The cultural battle continues over the Elgin marbles, one of the finest collections of classical art.
The Parthenon in Athens was in a parlous state at the time the Earl of Elgin became British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1799. Elgin claimed the sculptures would be better off in Britain than remaining unprotected in Athens. Elgin obtained a “firman”, a legal document, that allegedly permitted him to remove the sculptures. Some say he stole them. Elgin’s financial situation deteriorated and, in need of cash, he sold them to the UK Parliament in 1816. A new home was found for them at the British Museum.
The return of the marbles to Greece has been the subject of the longest cultural row in Europe. Recent publicity has reopened the debate, possibly prompted by the involvement of Amal Clooney (George Clooney’s wife) who has been advising the Greek government on possible causes of action before the international courts.
In March 2015, the UK government and the British Museum rejected UNESCO’s proposal for mediation arguing that the marbles had been acquired on legal grounds. Subsequently, a claim was launched by the Syllogos Ton Athinaion (or ‘Athenians Association’) at the European Court of Human Rights.
The claims involved alleged breaches of various rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (the “Convention”), such as the cultural rights of the Association and its members (Article 8), the freedom of conscience (Article 9), the right to access cultural information as an aspect of freedom of expression (Article 10), the right to an effective remedy (Article 13) and the right to property, in this context the right to access the Parthenon monument in its entirety (Article 1 of the Additional Protocol).
The claim failed on technical grounds, rather than on the merits. The Court held that none of the Articles relied on gave rise to any right of an association in the position of the applicant (the Syllogos) to have the marbles returned to Greece. Further, the Syllogos tried to bring its claim within the temporal jurisdiction of the Court by relying on the refusal of the UK to mediate. The Court held, however, that the removal of the marbles occurred 150 years before the drafting and ratification by the UK of the Convention and so the Syllogos’ complaint seemed to be inadmissible.
The ruling would not affect the merits of the arguments to return the sculptures as the Court made no ruling on this. This still leaves the door open for the Greek government to start legal proceedings.
And, on a more positive note for Syllogos (and Greece generally), a cross party group of MP’s have presented a bill to the UK Parliament seeking the transfer of ownership and return to Greece of the marbles. The bill received its first reading in the House of Commons on 11 July and is scheduled for a second reading in January 2017.
At least this could create some goodwill in future Brexit talks…