January 13, 2017
The National Museum, Damascus: President
Obama’s Syria legacy is already being widely debated. In 2009 the former
Southside Chicago community organizer and Law Professor entered the White House
promising a new direction and vision in the Middle East from that of his
predecessor and pledging “a new way forward.” “A New Beginning” is the name of
the speech he delivered on 4 June 2009, at Cairo University.
Surely things seemed much simpler at the
time when millions across the Middle East praised his words. But alas, Obama
soon stumbled into a raging turbulence of complicated problems from the “Arab
Spring” and the arrival of ISIS and the Islamic State, to a massive proxy war
in Syria, with the involvement of proxy backed sectarian militia from half a
dozen countries and as many as 1000 other militia/gangs of “jihadists” from
another forty or more.
Plus the resurgence of Russia as a regional
power along with Iran’s ascendance. These apparently unforeseen geostrategic
developments happened fast as America appeared to become relegated to being a
vexed and sidelined onlooker. Obama is accused of not responding early enough
to the ISIS threat or protecting the civilian population under attack and the
President himself repeated last week that Syria was his most difficult foreign
policy issue that he had to face during his eight years in office.
Some are arguing that Obama is responsible
for unintended consequence and creating new challenges to US and Middle East
regional security. As Obama ends his Presidency he leaves behind doubts from
most of America’s allies in the region and certainly sharp disappointments and
criticism from some of the displaced Syrian population that this observer has crossed
paths with. “What happened to your country’s claimed humanitarian values” is a
question I have been repeatedly asked by ordinary citizens over the past
several years across Syria.
But the Obama legacy jury is still
A just released study from the University
of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation (1/10/2017) found that only one
in five Americans thinks that under the Obama administration the U.S. has been
too engaged in the Middle East, while one in three think it has not been engaged
enough. The most common view, held by 46 percent of those surveyed is that the
level of engagement has been about right under President Obama. And 57 per cent
of Americans told interviewers last weekend that they view Obama favorably,
putting him way ahead of his predecessor, George W. Bush who only 40 per cent
viewed favorably as he left office.
Time will tell how Obama’s Middle East
legacy is judged and no doubt the verdict will be affected by what
President-elect Trump will do in the Middle East, which as of today, has many
of us scratching our heads.
But there is one major, if not widely
heralded, Obama Administration achievement which relates to Syria and the
Middle East that has not gained much public recognition but for which the Obama
Administration deserves great credit. That subject is Obama’s leadership and
achievements, working with a divided Congress, in taking new and concrete
measures with respect to Protecting and Preserving Syria’s Endangered Heritage
which we all share as our common cradle of Civilization.
The Obama Administration has been the most
focused on preserving archeology in Syria and elsewhere than any of his
predecessors. His administration, like many of us, realized as we witnessed the
destruction of our shared cultural heritage, that despite good intensions
relevant international law so far is largely ineffective in preserving and
protecting our heritage from ISIS and other thieves. The absence of adequate
enforcement mechanisms are evident from the continuing daily destruction,
looting, smuggling, and black market trading and sales of Syrian cultural
property, every day around the Middle East and around the world.
Today there are reports that ISIS is now
back in complete control of Palmyra due to errors by some who were guarding the
priceless ruins while ignoring for months reports from locals that Daesh
jihadists were back in the adjacent to the ruins, town of Palmyra and gaining
recruits. There are additional reports today (1/12/2016) that ISIS has begun to
renew its looting and destruction of “The Pearl of the Desert.”
As the actions of ISIS and others
demonstrate, treaty-based International Humanitarian Law, which focuses on the
actions and responsibilities of states, and even customary IHL, which applies
more broadly to state and non-state actors alike, are frankly not effective in
the current crisis to protect our heritage in Syria or elsewhere.
And National laws have also long been shown
to be ineffective even through that fact may be changing as countries,
including the USA, the center of illegal artifact purchases, has begun to enact
laws to control and hopefully eliminate the plundering of our global heritage.
The US, UK, Germany, France and several of the 28 European Union countries (27
post-Brexit) have been working domestically on various legal frameworks to
confront the illegal trade of archaeological artifacts.
Last year Germany enacted for the first
time a Federal law which they claim is an efficient implementation of the 1970
UNESCO Convention. Importantly the new German law provides for increased due
diligence an emphasis many countries are legislating for their police agencies.
Specifically, Germany now requires an export license from the country of origin
and requires that the supplier in Germany conduct provenance (origin) research.
What is decisive is how the law will be implemented and how German officials
will be positioned to ensure due diligence.
The Obama administration has also been an
international leader in pushing the due diligence model and encouraging other
UN Members to follow suit.
The White House increased its signing into
law protections for our shared cultural heritage and several are being
considered by other nations as they consult with the USA on subjects like due
diligence and coordination of policing efforts.
