Call for “Red Cross for heritage”to protect cultural property

As Islamic State militants continue to wreak havoc on cultural property in the Middle East, members of the House of Lords are calling for the establishment of a “Red Cross for heritage” in London.

During a debate on 14 January, Baroness Andrews asked the government what it planned to do with a new £30 million fund to support the work of cultural property protection in areas of armed conflict. One proposal is to use part of the fund to set up an international headquarters for the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS) in London. Formed in 1996 and described as the “cultural equivalent of the Red Cross”, the ICBS works for the protection of world cultural heritage threatened by natural and man-made disasters.

Baroness Andrews also asked the government when it would finally ratify the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The convention ask states to commit themselves to safeguarding cultural property from the consequences of possible armed conflicts. The UK government signed the convention in 1954 but it remains the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council yet to ratify it. One suggestion for the government’s inertia is a concern that it could lead to renewed calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

With the ongoing destruction and looting of cultural property in the Middle East, Baroness Andrews said it was high time the UK formalised its commitment to the convention:

“What we have today… is a growing sense of urgency, which has been underlined by the grotesque failures in Iraq and is now fuelled by the increasing barbarity in Syria. The events of the past six months have… have made the effective application of the convention more urgent than ever.”

Other members of the House of Lords were not as careful to conceal their frustration with the government’s inaction. Lord Howarth of Newport said:

“It is extraordinary that we are still having to hound the government in Parliament to ratify the convention… This is much more than cultural outrage, yet Her Majesty’s government appear to be pussyfooting in the face of this problem.”

In response, the government declined to outline a definitive timetable for ratification.

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