The Council of Ministers has approved an international convention that would allow Cambodian officials to file lawsuits against foreign collectors who buy artifacts stolen from the nation’s temples.
The Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects could have huge implications for Cambodia, which has lost precious cultural heritage to smugglers who chop heads off statues and pry bas-relief tiles off temples to meet the demands of art markets from Thailand to the US.
Though potentially powerful in its ability to secure the return of such valuable stonework, the convention has been ratified by just 12 countries, and none of the Western nations where most of the looted artifacts end up have yet agreed to its terms.
Still, officials here praised the measure as a tool to wield against smugglers.
“The stealing and trafficking of artifacts is destroying the nation,” said Michel Tranet, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
The little that is known about smuggled items leaving Cambodia comes through police busts. In January 1999, for example, Thai border police stopped a smugglers’ truck and seized 122 artifacts, including heads of giants taken from Angkor Thom temple, eventually returning them to Cambodia.
The convention was organized at a 1995 meeting of the Rome-based International Institute for the Unification of Private Law attended by representatives from 80 countries.
It is in addition to a more widely followed 1970 Unesco convention that orders the return of stolen artifacts through diplomatic channels.
The newer convention, on the other hand, allows a country to file a lawsuit in the courts of the nation where the artifact ends up.
The convention also requires international art dealers to list the ownership history of an item before offering it for sale.
Since few countries have signed the new convention, no lawsuits will likely be filed anytime soon.
Unesco program officer Asier Segurola said it will take time and political commitment to get more nations to ratify the convention, especially wealthier countries.
“It takes a longer time for importing nations to sign on,” he said.
The Council of Ministers approved the ratification of the UNIDROIT convention on Feb 23. The convention will now be submitted to the National Assembly for approval.