What's Happening in Parliament

On Monday 31st October, Yemens profound heritage and culture, along with the wars effect on the countrys history were discussed.

The mentioning of it was as follows:

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
I am delighted to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), peroration and all. I declare an interest, as the chairman of the all-party groups on archaeology and on the British Museum, and as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

As we have all agreed, the Bill has been a long time coming—it is 62 years old. As I glance around the room, I hazard a guess that that makes it older than anybody in the Chamber, now that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) has left.

Sir Edward Garnier

Tim Loughton
I am delighted to be put right by my right hon. and learned Friend, although we would never know it, Mr Speaker.
I also pay tribute to what is left of the Labour Opposition and the remarkable dexterity of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) who, in a debate on cultural artefacts, managed to mention Keats, Uber taxi drivers, the temple of Bel and an attack on private education. He certainly gave us his money’s worth, even if he does not have many mates with him to support this excellent Bill.

I very much welcome the Bill. We know that the original protocol and convention were passed in 1954, largely as a reaction to the destruction of cultural artefacts of the second world war. We know that the second protocol, which came about in 1999, mostly followed in the wake of great destruction in the former republic of Yugoslavia. We recall the familiar scenes at the UNESCO world heritage sites such as the Mostar bridge, which really brought home the futility of war and the destruction of our culture, which we just do not get back. That protocol recognised that the desecration of cultural property could become a war crime ​and identified the blue shield scheme, which many Members have referred to. It also set up an international non-governmental organisation advisory body to the intergovernmental committee for the convention. There were therefore great hopes in 1999 that we might follow suit. We have made reference to the heritage Minister Andrew McIntosh, who brought forward in 2004 a commitment to ratify the convention. That led to a Bill in 2008, which was scrutinised by the Select Committee, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). The Bill was supported by the Ministry of Defence and the whole heritage sector, but the excuse given for what happened was that it became overshadowed by the financial crisis and ran out of parliamentary time. Then in 2011, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), as a Minister, reconfirmed the Government’s commitment to ratification at the “earliest possible opportunity”.

In 2014, there was another great body blow when the Cabinet Committee said that it had not been able to grant drafting authority for a Bill—not even a handout Bill. The commitment of successive Governments was in question when their warm words were not followed up by definitive action. At long last, that earliest possible opportunity has arrived. I particularly pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon—he is not in his place at the moment—whose personal commitment to this matter and lobbying of the powers that be at No. 10 has made this Bill a reality.

The announcement in last year’s autumn statement of the £30 million cultural protection fund together with a summit of heritage experts really gave flesh to that commitment. The legislative wheels grind frustratingly slowly, and, as with the second protocol, it has taken the cultural cleansing atrocities in Syria and Iraq to concentrate the minds of those in a position to bring forward this ratification today.

I do not want to be churlish, because I really welcome the Bill and the commitment behind it. I absolutely praise all those who have played an integral part in this. Many of them have been mentioned today. I am talking about Sir Neil MacGregor, the former outstanding director of the British Museum, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) who, in his relatively short time in this House, has made a big impact in this area. It is really important now that we get on with it. We need to gain the moral high ground and become the only one of the five permanent UN Security Council member countries to ratify both the protocols and the convention.

Why is this important? At a time when we are seeing horrific scenes of women, children and men being bombed, murdered and executed in the most grotesque fashion by Daesh in the tragic conflicts in both Syria and Yemen, why should we be concerned about a bunch of old rocks and relics? My hon. Friend the Member for Newark described just a couple of examples. Let me mention Professor Assad, the director of antiquities at Palmyra, which I was privileged enough to visit just before the civil war in Syria—it is the most magical archaeological site imaginable, and I speak as someone who studied Mesopotamian archaeology and who has visited many sites—and the guards at Nineveh. These people gave their lives because they appreciated and understood the importance of protecting culture as the ​spirit of a nation, and that it makes mankind what it is and is what separates mankind from savages. As the Heritage Alliance put it:

“The destruction of cultural capital is a powerful propaganda tool and is part of a long history of demoralising communities by destroying the symbols of their nationhood.”
As Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, said, this is “cultural cleansing”, and we must view it as such and in the same terms as trafficking.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
Many antiquities can be purchased on the black market. Does the hon. Gentleman think that Governments should—either directly, or indirectly through a third party—try to purchase some of those antiquities and keep them for posterity for the years to come?

