LA Times OpEd Distorts Both Archaeology and the Law

iStock_000003539805SmallAn op-ed on cultural patrimony laws in today’s Los Angeles Times has done a great disservice to the public by misrepresenting the purpose, history, impact, and very definition of such legislation.

In “The Archaeology Paradox: More Laws, Less Treasure,” Adam Wallwork argues that “tight restrictions on export and ownership of artifacts is leaving the world a poorer place.” Mr. Wallwork is not the first to call for a return to “the age of piracy,” in which tomb raiders could plunder archaeological sites with abandon (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hoving, the Metropolitan Museum’s former director).  But he is the first, at least in a leading publication, to use this argument:

I surveyed 90 countries with one or more archaeological sites on UNESCO‘s World Heritage Site list, and my study shows that in most cases the number of discovered sites diminishes sharply after a country passes a cultural property law. There are 222 archaeological sites listed for those 90 countries. When you look into the history of the sites, you see that all but 21 were discovered before the passage of cultural property laws.

On average in art-rich countries, discoveries that landed on UNESCO’s list diminished by 90% after these laws were passed. To illustrate: Italy has seven archaeological sites on the World Heritage list; five were discovered before its 1909 cultural property law, but only two after.

Many variables may cause a drop-off in archaeological discoveries country by country, but statistically speaking, it’s nearly impossible that the decline shown in the data isn’t also related to the passage of cultural property laws.

This is a textbook case of mistaking correlation for causation. Yes, there are fewer archaeological discoveries in today’s world, especially of major ancient sites. However, there are fewer and fewer blank spaces on the map, too. And in fact, who can say that anyone ever “discovered” the Pyramids at Giza, the Acropolis in Athens, the Great Wall of China, or the vast majority of World Heritage nominations?

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¡Felicidades de Puerto Rico!

bailarSAN JUAN – What a treat to spend the winter holiday in this 500-year-old city.

A 3-hour flight transported us from the cold rains of north Georgia to the warmth (and some warm rains) of Puerto Rico. Old San Juan was in full holiday swing. Quite literally: in the nights before Christmas, the department store windows featured humannequins, dressed as presents and dancing to blares of Latin music.

mural_pajaroQuieter corners featured brilliant murals, of birds, lizards, and other island flora and fauna.

Wrapping the old quarter are ancient stone walls, built by Spain to protect this Caribbean holding against encroachments by other would-be colonizers, among them the Dutch and the British. The walled coast is seen here through an artillery turret that the United States added to one of San Juan’s forts, Castillo de San coldwar_viewCristóbal, in the days of the Cold War. It’s just one of many reminders of the island’s territorial relations with the United States.

Another was a placard in one restaurant, telling us that at that site, in the room just above our table,

Pedro Albizu Campos (September 12, 1891-April 21, 1965) fue arrestado.

Albizu Campos was a leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement. After being denied (on account of his “mixed racial heritage”) the valedictory speech he’d earned at Harvard Law, he went home to practice law and foment change. For his efforts he spent 26 years in U.S. prisons, in Georgia and elsewhere.

teachContemporary tensions were evident even last week. Teachers were protesting the government’s slashing of already earned pensions. During a march on Puerto Rico’s capitol, doors were forced and a couple police officers reportedly hurt. That provoked a shutdown of streets all ’round the building, and with it, a massive traffic jam. Police presence diminished by Christmas, but the pension problem lingers.

yellow_gingerFar from that madding crowd lies El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest among the United States’ national parks. Part of the Luquillo biosphere preserve recognized by UNESCO, it’s a wonderful trove of plants and animals, a place to hike amid the rush of waterfalls and the hush of rain that falls yet mostly is caught by the canopy above.

In all, a welcome respite from the grid.

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(Cross-posted from Diane Marie Amann)

Tempest over a Temple 2

The International Court of Justice recently issued a final judgment in The Case Concerning The Temple Of Preah Vihear, Request For Interpretation Of The Judgment Of 15 June 1962 (Cambodia v. Thailand) (the full case docket is here).  The judgment confirms (again) that the contested temple is on the territory of Cambodia, although leaves open the question of the territory around the temple.  Newspapers initially reported that both countries were satisfied with the ruling; now, it seems that Thailand wants to “negotiate further on the issue with Cambodia.”

Although not of the global importance as the situation in Syria or Iran, this case can be counted as a provisional win for the ICJ and for the processes of international dispute resolution.  As we’ve discussed in the past (here) the origins of the dispute can be traced to Thai domestic politics more than anything else.  The ICJ offered a neutral forum where the parties could outsource the dispute, give everyone involved some breathing room, and allow for the political situation in Thailand to normalize.  It remains to be seen whether nationalist forces within Thailand will accept the ruling, or insist that the government repudiate it.

Round 1 at the International Court of Justice

By way of background, the ICJ first took up the case upon a 1959 application by Cambodia after Thai forces occupied the temple area in 1954.  In that earlier opinion, issued in June 1962, the Court had declared that

the Temple of Preah Vihear is situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia

notwithstanding that the temple, being on an escarpment, is geographically more accessible from Thailand and on the Thai side of a natural watershed that otherwise demarcates the border between the two countries.  Interestingly, the Court did not consider Cambodia’s cultural claims to the 11th century temple, which was built by the same Khmer royalty who are responsible for the spectacular Angkor Wat temple complexes.

The ruling was premised in part on interpretations of French maps, drawn up in 1907 by the Franco-Siamese Mixed Commission, which placed the territory in Cambodia.  Thailand had helped generate these maps, and subsequently used them for its own purposes until its 1954 occupation of the area.  Because Thailand had originally relied on the 1907 maps, suggesting an acceptance of their contents, international lawyers normally cite the ICJ’s 1962 judgment for the principle of estoppel, which the court identified as a general principle of law as contemplated by Article 38(1)(c) of its statute.

UNESCO Enters the Fray

Preah Vihear TempleThailand withdrew from the temple complex following the 1962 judgment.  Cambodia generally enjoyed uncontested sovereignty over the temple until recently.  In 2007, Cambodia successfully requested that UNESCO list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, one of two in Cambodia.  The map Cambodia provided to UNESCO included part of the promontory on the Cambodian side of the border.  Nationalist political parties in Thailand protested the move, leading to Thailand’s withdrawal from both the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the World Heritage Committee.  These protests were part of the unrest that led to the 2008 Thai political crisis.  At the same time, Thai and Cambodian forces clashed along the borders, displacing thousands of civilians and requiring the temple to be closed to tourism.  In February 2011, Cambodia brought the conflict to the attention of the U.N. Security Council, which called for a permanent ceasefire to be established between the two parties and expressed its support for the efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to find a solution.

Round 2 at the International Court of Justice

In April 2011, Cambodia requested that the ICJ, pursuant to Article 60 of its statute, interpret its original 1962 judgment.  Thailand advanced the argument that the original ICJ opinion related only to the temple itself (and the immediate vicinity), and not to the entire area surrounding it, where the recent clashes have occurred. Similarly, it argued that the Court did not delineate the entire frontier between the countries, which remains contested.  Cambodia countered that by determining that the temple falls within Cambodian sovereign territory, the ICJ by implication had determined the border between the two countries, at least with regard to the temple vicinity. Thai incursions, it contended, thus are akin to violations of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter. On the strength of the original ICJ opinion, Cambodia has argued that Thailand remains under a continuing and general duty – rather than a mere instantaneous duty applicable only in 1962 – to withdraw its troops from the area and to respect the integrity of Cambodian territory.

On July 18, 2011, the International Court of Justice ordered provisional measures in the Request for interpretation of the Judgment of 15 June 1962 in the case concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand).  Made pursuant to Article 41 of the ICJ Statute, provisional measures are akin to the issuance of a preliminary injunction in U.S. litigation practice.  The measures were premised on findings that:

  • the rights asserted by Cambodia were at least plausible;
  • the rights from which the request for provisional measures derive from the earlier judgment;
  • a link exists between the alleged rights and the provisional measures sought; and
  • irreparable prejudice could be caused to those rights.

Thus the ICJ ordered, inter alia, that

all armed forces should be provisionally excluded from a zone around the area of the Temple, without prejudice to the judgment which the Court will render on the request for interpretation submitted by Cambodia.

The Court then defined this zone with reference to particular coordinates. In addition, the parties were ordered to continue to cooperate with ASEAN and to allow observers to have access to the provisional demilitarized zone.

Round 3 at the International Court of Justice

The Court unanimously ruled this week on the merits of the dispute.  In keeping with its earlier provision measures, the Court held that the 1962 judgment only addressed a dispute regarding territorial sovereignty over the temple and area on which it is located; it was not delimiting the entire frontier or assigning sovereignty over the entire escarpment or nearby geographic features.  Nor did it indicate where Thai troops should withdraw to; rather, it simply indicated that they should withdraw from the temple area.

It remains to be seen whether nationalist forces within Thailand will accept the ruling, or insist that the government repudiate it.  There are apparently plans afoot to jointly develop the area.  Having been to Cambodia dozens of time, I still have yet to see this architectural and historical marvel, which has been generally off limits to tourists.  Let’s hope these moderate impulses prevail…