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International Efforts to Secure the Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects: Has Unidroit Found a Global Solution?*

  • Valerie Hughes (a1) and Laurie Wright (a1)


La protection internationale des biens culturels a commencé par des efforts visant à limiter l'appropriation illicite des biens cultureh et les dommages qui leur étaient causés en temps de guerre. Le prinàpal exemple de ces efforts est la Convention de La Haye de 1954 pour la protection des biens cultureh en cas de conflit armé. Par la suite, on s'est préoccupé de mettre en place des mesures de répression du trafic illicite et international des biens cultureh, telles que celles prévues dans la Convention de l'UNESCO de içjjo concernant les mesures à prendre pour interdire et empêcher l'importation, l'exportation et le transfert de propriété illiâtes des biens cultureh. Le Canada est partie à cette convention qu'il a intégrée à son droit interne en adoptant la Loi sur l'exportation et l'importation de biens cultureh. Mais comme la plupart des pays dotés d'un important marché de l'art (en particulier ceux de l'Europe de l'Ouest) ne sont pas parties à la convention de l'UNESCO, son utilité est marginale. Unidroit a présenté un projet de convention pour une collaboration internationale visant à assurer la restitution des biens cultureh volés ou illicitement exportés. Le projet de convention, qui sera examiné à l'occasion d'une conférence diplomatique en juin 1995, s'efforce de trouver un équilibre entre les intérêh des pays d'origine des biens cultureh et ceux des pays importateurs, ce qui constituerait le succès le plus important obtenu jusqu 'à maintenant par la communauté internationale dans le domaine de la protection des biens cultureh. Mais cette convention risque de ne pas être adoptée, car les participants ne se sont pas montrés tris disposés à faire des compromis sur des questions fondamentales.


The international protection of cultural objects began with efforts to reduce damage to and unlawful appropriation of cultural objects in time of war. The primary example of such efforts is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Subsequently, attention was turned to curbing the international illicit traffic in cultural objects, as in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Canada is a party to thh Convention, which is implemented domestically through the Cultural Property Export and Import Act. However, dnce most countries with large art markets (particularly in Western Europe) are not parties to the UNESCO Convention, its utility is marginal. Unidroit has produced a draft Convention on the International Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which will be considered at a diplomatic conference in June 1995. The draft Convention, which strives to strike a balance between the interests of countries of origin of cultural property and those of importing countries, would represent the most significant achievement to date in the international effort to protect cultural property. However, there is a risk that this convention will not be adopted, since partidpants have demonstrated a limited willingness to compromise on key issues.



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The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Justice.



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1 Unidroit, CONE 8/3, Dec. ao, 1994.

2 Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Elgin, and Hermann Goering are some of the more famous figures in this history.

3 International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (Unidroit), Uniform Law Review, Biannual, vol. II, 33 (Rome: Unidroit, 1990).

4 E. de Vattel, The Law of Nations and H. Wheaton, Elements of International Law, cited in Williams, S., The International and National Protedion of Movable Cultural Properly: A Comparative Study 5–6, 15 (New York: Oceana Publications, 1978).

5 Ibid., 17–18.

6 (1956) 249 U.N.T.S. 240. The Convention came into force on Aug. 7, 1956.

7 (1956) 249 U.N.T.S. 358. The Protocol deals with the obligations of occupying States. It was adopted at the same time as the Convention, and also came into force on Aug. 7, 1956.

8 Regulations for the Execution of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of an Armed Conflict (1956) 249 U.N.T.S. 270.

9 The Convention also contains provisions that apply during peacetime. E.g., Art. 3 calls on parties to take appropriate measures during peacetime for the safeguarding of cultural property situated within their own territory against foreseeable effects of an armed conflict Parties are also, in time of peace, to introduce into their military regulations provisions that may ensure observance of the Convention.

10 E.g., there are differing approaches to Art. 28. Some parties interpret it to operate extraterritorially, while other parties do not.

11 UNESCO, Information Note, 1954/1, June 1994 at 4.

12 The Preamble states that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind,” and notes that “the preservation of the cultural heritage is of great importance to the peoples of the world and it is important that this heritage should receive international protection.”

13 Unidroit Secretariat, Diplomatic Conference for the Adoption of the Draft Unidroit Convention on the International Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, Text of the Draft Convention and Explanatory Report, Unidroit, CONF. 8/3, supra note 1 at 8.

