The United States has implemented a set of “emergency import restrictions” on art and antiques from Afghanistan.
The rules, introduced by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ban a wide range of Afghan artifacts from entering America until April 2026 at the less. Among the objects on the Federal Register’s designated list are archaeological material ranging from the Paleolithic era (about 50,000 BC) to the beginning of the Durrani dynasty (1747), as well as ethnological material. from the 9th century to 1920.
The policy was designed as a preventative measure to prevent artifacts illegally sourced during the Taliban takeover last year from flooding the international market. However, experts fear that the rushed regulations could have dangerous counter-effects.
Under the rules, for example, US customs officials can seize any listed artifact that lacks proof that it was legally acquired before the new restrictions were implemented. The agency would then likely rely on the Cultural Property Convention Implementation Act, which requires the state to repatriate seized items to their country of origin.
This could lead to the return of items to the Taliban, who themselves are known to destroy Afghan cultural heritage.
The new restrictions raise “several ethical questions”, said Peter Tompa, lawyer and executive director of the Global Heritage Alliance.
“First, should refugees be dispossessed of artefacts such as musical instruments so that they can be returned to the Taliban? Second, should US Customs be given carte blanche to seize items imported from legitimate markets in Europe so that they can be turned over to the Taliban the moment diplomatic relations are restored when the Taliban are more notorious for destroying cultural heritage what to protect him? ”
Last fall, Tompa testified before the US government’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) as it weighed a memorandum of understanding proposed by the pre-Taliban Afghan government. In addition to banning the import of Afghan artifacts into the United States, the memorandum would have required Afghanistan to protect its own cultural property. But because the government that proposed it was no longer in power, Tompa and others cautioned against accepting the document’s precepts.
Kate Fitz Gibbon, a cultural property lawyer and former CPAC member who also testified before the committee, agrees.
“We have to admit that there is no ‘former Afghan government’, that the request does not meet the basic premises of the Cultural Property Implementation Law and that the Taliban, with whom a relationship must be established to implement emergency restrictions or item return, have no reason to comply with State Department expectations and no history of honoring promises made to anyone, ever,” wrote Fitz Gibbon in his testimony.
On the other side of the debate were Afghan cultural officials and archaeologists who endorsed the memorandum’s protections.
“There is no precedent suggesting that the United States would return any artifacts to the Taliban,” wrote the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project on Twitter this week. “The same scaremongering tactics of art market lobbyists were used to oppose US restrictions on the import of Syrian artifacts, claiming they would be repatriated to the Assad regime. To date, none have been. (Representatives for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Last October, 12 international trade groups, including the Art And Antique Dealers League of America and the Antiques Dealers’ Association, issued a joint statement pledging not to place illicit cultural property from Afghanistan on the market. The groups promised to “alert [their] members and others at increased risk” and “continue to support law enforcement in releasing information about stolen and trafficked items to prevent them from entering the market.”
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