UK passes bill to protect cultural property in armed conflict - Museums Association

UK passes bill to protect cultural property in armed conflict

Act will ratify 1954 Hague Convention after years of delays
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
A bill to protect cultural property in armed conflict has been passed by the House of Commons, bringing the UK in line with international standards.

The Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill passed its third reading with no amendments this week and is now awaiting Royal Assent to become law.

The passing of the legislation brings to an end the failure of successive UK governments to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

The UK chose not to accede to the original convention, but agreed to ratify it in 2004 after the convention’s obligations were clarified and extended in a 1999 Protocol. However, legislation to do so has been repeatedly kicked into the long grass by politicians.

The UK has been criticised at home and abroad for being the last major military power yet to ratify the convention, with some saying this delay had isolated the country and damaged its international standing.

The legislation creates two new offences in UK law: making cultural property the object of an attack; and dealing in cultural property that has been unlawfully exported from an occupied territory (including a provision for the seizure of such property and eventual return to a competent authority once the conflict is deemed over).

The legislation also provides for immunity from seizure of cultural property in the UK that is being transported for safekeeping during a conflict between two or more states; and allows for a Blue Shield emblem to be adopted to signify that a piece of cultural property is protected by the Hague Convention. 

Cultural heritage bodies in the UK that campaigned for ratification welcomed the news that the bill had been passed.

The Museums Association’s (MA) policy officer Alistair Brown said: “The MA has supported ratification of the Hague Convention for many years, and we are delighted that the bill has finally been passed in parliament."

Brown said the government now needed to commit more resources to support the protection of cultural property.

“The Hague Convention is limited in its scope, and we support further government efforts to limit the illicit trade in cultural objects from ongoing conflicts, notably in the Middle East," he said. “British police forces require sufficient resources and international co-operation to be able to play their part in combatting illicit trade.”

Brown called on the government to use the newly created £30m Cultural Protection Fund to support the establishment of a permanent Blue Shield team in London.

“The Blue Shield, which is the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, has never had any permanent funding,” said Brown. “With the UK’s help, it could act as a centre of excellence and support for those trying to protect heritage during conflict anywhere in the world.”

Historic England’s chief executive, Duncan Wilson, said the agency was “delighted” that the bill had been passed.

“We are working with the government on plans for implementation of the bill,” said Wilson. “The timing of this legislation is especially important given the recent appalling destruction of cultural property in Syria."

The government has signalled its intention to be globally recognised as a protector of cultural property, and Wilson said the passing of the bill reinforced this message.

“The act is part of a new package of measures introduced by the government, which includes the creation of the Cultural Protection Fund and the development of a Military Cultural Property Protection Unit within the armed forces," he said.

“These commitments send a strong message that the UK is determined to play a key part in protecting heritage worldwide."

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