Tim Loughton
It is an interesting prospect, but I would much rather track down and prosecute the people who benefit from trafficking these antiquities. We do not want to set up a legitimate market, with Governments paying money to criminals. There are other ways of tracking down some of these important antiquities. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newark that London has, by and large, a very legitimate market in antiques and antiquities. Obviously there are a few people who are the exception to that, but London has an excellent reputation compared with many other parts of the world. Hopefully, this Bill will prompt the United States Government to ratify the protocols, as it is suggested that they have been looking for a lead from a significant military ally.

We have heard several examples of recent high-profile tragedies involving cultural terrorism: the 2015 looting of the Mosul museum; the vandalism of the Nergal Gate at Nineveh; and the destruction of the temple of Baalshamin at Palmyra—separate to the triumphal arch of Palmyra, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West conflated it with, but an important monument to that civilisation. All those tragedies were at the hands of Daesh. Indeed, Palmyra should be treated as a crime scene, given the damage that was done there. Fortunately, there was not as much damage as Daesh might have inflicted on it had it been given more time.

In other continents, shrines were deliberately destroyed by Boko Haram in Nigeria. We have heard one bit of good news, which is the first prosecution in the International Criminal Court of Ahmad al-Mahdi for his destruction in Timbuktu, the centre of Sufi Islam. He directed the destruction of 15th and 16th century Sufi tombs and the burning of the library in Timbuktu. His verdict just last month gave out a nine-year prison sentence for that cultural vandalism. That sends out a very important message, and we need to see many more people being brought to justice to emphasise just how important a crime against humanity this is.

Jim Shannon

Tim Loughton
May I continue a little, because I know that the Minister will want to respond on this?
There has also been mention of Yemen. Again, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Yemen just before the civil war broke out—I am not a precursor to these civil wars, but I was in the country when it was a slightly ​less dangerous place to be. There are four UNESCO world heritage sites in Yemen: the historic town of Zabid; the old walled city of Shibam, the Chicago of the desert, with 16th century skyscrapers—the earliest skyscrapers in the world—made out of mud brick rising out of the desert; the magical walled medieval city of Sana’a itself; and the natural world heritage site on the island of Socotra. These sites are going largely under the radar. We hear more about the carnage being waged in Yemen, but little about the important cultural background to that country. Those are just a few of the sites that we know about.

Jim Shannon
May I take the hon. Gentleman’s mind back to when he mentioned Mosul? When we visited Iraq, and Irbil in particular, we had the opportunity to meet Archbishop Nicodemus of the Orthodox Church. He was archbishop in Mosul, and he informed us that his church had been destroyed and the cross taken down. Where there was a church is now a car park. When Mosul is liberated, does the hon. Gentleman think that those responsible should be made accountable for their dastardly deeds?

Tim Loughton
Those people should absolutely be held accountable and brought to justice. I am sure that when it is safe to do so, that important religious establishment will rise phoenix-like again, and I am sure the people of Mosul of all faiths will want to see that happen as that city gets back on its feet after the terrible things it has been through.

Across the world, spread across 165 countries, we have 1,052 UNESCO world heritage sites, of which 814 are cultural. I have mentioned some of the sites, but those are just the ones we know about. Some 90% of archaeological sites in Iraq have yet to be excavated, and many will have been looted over recent years. There is also the issue, as we have heard, of how cultural looting by Daesh and others finances terrorism.

