May 16, 2015
I was very surprised to hear this story, particularly with the timing of it coming only a day after much of the content of the press summary of the legal report was published.
My first issue is that the actual report has not yet been delivered to the Greek Government. It was commissioned by the previous ND / PASOK coalition government when Geoffrey Robertson, Norman Palmer and Amal Clooney visited Athens last year. Originally the report was due to be delivered in late April, but for various reasons has been delayed until the end of this month. We know from previous new stories about the way that this exercise has been funded, that the cost of researching and producing this report was not an insignificant amount.
So, apart from the lawyers working on the report, my understanding is that nobody has yet seen the actual final report – not the Greek Government, not the press and definitely not the plethora of armchair legal experts who are commenting on the press reports.
Even once the Greek Government has seen the report, something of this scale and importance would generally require extensive consideration and review, to understand the full impact of what was being proposed, to let the government’s own legal team assess its veracity etc. Once that had happened, further discussion would be required, to allow the government to weigh up the possible options available to them and decide how they wanted to proceed. None of this appears to have happened, and I don’t see how it could have, as nobody has yet seen the report. As such, it is hard to believe that the content of the report is what led to this decision.
The report on the legal options for the Parthenon Marbles, as I mentioned earlier was commissioned by the previous government, and the current government have not to my knowledge actually met with the lawyers who are working on it. Based on this information alone, any rejection seems to be more of a reaction to the fact that they are wanting to do different to those who came before them, rather than any other reason.
The Greek Government says that they want to use politics and diplomacy to resolve the issue. This is not a new approach however – if anything it is reverting to what has been tried in the past, as any consideration of other options by Greece has only happened in the last few years.
The diplomatic approach has been tried since the mid 1980s – and to an outside observer, any success has been very limited. The Parthenon Sculptures still do not appear any closer to returning than they were fifteen years ago. If anything, the British Museum has become more trenchant in their opposition during this time, first by dreaming up new arguments such as that of the Universal Museum and more recently loaning one of the pediment sculptures to Russia, while continuing to snub Greek loan requests.
The most recent initiative by Greece, mediation of the issue via UNESCO, which many had high hopes for, was rejected by both the British Government and the British Museum after an inordinately long period of consideration.
All the above actions took place during a period when the government in the UK (Labour – 1997-2010) although oficially rejecting return, had many members who were enthusiastic supporters of the restitution of the sculptures. During the government of the last five years (Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition – 2010-2015), although the major partner in the coalition was less supportive of the issue, the Liberal Democrat leader who was also Deputy Prime Minister had previously expressed strong support for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens.
This has now changed. The new Conservative government that entered won the General Election earlier this month, are entirely unreceptive to any hint of the the sculptures returning. Sure, there are a few enlightened individuals within the party – but they stand out like beacons of hope against the backdrop of so many others who are still in denial that the days of empire are over. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Culture have, in the last few years, stated publicly their opposition to returning the sculptures.
One must also bear in mind one of the themes of the precis report presented to the press – the idea that action must be taken now, otherwise the opportunity might evaporate. Its now or never.
All the above points make me feel that any rejection of the report so rapidly suggests that full consideration has not really been given to the issue. As such, I hope that this turns out to be some sort of misunderstanding on the part of the Greek Government and that whatever they decide, they will first think through their options carefully – and review the actions already taken in the campaign since the mid 1980s. I will happily support them in any initiatives that they believe will get the sculptures back to Athens, but a coherent plan is needed. The British Museum’s loan to Russia could well be a sign that they were starting to feel the pressure and wanted to try and assert their own dominant position as clearly as possible – backing off now, just when they were starting to feel uncomfortable will achieve nothing.
Greece drops option of legal action in British Museum Parthenon marbles row
Helena Smith in Athens
Wednesday 13 May 2015 17.13 BST
Cultural minister makes revelation despite dossier from human rights lawyers exhorting the Greek government to pursue legal channels immediately
Greece has ruled out taking legal action in its battle to reclaim the Parthenon marbles from Britain. The unexpected move abruptly ends the legal battle in one of the world’s most bitter cultural disputes.
