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UK reluctant to enter Parthenon Marbles mediation process

In September 2013, a request was made by Greece to Britain, to enter a mediation process [1] to resolve the Parthenon Sculptures reunification issue. The process would take place via the snappily named Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation, a sub-committee of UNESCO.

The request for mediation marked a new step for Greece, and a clear realisation that small scale informal negotiations to resolve the issue were making little progress.

Since the request was issued, any appeals for updates have indicated that the British Government is still considering their response.

Last year, it was requested that a response would be made by 31st March 2015. However, government sources say that they are unable to make any significant announcement this side of the May election. We must bear in mind at this stage, that all current predictions are that there will be no clear majority in the May 2015 general election, so if not a change of government, at the very minimum, we can expect a significant restructuring of the coalition.

The British Government is clean to prevaricate over what is likely (according to all past policy indications) to be a negative response, but the reality is that any negative response might well be met by a stronger riposte from Greece.

For a number of years now, talks have taken place in secret in Greece regarding the possibility of some form of legal action over the Parthenon Marbles. These talks became more public when it became known that Amal Clooney was involved. As a side note, she was in fact involved all along – I have had sight of confidential papers that her name is ascribed to, from early 2011. Previously though, the lawyers were able to operate beneath the radar though, whereas Amal’s new found fame means that this is no longer such a simple proposition.

The likelihood of litigation is increased by the recent news that even if there Greek Government does not have the money to invest in this sort of venture, there are others who are happy to do [2] so on their behalf.

What this leads on to, is that it is clear that Greece is considering other options. If their mediation request is rebuffed, they are not going to just drop the issue, but have fall back options, that could be a lot less palatable than mediation.

It is unclear, whether after an initial rejection of the mediation request, the offer to enter into the process would still be open to Britain.

Meanwhile, the British Museum, while unwilling to invest efforts in actual negotiations seems to have been taking measures to try & prop up their own back story behind why retention of the sculptures is a good idea. The first step was the rather controversial and secretive loan of one of the sculptures to the Hermitage in St Petersburg [3], which was announced to much fanfare in The Times. The second step is the commissioning of a rather narrowly focussed poll [4], aimed at giving the impression that those in the industry were entirely favourable of return (well they would say that wouldn’t they).

These moves are indicative that the British Museum is no longer sitting quite as comfortably as it once was. It is trying to make its position more secure, yet the loan to the Hermitage seems to have done exactly the opposite, with many former retentionists being strongly critical of the Museum’s actions.

It is clear that we are entering a new chapter in Greece’s quest for the return of the sculptures – one that has move on from informal applications to something much more structured. The stakes may be higher for both sides, but the aggressive responses from the British Museum indicate that the Greek approach seems to be having some sort of success. My hope is that the new SYRIZA led coalition is willing to keep up the pressure, rather than making a complete change of policy.

Parthenon Marbles in British Museum [5]

Parthenon Marbles in British Museum

Independent [6]

Elgin Marbles row: Greece tells British Government to stop stonewalling on return of Parthenon sculptures
Ian Johnston
Saturday 07 March 2015

The Government is refusing to negotiate with Greece about the return of the so-called Elgin Marbles despite a request to do so from the United Nations, a decision that could prompt Athens to begin legal action for the first time.

British campaigners likened the UK’s stance to “clinging on to stolen booty for dear life” and contrasted it with the “generous act” of returning the sculptures to help a friendly country on the brink of economic collapse. Youth unemployment has hit 50 per cent and suicide rates have soared amid a crisis so severe the Financial Times has warned Greece could turn into a “quasi slave economy”.

In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) invited the UK to take part in mediation about the marbles, created 2,500 years ago to decorate the Parthenon temple in Athens. Then last year it asked for a response by 31 March.

However a Government source said the UK “won’t be able to make any significant announcement this side of the [May] election”.

A motion calling for the UK to reply to Unesco and move to return the marbles is to be filed in the House of Commons on Monday.

The failure to respond in time could prompt Greece to abandon decades of diplomacy and take legal action, possibly in the European Court of Human Rights. A team of lawyers in London, including leading QC Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Clooney, wife of actor George, is preparing a “book-length” document setting out the options.

A source who has advised successive Greek governments said the main problem was finding a court to take jurisdiction in the case, but once that hurdle was overcome “then the lawyers are saying there is about a 75 to 80 per cent chance of success”.

The marbles are regarded as some of the finest works of art in history and a symbol of the birth of Western civilisation. Some sculptures were taken to Britain by Lord Elgin in controversial circumstances just over 200 years ago when Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

Dr Elena Korka, director of antiquities at the Greek Culture Ministry, said the central issue was “reunifying these exceptional, outstanding and most important sculptures, which belong as an integral part of a unique symbolic monument for the whole world”.

“This is the essence of it, making something which exists today as whole as it can be… this is what the public wants, every poll shows it. It’s such an important issue. Even if Greece didn’t ask for it, the whole world would,” she said.

She said if the British authorities relented it would be “a day of true joy, not only for the monument itself but I think for the value of the gesture for the sake of co-operation”. “It would definitely help the [public] morale. It would be a huge boost,” she said.

Asked about the prospect of legal action, Dr Korka said Greece was “still so much into the process of mediation that we’re not thinking of the next step”. “We haven’t exhausted the possibilities so let’s not go so fast,” she said.

She added that the UK’s silence since 2013 was “not so polite really”.

David Hill, chairman of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures in Australia, said there was a “growing appreciation even among people who are timid about the prospect of litigation that we have reached the point of last resort if this Unesco gambit fails. The diplomatic and political strategies of the last 30 years have not produced any progress at all.”

Polls have consistently showed strong support in Britain for returning the marbles. In November, a survey for The Times found there was a two-to-one majority in favour.

Andrew George, chairman of Marbles Reunited and Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, said: “One of our friends is down on their uppers and we can offer something to them that might make their lives easier and give them a lift, which can only be good for their economy.

“It would be a generous act which would improve Britain’s standing in the world. At the moment we look rather grubby… like we are clinging on to stolen booty for dear life.”

He said he planned to lodge an early day motion in the Commons tomorrow calling for the Government to “demonstrate that Britain is prepared to… reunite these British-held Parthenon sculptures with those now displayed in the purpose-built Acropolis Museum in the shadow of the monument to which they belong, the Parthenon in Athens”.

The British Museum, which denies Elgin stole the marbles, argues that it “tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world” and the Parthenon sculptures are “a significant part of that story”. It regards itself as “a unique resource for the world” with visitors able to “re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures” within its walls.

“The Parthenon Sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries,” it says.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it would “respond in due course” to Unesco.