Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by UK UNESCO Forum

1.  I refer to the 1970 Convention.

  2.  At present, it enables poorer states to turn to the governments of richer states to assist them retrieve stolen artefacts.

  3.  As example, following the publication of UNESCO's Guide to the 100 most valuable artefacts stolen from Angkor Wat, Cambodia, one item was located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, a powerful and well-funded institution. The comparative weakness of the Cambodian Government might well have led it to the view that it would be wiser to avoid lengthy and costly legal wrangles through the US courts against so mighty an adversary. But it was able to turn for assistance to the US Government, a signatory to the 1970 Convention, which exercised its authority leading to the return of the stolen item. The 1970 Convention was applied only because the theft occurred after the ratification in 1984 of the Convention by the US. There remains continued confusion in the UK on this matter (see article, Guardian and consequent letter [Prott]).

  4.  Contrast this with a similar situation in the UK which is not a signatory to the 1970 Convention. In 1999, the Egyptian Government finally regained ownership of items stolen from a burial site in Upper Egypt by UK-based grave robbers. This followed lengthy action through the English courts. In this case, the DPP chose to support the Egyptians and a criminal case was made against the robbers—but this was at the choice of the DPP, not triggered by the 1970 Convention as was the case in the US.

  5.  The book entitled "Preventing the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property"—a resource handbook for the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, lists various initiatives (Ch 3) taken to tackle this smuggling. Besides the 1970 Convention and the Nairobi Convention (1977) which was adopted by the World Customs Organisation, it is instructive to see which communities agreed such Declarations. Those made in Brisbane, Australia (1986), Jomtien, Thailand (1992), Keszthely, Hungary (1993), Arusha, Tanzania (1993), Bamako, Mali (1997), Cuenca, Ecuador (1995) and Kinshasa, Zaire (1996) indicate by their locations where thefts were most widespread. Weak states with poor curatorial standards, porous borders and underpaid customs officials continue to lose their most precious cultural property.

  6.  In the same way as richer states promote aid and development strategies to support weaker states, they should ensure that, in the cultural field, these states are supported. Ratification of the 1970 UNESCO Convention should be seen as an important element of the UK's assistance to developing states, especially those in post-conflict situations without an authoritative central government. In short, we cannot at the same time "feed the children and turn a blind eye to the looting of cultural property".

  7.  It follows that the UK, as a major donor state as well as a major marketplace and final resting place for cultural artefacts, should adopt a more consistent approach to its obligations to weaker countries.

  8.  There are several observations which the Committee should reflect upon.

  9.  The US ratified the 1970 Convention in 1984, albeit with certain reservations. There are those in the US who see the reluctance of the UK to adopt the Convention as an opportunity to renege on it. Such an outcome would be a catastrophic blow to those seeking to eliminate the smuggling of cultural artefacts.

  10.  The French Government ratified the 1970 Convention in 1998, citing its consistency with the relevant EU Directive. It is difficult to see how the UK Government interprets the Directive so differently. I would argue that the DCMS continues to hold its head in the sand on this issue. However, it is certainly difficult for it to defend itself against the accusation that it is "in the pocket" of the London auction houses. As shown by the Secretary of State's reasoning for his announcement earlier this year, its case becomes weaker each time. I take a more generous line here; I believe the DCMS to be plain lazy, citing the need to change the law. That is what Conventions are all about! If the DCMS needs assistance here, I suggest the task is given to the FCO whose officials are both more able and willing to converge UK domestic law with important international legal instruments. Further, arguments that the EU Directive gives government sufficient powers are unsupportable and even cynical. The Directive does not apply in cases of theft and it does not apply to artefacts stolen from, say, Asia or Africa, the very regions that need our support.

  11.  Experience in Canada and Australia show that those governments can deploy UK-based Common Law to good effect in working within the 1970 Convention. This experience demolishes another pillar of the argument put forward by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I attach two paragraphs from "Law and the cultural heritage: vol III-movement", which will assist the Committee[4].

  12.  The French police are gathering evidence linking the international market in stolen cultural artefacts with the laundering of funds generated through drug-marketing. Unique, untraceable, unknown, precious artefacts make a convenient currency in this murky field.

  13.  The Swiss are yet to ratify but there is evidence that its government is now considering doing so. This has been principally driven by recent adverse publicity relating to artworks looted by the Nazis and the consequent pan-Europe debate on the matter. Other European states look to the UK to take the lead.

  14.  Japan is now reconsidering its position in the matter. The election of Mr Koichuro Matsuura as Director-General of UNESCO will have had some influence here!

  15.  In summary, the UK's continuing laggardliness and intransigence in this matter is increasingly untenable for the following reasons:

    —  The EU Directive is inadequate in the global marketplace. It does not cover theft, nor the import of stolen goods from outside the EU.

    —  It is inconsistent to aid poor states yet to hold no formal position on the security of their cultural property. The ethical dimension to foreign policy is nowhere visible here.

    —  Evidence that drugs and stolen cultural artefacts are becoming linked demands positive action, across Whitehall.

March 2000

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