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Culture Ministers representing Group of 7 Industrialized Nations Discuss Threat of Cultural Trafficking

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Ancient destroyed artifacts are seen inside Mosul's heavily damaged museum. Most of the artifacts inside the building appeared to be completely destroyed. The basement level that was the museum's library had been burned, in Mosul, Iraq, VOA

During their first-ever formal meeting, culture ministers representing Group of Seven industrialized nations on Thursday decried the looting and trafficking of cultural treasures by terror groups while experts acknowledged that objects believed looted by extremists are starting to surface in the marketplace.

The topic was on the table both during technical sessions by experts and law enforcement and during the afternoon meeting of G-7 cultural ministers and top officials. The gathering in Florence came a week after the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution co-authored by Italy and France warning that the destruction of cultural treasures may constitute war crimes.

Now, the discussion is turning not just to the destruction of cultural treasures, as seen in Syria and Afghanistan, but also to their trafficking as a source of funding to support the activities of extremist groups.

A man holds an ancient manuscript from Timbuktu that will need to be restored after being damaged by Islamic extremists in Bamako, Mali, Jan. 27, 2015.VOA

Heritage sites included

U.S. Ambassador Bruce Wharton, the acting undersecretary for public diplomacy, told reporters that the ministers discussed the grave risk posed by “looting and trafficking at the hands of terrorist organizations and criminal networks.”

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He cited the pillaging of heritage sites in Timbuktu in Mali, Palmyra in Syria and the Mosul museum in Iraq, which experts are just beginning to assess after 2 years being under control of Islamic State group extremists.

“Looting, trafficking and the illicit sale of cultural heritage objects have helped ISIS-Daesh finance its operations, along with trafficking in drugs, weapons, and people,” Wharton said.

German Minister of State Maria Boehmer said “terrorism feeds on illegal trafficking of cultural treasures” and applauded moves by the International Criminal Court to make “the targeted destruction of cultural property a war crime.”

“’The barbaric destruction by terrorist groups is targeting people’s identity,” she said.

A limestone male bust dated between the 2nd and the 3rd century A.D. that was damaged during the Islamic State occupation of the Syrian city of Palmyra, is shown during a press conference in Rome, Feb. 16, 2017. VOA

Details are few

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Director Ray Villanueva said developments in identifying artifacts looted by extremists “are very fresh … happening as we speak.” Villanueva said providing details, including of the countries of origin of looted objects, could compromise the ongoing investigations.

“However, I can tell you in general that [through the] internet [and] art dealers we are seeing artifacts coming up from different places,” Villanueva said, adding that the public, museums and art dealers were key to providing law enforcement with information.

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Milan lawyer Manlio Frigo, who represents museums and art dealers, acknowledged that not all the trafficking in war zones was at the hands of extremists. Refugees crossing the border from Syria have been seen with plastic bags containing artifacts, Frigo said.

Looting for profit

Director-General Irina Bokova of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said there is plenty of evidence that extremists are looting for profit.

A group of partners that includes Interpol and the world customs organization are creating a common database and sharing information in a bid to recover the treasures, Bokova said.

“Every single day something happens somewhere that testifies to the fact that it is systematic, I would say, looting of sites to engage with the illicit trafficking,” she said. (VOA)

Next Story

Thailand Toughens Rape Laws with Rise in Child Sex Trafficking

Prison terms for rapists in positions of authority over their victims, such as relatives and teachers, also were raised by a third

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FILE - The shackled legs of suspected human traffickers are seen as they arrive for their trial at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, March 15, 2016. VOA

Thailand has toughened its penalties for sharing photos and videos of sexual assault as the country grapples with a reported rise in child sex trafficking and a growing crop of “webcam centers” to exploit it.

But rights groups say most of Thailand’s neighbors have yet to toughen their laws to tackle online child abuse in an increasingly wired region, and that even the Thai legal update may leave some troubling trends largely unchecked.

“It’s great, what they’ve done. It’s really good in terms of the legal framework. That’s fine. But there still needs [to be] some other reforms to be done, especially in relation to livestreaming,” said François-Xavier Souchet, Thailand country manager for Terre des Hommes, a child rights group.

