Sunday, May 4, 2008

John Russell of the State Department-- From Sanctions Breaker to Regulator?

John Russell has had quite an interesting few years. Like many archaeologists who excavated in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, Russell was very critical of UN Sanctions and US Policy. His activism included a visit to Iraq in 2001 to attend a conference on the "Birth of Writing" that seemed to be designed as much as a propaganda effort to help break international sanctions as anything else. More about this conference can be found in an earlier posting on this blog:

In any event, after the looting of the Iraq Museum, Russell was at the forefront of criticising the US Government's efforts at protecting Iraqi cultural property, particularly from early Mesopotamian cultures. His activism included lobbying the US Congress to pass a bill that ultimately became "the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004." See

As part of this lobbying effort, on June 15, 2003, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece Russell authored entitled, “"We're Still Missing the Looting Picture.” In that piece, Russell at least impliedly accused US dealers and collectors of wanting to buy looted Iraqi materials. I suspect he may have been even more harsh in his criticisms of US Museums, collectors and dealers in private meetings with members of Congress and their staffs. Certainly, there is reason to believe that Russell adheres to the view, common in archaeological circles, that any artifact without a demonstrable provenance should be deemed "stolen" as a legal matter.

That said, Russell also showed his personal commitment to protecting Iraq's heritage by travelling to the country to serve as Senior Advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority ("CPA") and the Ministry of Culture in Iraq. Subsequently, Russell returned to the United States and in August 2005 was named "Special Coordinator for Iraqi Cultural Heritage" in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs ("ECA"), Cultural Heritage Center, US Department of State. I have reason to believe he holds this same (or a similar) post with the Department of State today. He certainly identified himself as a State Department employee to me as recently as July 2007.

How Russell was transformed from a harsh critic of US policy willing to buck international sanctions on Iraq to a State Department employee is no doubt an interesting story in itself, but beyond the scope of this blog. Instead, what is relevant here is what this transformation potentially says about how ECA handles cultural property matters. While one can't help but admire Russell's strong commitment to his own beliefs, in my opinion, it would be an inherent conflict of interest for Russell to have anything at all to do with the recent decision to impose "emergency restrictions" on Iraqi cultural property. After all, he was one of the few individuals instrumental in lobbying Congress for its passage! How can anyone reasonably expect he would want anything but the broadest application of import restrictions possible?

Wouldn't ECA ecognize such a conflict of interest and recuse Russell from such work? Don't bet on it. For example, recently the State Department refused to recuse a CPAC member who excavates in Cyprus (and hence must be licensed by Cypriot authorities) from voting on the renewal of import restrictions on Cypriot artifacts.

In my opinion, the infiltration of archaeologists who consider any artifact without a demonstrable provenance to be "stolen" into the decision making framework at State is one of the major problems with the way ECA handles its brief of overseeing the imposition of import restrictions. Moreover, while ECA's staff appears to place a premium on the views of archaeologists and the countries in which they excavate, in constrast, the views of museums, collectors and dealers appear to be discounted as being motivated by financial considerations or even "greed." No wonder the "end" of "cultural property protection" justifies the "means" of violating the provisions of the CPIA and its goal of achieving a balance of all legitimate interests (including those of museums, dealers and collectors) with impunity.

1 comment:

Cultural Property Observer said...

Reviewing the AIA web site, I just noticed John Russell is the current "Vice President for Professional Responsibilities."


He also serves as an advisor to Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE).