Monday, January 31, 2011

Thinking Ahead: An Emergency Protection for Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act

As Egyptians exercise their universally recognized rights to assembly and expression, the Egyptian people are deeply concerned about the cultural heritage that resides in their country. Those concerns are shared by many throughout the globe. Archaeological sites reportedly being looted and museums have experienced break-ins. That is why it is important for lawmakers to start thinking about ways to help protect Egyptian cultural artifacts. It is better to think of solutions now rather than reacting to a potentially wider problem later.

One effort might be to stop stolen and looted Egyptian cultural material from crossing the American border. Such import controls could be accomplished by enacting an Emergency Protection for Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act, which could supplement authority already existing under the federal criminal code and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA).

The Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), 19 U.S.C. 2601 et seq., implements the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Section 2603 of the CPIA permits the President to enact import restrictions on cultural materials illegally removed from a country during an emergency situation without requiring that country’s government to make a formal legal request. Senator Charles Grassley introduced emergency legislation in 2003, pursuant to the CPIA, in response to the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. The time is ripe to consider similar legislation in response to the reported looting currently occurring in Egypt.

Theft, vandalism, and looting in Egypt include some of the following, according to current reports:

• Antiquities official Mohamed Megahed told the BikyaMasr blog of “immense damages to Abusir and Saqqara,” major archaeological sites in Egypt. He added that “[o]nly the Imhotep Museum and adjacent central areas were protected by the military. In Abusir, all tombs were opened; large gangs digging day and night.”

• The Qantara Museum warehouse in the Sinai was attacked by looters, according to news reports.

• Dr. Gerry Scott, director of the American Research Center in Egypt, has commented on damage at the site of the Great Pyramids in Giza. (

• The break-in at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo has been well reported, although the extent of that incident remains unclear.
(video available at

Meanwhile, several organizations have joined together to issue a statement that calls “on United States and European law enforcement agencies to be on the alert over the next several months for the possible appearance of looted Egyptian antiquities at their borders.” Those organizations calling for increased law enforcement vigilence include:
American Schools of Oriental Research
Archaeological Institute of America
Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania
Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies, Rutgers University
Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation
U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield

There is authority at present to seize illegally obtained Egyptian artifacts at the American border. The National Stolen Property Act and anti-smuggling laws permit the seizure of stolen cultural property pursuant to the criminal laws found in Title 18 of the United States Code. See United States v. Schultz. Cultural property can also be seized under an interpretation of ARPA under Title 16. Because customs officials most often enforce import controls enacted pursuant to Title 19, An Emergency Protection for Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act should be contemplated even at this early stage of events in Egypt. Such a statute could resemble the emergency protection law covering Iraq and be worded in the following way:

Emergency Protection for Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act of 2011

(a) AUTHORITY- The President may exercise the authority of the President under section 304 of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (19 U.S.C. 2603) with respect to any archaeological or ethnological material of Egypt without regard to whether Egypt is a State Party under that Act, except that, in exercising such authority, subsection (c) of such section shall not apply.

(b) DEFINITION- In this section, the term `archaeological or ethnological material of Egypt means cultural property of Egypt and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, or religious importance illegally removed from locations in Egypt since January 25, 2011.

The authority of the President under section 3002(a) shall terminate on January 31, 2016.