The destruction of Syria’s archaeological sites has become catastrophic. There are unauthorised excavations going on, and the plunder of and trafficking in stolen cultural artefacts is an escalating problem. Many of the objects have already been lost to science and society, and the context in which many of them are being dug up in unsupervised conditions will be lost forever. The trading in looted Syrian cultural artefacts has apparently become the third largest trade in illegal goods worldwide. It is big business. It is estimated that looting is Daesh’s second largest revenue source after oil sales. There are around 4,500 archaeological sites including UNESCO world heritage sites which have been under the control of Daesh. Hopefully, fewer or none of them will continue to be, as the counter-offensive against Daesh succeeds in Iraq in particular.

Iraqi intelligence claims that Daesh alone has collected more than $40 million from the sale of artefacts. It is the equivalent of what the Taliban were doing in Afghanistan through the cultivation and sale of heroin to feed markets in the west. We took that very seriously and it was a priority for the invading and occupying forces in that country, yet the devastation and profit involved in the plundering of these archaeological sites and the sale of antiquities does not seem to register nearly as clearly on the world’s radar. This is an important part of putting that case firmly on the world’s agenda.​

We are facing a quadruple threat. First, jihadists are looting these sites, claiming some sort of religious reason for doing so. They are entirely hypocritically profiting from their destruction on international black markets. Secondly, it is alleged that President Assad is knowingly selling antiquities to pay his henchmen. There are videos showing Assad’s soldiers at Palmyra some time ago ripping out grave relief sculptures and smiling for the cameras as those are loaded on to trucks. Thirdly, the Free Syrian Army in its various guises is looting antiquities as a vital source of funding. Fourthly, an increasingly active part of the population is involved in looting. Ordinary people are looting Syria’s cultural heritage because they have no jobs, income or tangible economic prospects and are increasingly turning to age-old plundering techniques, in some cases looting to order.
As a result of the activities of those four different parties, the fantastic culture of Syria and Iraq in particular is being systematically plundered, yet that hardly features on the west’s radar. We also have to face the consequences of the financing of terrorist organisations through the plunder of antiquities. We look forward to a day in the future when peace in some form comes to this region, but the looting also threatens to deprive Syria in particular of one of its best opportunities for a post-conflict economic recovery based on tourism which, until the conflict started, contributed more than 12% of national income.

It is important for the United Kingdom to be passing this legislation, as we have one of the most professional and strategically thinking heritage communities in the world. The Bill will enable the UK’s soft power and diplomacy agendas to position the UK as an international leader in demonstrating a supportive and facilitating approach to the protection of cultural property. Post-Brexit—something that has not been mentioned this evening—we need to promote our extensive cultural wealth and network of contacts through world museums such as the British Museum to re-forge new relationships beyond the EU. The respectability and gravitas of having signed up to the world’s protection protocols gives us considerably more strength and credibility in doing so.

We have heard about the £3 million which has been given to the British Museum to bring Iraqi archaeologists and restoration experts to the UK to help train them in how they can reconstruct their country after the war and the conflict are over and ISIL has been driven out of that country. London hosted the unveiling of the replica of the Palmyra arch, which then went on a world tour—a fantastic example of rescue archaeology and how, in the face of the cultural vandalism, we will rebuild these important heritage sites. I particularly welcome the proposed property protection unit in the Army. The Foreign Secretary and I have already said that we would willingly volunteer to be part of such a force and go out to the middle east to help the new monuments men and women, but they will be much better than the original monuments men.

I gave this example once before, but the extraordinary figure of Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who came to the House 10 years ago, led the hunt for the treasures looted from the Baghdad museum in 2003, after the allied invasion. He led an investigation into the looting of the Iraq national museum, from which many thousands of priceless treasures disappeared. Probably the most priceless of those was the 5,000-year-old Warka vase—the ​first representation of the human face in an art form in stone. After the good works of Colonel Bogdanos, a clapped-out red Toyota appeared outside the Baghdad museum, the boot was opened and in a box was a vase in 20 pieces, which turned out to be the Warka vase—what people had forgotten was that, when the German archaeologists dug up the Warka vase, it was in about 20 pieces and was then glued together. Extraordinary work by an American reservist lawyer with a small team of people reconstructed so many thousands of the important artefacts that had been taken from the museum in Baghdad. We can do even better, and we have the expertise in the British Army, British academia and our museums to play a role even greater than that played by the heroic Colonel Matthew Bogdanos.