The changes took effect Monday and double the prison terms for convicted rapists — which mostly range up to 20 years — who record their assaults and share the material. They raise prison terms by a third for rapists who record their assaults to exploit victims.

Prison terms for rapists in positions of authority over their victims, such as relatives and teachers, also were raised by a third.

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FILE – An employee from the Department of Special Investigation sorts through evidence from a massage parlor after police raided the premises because of suspicions of underage trafficking and prostitution, in Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2018. VOA

Rights groups widely consider the number of reported rapes only a small fraction of the actual number, given the stigma victims can face and the pressures they often come under to stay silent.

In April, though, the Royal Thai Police Crime Suppression Division singled out rape as the “No. 1 public enemy” in the country. Citing police figures, the Bangkok Post said reported rape cases had dropped from 3,240 in 2015 to 2,109 the following year, but picked up again to 2,535 in 2017.

Human trafficking

Also in 2017, in a report on the latest trends in human trafficking into Thailand from its neighbors, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identified the trafficking of children for webcam sex shows as an emerging problem.

At the report’s launch, the UNODC said demand for sex with children was a growing driver of human trafficking across the Mekong region and that it had recently noticed webcam centers exploiting children moving from the Philippines to Thailand.

“Sadly, it has been part of a larger trend in the region,” the UNODC’s representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas, told VOA this week.

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FILE – Prosecutors from Thailand, Japan and other countries talk at a summit on sex trafficking, Sept. 28, 2016, in Honolulu. They called the scourge of sex trafficking a form of modern-day slavery. VOA

“Now they have so many cases about the use [of] the webcam,” agreed Jaded Chaowilai, director of Thailand’s Women and Men Progressive Movement, which helps rape victims.

“The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is an ongoing issue,” said Damian Kean, spokesman for ECPAT International, a child advocacy group based in Bangkok.

“While we have no evidence to suggest that it is on the rise, we do know that certain manifestations of this crime are increasing,” he said, “particularly sexual exploitation by travelers and tourists as Thailand’s tourism industry flourishes; online child sexual exploitation as internet coverage improves; and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes as neighboring countries suffer humanitarian crises.”

Child exploitation

Many of the cases of livestreaming, Kean added, “are facilitated by those in the child’s circle of trust, including often parents.”

The newly enacted legal amendments help address both problems by stiffening prison terms for rapists who record and share the abuse and have authority over the victim.

But rights groups worry that the law’s failure to specifically address livestreaming, where the abuse is not actually recorded, may prove a loophole for getting out of the tougher penalties.

“Once you stop the, I don’t know, Skype session or the Facebook Live, it’s just gone, it’s just gone,” said Souchet, of Terre des Hommes.

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FILE – People walk in the red light district in Pattaya, Thailand, April 10, 2009. At the time, the U.S. put Thailand on its human trafficking watch list, accusing it of not doing enough to combat trafficking. VOA

He worries that the people who watch the shows — and often direct the abuse — also may fall through the cracks.

“The person who is watching, who is kind of ordering the abuse and directing the abuse sometimes, and opening this kind of livestream to other people for … financial purposes, right? This guy, his responsibility, can he be charged against rape as an accomplice? This is not clear, because there’s no … direct physical abuse from his side. So that’s a legal challenge,” he said.

While Thailand is not alone in the region in toughening its rape laws — Myanmar in March upped the possible prison term for the rape of children under 12 to life — it is still an outlier.

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“Thailand remains somewhat exceptional in this regard,” said Douglas. “Positively, governments in the region are taking the issue of online child exploitation more seriously and they are cooperating on cross-border cases, although it is not enough and tends to be reactive.”

Souchet said he recently heard from a victims shelter in Thailand that is concerned more pedophiles active in the country are moving to Laos to evade capture, and that authorities in Myanmar increasingly are worried about becoming “another Thailand” for child sex offenders as the country opens up. Combating the problem “should be a regional effort,” he said. (VOA)