The biggest question in the world of art and culture concerns the return of property taken without consent. Throughout history, conquerors or colonial masters have taken artefacts from subjugated peoples, who now want them returned from museums and private collections in Europe and the USA.
The controversy rages on over the Elgin Marbles, and has been given immediacy by figures such as France’s President Macron, who says he will order French museums to return hundreds of artworks acquired by force or fraud in Africa, and by British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has pledged that a Labour government would return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Elsewhere, there is a debate in Belgium about whether the Africa Museum, newly opened with 120,000 items acquired mainly by armed forces in the Congo, should close.
Although there is an international convention dated 1970 that deals with the restoration of artefacts stolen since that time, there is no agreement on the rules of law or ethics which should govern the fate of objects forcefully or lawlessly acquired in previous centuries.
Who Owns History? delves into the crucial debate over the Elgin Marbles, but also offers a system for the return of cultural property based on human rights law principles that are being developed by the courts. It is not a legal text, but rather an examination of how the past can be experienced by everyone, as well as by the people of the country of origin.
Geoffrey Robertson QC has had a distinguished career as a trial counsel, human rights advocate and United Nations judge. He has appeared in many celebrated Old Bailey trials, defending the editors of Oz magazine and Gay News, the National Theatre over its staging of The Romans in Britain, and the directors of Matrix Churchill in the case that exposed the ‘Iraqgate’ scandal that helped to bring down John Major’s government. He has argued many death penalty appeals at the Privy Council, defended Salman Rushdie and Julian Assange, prosecuted Hastings Banda and represented Human Rights Watch in the proceedings against General Pinochet. He served as first president of the UN war crimes court in Sierra Leone and as a ‘distinguished jurist’ on the UN Justice Council (2008-12).Mr Robertson is founder and co-head of Doughty Street Chambers. He held the office of Recorder (part-time judge) for many years and is a Master of the Middle Temple and a visiting professor in human rights. His books include Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (a textbook on the development of human rights law); The Tyrannicide Brief (the story of how Cromwell’s lawyers mounted the trial of Charles I); an acclaimed memoir, The Justice Game; Mullahs without Mercy: Human Rights and Nuclear Weapons; and Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK. In 2011 he received the Award for Distinction in International Law and Affairs from the New York State Bar Association.