The following is an open letter circulated yesterday (May 14) by Alexis Mantheakis, Chairman of the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee, on the recent developments in the Parthenon Sculptures issue:
The recent snub by the British government to UNESCO’s offer to mediate in the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures dispute and the arrogant wording directed at the Greek government’s often repeated offer to negotiate the matter by discussion confirmed our position that Britain never had the intention to enter into good faith discussions. As we had said in recent fora, the only road we saw to possible success was one of legal action, with a direct and dynamic confrontation with Whitehall.
The recent response by Britain dissolved any illusions we had regarding the powers in the UK to be brought to do the right thing, and to right a historical wrong. We too had hoped that Britain would succumb to worldwide public opinion to correct an outrage, the stripping and vandalising of the Parthenon of 60% of its famous millenia-old Sculptures , a crime committed when Greeks were under occupation and unable to defend their archaeological heritage and national symbols of identity.
The latest declaration by the new minister of culture in the UK continues with the hard line of his predeccesors, namely that “The marbles were legally acquired according to the laws of the time. ” So Mr Minister were 3 million African slaves, captured, transported and sold, “according to the laws of the time.” Opium too was purchased and sold, in tons “according to the laws of the time”. Those who did not agree to buy your opium had two wars declared on them, and so China paid with the loss of Hong Kong and a treaty to buy your Indian grown opium. This, Mr Minister, is NOT that time. We are disputing your CURRENT possession of symbols of our heritage, removed from Athens and held by you in a totally government financed and controlled museum institution (all the board is appointed directly, or indirectly by the UK government or by the Queen).
This, though, is not the issue.
One more British government acting like an infant petulantly hugging another child’s toy, saying “It is mine, mine!” is understandable, because there is no home-made item that can compare in beauty, artisanry, historic or other value to those created by a superior ancient civilisation. We may understand the feeling, and commiserate, but that does not justify the possession of the looted Greek scultures taken from the Parthenon. There is no justification for it. We sympathise with the situation the British Museum is in, but our sympathy doesn’t extend to giving up iconic and defitive items of our heritage, nor did our illustrious and talented predecessors in Ancient Athens build the Parthenon to have its facade torn off and damaged by a British ambassador to decorate his Scottish residence. The Parthenon was built by Pericles and the Greek city states to commemorate the victory of Greek civilisation against the very type of barbarity and lack of respect that Elgin indulged in 2300 years later.
The British position is well known and is in keeping with how official Britain has acted in the last few centuries. To win in a contest the basic rule MUST be to understand your opponent and create your game strategy around this knowledge.
Anyone who has studied British history and politics will know that Britain NEVER, but NEVER, gives anything back unless forced to do so. India, Cyprus, as well as dozens of colonies of the Empire, and other possessions acquired without the consent of the people, often with great bloodshed caused by British troops were only given back by Britain after a bitterly contested conflict, on the field of battle, in courts, or with a series of extended non-violent political actions by those who had lost their heritage, freedoms, or historical archaeological treasures. Britain today in its museums and in the Tower of London still holds numerous purloined and pillaged items as well as those taken by reason of military superiority from a vanquished foe defending himself on his own soil. The Kohinoor Diamond in the so called Crown Jewels taken from a defeated 15 year old prince in India, is but one example. Manifest Destiny demanded it. We oppose this way of thinking.
This lengthy introduction, and I will apologise, was to emphasise my conviction that dialogue for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, after so many valiant and polite efforts by Greece, and its overseas friends in all walks of life, is not a viable option, and only incurable romantics or people without an understanding of the official British character and its limitations can insist that this dead end is the road to the Restitution in Athens.
The problem is not the obduracy and intransigence of British officialdom. It is a given, and we have to act with that in mind. It is with the very knowledge of the historic failure of Greek diplomacy, both cultural and political, and that of our own self-financed voluntary Parthenon organisations, to bring about the return, that it was encouraging when the Greek government, that for 40 years has not asked Britain officially for the Sculptures return, not long ago decided to involve an experienced and prestigious British legal firm Doughty Street Chambers led by George Robertson QC, to represent our interests and to write a report regarding what options were open for Greece to act.
Overall public awareness of the issue and additional sympathy for the Greek case was given very welcome boosts, human nature being what it is, by declarations of public support by celebrities such as George Clooney, Matt Damon and others, while a visit to Greece by Mrs Clooney with her senior colleagues at the UK law office created a media frenzy and a heightening of public interest in the Parthenon issue. The Doughty Chambers law group produced a 140 page confidential report for the Greek government describing, as leaked to the press, 5 options. The one considered to have the highest chance of success was, and this is no surprise to us, for Greece to go immediately to the European Court of Human Rights where, according to the report, there was the greatest chance of a Greek legal victory. The lawyers were specific: it is now or never, if the opportunity is not to be lost with issues such as statutes of limitations in the near future killing Greek chances of recovery of the items through international court decisions.
In Greece, as we all know there is a new government, and the report was delivered to them. With the understanding of the British penchant for intransigence, fortified by the recent snub to UNESCO, and the history of failed attempts, the new minister had a detailed road map in his hands, to move forward, with of course the support of millions around the world and at home. Expecting his decision to do this, using the British law firm and their international expertise and experience in cross border cultural issues we were stunned to hear the announcement of Under Minister Mr Nickos Xidakis, a former journalist, who announced, in more words than these, that ” We will not go against Britain in court… This is a matter to be settled politically and diplomatically…this issue will be settled, bit by bit over, time…”
Looking at what the minister said let us examine the viability of his declared course of action over that which the British lawyers and we ourselves at IPSACI believe, and we all want the same thing , the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.
A) Mr Xidakis rejects the expert opinion of the British legal experts. Claiming we may lose in court. But for 200 years we have lost! We can only win, or if we lose here, we can initiate a new legal action in another court.
B) Mr Xidakis says the issue can be won diplomatically. The question is, after 200 years of failed diplomatic initiatives, is the government of Mr Xidakis in such a powerful international position to impose a solution using diplomacy? Does he know of Greek diplomats who can force Mr Cameron to sign a new law allowing/directing the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures?
C) Mr Xidakis told the press that the issue should be dealt with “politically” . This is indeed one way countries settle disputes. The assumption by lay persons like myself, on hearing the Minister, is that Greece at this moment has the political clout to bring the British Museum to its knees and to force Mr Cameron to sign the document of repatriation of the Sculptures to Athens. With all our goodwill towards Mr Xidakis, where does he draw this feeling of current Greek political power and superiority over Britain from?
D) Finally the minister says that this issue is being slowly resolved, “little by little”.
But it has already been 200 years from the stripping of the friezes and metopes and Britain has not moved one centimetre in the direction Greece demands!
If the minister does not tell us why he feels his/our government has the diplomatic and political power to solve the issue, I very much fear that his position looks like a hot potato shifting of the issue to a future government because of reluctance to take the bull by the horns, as recommended by the UK lawyers, and get into court with his British counterpart.(Apologies for the mixed metaphors!)
I have a great fear that we are about to lose the Parthenon Sculptures for ever, and that the work of all our organisations, ministries, diplomatic missions, our volunteer supporters, and decades of dedicated work by people such as yourselves around the world, and in Greek and international organisations are about to be lost down the drain.
I therefore beg those who believe that we must recommend to Minister Xidakis and his staff to listen to the recommendations of people and experts who know the issues well, and understand the mindset of those walking the halls of Russell Square and Westmister, to express their concern to the authorities in Greece.
Thank you for your patience in reading this long analysis of where I believe we are today, in view of the recent, and disturbing developments.
Best to all,
Chairman of the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee Inc.