UNIDROIT implications?

Sven O Kullander ve-sven at NRM.SE
Sat Jul 15 19:32:33 CDT 1995

Gary Noonan wrote:
>         I agree that we come to different conclusions by reading the same
>text. The text in my previous message (quoting part of UNIDROIT) to me means
>that scientific specimens are  absolute covered by UNIDROIT. To me there is
>no ambiguity about that. Moreover, even if I thought there was an ambiguity
>or agreed completely with Sven O Kullander's understanding, I would be
>concerned about how U.S. bureaucrats would interpret the proposed treaty.
>         In the United States we've had considerable turmoil over the Fish
>and Wildlife officials promulgating rules to enforce laws passed by
>Congress. The rules to many systematists seem different from what Congress
>intended. The rules make it impractical for museums to receive and send
>specimens to foreign countries. After much input from professional societies
>the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (after about a year or more) proposed to modify
>the original rules. The proposed easing of rules regarding shipping and
>receiving museum specimens is not yet in place and apparently only covers
>importing or receiving specimens from abroad. Probably another year or so
>will be needed to get relief for shipments to foreign museums. The U.S. Fish
>and Wildlife people individually give different interpretations of the rules.
>         I believe that U.S. officials would, if UNIDROIT is adopted, come
>up with rules that would greatly harm natural history museums. This believe
>is based on viewing the turmoil caused by earlier rules designed to enforce
>laws.  From prior experience with seeing how U.S. officials interpret
>things, I'm very certain that the phrase "specimens of fauna, flora" would
>mean that animals and plants are covered. They would ask, "Isn't an animal
>part of a fauna?" I wouldn't want to have the task of trying to convince
>them otherwise.
>         Perhaps what is important is not what we as individuals believe the
>UNIDROIT treaty says. More important is how government officials would
>enforce it and the paperwork and rules they would create to enforce the treaty.

It is easy and reasonable to get paranoid about administrators, bureaucrats
and career politicians, and I share your fears for the behaviour of that cadre.

Being a museum systematist today is living in one of those simpler computer
games where the only options are to shoot at as many attacking objects as
possible - or get a premature Game Over. No time for anything else.

When it comes to legislation affecting natural history museums the US case
may be slightly different from the rest of the world. It seems to me that a
large proportion of the US museums is non-federal (for what I can recall
only Smithsonian counts as a US National Museum) or otherwise outside public
control, and thus, in principle, working behind the scenes.

Since just about anybody can declare himself a scientist and to possess a
museum (and so many do, especially in the non-natural sciences) it is not so
obvious to those outside the window looking in who are the good guys and who
are the bad guys. Why would a legislative body immediately recognise any
special favours for such an initiative? In the ideal world a government
controlled museum should not suffer law enforcement that makes it more
expensive and less efficient, and non-US museums may be closer to the ideal.

Nonetheless, from our screens the game you guys are in looks absurd and
sometimes ridiculous. Please do not export it!

Although the UNIDROIT convention supposedly deals with stolen property (in
the eyes of the claimant), I would agree that there is some risk to each and
all of us that the convention will be used to make matters more complicated
by imposing more paper work and higher costs, in the US or elsewhere. If
just one administrator sets out to request that every object needs to be
checked for cultural value and positively identified as non-stolen property
- that means GAME OVER.

It needs not go so far. This discussion contains already a number of good
points and constructive arguments (?) why our countries should not ratify
the UNIDROIT Convention (the convention text makes clear that reservations
are not permitted). Only good arguments are the options of the winner.

Unfortunately, ICOM sided with UNIDROIT, which shows that ICOM may not be
the appropriate organisation for natural history museums (which are
definitely different from all other museums, which deal with human
artefacts), and I would like to know what international organisation will
help clarify matters on the international level.

The UNIDROIT Convention being discussed here, is not the only international
agreement that has a seemingly good basis and potentially or actually
unwanted consequences for science. Examples from other conventions may help
finding national legislation to wholesale exempt natural history museums
from the UNIDROIT convention (not to protect stolen goods but to save us
from bureaucracy and more costs). The CITES convention regulates trade in
endangered animals. Museum material is exempt from the paperwork of that

It would be of quite some interest to hear one of those 'diplomats' that
attended the UNIDROIT meeting give an explanation of exactly what is a
cultural piece of fauna and flora. Or any official statement from any of
those 70 countries that signed the UNIDROIT convention. Or anyone who has a
good cause for claim based on the convention text. Myself, however, I am
going on vacation.

                                                      - GAME PAUSED -

Sven O Kullander
Senior Curator - Ichthyology
Department of Vertebrate Zoology
Swedish Museum of Natural History
POB 50007
S-104 05 Stockholm  SWEDEN
Tel +46-8-666 4116 Fax +46-8-666 4212  E-mail: ve-sven at nrm.se
WWW http://www.nrm.se/verte/svenpage.htm

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