David Burrowes welcomes Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill

31st October 2016

David Burrowes welcomes this Bill, which he has long campaigned for, which will enable the UK to implement the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 1954 and the Protocols to that Convention of 1954 and 1999.

Speaking as co-chair of the all-party group for the protection of cultural heritage, it is a pleasure to support the Bill. One of the main reasons for establishing the APPG was to support the ratification of The Hague convention and it is great to see the aim fulfilled in the passage of the Bill.

We MPs are probably creating an impression that seems far removed from watching a Formula 1 grand prix, but I would like to draw an analogy. We can share the same enthusiasm as is expressed in Mexico City when the grand prix takes place. Until this Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill is enacted, the UK is, let us say, at the back of the international grid. That is significant; that is what this is about. We are at the back of 127 countries that have already ratified The Hague convention. We are catching up with those already on the grid that have got away in the race, to ensure that we fulfil our international obligations.

We can recognise through domestic legislation, through our compliance with European legislation, through sanctions and through other legal forms that we have played our part in seeking to hold to account those who are illegally trading in arts and antiquities, but while we were out there seeking to take a lead, just as we did with the cultural protection fund, it was somewhat embarrassing that we were not ratifying The Hague convention. We had taken an international lead in this area in many circles, but we are now playing catch-up in this particular respect. Now we are on the grid, showing that we mean business.

We were at the back of the grid regarding the permanent UN Security Council members. That is particularly significant because the Government have in the past flirted with ratification. I would like to pay tribute to Members who have expressed cross-party concern which has helped to ensure that we have got where we are today. I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who got behind the wheel. He was there as poacher turned gamekeeper, scrutinising legislation and seeking to bring it to fruition. He responded to calls from across the House. I know from my limited experience as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in various Departments, I know how difficult it is to make progress in managing the business and get a Bill into a legislative programme in a second Session of Parliament. That is why we must pay my right hon. Friend a particular personal tribute for bringing us up to speed.

Over the passage of time, we benefit not only from the ratification of The Hague convention, but from inclusion of the first and second protocols. That has helped us to get into pole position on the grid with other Security Council members. I hope that speedy passage of the Bill will mean that we get there first—although 60 other countries have got there before us! Still, among the permanent members we will get there first, which is important.

I am not an expert in many things, including arts and antiquities, archaeology or history, but I have developed a particular interest in cultural property and heritage, as I have seen and started to understand the impact of the destruction of such cultural property—yes, in relation to recent scenes in Syria and Iraq, but also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) said, what has happened in northern Cyprus. When we visited northern Cyprus, we saw that appalling acts of desecration and pillaging had taken place and not been properly taken account of. Given that it is an occupied territory, we should try to ensure that that happens if any objects come into this country’s jurisdiction.

I am concerned, as doubtless we all are, about human dignity. That is what gets my passions and convictions going. It is important to see the appropriate link between the trafficking of human beings and the trafficking of cultural property. There is the same disregard for people, for their faith, for their community and for their identity. Indeed, there is a cross-over from funds from trafficking providing further resources for exploitation—whether it be of property or of human beings. It is therefore appropriate that the Secretary of State introduced the Bill today, given that she guided the Modern Slavery Act 2015 through the House so well. She will fully appreciate the connections that I mention and the concern for human dignity.

As museums and other such places see architectural monuments, works of art and manuscripts mainly as aesthetically significant and pleasing, it is important to realise, as already mentioned, that the destruction and looting of these items is an offence to human dignity. The culturally unique way in which communities relate to their property demonstrates that a property can be much more than an isolated monument or piece of art. It can be very much part of a cultural narrative, authored by the people who live among that cultural heritage. This is what makes the whole issue of cultural property a wider project of concern for us all, particularly when we see the ravages of destruction. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon quite rightly said, within the ravages, the debris and the ruins, we must look at the hope and opportunity of restoration. That is why the cultural protection fund is so important. That is why within the second protocol, although the voluntary fund administered by UNESCO takes some hits from different commentators, it still plays an important role. The funds going into it are important for the future, so we should contribute.

