Saturday 7 July 2012

Inquiring after the Hague Convention

It's not often that one's desperate for a disgraced politician not to resign. But this is what I found myself wishing for in the aftermath of Jeremy Hunt's appearance at the Leveson Inquiry on 31 May.

As Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (you couldn't make it up: DoSAC, anybody?) Hunt has been accused of being inappropriately accommodating to James Murdoch in relation to News Corp's bid for BSkyB. But he has also been the minister most accommodating to the UNESCO UK-led lobbying for the UK government finally to ratify the Hague Convention.

As should be obvious from its name, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict—to give it its full title—commits its signatories, should they go to war, to identify and protect movable and immovable cultural heritage, and buildings that house such objects. It was drawn up in 1954, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and has since been ratified by over a hundred countries. The UK is not one of them.

In early 2010 UNESCO UK led a consortium of UK cultural heritage bodies, including BISI, to present a written statement to the Chilcot Inquiry (yes, remember that one? It still hasn't reported). The document (409 KB PDF download) set out evidence to show that, in the words of the press release:

Despite the attempts of various cultural organisations to alert the UK Government of the importance and vulnerability of archaeological sites, monuments, museums, archives and libraries in Iraq, the identification and protection of the cultural property was not a formal part of the planning for the invasion.

Not surprisingly, the consortium also urged the government to ratify Hague as a matter of urgency.

Since then the UNESCO-led consortium has kept up the letter-writing campaign, both to goverment departments and to the media, with coverage both in the press and radio this past spring.

Hunt responded swiftly and positively to the latest round of lobbying, calling ratification "a priority" for the government, which is "committed to introducing legislation to ratify the Convention and accede to its two Protocols as soon as Parliamentary time allows, taking account of all our legislative priorities". He told us that he had already requested parliamentary time for the reading of a Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill in the 2012-13 session.

It is too early to get too excited about this promise, as we have been here before. In 2008 the Labour Government tabled a Draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill which didn't make it through the legislative process before the 2009 election killed it. But we hope and expect that Chilcot will also include ratification of Hague amongst its recommendations, when (later this summer?) it produces its report on lessons learned from the Iraq conflict.

Doubtless I will be writing about Hague again soon: watch this space.

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