By George Vardas
Last weekend, a packed out auditorium in Sydney’s east was treated to a historical and legal tour de force on the theft of the Parthenon Sculptures by the well-known international lawyer and human rights advocate, Geoffrey Robertson QC.
The event, to launch the Greek and English editions of his book: “Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Retrieving Plundered Treasures” was organised by the Athenian Association of NSW and the Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures, with the support of AHEPA NSW Inc. and the Lefas Humanitas foundation.
David Hill, Chair of the Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures, recounted how he first approached Geoffrey Robertson at the suggestion of former Australian Prime Minister and great Philhellene, the late Gough Whitlam, to seek his advice on Greece’s legal options in its campaign to retrieve the peerless classical treasures removed by Lord Elgin at the turn of the nineteenth century and eventually transferred to the British Museum where they remain to the present day.
After providing an initial advice in 2011, Geoffrey Robertson, together with the late Professor Norman Palmer and Amal Clooney went to Athens in 2014 to brief Greek officials on the legal options available to the Greek state. That visit led to a media frenzy and a heightened public awareness of the Parthenon Sculptures which, according to Hill, had not been seen before or since.
In introducing Geoffrey Robertson, David Hill described the international lawyer as an “inspirational figure” and a “winner” who can really advance the Greek case for reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.
Geoffrey Robertson did not disappoint the audience, opening with the self-evident declaration that the Parthenon Sculptures belong to the whole world because they are the expression of an idea, a democratic ideal that began in Greece 2,500 years ago.
After laying out the historical truths about Elgin’s duplicitous actions in abusing his diplomatic status as British Ambassador to Constantinople commencing in 1801 by bribing corrupt Ottoman authorities in Athens so as to strip the Parthenon monument of much of its incredible statuary, Robertson explained that no firman or permission was ever given by the Sultan for the pillage of the Parthenon, despite the British Museum’s claims to the contrary.
According to Robertson, the British Museum is the receiver of stolen property and there is simply no alternative to that fact. Elgin lied about his motives in tearing down the sculptures and he lied about the so-called permission that he obtained. No such permission or firman has ever been produced from the Ottoman archives of the period.
Geoffrey Robertson noted that the King of the modern Greek State as far back as 1836 requested the return of the stolen sculptures and the eminent jurist lamented the fact that almost 200 years of useless diplomacy has followed. According to Robertson, the British Government will never cede the sculptures to Greece whilst the British Museum and its Trustees reject all calls for their return.
Robertson told his audience that in 2014 he and Amal Clooney held a number of private discussions with the then director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, who made it clear that the British Museum would never lend, let alone return, the sculptures to Greece. As informed campaigners and observers are aware, this obstructionist and colonial mindset, born of imperial condescension, continues to permeate the British cultural establishment and the Conservative Government under Boris Johnson, as exemplified by the British Museum’s shameful ‘loan’ of the River God Ilissos in late 2014 to the Hermitage in Russia under the guise of ‘cultural diplomacy’ but in reality to tell the Greeks that the British Museum can literally do whatever it likes with the sculptures.
But Robertson suggests there is a way forward; a legal strategy through international law.
In his book, which encapsulates the advice previously given to the Greek Government in 2015, Robertson explains that whilst Britain would never accept a case brought by Greece in the International Court of Justice, it would no alternative but to respond to a request made by the General Assembly of the United Nations to the ICJ for an advisory opinion on a question of law.
Greece has previously and successfully moved for a general resolution to be passed at the UN for the return of stolen cultural property and, according to Robertson, this advisory opinion route would allow Greece to put its case forward on the international stage in arguing for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures based on the principle of customary international law that cultural property stolen from a country during colonial times must be returned to it. That principle has now “ripened” into a rule.
The added advantage of seeking an advisory opinion from the world’s highest international court would be that other countries, including Australia, can make submissions in support of the Greek case.
Geoffrey Robertson was blunt in his overall assessment of the current Greek position. There is no other way. The British Museum will never return the sculptures and therefore it has to be a legal strategy that is deployed because Greece’s efforts at diplomacy have failed. Only before an international tribunal (on reference from UN) can Greece finally and comprehensively lay out its evidence before the world that the sculptures were illegally removed, that there was no permission ever given, that it was only corruption and bribery that allowed for the cultural plunder of the sculptures and that it is therefore entitled to the return of the “keys to its ancient history”.
Following a vote of ‘thanks’ moved by the Australian committee, Geoffrey Robertson received a huge and warm response from the crowd. In keeping with the title of Geoffrey’s recent autobiography “Rather his own man”, Greece had found its own man in the case for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures.
Following the presentation, the author gladly signed copies of both the English and Greek editions and posed for photographs with the appreciative members of the audience.
A special mention goes to Dennis Tritaris of Orama Communications for adeptly managing the event and Greek City Times for its support and live streaming of the event.
It was indeed a night to remember.
George Vardas is Vice President of the Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures.