As promised in our blog post in early July, we wanted to keep you updated on the progress through Parliament of the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill, which will enable the UK, finally, to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention.
The Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons this week (31st October). It was introduced to the House by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who emphasised the urgent need for the Bill in light of the “wanton destruction” of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa. It is part of a wider package of measures to protect cultural heritage and to enable the UK to “become an international leader in this field”. Other components include the £30 million fund to protect cultural heritage in global war zones and the establishment of a military cultural property protection unit by the Ministry of Defence.
Although cross-party support to push the Bill through remains strong, concerns continue to be raised on a number of key issues. Perhaps the most pressing of these is the sad irony that while the cultural devastation currently being suffered in Syria and elsewhere at the hands of groups such as Daesh is one of the major drivers of the Bill, the proposed legislation is ill-equipped to address this directly with its focus on “officially declared wars” and “occupied territories”. When asked whether the Government might look at further measures to cover the gap (in addition to the existing Iraq and Syria Orders which go some way towards this) the Minister could only agree to ‘write to her Hon. Friend’ on the specifics of the issue. One step at a time…. One suspects her letter may well draw on the point raised later in the debate that while the Bill in itself seems unlikely to dissuade Daesh from its actions, it may affect its ability to support itself financially, given Daesh’s participation in wide-scale trade in looted artefacts.
The Minister also agreed to meet with concerned parliamentarians to allay fears that the Bill might hamper the way in which the art market operates. She was keen to offer reassurance that the Bill won’t require due diligence measures over and above those which dealers should already be conducting. They should have “no reason to fear prosecution or increased business costs under the Bill”.
On a somewhat related point, a parliamentarian posed the intriguing question as to why there has been only one prosecution to date under the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. The Minister’s deft response referred to the success of the legislation in providing a deterrent effect – though perhaps her second point that enforcement agencies need to fully understand the law and the offence it creates was a little closer to the mark. Given it has taken 62 years to come to the point of ratifying the Hague Convention, a mere 13 to get to grips with this ‘new’ legislation is perhaps to be expected!
The next step is for the Bill to proceed to a Public Bill Committee (17th November) then onto its third reading in the Commons.
Let’s hope its passage through these next stages runs smoothly and heralds a new era in which the UK will become, in the words of the Minister, a “champion for cultural protection in times of peace and war alike”.