The new culture secretary, John Whittingdale, has committed the Conservative government to ratifying the Hague Convention on cultural property. In a statement on 21 June, he described his decision as a response to “devastating” destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq.
Whittingdale’s commitment came three weeks after The Art Newspaper published a report highlighting concerns from leading figures in the heritage world about the UK’s failure to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. In 1954, the UK refused to ratify because it felt the convention would be ineffective, but these objections were dealt with in a 1999 protocol. Five years later, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government pledged to ratify, but since then successive governments have failed to find Parliamentary time to approve the necessary legislation.
Whittingdale now says, “At the first opportunity, we plan to bring forward new legislation to ratify the Hague Convention”. This will still be dependent on allocating Parliamentary time, and no details have yet been announced on when this may be possible. Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, says that ratification will “send out a clear signal to those who threaten cultural assets: your crimes will not go unpunished”.
In the same announcement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, says that “committing to the Hague Convention is one step but we are going even further by creating a new Cultural Protection Fund”, to help safeguard some of the world’s most important ancient sites in countries affected by conflict.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, welcomed the government announcements. The museum is developing an Emergency Heritage Management Programme to help establish a corps of rescue archaeologists in Iraq, and the hope is that this may now get government funding.