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UK must return looted relics to where they belong: China Daily editorial | Updated: 2023-11-29 19:51
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An employee views examples of the Parthenon sculptures, sometimes referred to in the UK as the Elgin Marbles, on display at the British Museum in London, Britain, Jan 25, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

The dispute between the United Kingdom and Greece over the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures escalated on Tuesday, with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak canceling a meeting in London with his visiting Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis following the latter's renewed call for the return of the 2,500-year-old marbles.

The Greek prime minister said that the Parthenon Sculptures, which were removed from Greece by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, had been "essentially stolen" and asked for their early restitution. Greece has long insisted that the works were illegally removed from the country and they should be handed back to join other surviving relics in the purpose-built Acropolis Museum.

The UK government has steadfastly rejected Greece's demand, citing the 1963 British Museum Act — which prohibits the removal of objects from the British Museum's collection — as an excuse.

That the UK prime minister canceled his scheduled meeting with his Greek counterpart, only hours before it was due to take place just because the guest had repeated the international consensus that looted artifacts should be returned to their country of origin, shows the sensitivity of the UK to the issue.

Thanks to its colonial past, the UK, like many other Western colonial powers, removed countless relics and artifacts from its colonies and other countries. Of the more than 8 million items that the British Museum now holds, the majority were either light-fingered or smashed-and-grabbed from other countries, including more than 23,000 pieces of cultural relics that were looted from China.

The return and restitution of cultural property is central to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. And calls from the international community for the museums in Western countries to return the plundered relics they hold have intensified in recent years.

Some countries have already taken steps to right their wrong. Germany, for example, last year returned 22 Benin Bronzes including sculptures and plaques looted from the ancient Kingdom of Benin to Nigeria, in a crucial step to address the country's "dark colonial history", as its foreign minister said.

Yet despite this, the British Museum has so far refused to return the artifacts to their country of origin, partly on the grounds that they would not be taken good care of. Yet a scandal exposed in August involving some 2,000 artifacts that have inexplicably gone missing from the museum points to the huge loopholes in its security and management.

The UK must face up to the crimes it committed during its colonial past and take concrete steps to correct some of its historical wrongs by returning all looted or stolen artifacts to their country of origin.

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