I must pay tribute to Tasoula Hadjitofi. I got to know her through her concerns about her home in Famagusta, which is still frozen in time. With all the pillaging that has gone on, it is as though her whole identity has been frozen. Through the “Walk of Truth”, she looks at areas of conflict and sees examples of property being pillaged and destroyed, but she tries to view what has happened as a means of bringing the communities together. She provides routes to reconciliation, which is something that we should commend.

I welcome the fact that at last the UK will be able proudly to bear its international duty to protect. My interest, as already alluded to, is a constituency interest. A considerable number of Cypriots live here in the UK, who have seen for themselves wanton destruction and pillaging of their heritage. That is why it is so important that we join together and make sure that this long-fought battle to ratify The Hague convention comes to fruition. We look forward to the unification of Cyprus in the long term, but in the meantime, we must make sure that people are held to account when they seek to profit from the proceeds of crimes of destruction.

Let me touch on the Bill’s wording, which has been a matter of concern to the Association of Art & Antique Dealers and others. Clause 17 in part 4 needs careful attention, and we will no doubt hear more from Members about it. It is worth noting that the National Police Chiefs Council lead for heritage and cultural property crime, who should be commended and for whom resources for the enforcement effort are important, said that given that dealers in cultural property are expected to conduct due diligence checks, they would be unlikely to fall foul of the objective test of “reason to suspect”. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport impact assessment is in agreement with that, which is perhaps not surprising.

We could also look at precedents. Section 338 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is relevant, and honest dealers have been able to rely on the same form of words: “reason to suspect”. It is not dissimilar to the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, which makes reference to the terms “knowing or believing”. It is similar, too, to the sanctions order referenced in respect of Daesh, both the Iraq sanctions order and the Syrian sanctions order, while there is also the example of article 11c in the EU Council regulations. Again, the language is similar, mentioning “reasonable grounds to suspect”, so there is parity with the Bill.

Other countries have enacted the ratification of The Hague convention in their own domestic law, and the wording of section 17 of New Zealand’s Cultural Property (Protection in Armed Conflict) Act 2012 in respect of reasons to suspect someone of committing an offence is similar to the wording of clause 17 of the Bill. That is worth pursuing in Committee.

As has been pointed out, the Bill has limitations. For instance, it does not cover the international law definitions in relation to Daesh, because we do not recognise Daesh as a state. I appreciate that, and I appreciate that the gaps are filled by the sanctions orders and other legislation, but now that we are up to speed and in pole position in relation to the first and second protocols, I urge the Government to ensure that we work collaboratively, on a cross-party basis, to create a third protocol to deal with the activities of Daesh.

I pay tribute to the cultural protection fund, and look forward to seeing it do good work in the coming weeks, months and years. I also pay tribute to the work of Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, who has set up a property protection working group of so-called monuments men. He is doing fine work, and we must ensure that the Ministry of Defence gives his group all the support that it needs.

I could go on, Mr Speaker. I have a long night’s sleepout waiting for me at Lords cricket ground in support of the good work of the homelessness charity DePaul UK. However, I recognise that other Members probably do not want such a long night, and would prefer me to cut my speech short. Let me end by saying that I strongly support the Bill. We have waited a long time for it, but better late than never. It is certainly worth it, because it protects not only property but human dignity.

 

Earlier in the same debate

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend. Six years has been a long wait, but it has been well worth it, and we have now got there. Is it not ironic that part of the topicality of this Bill, and the reason for people’s enthusiasm for it, comes from seeing the horrors of Daesh in Syria and elsewhere, yet it does not fully cover the activities of Daesh because it covers only unlawfully exported cultural property from occupied territories? Without being too greedy, are the Government supportive of looking at future conventions to try to make sure that Daesh comes within the provisions, although the Iraqi and Syrian sanction orders cover the gap?

 

I again pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in campaigning on this issue. He rightly identifies the fact that sanctions regimes are in place regarding the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, and touches on the question of Daesh’s standing in international legal circles. We must take great care that we do not deal with one wrong by creating more wrongs elsewhere, but I am happy to write to him about the specifics of the issue.

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