Gov’t Moves Forward to Protect Artifacts

The Council of Ministers last week passed a subdecree on the protection of cultural artifacts that will pave the way for regulation of the legal—and illegal—trade in historic art objects, according to a Friday statement from the Coun­cil.

“This subdecree is a step forward…in reinforcing the legal framework to stop the looting of archaeological sites and prevent the trafficking of cultural objects,” Teruo Jinnai, culture program specialist for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organ­ization here, said on Tuesday.

The subdecree outlines the implementation of Cambodia’s 1996 law on the protection of cultural heritage, which set broad guide­lines but left out finer de­tails, Jinnai said.

One of the subdecree’s provisions is to require approval from the Ministry of Culture for the import and export of cultural ob­jects that are legal to trade, said Penn Thol, spokesman for the Council of Ministers.

It also defines which artifacts can be bought and sold and which are “national treasures” that belong only to the state, Jinnai said.

For example, “Artifacts such as [sculptures of] the head of King Jayavarman VII…cannot be sold for any amount of gold,” Penn Thol said.

The subdecree was drafted in January by the Culture Ministry with input from Unesco, Jinnai said. He said its quick passage signals the government’s “very strong” commitment to fight the illegal trafficking of artifacts.

It follows on the heels of Cam­bodia’s ratification of an important international treaty.

Called the Unidroit convention, this agreement allows Cambodia to go to court in another signatory country to get back cultural ob­jects that have been illegally ex­ported, Unesco Country Rep­re­sentative Etienne Clement said recently.

In addition, earlier this year Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive to prevent looting at several archaeological sites, including the prehistoric Phnom Snay graveyard in Siem Reap province, which has been almost completely pilfered of its ancient trinkets.

The next step, Jinnai said, is enforcement of cultural protection laws—from making sure looters are caught and punished—to taking a complete inventory of Cam­bodia’s many cultural sites.

“Our main challenge is sites in remote areas, which were previously inaccessible due to war and instability,” Jinnai said. Major temples such as Koh Ker, in Preah Vihear province, and Ban­teay Chhmar, in Banteay Mean­chey province, can now be reached by tourists—and thieves.

“It’s extremely difficult to protect all the sites and monuments in Cambodia,” he said.

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