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The Parthenon Marbles – why now is the time for legal action

Some weeks ago, I wrote about legal action [1] being taken in the European Court of Human Rights by the Athenians’ Association, a private group of Greek citizens unconnected to the government.

Since then, I have been fortunate enough to conduct an in-depth interview with Vasilis Sotiropoulos [2], the Athenians’ Association Lawyer. In this interview, he helps to explain a bit more about the importance of the case to the Association, why it is important that action is taken now and some of the key issues on which the case is based.

Vasilis Sotiropoulos, Lawyer to the Athenians' Association, standing in front of the Parthenon

Vasilis Sotiropoulos, Lawyer to the Athenians’ Association, standing in front of the Parthenon

First of all, can you tell me a bit more about your legal background?

As for my background, I studied law at Athens University and I hold a Master’s in public law. After working briefly for the European Data Protection Supervisor, I began practicing in my own office with a focus on new technologies, intellectual property and human rights. I currently serve as the elected Regional Ombudsman of the Attica Region.

I have never previously come across the Athenians’ Association. Have they always had an interest in the case of the Parthenon Marbles?

Our organisation was always talking about this topic, because it is one of the most famous legal debates of all time. As a human rights lawyer, I have always supported the idea that we Athenians should have our day in court with regard to the cultural dimension of the rights concerned. The cultural dimension of the case is a legal issue that goes beyond the sovereign rights of the Greek State.

As Plaintiffs, the people of Athens play an important part. We must bear in mind that there are families that have been living in Athens for hundreds of years. Having served as the first Ombudsman in Athens Municipality, I had the opportunity to forge relationships with citizens who are proud for their Athenian identity. In the core of these people’s soul, there is a strong demand for justice regarding the case of the Parthenon Marbles. The ancestors of some of these people were present when Elgin’s team committed this unpunished crime.

In the Greek branch of Transparency International, where I was legal advisor for some years, we used to follow a very simple definition of corruption. “Corruption is the abuse of power for personal gain”. This is exactly the case with Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon Sculptures. This is the reason why I gladly accepted the proposal to represent the Athenians’ Association before the European Court of Human Rights, although not a member of the Association myself.

Can you tell me a bit more about who the Athenians’ Association are and where their interest in the case of the Parthenon Marbles stems from?

Descendants of the Athenians who fought for Greek independence in 1821 established the Athenians’ Association in 1895. The family of the current Association’s president, Mr Skiadas, had two victims in the Athens battle against the Turks, while they where fighting at the (then) Acropolis fortress. In actual fact, all of the STA former presidents’ families’ mourned victims at the Acropolis battle of 1822!

The Parthenon is a national symbol that helped inspire the Greek Revolution. From the very beginning, the Parthenon Marbles case was one of the main issues on the Association’s agenda. In 1896, the Association organised a special event on the status of the Acropolis and according to the minutes, members resolved that the Marbles’ case could not be considered closed until the marbles were returned and the monument restored.

Since then, there have been many events, printed material and occasions in which the Association underlined that the case is open and that it hasn’t waived its demand for justice. This is why in February; the Association announced the application lodged with the ECtHR on the Acropolis Marbles.

In parallel with the case lodged at the ECtHR, we plan further related actions including the production of a documentary. Our coordinator is Dr Stratis Stratigis, who was the first Chairman of the Organising Committee of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and is a member of the board of directors of ICOM’s international sub-committee on Activities and Collections of Museums of the Cities (CAMOC).

After being aware of the issue for so many years, what made the Athenians Association decide to take legal action?

In March 2015, at the point when the UK rejected the UNESCO request to participate in the new mediation procedure, the Athenians’ Association waited to see what the reaction of the Greek Government would be to this development. Mr Skiadas was aware that I had been watching the legal issue very closely and that I was aware of the important jurisprudential aspects of the case.

At the time, there was a modest announcement by the Minister of Culture, expressing his disappointment on the UK’s decision. Some months later, the same minister reportedly rejected the proposals of a British law office (initiated under the previous government) to take legal action. At that point I received a phone call from Mr Skiadas who notified me that the Association had decided to initiate legal proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights.

