Better late than never

Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson on our approach to the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill, ahead of today’s Lords second reading 

60 years after signing the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, it is good news that Ministers have finally decided the UK is ready to ratify the Convention and the two Protocols.

The Bill introduces various measures, including offences designed to protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict at home and abroad and the establishment of the Blue Shield emblem to signify protected property. It also guarantees immunity from seizure for cultural property in the UK that is transported for safekeeping during a conflict. Together, all of this will enable the UK to meet the conditions required for ratification.

While in the Lords will – as ever – carefully scrutinize the detail, Labour supports both the principle and aims of the Bill. Not least because it is modelled on draft legislation we produced in 2008 when last in government.  

In recent months there has been an increased focus on the role of cultural property in conflict, following the desecration of sites of historical and cultural value by Daesh. Although the occupation and destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra has become the symbol of this, there are countless other tragic examples which point to a determination to inflict what Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO has called "cultural cleansing". UK ratification won’t bring back what has been destroyed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere but it will help strengthen the treaty and provide the necessary international moral authority that it currently lacks.

There are however, a number of aspects to the Bill which we intend to probe throughout its passage through Parliament – including the very definition of ‘cultural property’. The original version, contained in the Convention and arising from The Hague regulations of 1907, is largely buildings-based and focused on works of art and artifacts. But what about moving images and other modern forms of cultural expression?

The involvement and support of the Ministry of Defence and the UK Armed Forces in making the Convention as effective as possible will also be crucial. The creation of the Army’s cultural property protection working party and the commitment to using the four-tier approach to best practice developed by the Blue Shield are welcome. It will be the building blocks for the new regime.

It is vital that we tackle the trade in illegal artefacts, fuelled as it is by Daesh’s Orwellian ‘Ministry of Antiquities’, which ensures it maintains a monopoly on the sale of antiquities in occupied areas. As well as enabling it to issue licences and extract levies to finance further atrocities.

As is so often the case, the issue of resources will be a key feature of the debate. Governments of all persuasions have an innate tendency to will the ends of policy but not the means. The new cultural protection fund is a positive step. But we need to know more about where future funding will be found to meet additional demands; for example, should another major armed conflict takes place once the Act is in place.

It is also imperative that there is a cross-governmental drive on law enforcement, engaging the police, the National Crime Agency, the Border Agency and HMRC. And while the Metropolitan ​Police Art and Antiquities Unit is tasked with monitoring such trade, its lack of staff begs the question of how that important work will be resourced.

I look forward to the ratification of The Hague Convention. The UK can then finally show its whole-hearted commitment to the protection of universal cultural heritage, establish consistency with our own pride in our history, and signal our shared human values and culture. Better late than never.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 6th June 2016

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