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Lord Owen on the Parthenon Marbles

Lord Owen has written a letter to The Times (June 15, 2009) about the Hellenic Ministry of Culture's rejection of the offer of a loan of the Parthenon sculptures presently residing in the British Museum. The letter comments:
The only way that the Elgin Marbles can make periodic visits to the new Acropolis Museum, which is highly desirable, is if there is an EU cultural treaty couched in general terms allowing for the transfer of antiquities between the museums of member states in a way that guarantees, under international law, all aspects of their movement. In this way the EU would be demonstrating that it is a unique international organisation capable of ensuring the cultural heritage of its citizens without establishing precedents that could lead to the return to their country of origin of many objets d’art which enrich the museums of the EU member states.
For the full letter click here.


The letter of Lord Owen is remarkable in many ways but above all, in the way it reveals residual racial and nationalistic attitudes among some members of the British ruling classes.

The noble Lord writes as if the United Nations and UNESCO did not exist and fails to take into account the mechanisms that exist for resolving such cultural disputes, provided the parties are ready to act in good faith.

Owen seeks to elevate a bilateral problem into a general problem. A dispute between Britain and Greece is turned into a general International Law question but this generalization is immediately limited and turned into a European Union problem. The fear of the noble Lord is that a precedent could be set for returning stolen/looted cultural objects and might enable others outside the European Union to seek the repatriation of their looted cultural artefacts. The Africans and the Asians might be knocking at the door of the British Museum for the return of thousands of cultural objects, including the Benin bronzes,
that were stolen in the colonial period.

Lord Owen’s solution is to have: “EU cultural treaty couched in general terms allowing for the transfer of antiquities between the museums of member states in a way that guarantees, under international law, all aspects of their movement”. This would enable the parties to do whatever they agree on. Maybe Lord Owen should be informed that the United Kingdom and Greece have been discussing this matter within the frame work of UNESCO without any result owing to the intransigent attitude of Britain, primarily supporting the position of the British Museum in a matter where British Parliamentarians should take an independent view of the issue so as to reflect the view of the overwhelming majority of British people who are in favour of returning the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles.

A solution to the issue of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles which is other than bilateral but at the same time seeks to limit its generalization to the European Union is clearly a reflection of a way of thinking that will disappoint all those who truly believe in International Law, the United Nations and UNESCO.

Dr.Kwame Opoku

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