'RETURN STOLEN ART TREASURES TO THE SOUTH'
The United Nations General Assembly is expected to adopt a resolution soon on the return or restitution of artworks and other cultural objects to the countries of origin. Many of these treasures, which were stolen from Third World countries, are now in developed nations.
By Thalif Deen
The head of the United Nations' highest policy-making body has warned that there can be no reconciliation and healing in Africa until the continent's sacred relics, icons, artworks and other priceless cultural objects were returned to their rightful owners.
'Africans were not pleased that those stolen treasures adorned public museums, libraries, art galleries and private homes in foreign lands,' Theo-Ben Gurirab, president of the 188-member UN General Assembly, told delegates on 7 December.
Gurirab, who is also Foreign Minister of Namibia, said the return of priceless African art and icons was equally applicable to the cultural treasures that had been illegally exported from other countries throughout the centuries.
'The lapse of time did not diminish ownership or the need for restitution,' he noted.
Gurirab said the subject of stolen treasures was first raised in the General Assembly by the late Mobutu Sese Seko, former president of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), as early as 1974.
Mobutu had made a very eloquent speech, 'stressing the injustice', Gurirab said. 'I believe that now is the time - as we search our souls and reflect on our common humanity in the context of the millennium - for these priceless African treasures to be returned to their rightful owners.'
Gurirab said some of these treasures were in the United States, Canada and Europe, among other places.
'The importance of cultural artifacts was not simply one of aesthetics, but rather they formed an integral part of defining the identity and personality of the African family,' he stressed.
The General Assembly is expected to adopt a resolution later this month on the return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin.
Ambassador Sotorios Zackheos of Cyprus told the Assembly that combating illicit trafficking in cultural property was a task that required perseverance and multifaceted efforts.
Many artifacts from Cyprus, he said, had become objects of illicit traffic, especially those removed illegally from the territory of the island currently outside the government's control.
The plundering of the cultural heritage of Cyprus had been so widespread that it had led to a decision by the United States last April to impose an emergency import restriction on Byzantine ecclesiastical and ritual ethnological material, unless such material was accompanied by an export permit issued by the government of Cyprus.
Mohammed al-Humaimidi of Iraq said his country was a depository of the treasures of civilisation. For that reason, Iraq had become the first victim of thievery. Many foreign museums were packed with Iraqi treasures and artworks, he said.
Moreover, the bombardments of Iraq had led to partial or total destruction of many artifacts. 'That constituted a crime against human heritage,' he said.
Pointing out that many states had refused to return Iraqi artworks, he urged the international community to focus on forcing the return of stolen antiquities.
The efforts of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to raise public awareness of the problem were welcome, he added.
Ambassador Ouch Borith of Cambodia said that earlier this year, more than 100 Khmer sculptures dating back to the 12th century had been stolen from one of his country's principal temples.
The archaeological site of Angkor Wat, that extended for some 200 square kilometres, had been one of the areas most affected by consistent plundering, he asserted.
That tendency, he said, had been encouraged by the fact that demand remained high, and collectors were willing to pay very large sums for rare items.
He said Cambodia fully intended to recover its stolen cultural property, and supported UNESCO's efforts to achieve that goal.
In 1996, a dealer in London had returned several pieces of his private collection to the Cambodian government, and in 1997, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a head of Siva. Also, Thai authorities had restored more than 100 objects that belonged to Khmer temples.
Guma Ibrahim Amer of Libya told the Assembly that for five centuries, Libya's cultural property had been stolen by various groups.
'Colonialism had also opened the way for an orchestrated campaign of theft. Hundreds of pottery pieces, gold and bronze coins, as well as many other artifacts, had been stolen over the years,' he added.
Commending the Italian government for its positive response, he said that Libya had signed an agreement with Italy which had agreed to return the famous Venus Virgin. - Third World Network Features/IPS
About the writer: Thalif Deen is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article has been reprinted.