May I end, or approach my pre-peroration, Mr Speaker, with a few questions for the Minister? I welcome the £30 million cultural protection fund, as everybody else who has spoken today has. It will help to build capacity to foster, safeguard and promote cultural heritage in conflict-affected regions overseas, but what sort of projects does she envisage it being used for? We know about the £3 million for the British Museum. What happens after the three years to which that £30 million has been devoted?

What about more proactive protection measures than just retaking sites, tracking down looted artefacts and carrying out reconstruction? Can we do a lot more to try to prevent these things from happening in the first place? There were tales in the middle east of the residents of a town, in the face of ISIL, linking hands around some of their important monuments to try to protect them—huge bravery in the teeth of such savagery. Surely we could do more to make sure that we get there before the terrorists and that the terrorists are deflected.

When will we hear further about the Army working group? How many people is it likely to include? The excellent Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, who gave a presentation to the all-party group on archaeology, is hugely impressive and hugely keen, and he wants to get on with it. Perhaps the Minister can give us a progress report on when we might see some tangible results.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe, in the other place, told peers that work was going on in the Department to consider
“what cultural property should be covered in the UK”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 June 2016; Vol. 773, c. 584.]
Perhaps the Minister can update us on what progress has been made on that, and on when we can expect a definitive list.

Then, of course, there is the thorny issue of when cultural property is attacked by terrorist organisations such as Daesh or Boko Haram that are not covered in the Bill because they are not covered by the protocols to the convention. Effectively, we are asking whether the Minister will pursue the possibility of a third protocol. I know we are only just about to sign the first and second protocols and the convention, but if we are to bring the convention up to date, that will require international co-operation to counter those terrorists who are not part of states.

Penultimately, the heavy workload on the excellent Metropolitan police art and antiques unit has been mentioned. If the Bill is to be effective, that workload will be increased, yet there has, as I mentioned, been only one prosecution to date under the Dealing in Cultural ​Objects (Offences) Act 2003. Will the Minister give some assurances that that unit, which is the responsibility of the Home Office, will be properly resourced so that it has enough people with the skills and training to track down the minority of criminals who should have been tracked down before now?

Then there is the issue of scheduled ancient monuments —archaeology in the ground. There are some 20,000 scheduled ancient monuments in the United Kingdom, but they are not included in the proposed list because they are not graded in the same way as listed buildings, for example. What added protections are there for those monuments, given that they are not specifically covered in the Bill?

What is the future of the blue shield scheme, which the Secretary of State described as the “cultural equivalent” of the Red Cross, as it is currently a completely voluntary organisation that is also, to some extent, undermined by the lack of a central team to co-ordinate its activities and avoid duplication? I think she is supportive of the excellent work by Professor Peter Shaw of Newcastle University, who has done so much to champion this whole cause.

Finally, I cannot resist echoing a point raised, slightly impertinently, by the hon. Member for Cardiff West: how does it help to find the archaeologists of the future, who may go into the Army to be part of the new team of monuments men, when we are about to lose the A-level in archaeology? How are we to find the expertise that is so essential to carry out the terms of the legislation that we are belatedly but thankfully scrutinising today? Will the Minister, as a result of these deliberations, have a conversation with her colleague the Secretary of State for Education to see what can be done to keep that important subject on the curriculum? I studied archaeology at school to A/O-level. I did not, however—I am sorry to burst the hon. Gentlemen’s balloon—go to a private school. It was an important subject then and it is an important subject today, across so many areas.
This is a really important Bill. It may be specialist in nature, but it has been pored over, in various forms, for the past 62 years, in expectation of this day. We now, at last, need to get on with it.