November 4, 2006

Elgin Marbles issue raised at United Nations

Posted at 1:38 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The Parthenon Sculptures are regularly a topic at UNESCO meetings discussing issues related to cultural property. Here though, the issue is raised at the UN General Assembly as part of a draft resolution on cultural property restitution. This is an important move, not least because such discussions within a global forum will considerably raise the profile of the case.

United Nations

3 November 2006
Sixty-first General Assembly
General Assembly

47th & 48th Meetings (AM & PM)
Drafts Tabled on Inter-Religious Dialogue, Return of Cultural Property,
Culture of Peace Decade; Annual ECOSOC Report Also Presented, in Day-Long Debate

Recognizing that sports and physical education presented opportunities for solidarity and cooperation in promoting tolerance, a culture of peace, and social and gender equality, the United Nations General Assembly today invited its Member States to join sports organizations, the world media and civil society in a global effort to support sport-based initiatives, which would help foster peace, cultural exchange and the attainment of globally agreed development goals.


Introducing the draft on return or restitution of cultural property to countries of origin, Greece’s representative said that, the removal of such property, particularly illegally, “rips out the nation’s heart and obliterates its past”. One had only to consider the intentional destruction of unique works of art, as had occurred in Afghanistan under the previous regime, to be reminded that such losses could never be redeemed. Cooperation was the most appropriate way to address those complex issues, particularly the adverse effects of major political upheavals and armed conflicts, which traditionally provided fertile ground for the loss, destruction, removal or illicit movement of cultural property.


Introduction of Draft on Cultural Property

Introducing the draft resolution on return or restitution of cultural property to countries of origin ( document A/61/L.15 ), ADAMANTIOS VASSILAKIS ( Greece ) said that, in recent years, the international community had become increasingly sensitive to the issue and had demonstrated its willingness to facilitate the restitution of cultural property illicitly removed from its country of origin. Such removal, particularly as a result of illicit trade, ran counter to all the principles “culture” was supposed to promote. Indeed, it was a grave loss to the countries and peoples concerned: it “rips out the nation’s heart and obliterates its past,” he said.

One had only to consider the intentional destruction of unique works of art, as had occurred in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, in order to be reminded that such losses could never be redeemed because those treasures could never be brought back, he said. “It is only the restitution of cultural property, taken illicitly from its place of origin, that will restore any damage caused to cultural heritage,” he said. It was critically important, therefore, for Member States to actively cooperate to help resolve such issues. Cooperation was also the most appropriate way to address the adverse effects of major political upheavals and armed conflicts, which had traditionally provided fertile ground for the loss, destruction, removal or illicit movement of cultural property.

Turning to the draft resolution, on which action would be taken at a later stage, he said that the text attempted to highlight the work being led by, and done in conjunction with, UNESCO, which was uniquely mandated with the stewardship of the world’s cultural resources. The text noted important developments, including UNESCO’s recent launch of a Cultural Heritage Laws database, as well as its elaboration of a model export certificate for cultural objects. Both of those instruments had proved to be extremely useful tools in the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property.

As for the impact of increased international attention to that issue on Greece itself, he said that he was pleased to inform the Assembly of the recent return, from the University of Heidelberg, of a fragment from the Parthenon’s north frieze. “This gesture has a symbolic value: it constituted the first step towards the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures,” he declared, adding that the New Acropolis Museum was nearing completion and the “Parthenon Marbles” — reunified and presented in their natural historical environment — would be its centrepiece. Further, closer collaboration with other museums had thus far led to the return, from the Los Angeles-based J. Paul Getty Museum, of a gravestone from the Boeotia region of ancient Greece, as well as the return of a fragment of a marble relief from the island of Thassos.

Statement on Return of Cultural Property

KHALID ABBAS AHMED ( Sudan ) called on all nations to adopt standards in the important area of protecting a nation’s cultural heritage and to register with the UNESCO database, which he said should be made available in all the official United Nations languages, including Arabic. States should also adopt the UNESCO model export certificate and sign onto the various standard-setting instruments, such as the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law Convention, related to stolen or illegally exported cultural property.

Overall, he said, the United Nations should make greater efforts to ensure that a country’s cultural heritage was protected, including by elaborating a legal mechanism towards that goal. A tribunal should also be established to punish those who had looted treasures, such as at the Parthenon and the Sphinx. Every element of cooperation must be used to end the impunity with which some of the world’s greatest treasures had been stolen from their rightful owners, and such actions should be prevented in the future, through information exchange and use of the UNESCO database and Interpol resources. The disastrous destruction of Iraq’s cultural property at the peak of supposed civilization was all the more shocking, as that had occurred under the eyes of the entire international community. Any property looted from there must be registered as soon as it showed up anywhere.

AMID AL BAYATI ( Iraq ) called for cooperation in an area where much too little had been done. He recalled that his country was well-known to be a cradle of civilization, with a culture that reached back more than 4,000 years. The plunder of his country had been carried out by professional criminals, even after the Security Council had called for the return of Iraq’s plundered cultural objects and despite all that UNESCO and the Intergovernmental Committee had done to prevent that.

MULUGETA ZEWDIE ( Ethiopia ) said that, despite its firm commitment to protect cultural properties, Ethiopia had vast amounts of cultural resources abroad that had not yet been returned. It had taken tangible steps, at the national and international levels, to address the return or restitution of cultural property. Those included endorsing the “Heritage Research and Protection Proclamation” to prevent items from being illegally exported or trafficked out of the country; putting in place an apparatus of systematic inventory and registration of cultural property through establishment of a database of cultural legislation; setting up customs control mechanisms and making the general public aware of heritage values.

He said that Ethiopia had been exerting its utmost effort for the return of confiscated cultural property through diplomatic negotiations, court processes, purchasing and other means. Currently, Ethiopia had embarked on an effort to return its heritages taken by British soldiers in 1875, by establishing a committee of eminent personalities, intellectuals and foreign friends of Ethiopia. The country was eagerly awaiting the return of many cultural properties exported illegally through different means, including more than 2,700 parchments now in Europe, Asia, America and Canada. He called upon the international community and the Governments of the countries concerned to cooperate in the immediate restoration of Ethiopia’s heritages. In particular, he urged the United Kingdom to return items confiscated during the Meqdela War, without delay. Ethiopia was constructing a stockroom for the returned heritages and a museum with a laboratory. Hopefully, the international community would respond positively and quickly to assist in the accomplishment of that project.

ANDREAS D. MAVROYIANNIS ( Cyprus ) expressed support for the draft resolution introduced by the representative of Greece on the return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin. He noted that the work in that regard was extremely important for many cultures. Cyprus was deeply engaged in efforts in that field, as it was a country that had been looted of many of its treasures. Important legal steps had been taken towards returning cultural properties to their countries; however, Member States needed to focus more on implementation of those steps. The international community should enforce the draft resolution, in order to achieve progress towards its aims.

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