In the first place, the idea was to contest the UK’s rejection as a final decision that violates the cultural rights of the descendants of the Athenians who where alive when Elgin committed his crime. But this is not a dispute focused on a historical debate. This is a legal recourse for the present and contemporary cultural rights of descendants’ who cannot have access to the Parthenon as a whole due to the UK’s decision to retain the sculptures.

Unlike many other cases before the ECtHR, there is no “effective remedy” to exhaust in the UK, as the case is a “casus unicus” (that is to say, that the case does not follow a precedent, nor will it form a new category in the future). The European Convention on Human Rights protects all these rights, according to its articles 8, 9, 10 and 13. Furthermore, there is case law on Associations that have a legal standing before the Strasbourg court for the rights of ancestors (see for example the Gorraiz Lizarraga and Others v. Spain judgment of 2004, ECtHR [3]).

Was the entire organisation in agreement that legal action should be taken, and that this was the route most likely to succeed? Why was legal action taken now, rather than at some other time in the past?

The decision of the Association board to proceed legally before the ECtHR was unanimous. The Association adopted the decision only after the Greek State announced that would not follow any of the various options proposed to Greece by the team of Lawyers comprising Geoffrey Robertson, Norman Palmer and Amal Clooney. We took into account that there is a 6-month time-limit set by the ECHR (The Court may only deal with a matter that is lodged within six months of the date on which the final domestic decision was taken (Article 35(1)) and we filed the application in September 2015. Actually we believe that the UK rejection gave us the opportunity to rely on a fresh 6-month time-limit. Our application before the Court focuses on the very wording of the British Government rejection letter. It is absolutely offensive when they insist that the Marbles where legally acquired by Lord Elgin, removed “in good faith” etc. This is one of the main reasons we are going before the Court against the UK: the latter insists on offending our ethnic and European cultural identity with the dissemination of such ridiculous lies, after all the documentation regarding Elgin’s operation have become available.

Legal action can take many forms – various lawyers in the past have suggested to me a wide range of different possible approaches to the case of the Parthenon Sculptures, to take place in a range of different courts and jurisdiction. What led you to decide on the ECHR as the approach to take? Were other options considered / rejected?

There are not so many possible approaches when you are not the Greek State, alleging sovereign claims on the Marbles as a successor of a region of the old Ottoman Empire. The Athenians’ Association is a private entity, which means that it has a standing only on a human rights legal basis. And there is no case law on the cultural dimension of human rights at the domestic courts. Actually, the very nature of this dispute, as a Casus Unicus, shows that there is only one Court that may have the real legitimacy to rule on such an important issue.

Were any discussions held with members of the Greek government / ministry of culture etc prior to STA taking legal action?

No, the Association acted on its own. There is no room for discussions with the State when human rights are at stake. Nevertheless, we are not against the Greek State. In fact, we will be looking forward to a “third party intervention” from Greece, when the case will be tried by the ECtHR Chamber.

Are you able to briefly outline the key arguments that form the basis of the case that you have put to the ECtHR? Who are you assuming the defendant is – the British Government or the British Museum? Or both?

We have a very recent rejection of the British Government on the Greek proposal to go to the UNESCO mediation procedure. No other may take part in this procedure as a defendant. The defendant before the European Court of Human Rights is always a Council of Europe member state. Moreover, in Copland vs. UK [4], the ECtHR found that the UK was responsible for a privacy violation committed by a public College, which was completely independent from the state.

What are the next steps for the case going to be? What are you expecting the initial response from the UK / British Museum to be?

First of all, the European Court will define the timeline of the case. The next step is to send our application to the other party and set a deadline for their reply. Since we are alleging human rights violations (and not sovereign rights, as we are not the Greek Government) we cannot guess their reaction.

Do you have any idea of a likely timeline for the case? I understand that there is a lengthy backlog of cases in the ECHR – although some cases are prioritised over others, for a variety of reasons.

We have a positive signal as the Council of Europe announced the case on its official human rights website [5].
It also seems that the European Court has shown an interest in cases concerning historical disputes. Last Friday, the European Society of International Law (ESIL) together with the European Court of Human Rights organised a conference on ‘The European Convention on Human Rights and the Crimes of the Past [6]‘, at the premises of the Court. The full programme, including both judges from the Court as speakers as well as prominent ESIL members can be found here [7].