In what may turn out to be a landmark response, the Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey, has indicated that UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale should soon be making the case to his Cabinet colleagues that the UK should begin the process of ratifying the 1954 “Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.” The move comes in response to a written question from Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, Tim Loughton and thePipeLine understands that the renewed attempts to get the UK to ratify the Hague Convention come at least in part as a response to discussions within the Parliamentary “All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group” [APPAG] which includes former Cambridge Professor of Archaeology and Conservative Peer Lord Renfrew and is facilitated by the Director of the Council for British Archaeology, Dr Mike Heyworth on behalf of the Archaeology Forum.
The full text of Mr Vaizey’s reply is as follows
“My Rt. Hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport places great importance on the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and will make the case to ministerial colleagues for introducing the necessary legislation to allow UK ratification at the earliest opportunity.”
The 1954 Hague Convention is designed to prevent the accidental or deliberate destruction of cultural property in all types of conflict and it currently has at least 115 contracting States Parties ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe, as well as most European powers, Russia, China and the United State, which ratified in 2009. However, the UK previously declined to sign up to the convention’s provisions, citing alleged failures in implementation. Finally both the Blair Government in 2004 and the Cameron Government in 2010 committed to ratification. However, on both occasions no Parliamentary time was found to pass the necessary legislation.
The signal of the Government’s possible change of heart move comes amid the international outcry against the looting of sites like the Roman city of Dara Europos in Syria, the flaunting of the destruction of cultural sites in Iraq and Syria by Daesh/IS and the torching of the new State run Ahmed Baba Library in Timbuktu by Islamist rebels in 2013. Fortunately in that case the ingenuity of local people saved the bulk of the priceless manuscript collection which was smuggled to safety before French and Malian troops retook the city.
Following the widely publicised attacks at Nimrud, Hatra and the Mosul Museum as well as the destruction of numerous historic mosques and shrines, the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova acknowledge the gravity of the threat to the heritage of Iraq and Syria saying
“I condemn this mad, destructive act that accentuates the horror of the situation. It confirms that the terrorists are not only destroying representations of figures and bas-reliefs. With their hammers and explosives they are also obliterating the site itself, clearly determined to wipe out all traces of the history of Iraq’s people.”
and reiterating that
“The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime…We will do everything possible to fight against this and document it, to ensure that those responsible are identified and brought to justice.”
This is a reference to Article 4 Section 3 of the Convention which states
“The High Contracting Parties further undertake to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property…”
If the UK Government does eventually ratify the Hague Convention it will be seen as a clear statement of intent to open up another front against persons and organisations which are alleged to commit war crimes contrary to values enshrined in conventions and International Law. It will also place formal obligations on UK Armed Forces to both protect cultural property in any conflict zone where they are engaged, to seek to prevent such damage of such property by other parties and to gather intelligence and seek to bring to justice the alleged perpetrators.
Any legislation the Cameron Government does bring forward it is likely to be passed on a cross party basis. The Labour Party remains committed to ratification with Shadow Culture Secretary Chris Bryant telling the Arts Newspaper
“I am at a loss to understand why the government has not done so. We shall be pushing them on this throughout this parliament,”
Indeed, with a senior minister and the DCMS having once again committed to ratification, the danger for David Cameron’s Government would be in not finding the Parliamentary time to ratify the convention at a time when, thanks in the main to what many regard as Daesh’s cultural snuff movies on Youtube, the need to protect the world’s shared cultural heritage from the predations of conflict has never been more clear. In the event of another failure the Prime Minister might even face renewed criticism from his own side of the benches, at least in the House of Lords. In April Lord Renfrew told the Observer newspaper that the repeated failure to ratify the convention was
““pathetic – it leaves Britain looking shamefully inept”.