The US Takes on Antiquities Trafficking (And Why You Should Care)

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A Cambodian boy looks across the Mekong Delta to the temple of Phnom Da.

As the World Economic Forum concludes, in an editorial on the Huffington Post, my colleague Mark Vlasic and I have urged the political leaders attending Davos to pay heed to an international criminal industry that is costing the world billions in financial losses, and more irreparably, destroying something with no price tag: our cultural heritage.

Right now looters are reducing countless ancient sites to rubble in their search for buried treasures to sell on the art market. The ensuing trafficking of antiquities and other stolen cultural objects reaches every corner of the globe, and experts fear, may be funding organized crime and terrorist groups. It is also a very attractive way to clean “dirty” assets in the face of otherwise strengthened anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws, which as former United States prosecutor Rick St. Hilaire notes, “are often limited when it comes to the trade in cultural property.”

For these very practical reasons, the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — as well as foreign and international law enforcement such as Scotland Yard and Interpol — are now prioritizing their efforts to fight antiquities trafficking. U.S. agents and attorneys in particular have had a recent string of successes on this front. Just this month the federal government returned $1.5 million worth of plundered statues to India. And last month, it celebrated another victory when Sotheby’s Auction House agreed to repatriate a $3 million masterpiece to Cambodia, which had been hacked by thieves from a sacred temple during the country’s bloody civil war (both stories were reported by Tom Mashberg in the New York Times here and here).

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Sex selection abortions in India and the United States

In an article in Slate, “It’s a Trick“, I described the great care taken by the makers of “It’s A Girl,” a “documentary” on sex selection abortion in India and China to disguise connections to anti-abortion groups in the United States and to use the language of women’s equality movements.  Many feminist groups across the country and on university campuses have been screening this movie.  When I was asked to moderate a discussion after one such screening, I became curious about the financing sources for the film and the background of its director.   Through searching the ownership of several domain names, I found that Evan Davis, the director of the film worked for Harvest Media Ministries, a media company that makes anti-abortion and other videos for Church groups.  When I asked him about his financing sources, he refused to disclose them, but did admit that some donors were people he met during his tenure at Harvest Media Ministries.

The “documentary” paints a partial picture of the complexities of the situation in India.  Without  knowledge of the realities in India, some people may have been misled by the slanted portrayal to support the film and donate to charities it promotes.  The only scenario on abortion presented in the film is one where those who believe in autonomy rights of women and those who believe in the right of the fetus agree – a woman should not be forced to have an abortion because her fetus is female (or for any other reason).  To this end, the movie extensively covers Mitu Khurana, a woman who left her husband because he physically abused after she refused to abort her female fetuses.

The film, however, fails to depict the most common cases in India –- women who make the choice to abort a female fetus without physical violence or overt coercion.  Poor women in villages have told me that they do not want to bring girls into the world and do not want them to go through what they have faced.   Some might argue that these women cannot make this choice “freely” in the context of widespread “son preference.”

The other type of situation that the film fails to depict is one where a woman would face violence from her husband and in-laws if she didn’t abort the fetus, but gave birth to a girl instead.  Mitu Khurana’s family is depicted as middle class and she escaped from her husband with the financial support of her parents.  Countless poor women do not have that luxury.  Indeed, they are in a “double-bind” — they face violence at home if they do not have an abortion, and face jail if the do.

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Protection (from rape) or Freedom (to have sex)?

The debate in India surrounding  reforms to the sexual violence laws are a reflection of the changing mores in Indian society.   With economic liberalization in 1991, a strong middle class with access to new goods, movies, and ideas has emerged.   As a result of the mass protests in the aftermath of the brutal gang rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the President signed an Ordinance reforming the sexual violence laws on February 3, 2013. (The Ordinance took some provisions from an amendment to the Indian penal code that was pending in Parliament prior to the gang rape and adopted some provisions suggested by the Verma Committee report, but rejected other important provisions from that committee.  The Verma Committee was formed by the government after international and national attention focused on the issue of gender-based violence).  Article 123 of the Indian Constitution permits the President to put into place laws that have the weight of an act of Parliament when Parliament is in recess.  But the Ordinance expires on April 4 unless Parliament adopts it or an amended version of it.  The real deadline they are racing against is March 22 because Parliament is in recess again after that.

Key areas of disagreement such as the marital rape exemption and the availability of the death penalty in some cases of rape remain.  Yesterday The New York Times India blog highlighted one issue of debate — whether the age of consent for purposes of the statutory rape provision should be 18 or 16. The Ordinance placed the age at 18 but prior to that it was 16. The new bill that is being considered seems to have lowered the age of consent to 16.

It is some prominent feminist lawyers that have argued in favor of lowering the age of consent.  Indira Jaising points out that “[i]t is quite normal for people to have sexual relations at 16 or 17 years of age. . . . How can we make illegal what is normal?”  Additionally, Flavia Agnes pointed out in an article that appeared in Asian Age on December 23, 2012 that “one-third of all rape cases are filed by parents against boys when their daughter exercises her sexual choice and elopes.”  Thus, if the age of consent was increased, it would give parents more opportunities to mis-use the law. Continue reading