Final synthesis and conclusions of the Athens Conference by Elena Korka
Elena Korka is Director of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities and Director for Documentation and Protection of Cultural Objects at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture.
The Athens International Conference on the
Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of
Origin was hosted by Greece on 17–18 March 2008 at the New Acropolis Museum, Athens. It took place at the foot of the Acropolis, an environment strongly associated with the issue of the return of cultural objects. The conference was organized under the auspices of UNESCO and was the fruit of close cooperation between UNESCO and the
Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Its importance lies in the fact that it constituted the first of a series of actions which will take place within the framework of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee.
Moreover, it preceded the convening of the
Extraordinary Session of the Intergovernmental
Committee for the Return of Cultural Property to its Country of Origin (ICPRCP) of UNESCO, which was held, in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Committee, in Seoul, Korea, on 25–28 November 2008. During this session the results of the Athens conference were the subject of productive debate, and were acknowledged in the recommendation of the Committee.
The Athens conference focused on constructive exchanges; of experience and knowledge relating to discussions and negotiations for the return of cultural objects. It constituted a fertile starting point, focusing on the benefits that
ISSN 1350-0775, No. 241–242 (Vol. 61, No. 1–2, 2009) ª UNESCO 2009 153
Published by UNESCO Publishing and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. can arise from cooperation between states or competent bodies at the international level as decisive factors in the issue of the return of cultural objects.
This first international conference brought together a select number of high-profile professionals who have been involved in discussions leading to the return or reunification of cultural property, including jurists, archaeologists, academics, professionals in the museum field, journalists and others.
Consideration was given in particular to the existing and developing legal, ethical and scholarly framework, as well as to practical means for the effective strengthening of the infrastructure relating to this issue.
The first day of the conference was dedicated to specific cases of return, presented by both parties involved. These cases referred to objects, monuments or human remains removed from their countries of origin before 1970 – that is, before the UNESCO Convention – and whose return met with success as a result of a series of actions and long negotiations. These cases were selected as pilot projects and examples of best practice. It is worth mentioning that each case was a voluntary return, with various cultural, scientific and scholarly benefits, wherein the outcome was the result of dialogue rather than recourse to judicial proceedings or disputes. A common denominator of all six cases presented during the
Athens conference was the special importance and exceptional value attributed to the returned property. The requests for return were based on the fact that the object, monument or remains were considered as essential elements of the cultural heritage of certain communities, states or nations, necessary to their existence.
Therefore, the Athens international conference can be considered as a reference point concerning the issue for the return of cultural objects in terms of the proven potential of goodwill, intercultural dialogue and cultural ethics. The conference produced concrete proof of the possibility of using a common, trans-national language, shared and understood by all peoples – a language based on moral grounds, which supersede legal obligations. This is the language of cultural diversity, its recognition and its acceptance. The cases of return that were presented attest to our ability to cooperate and find solutions, acknowledging the role that culture plays in connecting peoples and promoting a positive global vision. This message reinforces the mandates of the Committee. A return denotes generosity. It provides an ideal for humanity and respect for the identity of others. It means involvement in the moral progress and evolution of society worldwide. It inspires and teaches us higher cultural values, which countries and cultural organizations are called upon to serve and bequeath to the next generations. Finally, it signals the dawn of a new era, based on ethics and principles: in this spirit, those who participate in such proceedings contribute to the universal mosaic of a new cultural aura for the future.
The cases of return on which the conference focused revolve around objects that constitute an inseparable part of the cultural identity of certain peoples, operating as a link between the past, the present and the future and often as a means for self-awareness and
FINAL SYNTHESIS AND CONCLUSIONS 154 Published by UNESCO Publishing and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. self-definition. The return of cultural objects, on a permanent basis or under certain conditions, represents an important event for humanity as a whole, while the conference speakers consistently highlighted the benefits that accrue as a direct result of returns.
The case of the Axum Obelisk – an excellent example of engineering and an Ethiopian national monument – constitutes a model programme and landmarkfor similarcasesof returnrelating toWorld
Heritage Monuments removed from their birthplace during foreign rule. This removal occurred during the Second World War, and the return from Italy was entwined in a bilateral agreement for research and promotion of the World Heritage site of Axum. The ongoing cooperation between the Ethiopian
Archaeological Service and Italian universities and laboratories can be considered as a pilot agreement that benefits both sides.
The stone birds of Great Zimbabwe are national symbols and form part of a World