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The role of UNESCO in cultural disputes

An article in Cairo Magazine [1] about the current request made by Egypt for the return of various artefacts adds a few points not covered by the previous articles.
Firstly, they look at the history of previous requests by Hawass for the return of artefacts. Secondly, the article looks at the way in which countries can work with UNESCO to resolve disputes & at what powers the organisation actually has in such cases.

From:
Cairo Magazine [2]

Thursday July 28, 2005
Stolen treasures
Zahi Hawass wants the Rosetta Stone back—among other things
By Henry Huttinger

Egypt is once again calling for the return of several celebrated antiquities currently on display in museums across Europe and America, including the Rosetta stone, the famous granite slab that was crucial in deciphering hieroglyphics.

The campaign to recuperate priceless artifacts taken by colonial powers is not new. But in recent weeks Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the public face of archaeology in Egypt, has grown more strident in his demands in a campaign that coincides with a world tour of Egyptology’s favorite son, King Tutankhamun. Hawass has even threatened to shut down British and Belgian archaeological digs in Egypt if the artifacts are not returned.

“The Rosetta stone is one of the most important pieces in the British Museum, but it is more important for Egypt,” Hawass said. “It is an essential piece of our Egyptian national and historical identity and was disgracefully smuggled out of the country.”

The Rosetta stone—a dark slab on which a Ptolemaic decree is written in Greek, hieroglyphics and Demotic script—was discovered in 1799 by the French military. When the French surrendered to British forces in 1801, they tried to smuggle the 1,609-pound stone out of the country. It was intercepted by British troops and promptly delivered to the British Museum, where it has remained on display ever since.

Past efforts to retrieve Egyptian antiquities on display abroad have proven largely ineffective. Speaking at the 250th anniversary of the British Museum in London in 2003, Hawass demanded the return of the Rosetta stone. His call fell on unsympathetic ears, and he expressed his indignation to reporters following the event.

“If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity,” he said at the time.

Hawass has appealed to UNESCO to mediate the dispute and has encouraged 21 other countries also seeking the return of plundered artifacts to do the same.

“Our previous attempts at returning the Rosetta stone were ineffectual, but we hope that by organizing an international lobby, we can pressure with greater force the countries and museums in possession of such artifacts,” Hawass said.

In London, British Museum Communications Manager Hanna Bolton told Cairo, “The British Museum has not received an official request for the return of the Rosetta Stone.” Bolton refused to elaborate further, saying she was “confused” by Hawass’ statement.

Even with the backing of UNESCO and the collective voices of two dozen states, Egypt’s ability to convince Western museums to return priceless artifacts taken long before the concept of international property rights is uncertain.

There have, however, been some successes. On 19 July, the Australian government handed over several 2,500-year-old funerary statuettes, a bronze axe head and amulets that were confiscated in Melbourne. The artifacts had been smuggled out of Egypt under false papers as reproductions and were subsequently sold.

The Greek government and numerous international action groups have been campaigning for decades for the return of the Elgin marbles from the British Museum. The collection of marble sculptures was removed from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 and taken to the British Museum, where it has been housed ever since. The museum has been notoriously unresponsive to Greece’s and other countries’ appeals, perhaps because artifacts such as the Rosetta stone and the Elgin marbles are a major draw for the British Museum’s five million annual visitors.

The principal obstacle facing countries like Egypt and Greece is the lack of any international legal framework that would allow countries to file suit against museums in possession of such artifacts.

UNESCO mainly serves as a negotiating forum. It lacks the teeth necessary to force governments to return plundered antiquities. “It is not an international court of justice or arbitration court,” said Mounir Bouchenaki, assistant director general of UNESCO’s Culture Sector.

Hawass, ever the flamboyant face of Egyptian archeology, is undeterred. He told Cairo, “If UNESCO fails, I will do it without them!”
Copyright © 2005 Cairo Magazine