Years of instability in Cambodia fostered the looting of many of the nation's archaeological sites-—an activity that continues to this day. Teams of bandits ransack ancient temples deep in the country’s jungles. They chop statues off pedestals, pry plaques out of walls and cut architectural ornamentation and decorative friezes off thousand-year old buildings, then cart or fly their loot across the border.
At any given time, Cambodian antiquities are offered for sale, shipped to buyers or to markets across international borders.
In order to protect against further looting and promote a more accountable art and antiquities trade, the United States became party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which prohibits and prevents the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.
In 1983, the U.S. Congress passed a law which implements the 1970 UNESCO Convention by enabling other parties to the Convention to request bilateral agreements with the U.S. To grant such a request and enter into an agreement, it must be determined that a country’s cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage.
In an effort to specifically protect Cambodian artifacts and prevent them from being trafficked to or through U.S. territory, the United States and Cambodia signed in 2003 a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from Cambodia. During the 2008 re-authorization, the MOU was updated to include all Cambodian artifacts dating from the Bronze Age through the Khmer Era, which ended in the 16th century A.D.
In mid-September, the Department of State announced a second extension of this Memorandum of Understanding. This extension represents a continuation of cooperation that began in 1999, when emergency U.S. import restrictions were implemented to stanch the pillage of Cambodia’s rich archaeological heritage and the illicit trafficking in such material. Since the MOU was signed, the U.S. has returned stolen Khmer artifacts and other antiquities to Cambodia.
To date, Cambodia is the only country in Southeast Asia to receive the cooperation of the United States in protecting its cultural property in this manner.
A country’s cultural heritage represents its soul. The United States will work with Cambodia to help reduce the incentive for further looting of its national treasures.