During the eight years of the Obama
Administration, it has pushed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to
recover and return more than 7,500 illicit artifacts to thirty countries as
part of its fight against the global trafficking of cultural heritage. The
Obama administration is keenly aware that restituting stolen properties while
an important goal, only occasionally leads to successful prosecution,
conviction, or imprisonment of antiquities traffickers. But it has not been
For this reason Obama’s Department of
Justice (DOJ) is increasingly taking concrete action against this illegal
trade, and with a minimum investment of resources and as it leaves office much
work has been done toward appointing specially designated prosecutors at United
States Attorneys’ Offices and Main Justice who can bring criminal cases against
antiquities traffickers, the DOJ has the capacity to secure the convictions and
sentences needed to end impunity for these crimes while providing both general
and specific deterrence against future offenses.
After a long investigation, last month New
York antiquities dealer Nancy Wiener, a reported second-cousin of the serial
sexter and former Congressman, Anthony Weiner, was charged with three felony
offenses. The most serious includes Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in
First Degree – NY PL 165.54. The statute recites that “a person is guilty of
criminal possession of stolen property in the first degree when he knowingly
possesses stolen property, with intent to benefit himself or a person other
than an owner thereof or to impede the recovery by an owner, and when the value
of the property exceeds one million dollars.” The offense is punishable by up
to 25 years in prison. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in partnership
with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized numerous stolen and looted
artifacts from the Nancy Weiner’s Gallery on Manhattan’s East Side.
Obama’s DOJ already has a roadmap template
in hand with its Environmental Crimes Section (ECS), whose successful
prosecutions of wildlife traffickers demonstrate a tested model. Also under
consideration is a similar office of Cultural Heritage Crimes (CHC) whereby
Prosecutors could hold antiquities traffickers accountable, to disrupt and
dismantle their networks, and to give support to police and prosecutors at the
local, county, state, and federal levels.
The Obama administration has also been at
the forefront of efforts to ensure the restoration and reconstruction of our
cultural heritage and is a partner with French President Francoise Hollande who
is working to establish a Fund for this purpose. Explaining the Fund to the
November 2015 UNESCO Conference Hollande said: “This fund will finance the
rescue of works and monuments in Syria and elsewhere to ensure the restoration
and reconstruction of places of our collective memory and train specialists,
archaeologists, curators, historians, so that we may always keep a trace of
heritage. We want to create a fund, a global fund of $ 100 million to support
the safeguarding of cultural heritage. This fund will finance the rescue of
works and monuments to ensure the restoration and reconstruction of places of
our collective memory and train specialists, archaeologists, curators, historians,
so that we may always keep a trace of heritage.”
During his recent visit to The Met,
Hollande explained that the idea for the fund actually originated in Japan this
past May when he was with President Barack Obama at the G7 summit. Hollande’s remarks
followed an introduction made by Vice President Joe Biden who supports this
initiative as does Secretary of State John Kerry.
At the urging of the Obama Administration,
the G7 published last year an Action Plan on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism
, calling on nations “to enhance efforts to hinder looting and trafficking of
cultural property originating from regions under the control of terrorist
Biden’s surprise appearance at The Met was
meant to signal White House efforts to protect and to preserve cultural
heritage. Biden described ISIS’s sale of artifacts from Syria to fund terrorism
while ISIS simultaneously attacking cultural diversity in the Middle East,
which he called an affront to the people of the region. Biden asserted that
trafficking laws targeting antiquities are being rigorously enforced by the
President Barack Obama, over the past few
months, has also appointed several men and women to serve on key boards,
commissions, and committees that impact cultural heritage policy. In 111 days,
the Obama administration filled nearly two-thirds of the eleven total CPAC
On May 11, 2016 President Obama signed into
law the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (HR 1493)
which calls for emergency import restrictions on at-risk Syrian cultural
property. According to its sponsors, The Protect and Preserve International
Cultural Property Act will contribute to the comprehensive policy of degrading
and destroying ISIS without risking American lives or costing American
taxpayers. The new law imposes tough new import restrictions on antiquities
that are trafficked out of Syria, bringing U.S. policy in line with a UN
Security Council Resolution that called on governments to deny funding to ISIS
by preventing trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property.
Clearly, much more work urgently needs to
be done. One key solution being discussed in Washington to help bring
antiquities traffickers to justice is the assignment of a team of prosecutors
focused on Cultural Heritage Crimes (CHC). Some in the Obama administration
suggest that this CHC Team could be assembled in the same way that the
Department of Justice (DOJ) targets narcotics, gangs, child exploitation, and
other topic-specific crimes.
Some cultural property legal watchers
including Ricardo St. Hilaire, a blogger of the subject, are encouraging the
DOJ’s reliance on the Bush Administration post 9/11 US Patriot Act despite its
critics for reasons involving abuses of human rights. The fact that Obama
Administration lawyers have used the anti-terrorism statute to form the
cornerstone of some cases against looting artifact suppliers and sellers
showcases the Patriot Act as a promising legal tool to combat transnational
antiquities trafficking. It also offers a legal argument that demonstrates a
nexus between terrorist activities and antiquities trafficking.
Section 806 of the Act created sweeping
language in 18 USC 981(a)(1)(G)(i) to deprive terrorists of a wide range of
assets, similar to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act’s
(RICO) broad forfeiture provisions found at 18 USC 1963(a)(2)(D).
The cultural heritage law enforcement
achievements of the Obama Administration must not be dismantled by the Trump
Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian
Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals
to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon.