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Does cultural diplomacy deter human rights violations?

Neil MacGregor would love it is the world believed that his latest initiative with the loan of a Parthenon Sculpture to the Hermitage was all about “cultural diplomacy”. This is not the first time he has tried taking this line – one previous example was with the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran. Now, like Geoffrey Robertson, I would be very interested to know if there was any improvement in Iran’s human rights record (or for that matter it relations with the UK) as a result of this, but I know that the answer would have to be an unequivocal no!

Geoffrey Robertson QC, Currently providing legal advice to Greece over the Parthenon Marbles issue [1]

Geoffrey Robertson QC, Currently providing legal advice to Greece over the Parthenon Marbles issue

Independent [2]

Geoffrey Robertson
Friday 5 December 2014
The British Museum has just lost the Elgin Marbles argument
This loan is welcome — in that it gives the game away

The British Museum has moved the river god Illisos from his plinth in the Duveen Gallery to St. Petersburg for a celebration of Russian art collection at the Hermitage.

This raises two issues: first, why give a propaganda windfall to President Putin at a time when his breaches of international law can only be deterred by sanctions that are beginning to bite? Second, if a part of the Marbles can now been seen for the next two months by visiting St. Petersburg, why should all surviving pieces of the greatest art in world history not be seen, reunited at the Acropolis Museum under a blue attic sky and in the shadow of the Parthenon?

The museum claims that “cultural diplomacy” can somehow discourage human rights violators. This is nonsense – it tends to embolden them. In 2010 the museum lent the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran, only to have it welcomed by a pageant staged by President Ahmadinejad, in which Cyrus wore the insignia of the Basij militia, which the previous year had brutally beaten and killed hundreds of “Green Movement” demonstrators.

This loan has done nothing to deter the hardliners: just ask the current occupants of Evin prison. It is not clear how Putin will capitalise on the naked torso of the River God after its unveiling – presumably not by striking the same pose, given its missing genitalia. But the event will be a cultural triumph for the man who a few years ago, closed down the British Council in St. Petersburg and had its Director arrested.

The arguments for “cultural diplomacy” of this kind are similar to the discredited claims for “sporting diplomacy” by those who wanted to play cricket with apartheid South Africa. In the case of Russia, still fomenting war in eastern Ukraine, isolating sanctions are the only realistic way that Europe can respond in an effort to save lives. In this context, and at this time, the action by Neil MacGregor and his Trustees might seem not merely naïve, but irresponsible.

The claim that the British Museum is totally independent is useful for government buck-passing when taxed at international conferences about return of the Parthenon Marbles. “That is a matter solely for the Trustees” is always its response. But since the Government has now permitted the River God to leave the UK, that excuse can no longer wash.

Which brings us to the second question raised by the loan and indeed to Neil MacGregor’s incautious confession as he posed for photographers whilst surveying Illisos in its new location: “It looks much better than it does in London”. Indeed it does. In London it is located in the Duveen Gallery where half the extant Marbles sit under white light as if in a morgue. This was at the insistence of Lord Duveen, a crooked art dealer who made his money by shady dealings with the Nazis and who insisted in 1938 on scouring some of the friezes, permanently damaging them. If the River God looks so much better at the Hermitage, how much better would he look – along with all the other statues captured by Lord Elgin – back with his counterparts in the New Acropolis Museum?

This loan, however, is welcome to the extent that it gives the Museum’s game away. It cannot sensibly or morally refuse the mediation offered by UNESCO, to which the British government has been asked to respond by 31 March next year. That response was always going to be, “It’s entirely a matter for the Trustees”. But now that the Trustees and the Government seem to have colluded in the departure of the River God, they can obviously agree for the Museum to proceed to a non-binding mediation which could result in some mutually satisfactory departure, even temporarily, of Lord Elgin’s loot.

The Parthenon Marbles are a unique snapshot of the beginning of human civilisation – a picture of conversation, laughter, embraces and lots of drinking, without violence other than resistance to satyrs who try to invade a wedding feast. But the picture is torn in half by the geographic separation of the friezes. It is in the interest of the world, and not just of Greece, that they be reunited.

Geoffrey Robertson QC has provided legal advice to the Greek government. His latest book is “An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers The Armenians?” (Biteback)

Daily Telegraph [3]

Elgin Marbles: Museum must come clean over deal with Russia, says Geoffrey Robertson QC
The barrister, who with Amal Clooney is advising the Greek Government, said the loan of the Elgin Marble to Russia would only help to further Greece’s cause
By Victoria Ward
10:21PM GMT 05 Dec 2014

Geoffrey Robertson QC, who with Amal Clooney is advising Greece over the Elgin Marbles, has called on the British Museum to come clean about the full terms of its deal with Russia.

The eminent barrister said the loan of the sculpture to Russia would only help to further Greece’s cause.

“I think it will assist their case because it shows that the marbles are not confined to the British Museum,” he told the Telegraph.

“Neil MacGregor (director of the British Museum) confirmed yesterday that ‘it looks much better than it does in London’.

“If a marble looks much better in St Petersburg than it does in London, all of the marbles will obviously look much better still back where they belong in the new Acropolis Museum, under blue attic skies and in the shadow of the Parthenon from which they were ripped.

“It also shows the naivety, if not the irresponsibility, of the trustees in giving President Putin a propaganda windfall at the very time that sanctions are beginning to bite in order to deter him from a war that is causing hundreds of deaths in the Ukraine.

“Mr Macgregor’s idea of ‘cultural diplomacy’ deterring human rights violations is rubbish. Look at Iran. Any better after he loaned the Cyrus Cylinder? Ask the (political prisoner) inhabitants of Evin Prison.

“The British government must have secretly sanctioned this temporary export of a cultural treasure outside the EU. So how does Mr Cameron explain his support for sanctions on Russia?

“The government had powers to stop this export and it declined to use them.

“The British Museum, as a public institution, should reveal the full terms of its deal with the Hermitage.

“Was it paid? And if not, why not?

“It shows that both the government and the trustees should accept Unesco’s offer to mediate with Greece over the future of this great work of art.

“It’s in the interests of the world, not only of Greece that this great work of art should be put together rather than kept geographically apart.”