Looting in Baghdad

Several bloggers have written very insightful words about the looting in Iraq, particularly the almost total decimation of the Baghdad Museum’s collection. Teresa Nielsen Hayden‘s comments have been particularly cogent, both mourning the loss of so many priceless artifacts and berating an administration and military that allowed it to happen. Under the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, our legal responsibility in this matter would be clear; unfortunately, the US has not ratified the Hague Convention. As it stands, our piece of the blame in both contributing to the breakdown of law and order in Iraq and allowing this looting to go on is clear, but how to–or indeed, whether we even can–minimize the damage is an open question.

Might I suggest, however, that considering the question of how this priceless material might be reinstated to the Museum is a good way of thinking about what a liberated Iraq might look like? Given that nobody in our administration or military seems to have given the matter much thought–or if they have, they certaintly aren’t sharing–maybe this is one way to approach the question. What if post-War Iraq was explicitly designed to facilitate the return of the cultural artifacts and artworks stolen from the Baghdad Museum?

To start with, an amnesty should be declared: anyone can return any object to the Museum with no questions asked and no penalties through a certain date, say May 15. A deadline is crucial–many of the stolen objects are thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of years old, and they need constant curatorial care and protection. Also, the hope is to obtain the return of these items before the international collector’s market has time to swoop in. The amnesty is also crucial: although the looters engaged in criminal acts, do we really want the police, particularly “de-Saddamified” Ba’athist police that Iraqi citizens already have cause to distrust, to be responsible for the collection of immensely valuable and fragile antiquities? Likewise for Coalition forces–is it in anyone’s interest for American and British forces to go door to door, searching homes and seizing stolen goods?

To make an amnesty work, however, it is crucial that the Iraqi people believe that the amnesty will be honored–if even one incident occurs in which a looter is arrested or even bullied under the apparent protection of the amnesty, it would completely undermine any hopes of having works returned. But the Iraqi people, having lived for years under Saddam’s heavy-handed police apparatus, are not likely to give this trust willingly. That means that the new government must operate with nothing short of complete transparancy and integrity–no back room deals, no cut corners, recriminations. A South Africa-style reconciliation committee should be set up to allow the peaceful settling of past grievances, where the truly horrifying aspects of the last quarter century can be addressed.

Amnesty is only halfway there, though. In order for an Iraqi person to return the goods s/he has rightfully stolen (and which, after all, are the property of the Iraqi People) the incentive to return it must outwiegh the incentive to keep or sell it. The incentives for return are difficult, ethereal–flat out ideological. They are the contribution to scientific and historical knowledge, the participation in the Iraqi nation, the investment in the Iraqi people. Again, unless a new regime is established that can make these into true incentives for the Iraqi people, they will have no reason to return these goods, amnesty or no. That means meaningful participation by Iraqi leaders empowered to act independently, not a puppet state to American and British corporate interests. Especially as the incentive to sell is so great–many of these objects will fetch enough, even on the black market, to provide security for an Iraqi family for years. After a dozen years of sanction-induced uncertainty–and twice that living under a brutal dictatorship–the security represented by these objects is immense. Which means that the new regime must not only make Iraqi citizen participation a reward in itself, it must also make human security its highest priority. This means a) no politicking with relief missions (even if they’re French), and b) quickly establishing an Iraqi economy that provides for the Iraqi people’s needs. The best way to do this might be to re-nationalize Iraqi oil–Iraqi oil for Iraqi people!–or, at minimum, to establish an Alaska-style dividends program so that Iraqi oil wealth translates directly into Iraqi individual financial security.

All this would have to happen fast, blazingly fast, before the looters have a chance to move their booty onto the international collector’s market. Reform would have to be swift, immediately remunerative, and unimpeachable. Even then, it is unlikely that every object will be returned, but a goodly number might be if Iraqi people felt that it was in their best interests, as citizens of a New Iraq, to do so. And the kind of Iraq it would take to do this is, I hope, the kind of Iraq that well-minded people want for Iraqis. It means a lot of work in not very much time, but that is what we signed on for in this War, and it is what we–and especially the Iraqi people–have every right to expect.

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