Diplomatic bags and illicit trade of art
Diplomatic licence - An unpublished report claims that antiquities are being smuggled by embassy staff
By Martin Bailey Posted 18 January 2007
LONDON. Diplomatic bags are being used to smuggle antiquities, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere, according to the Dutch researcher Jos van Beurden. In an unpublished paper, he has gathered anecdotal evidence suggesting that diplomatic privileges are regularly abused.The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that bags should “not be opened or detained”. Although the bag (or pouch) was traditionally used for correspondence, it can contain other items, and luggage of diplomats normally passes through customs without being searched. Professor Colin Renfrew has stated that diplomatic bags provide “an important route” for smuggling antiquities, and he has called for them to be used only for papers.
Professor Ahmad Hassan Dani, chairman of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, was once asked about potential buyers of looted antiquities, and he responded: “Mostly foreign diplomats”. Archaeologist Warwick Ball, from his own experience, believes that embassy officials in Kabul in the early 1980s were buying up antiquities and “taking them out of the country in diplomatic bags”.
Similar accusations have been made elsewhere. Masha Lafont, in a study on the illicit trade in Khmer art published two years ago, blames diplomats. Mr van Beurden says that the head of the Unesco office in Phnom Penh told him a year ago: “Diplomats are a bigger danger than tourists. Very many diplomats have their houses full of ancient Cambodian objects. When they move to their next post, they probably take all of it with them.”The same story comes from Nigeria. Dr Yaro Gella, former head of museums and monuments, admitted that diplomats smuggle out antiquities, “particularly at the end of their term”. In East Africa, it has been alleged that diplomats in Kampala have been trafficking in Congolese sculptures.Mr van Beurden recounts how he pretended to be interested in buying ancient Hindu sculptures in a shop in Dhaka, in Bangladesh. The owner responded that “the diplomatic pouch is the safest way to get them out of the country”, adding that a Japanese diplomat had bought ten black stone statues from him and an Italian diplomat two.The difficulty is to know the extent of the problem. Mr van Beurden concludes that “there is sufficient evidence that the diplomatic bag is abused for art smuggling”. Undoubtedly the vast majority of diplomats do not abuse their privileges, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it does occur.