This article first appeared in Singapore’s Sunday Times in 2001.
Since time immemorial, nations at war had no qualms in plundering their enemy’s national treasures and other symbols of wealth, both as war booty and to demonstrate their power over the vanquished.
This lusty human instinct persisted unabated throughout the intervening centuries, and has continued into our own era.
One of the most infamous episodes was the large scale looting of art treasures in the occupied territories of Europe during World War II by Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
With the advent of powerful Western colonial empires, which reached its peak in the 19th century, the exploitation of the cultural heritages of their hapless colonies, as well as those of weakly governed independent states, became commonplace but assumed a more subtle and seemingly laudable form.
Countless cultural relics were stolen or deviously removed by foreign archaeologists and others in the name of research and scholarship, often with the support of their governments. These priceless artefacts would greatly enhance the collections of their home museums and help transform them into world-class institutions.
As for the leaders of the archaeological adventures, accolades and honours came their way.
A case in point is Sir Aurel Stein, the noted cultural raider of China’s Dunhuang treasures.
Leading colonial powers, like Britain, France, Germany and Russia, defended their actions on the grounds that under their care, the foreign relics would be better preserved, studied by scholars, catalogued and shown to a wider public, to the benefit of mankind.
Despite such noble claims, the irony is that the bulk of these artifacts were seldom displayed and were hidden and neglected in museum basements.
More disastrously, large quantities of these had been destroyed by the allied bombing of Germany during World War II.
They had no recourse against these cultural raiders, except to denounce them stridently and to lodge strong protests with their governments. In terms of results, the complaints were to no avail.
In our time, the smuggling of cultural relics from the artefact-rich Third World countries is, unfortunately, still rife – fueled by the demand from unscrupulous museums, antique dealers and collectors who will pay high prices for them.
The most blatant and tragic example is Cambodia. The renowned Angkor sites are full of decapitated statues and mutilated wall carvings.
Hundreds of these incomparably magnificent masterpieces had been stolen in recent years, sometimes involving officials acting in concert with foreign elements.
Unless a stop is put to this cultural rape, Angkor will be denuded of its art treasures, and the world would be poorer for it.
The United Nations, mainly through its educational and cultural arm, UNESCO, has played a sorely needed role as facilitator and conciliator to help member countries resolve long standing disputes concerning the return of relics. It passed a landmark resolution in 1983 urging the return of such relics to the country of origin, on terms to be mutually agreed. This rightly recognises that a nation’s cultural heritage belongs to it, and to no other country.
Appealing to members to return their African artefacts to that continent, the President of the UN General Assembly, Theo-Ben Gurirab warned in 1999 that there can be no reconciliation and healing in Africa until this is achieved.
“The lapse of time did not diminish ownership or the need for restitution,” he noted firmly.
Other related conventions govern the protection of cultural property in times of armed conflict, prevention of its illicit import, export and transfer of ownership and its restitution in case of unlawful appropriation. Another one on underwater cultural heritage is awaiting adoption.
To date, the UNESCO has had some successes in helping parties to resolve several cultural disputes.
Italy has agreed to return the famous Venus Virgin to Libya; Germany surrendered 7400 cuneiform tablets to Turkey; and New York’s Metropolitan Museum made restitution of one Khmer sculpture, against Thailand’s 100, to Cambodia.
More highly publicised outstanding disputes include the so-called Elgin Marbles, between Greece and Britain; the Sphinx of Boguskoy between Turkey and Germany; and the Dunhuang treasures between China and Britain, the last of which is not being mediated by the world organisation.
The Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon Temple in Athens in 1801 by Lord Elgin, was later purchased by the British Museum, with funds from the British public. Greece has sought their return for more than a century, but has been rebuffed consistently.
Undaunted, Greece has made yet another appeal to Britain for their restitution, to coincide with the 2004 Olympics in Athens, so that they can be exhibited in a new museum being built to commemorate the auspicious occasion.
Failing their return, an entire gallery in the museum will be left empty, telling its plight to the world.
It is unlikely that Britain will accede to the demand. Its Parliament enacted a law in 1963 barring its public institutions from surrendering relics to their country of origin.
It is this law that the British Museum cited for its inability to give up the Dunhuang treasures to China.
Britain can, of course, rescind this legislation, if it suits its interests to do so.
In my view, China will only press Britain for their return through the diplomatic channels when it considers the time to be right. It would use its growing trade leverage to achieve its objective, with a “face-saving” formula acceptable to Britain. Time is on China’s side.
Can the world body legally compel a country to return any cultural property to the country of origin?
The answer is no, because its resolutions on such matters are mere recommendations and are not legally binding.
The cultural disputes over rights to relics are also outside the purview of the UN’s judicial or arbitration organs as their settlement hinges more on non-legal considerations and unquantifiable factors, including morality, equity, national pride and honour.
It would appear that the only realistic way to resolve these cultural disputes is through serious negotiations, with UNESCO’s help where needed.
The UN can and should convene a world conference to give this important subject a vigorous airing. This would certainly help rally public support to its cause and hasten the return of the relics to the countries where they belong.
The old Western justification for removing and retaining these cultural relics in order to preserve them for posterity would not hold water in the changed environment of the 21st century, assuming it did have some merit a century ago.
It is also abundantly evident that countries like China, Egypt, Greece, India and Turkey are as capable as the West in preserving their own antiquities.
They have been highly successful in discovering more archaeological finds, and have built world-class museums to showcase them. These finds are studied by scholars, documented, and their research findings are disseminated.
Ultimately, the crucial question that would determine the rightful ownership of these displaced cultural artifacts is this: Has any country the moral right to deprive a people permanently of their cultural heritage?
I am sanguine that fair-minded people everywhere will say no.
Lam Pin Foo