request of the recognized government of the country concerned, UNESCO arranges with NGOs the safe custody of objects donated to it and their return to that country when the situation allows. It will not itself purchase objects that are being illicitly trafficked.

In the case of Afghanistan, and consequent to the destruction of heritage by the Taliban, UNESCO has created a special programme to assist in the rescue of cultural heritage of Afghan origin.

UNESCO, in partnership with the Foundation for Cultural Heritage in Japan, the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH) based in Kabul, the Swiss Afghanistan Museum in Bubendorf and the Archaeological Museum of Henri Prades in Lattes, is currently taking Afghan cultural property found on the international art market into protective custody, particularly objects stolen from museums or discovered during illicit excavations.

These objects, once found, categorized and conserved if necessary, will be returned to Afghanistan when the situation in the country has stabilized and the Kabul Museum is equipped with an adequate security system.

Since the fall of the Taliban regime, the Afghan authorities have taken important steps to prevent smuggling of illicitly acquired moveable cultural objects. The Law on the Protection of Historical and Cultural Properties was revised with the assistance of UNESCO, and was approved by Hamid Karzai, President of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan. It was subsequently published in the Official Gazette, coming into effect on 21 May 2004.

In April 2004, the Afghan Interior Ministry formed a special police force to protect the country's historical sites, with 84 officers deployed to protect important sites in the Logar and Kapisa provinces near Kabul.

UNESCO and the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture made a short film dedicated to the values of cultural heritage and to the importance of its protection with the aim of raising public awareness inside Afghanistan on the necessity to fight against illicit digging, looting and trafficking. This short film, which was financed with funds from the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan, has been presented from Summer 2004 in major towns and rural areas where illicit archaeological excavations are taking place. In addition, in November 2004 UNESCO assisted ICOM in printing and distributing leaflets and posters in English, Dari and Pashto to raise awareness among the Afghan population on the importance of preventing illicit traffic in cultural property.

See the UNESCO International Norms and Standards website Cultural Property: its Illicit Trafficking and Restitution.

See Interpol's website collecting information on cultural property stolen from the National Museum in Kabul.

Lead Organization / Sector / Office: UNESCO Division of Cultural Heritage, UNESCO Kabul Office

Associated Organization(s): ICOM, SPACH, Swiss Afghanistan Museum, Foundation for Cultural Heritage in Japan, Archaeological Museum of Henri Prades in Lattes.