14 Ibid.

15 Supra note 3 at 33.

16 See e.g., the oftcited case of Winkworth v. Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd. and another, [1980] 1 All. E. R. 1121.

17 See Attorney-General of New Zealand v. Ortiz and Others, [1984] A.C. 1.

18 (1971)10 I.L.M. 289. Although other conventions dealing with the protection and preservation of cultural heritage preceded the 1970 Convention — see, e.g., the European Cultural Convention (1954) 218 U.N.T.S. 139 and the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (1969) 8 I.L.M. 739 — the 1970 Convention was the first to seek to deal specifically with the return of property illegally removed from the country of origin.

19 Cultural Property Export and Import Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-51. This legislation, which came into effect in 1977, makes it an offence to import into Canada foreign cultural property that has been illegally exported from a country with which Canada has concluded a cultural property agreement.

20 Resolution 1989/62 of May 24, 1989.

21 Report of the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, Cuba, Aug. 27 - Sept. 7, 1990. A/CONR144/28, Oct. 5, 1990 at 112–16.

22 Ibid., 111.

23 Ibid., 142.

24 Ibid.

25 Interpol Ottawa, Theft of Cultural Property in Canada, 1994 4 (Ottawa: Royal Canadian Mounted Police Public Affairs Directorate, 1994). Another example of a computerized data base is the “Art Loss Register,” which was created in 1990 and has offices in New York and London.

26 Communiqué, Nov. 19, 1993, LMM(93)7o, points 18–22 and attachment.

27 1983 Meeting of Commonwealth Law Ministers, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Feb. 1983, Minutes of Meeting 71–73 (London: Commonwealth Secretariat). Of interest in this regard is the fact that the Ortiz case (supra note 17) concerned the illegal export from New Zealand of a Maori carving.

28 The Attorney General of the United Kingdom expressed his support for action in this area and encouraged those in a position to do so to implement the Scheme. He noted, however, that the United Kingdom was not in a position to implement the Scheme at that time.

29 Supra note 19.

30 Council Directive 93/7 of Mar. 15, 1993, J.O., Mar. 27, 1993, No. L74/74.

31 Council Regulation (EEC) No. 3911/92 of Dec. 9, 1992, J.O., Dec. 31, 1992, No. L395/1.

32 Every five years the member states of Unidroit elect the 25 members of the Governing Council. The Council is responsible for drawing up the work program of the Institute and determining the methods for carrying out the Institute's mandate. E.g., the Council establishes study groups and committees to develop international instruments or to carry out studies.

33 T. Bradbrooke Smith of Stikeman, Elliott in Ottawa and former Assistant Deputy Attorney General of the Department of Justice served on the Governing Council from 1984 through 1988. Madam Justice Anne-Marie Trahan of the Quebec Superior Court and former Associate Deputy Minister for Civil Law and Legislative Services of the Department of Justice has served on the Council since 1989.

34 Supra note 18.

35 Reichelt, G., “The Protection of Cultural Property,” Study 70 -Doc. 1 (Unidroit, 1986); Reichelt, G., “International Protection of Cultural Property,” CD. - Doc. 8 (Unidroit 1988).

36 Supra note 3 at 31.

37 The Canadian Cultural Property Export and Import Act, supra note 19 follows this approach.

38 The Canadian Cultural Property Export and Import Act, ibid., provides that no limitation period applies to actions for recovery of illegally exported cultural property brought in the Federal Court of Canada. However, under existing federal legislation, an action brought in one of the superior courts of the provinces would be subject to provincial limitation periods.

39 Under Canada’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act, ibid., the foreign State need show only that the cultural property was illegally exported from that State, and therefore illegally imported into Canada.

40 The Article would not apply, however, in the case of objects that were exported under a temporary export permit and have not been returned according to the terms of the permit.

41 Canada has set up a system of export permits for cultural property in the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, supra note 19, to meet the requirements of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

42 Under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, ibid., claims may be brought in Canada when the object in question is in Canada.

43 Supra note 3 at 36–37.

* The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Justice.

International Efforts to Secure the Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects: Has Unidroit Found a Global Solution?*

  • Valerie Hughes (a1) and Laurie Wright (a1)


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