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Return looted relics to countries of origin

By Huo Zhengxin | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2023-09-12 07:01

A poster for the second episode of the short video series Escape from the British Museum, which tells the story of a Chinese jade teapot’s journey back to its homeland. Provided to China Daily

Recent media reports have revealed a staggering number of artifacts has been stolen from the British Museum in London. The incident sent shockwaves across the world, particularly in the countries from which the artifacts had been stolen or taken by force and displayed or stored in the British Museum. A number of countries to which those artifacts originally belong have renewed their call and efforts to get them back.

Since the news sparked a social sensation in China, a three-episode web series called Escape From the British Museum, was released on Chinese social media platforms on Aug 30, aiming to raise awareness of the Chinese artifacts that are displayed or stored in overseas museums.

Although the Chinese government, so far, has not submitted any official request to have those artifacts returned, getting those lost national treasures back is a dream of the Chinese people. The reason is self-evident: most of the artifacts were taken out of China at a time when the country was a plaything for the Western imperialist powers, who looted whatever they could lay their hands on.

It is not surprising therefore that the Chinese people are passionate about getting the cultural treasures back. They may not be vociferous, but there's no mistaking their strong feelings.

However, the request to have the artifacts returned should be supported by law. Unfortunately, China and most other countries to which those artifacts originally belong face legal difficulties at both the national and international level in getting them back.

At the international level, the legal framework that supports the return of stolen or looted artifacts has gradually taken shape since the second half of the 20th century. At present, the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) Convention constitute the pillars of the international legal framework for the return of stolen and looted cultural artifacts. But despite the significance of these conventions, their effectiveness in getting the artifacts back is rather limited.

For one, the conventions do not have retroactive effect. The countries to which the artifacts originally belong cannot use them to get their cultural artifacts back if they were stolen or looted before the conventions came into being. Also, in spite of the achievements of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, its flaws are numerous and serious.

And while the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention is a marked improvement on the 1970 UNESCO Convention, up to Aug 31, 2023, it had been ratified by only 54 countries, most of which are countries to which the looted and stolen treasures belong. Until the former colonial powers and countries like the United States ratify it, the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention cannot help the victim countries to get back their stolen treasures.

At the national level, there are legal obstacles too. The countries that have amassed all the looted and stolen treasures have laws and legal institutions, such as limitations and extinctive prescriptions, which would thwart most lawsuits seeking the return of the artifacts. What's more, major market countries have passed laws to prevent the return of the looted treasures inventoried in public museums to their countries of origin.

Given the multiple legal obstacles, it is not difficult to understand why countries such as China have not submitted formal requests for the return of the artifacts, and countries like Greece and Egypt have not succeeded in getting their treasures back despite their best efforts.

Western powers have stolen and looted a huge number of valuable cultural artifacts from the countries they colonized. Those cultural artifacts represent the cultural and political identity of the people that created them. The former colonial powers' refusal to return the treasures they stole and looted, therefore, is their refusal to admit the wrongs and crimes they committed in the past. So the demand to get back the looted and stolen artifacts is, more importantly, a demand for the former colonial powers to right their wrongs.

The demands for the museums in Western countries to return the plundered artifacts have intensified in recent years, and some former colonial powers, thanks partly to the efforts of French President Emmanuel Macron, are mulling returning some of the looted and stolen treasures to their countries of origin.

In November 2017, in a speech he delivered in Burkina Faso, a former French colony in West Africa, Macron acknowledged the crimes committed by France during the colonial period, and promised that "within five years, I want the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent return of African heritage to Africa". After Macron's speech, Benin renewed its request to get back some of the cultural relics the French had taken in the 19th century. To overcome the legal obstacles, French legislators passed a law to facilitate the return of those specific items in 2020.

In 2019, the German government passed a resolution, laying the groundwork for the return of the human remains and cultural artifacts from German public museums to their countries of origin. The same year, the Netherlands' National Museum of World Cultures pledged to return all artifacts in its collection identified as stolen during the colonial period. And in 2020, the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. returned nearly 11,500 looted objects to Iraq and Egypt.

But as many have observed, the intention to return the looted and stolen treasures on a large scale is still lacking in the former colonial powers.

Besides, several important museums are conspicuous by their absence from the conversation. The British Museum, for example, refuses to return colonial cultural artifacts to their countries of origin because, among other things, it claims those countries do not have adequate facilities and trained personnel to safeguard the treasures against thefts and mishandling. But the pilferage scandal has exposed the British Museum's claim as a ploy to hold on to the looted treasures.

The demand for the return of the cultural artifacts to their countries of origin is not only a legal issue; it is also a demand to right the historical wrongs. The progress of the process to return the treasures has been pathetically slow, although some artifacts have been returned to their countries of origin while others are being returned at a rate never seen before. I believe the era of the artifacts' return will eventually come as the saying goes, "justice may be delayed, but it will not be denied."

The author is a professor of law at China University of Political Science and Law and an international observer of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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