In an about-turn three months after Athens’ radical-left Syriza party assumed power, the new Greek cultural minister Nikos Xydakis said the route to retrieving the treasures lay in diplomatic and political channels and not international courts where outcomes were far from assured.
“The road to reclaiming the return of the sculptures is diplomatic and political,” he told Mega TV in a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday. “You can’t go to trial on every issue, and in international courts the outcome is uncertain, things are not so easy.”
What was needed, he insisted, was “low-key persistent work” as the climate was gradually changing.
The minister was speaking barely 48 hours after receiving a 150-page dossier from Amal Clooney and fellow leading human rights lawyers at London’s Doughty Street chambers exhorting the Greek government to pursue legal channels immediately. The report, outlining the options Athens faced in its decades-long struggle to win back the fifth century BC carvings, described a “now or never” opportunity for Greece and advised it to take the British Museum to the international court of justice.
“The British adhere to international law,” said Clooney who co-authored the report with Geoffrey Robertson and Norman Palmer, British QCs regarded as pre-eminent experts in cultural restitution. “The Greek government has never taken advantage of this Achilles heel. You must take legal action now or you may lose the opportunity to do so due to future legal obstacles.”
Commissioned to write the report by the previous government when they visited Athens last October, the human rights lawyers argued that the spectacular artworks were an irrefutable part of Greek identity, history and culture.
The legal study suggested that Athens make a formal request for the marbles’ repatriation before submitting a legal claim to the international court at The Hague if the request was turned down as expected. In the event that the international tribunal rejected the claim, Greece should take the case to the European court of human rights, the lawyers said.
The volte-face was greeted with despondency and dismay by international campaigners. With Athens negotiating its worst crisis in modern times – and public finances at an all time low – many feared that prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ coalition of far-left radicals and rightwing populists had got cold feet. Isolated internationally, the government is currently haggling with international creditors over a cash-for-reform deal to keep the debt-stricken country afloat.
“Diplomatic and political efforts have been tried since the mid-1980s and made very little progress,” said Matthew Taylor, at the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures. “To reject it so rapidly comes across as a something of a kneejerk rejection of any efforts by the previous administration rather than something that has been fully considered,” he said.
The new UK government was “completely unreceptive” to the very idea of returning the marbles, Taylor said. “This is evidenced by their rejection of Unesco mediation [in the row] and by previous statements made by both David Cameron and the new secretary of state for culture John Whittingdale. I find it hard to believe they will change their minds on this in the next five years.”
Earlier this year, Xydakis roundly condemned the British Museum’s decision rejecting a Unesco offer to help resolve the dispute more than 200 years after the sculptures were controversially removed from Athens’ greatest temple, the Parthenon, by the seventh Earl of Elgin during his tenure as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The antiquities were acquired by the British Museum in 1816.
“We deplore the categorical refusal by the British of Unesco’s invitation to launch a mediation process over the Parthenon sculptures housed in the British Museum,” the cultural minister had said. “British negativism is overwhelming, along with its lack of respect for the role of mediators.”
Successive polls have shown that in contrast to their government, the vast majority of Britons would like to see the marbles returned to the place where they were carved more than 2,500 years ago.
- Has Greece dropped Parthenon Marbles legal action plans? : December 10, 2015
- Greece drops plans for litigating over Parthenon Marbles : May 18, 2015
- The Daily Express and the Parthenon Marbles : May 18, 2015
- Greece is not ruling out Parthenon Marbles legal action : May 19, 2015
- Greek government to pursue new Parthenon Marbles strategy? : February 13, 2015
- Greece advised “use it or loose it” with Marbles legal action : May 13, 2015
- Greece hasn’t written off legal action over Parthenon Marbles : May 9, 2016
- UK lawyers deliver Parthenon Marbles legal opinion to Greece : August 13, 2015