29 Nov 2022

Trade and counterfeit goods / Ancient artefacts: unseen collateral damage of the war in Ethiopia

Combined efforts are needed to investigate and recover national treasures that have been looted and trafficked from Ethiopia’s conflict-ridden northern region.

Earlier this year, it was reported that centuries-old Ethiopian relics, including manuscripts and bibles, were being advertised for sale online on marketplaces such as eBay. 

It is alleged that most of the artefacts had been looted from the Tigray region. The war that has been fought there since November 2020 until the newly-signed peace deal this November, has provided the looters and traffickers with opportunities to take advantage of the instability and insecurity, this looting is also taking place in the adjacent Afar and Amhara regions of northern Ethiopia. 

According to sources who chose anonymity due to the contentious nature of the information, a recent investigation in Amhara National Regional State revealed large-scale artefact looting. The investigation found that about 1 721 registered movable artefacts were lost or looted from seven administrative zones in Amhara during this war.

Of these, 1 155 were looted or lost from the Dessie Museum and Merho Palace and Museum alone. The number of missing artefacts is probably higher as not all artefacts are officially registered. In addition, 379 movable artefacts were destroyed, 73 were partially damaged, and 91 were fully damaged. 

Centuries-old Ethiopian relics have reportedly been advertised for sale online

While federal government denounced this destruction of cultural heritage during the conflict, it received little further attention since. The country’s major investigation into the war, conducted jointly by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, didn’t include an examination of the nature and scale of the looting. This is a missed opportunity. Wartime misappropriation or pillaging of artefacts and antiquities may constitute war crimes, and would have been one of the crimes within the mandate of the joint investigation team.

There is currently no investigation to understand the true nature and scale of trafficking in artefacts from the conflict regions in Ethiopia. A recent investigation by the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce (IMT), established in November 2021 by Ethiopia's Ministry of Justice to oversee the investigation of crimes perpetrated in connection to the war in Ethiopia's north, has not looked into looting and trafficking of artefacts. Sources close to IMT told ENACT that the task force's criminal investigation was limited to investigating wartime destruction and looting of individual property, not antiques.

Also, the smaller investigation in the Amhara Region falls short of depicting the full scale of the problem. It was restricted to a few locations, and was limited to identifying looted and damaged artefacts that were registered. With no coherent picture available responses are limited at this stage.

Looting is only the initial stage in the process of transnational artefact trafficking. It forms part of a complex trafficking network chain involving individuals from source, transit and illicit demand markets.

Artefacts are sold and bought on the grey market. This system mixes illicit artefacts with licit ones, making the identification of looted antiquities difficult. This is exacerbated by the widespread use of online artefacts marketplaces. The availability of Ethiopian artefacts on eBay is evidence of this criminal value chain.

Looting is only the initial stage in the process of transnational artefact trafficking

The work to compile an inventory of artefacts in the Amhara Region is essential to uncover the scope, actors and modus operandi of artefacts trafficking in the context of the recent armed conflict.

Expanding this to other regions to build a more comprehensive picture, and is key to facilitating both national and international efforts to prosecute perpetrators, and to recover and repatriate artefacts.

Such investigations will enable researchers and government authorities to begin collating information on missing artefacts. This first step will be the basis for engaging in diplomatic campaigns to raise awareness of the harms caused by the international sale of looted relics, and seek repatriation from private collectors or museums.  Here the government will be leaning on its experience where recently it convinced the United Kingdom to return ancient artefacts stolen by British soldiers over 150 years ago. Similarly, in 2005, diplomatic efforts succeeded in persuading Italy to return the ancient Obelisk of Aksum to Ethiopia that had been in Rome for 68 years.

To succeed in recovering artefacts that have already left its borders, Ethiopia will also need to strengthen international cooperation on matters related to the prevention of artefact trafficking. In this regard, Ethiopia  is already party to the 1970 UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Exploring legal and institutional channels provided by these conventions could help facilitate cooperation to prevent and disrupt transnational criminal activities.  This applies equally to regional cooperation to intercept and confiscate its artefacts still in Africa.

Ethiopia should comprehensively reform its laws to criminalise illicit acts in the cultural heritage trafficking network

Ethiopia’s primary legislation for protecting and preserving cultural heritage is the Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage Proclamation No. 209/2000 is mainly an administrative law with some penal provisions. It does not address the transnational organised crime elements. Given the recent looting, a change to criminalise all illicit acts in the cultural heritage trafficking network, treat the relevant crimes as transnational and organised crimes, and introduce specialised investigative techniques and tools, is urgent. 

Here the federal government could refer to the 2014 International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offences. Although these guidelines are non-binding they offer the most comprehensive framework with standards relating to the prevention of artefacts trafficking, and could be a valuable reference for Ethiopia’s legislative reform efforts.

Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher, Horn of Africa, ENACT Project, ISS Addis Ababa


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