Bishop of Portsmouth calls on UK Government to ratify Hague Convention for Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict

On 14th January 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Andrews “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their plan for ratifying the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict”. The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the debate:

14.04.09 Portsmouth maiden speech 1The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for this debate and for the very important Question that she asks of the Government Front Bench. In June 2015, the Ministry of Defence answered a Written Question, as we have heard, on the timetable for ratifying the Hague convention. A Minister stated:

“The Government believes that protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict is a priority and remains committed to that task”.

She confirmed the,

“plan to introduce legislation to ratify the Convention”,

as we know,

“as soon as Parliamentary time allows”.

The Answer continued with a reassurance:

“Respect for cultural property is already upheld across the Armed Forces and they currently act within the spirit of the 1954 Convention. This respect is incorporated into military law”.

I wholeheartedly welcome that commitment and ask the Minister if she can recognise both the embarrassment of the present and lengthy delay in ratification, which successive Governments since 2008 have pledged to end, and the compelling practical, cultural and humanitarian reasons for speedy rectification of this inordinate delay.

To act within the spirit of the convention is indeed right, and to respect cultural property, but we should agree to be bound by the principles and to implement law to ensure that the treaty is upheld. If there was some reason to hesitate over the 1954 protocol, I accept because of too low a level of criminal responsibility and some lack of clarity in terminology, those matters were surely addressed in the 1990 protocol. If there are no other issues and reservations, I hope that the Minister will welcome the encouraging nudge I offer and tell us that parliamentary time will be committed to this matter.

Cultural heritage is a mirror of our humanity. A good proportion of my time is spent in historic buildings—as well as here, in churches and cathedrals. I am deeply aware as I minister of the spiritual and cultural identity, as well as history, built into the fabric of those buildings and actively shaping that worshipping community today. Buildings cannot be considered merely as historic monuments, so whether it is the deliberate destruction of pre-Islamic remains by militant Islamic groups, as in Palmyra, or the deliberate targeting of religious buildings to destroy communities, as in the case of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi from Mali, these atrocities do more than inflict physical damage. They are a callous assault on the dignity and identity of people, their communities, and their religious and historical roots.

As we know, these are current issues for two principal reasons. The first is with regard to the actions of military forces during conflict. Our own national conviction that cultural heritage is important is reflected in a century of legislation that protects not just buildings and sites but the sites’ settings and character. The earliest evidence of hominid occupation in northern Europe at Happisburgh, the still-used routes of Roman roads, the castles of the Norman conquest, the important national and religious identities of the Celtic nations, our great cathedrals and churches, and the bunkers dotting the landscape as evidence of the Cold War all form part of a rich tapestry, to which the state has given importance to protecting. As the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, reminded us, during both world wars there were large-scale and some smaller efforts to protect important cultural heritage. I think particularly of the removal of York Minster’s magnificent medieval great east window to protect it from Zeppelin raids in the First World War. It is entirely right, then, that the same legislature that has done so much for its own heritage should accord equal importance to its part in protecting the heritage of other nations during times of conflict.

Secondly, as we have also heard, this matter is current because trade in looted antiquities is a most pressing and immediate problem. I understand that the current situation is that it is illegal to remove items from, or sell on items received from, Syria since 2011 and Iraq since 1990. However, the enforcement of this law is up to individual countries and the lack of a paper trail is not putting many buyers off. Although the major auction houses are increasingly acting within the spirit of the convention and not selling suspect items, there are enough small and private sources which continue to sell items on. It can be almost impossible to prove an item was looted, especially as museum records from the originating countries have often been destroyed.

Ratifying the convention and protocols is one way in which the United Kingdom can make law enforcers take this problem far more seriously. Pursuing cases through the courts would provide a more effective deterrent than the current situation. Buying these items funds war and terror, and by not taking the strongest possible stand against the illegal trade the UK can be seen as complicit in this.

Finally, it seems to me that the conflict in Syria gives renewed urgency to this matter. The ratification of the convention is necessary not just to strengthen the United Kingdom’s ability to deal with issues of looted heritage, it is a vital part of taking an international stand against the destruction of cultural and built heritage which is part of the identity of local communities, and is also part of our shared humanity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con): [extract]…  I can reiterate the Government’s clear and firm commitment to ratify the Hague convention and its two protocols at the first opportunity. New legislative measures are necessary in order for the UK to ratify the Hague convention, although of course we signed it years ago and largely implement its provisions, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, was kind enough to acknowledge. The draft Bill that we have published provides an excellent template for the changes to UK legislation that will be needed to meet our obligations under the Hague convention. We are now in the process of building on that substantial draft so that a suitable government Bill can be introduced. I agree that that is a better approach than a Private Member’s Bill.

Once the legislation has been introduced, the UK will deposit an instrument of ratification with UNESCO—in Paris, rather suitably—and the convention and its protocols will enter into force three months afterwards. Our Armed Forces already act as though bound by the Hague convention, and we have extensive arrangements in place for the protection of cultural property through our dedicated heritage and museum sectors. As part of the implementation process, we will take steps to raise the awareness of all relevant parties of their obligations under the treaty.

Since the inception of the legislation it has enjoyed widespread public, cross-departmental and cross-party support, passing pre-legislative scrutiny by the Culture, Media and Sport Commons Select Committee, under the now Secretary of State, a well-known enthusiast. We are working closely with other government departments, heritage agencies such as Historic England and law enforcement agencies to ensure that any outstanding issues are resolved so that the draft Bill is up to date and ready for introduction.

In view of his compelling examples of UK cultural sites, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth will be interested to know that we are also working on a statement that will set out our approach in determining what cultural property in the UK will be afforded general and enhanced protection, in the event of armed conflict, for example—a gruesome prospect, but it is completely right to do that work. We will also describe our policy on taking the protection of cultural sites into account when planning military operations and in the aftermath of a military operation.