“The British Museum will never voluntarily return the marbles,” stated world-acclaimed barrister and human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson QC, during his visit to Adelaide last week to attend the Foundation for Hellenic Studies’ formal dinner, as an honorary guest at the Adelaide Festival Centre.
There is vast amounts of evidence that Lord Elgin stole the marbles, that he didn’t have the authority to take them, that the British Museum has damaged them seriously and all sorts of wrongs have been done to the Greeks
Greek Australian Chief of Justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia, Christopher Kourakis, introduced the well-respected 69-year-old barrister who, together with British Lebanese lawyer, activist and author Amal Alamuddin Clooney, visited Greece in October 2013 to meet with the former Greek government, in an attempt to resolve the ongoing issue and reclaim the Parthenon Sculptures.
Robertson, who holds dual Australian and British citizenship, remains adamant that all political and diplomatic angles have been tried regarding the return of the Parthenon Marbles, and the only way that Greece could ever bring them together is by litigation, either in the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg or in the International Court of Justice, The Hague.
“There is a vast amount of evidence that Lord Elgin stole the marbles, that he didn’t have the authority to take them, that the British Museum has damaged them seriously and all sorts of wrongs have been done to the Greeks,” said Robertson during his one hour lecture, denouncing most of Britain’s arguments on the case.
Robertson revealed in an exclusive interview with Neos Kosmos that his team’s extensive and detailed research in 2015 showed indisputable evidence that Greece’s attempts to have the marbles returned didn’t start in the 1980s with former Minister of Culture, actress and activist, Melina Mercouri, as the British Museum trustees encourage the world to believe. The west’s biggest cultural debate traces its roots back to 1833.
“Greece has been begging and demanding that the British Museum returns the marbles ever since 1833, a few years after the country obtained its independence, but the British won’t have it; therefore Greece has to face the fact that the only way they can get the Parthenon sculptures back is by suing Britain.
“Even the King of Greece, in 1836, talked about Elgin’s looting and theft; the only time, in fact, Greece did not demand the marbles back was during the Junta period (1967-1974), because the fascist colonels didn’t care,” says Robertson.
Although Greece has tried everything except going to law, the final straw was last year, when Britain refused to even discuss the matter, despite UNESCO’s persistence for the two countries to start negotiations.
Meanwhile, it’s not all Britain’s fault in more recent years. For Robertson, the current Greek government is to blame as well.
He admits that he was appalled by the way the current Greek government handled the case back in May 2015, when Greek Minister of Culture Aristides Baltas announced that he was not going to accept the barrister’s opinion, although Robertson’s Doughty Street Chambers team hadn’t, at that point, even delivered their proposal.
“I thought that was disgraceful, and although the Greek Ministry of Culture apologised, it didn’t publicly withdraw what most people now think. We presented our opinion on July 31 and I haven’t heard since,” the barrister said.
Robertson revealed he was amazed at some politicians of the present government who, instead of using the 500-page opinion on the arguments which could mount a strong case in a legal challenge against Britain, they refuse to follow the path of litigation so that they don’t upset the British. Instead, they keep encouraging Greece to resort to political and diplomatic means.
“But do you realise that those means have been used regularly since 1833 to try to get the marbles reunited, and the British government and the trustees just laugh whenever they hear a Greek politician of any significance saying, ‘we should try diplomatic and political means’?
“You can almost hear the wails of laughter from the trustees, who know that this will never work; it’s never worked.”
Interestingly, Robertson suggests that deep down, the Greeks are hesitant to take legal action because they feel somehow indebted to Britain due to its contribution to the Naval Battle of Navarino (1827), where the British led the allied forces (French and Russian) to defeat the Turkish and Egyptian navies, which paved the way for the liberation of Greece.
“I call it the Navarino syndrome. There is this sense of gratitude to Britain for back then and again later in the World War II, when the British assisted in the defeat of the Nazis in Greece. There is, I think, a kind of awe but there is an irrational feeling that Greece shouldn’t upset Britain by taking her to court.
“Of course the British will not be upset; that is an absurd argument because most of the British people want to give the marbles back to Greece anyway.”
Back in 2015, the Greek Minister of Culture, Aristides Baltas, announced that Greece wouldn’t proceed to litigation, expressing concerns regarding the repercussions should Greece lose the legal battle.
Robertson agrees that the Greeks are worried that, should they lose a court case against Britain, they will never be able to get their marbles back, “but even if that was to happen, they would lose on a technicality – what lawyers call admissibility question – and not on the merits; the merits will always be there morally to argue and next time to win.”
Britain’s agenda goes further than just the Parthenon Marbles. In the last statement released by its press office, it argued that keeping the Parthenon Marbles in London “allows a worldwide audience to see them. They are part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries,” they stated.
The barrister says that the British Museum, as well as the museum movement all over the world, is by trade and self-interest also worried about giving back the marbles because they know that, should a precedent be set, they might have to return all the accumulated pieces of art that has been stolen by colonial predators over the decades.
“All around the world we are seeing little cases being ordered to be returned. We are evolving, and what is going to help Greece get over the hurdle is the behaviour of ISIS – look at what they have done to Palmyra. There is a terrible need to have a rule of international law against the despoliation of great cultural property and the international criminal court is formulating an indictment of one of the ISIS people.
“I don’t take a view one way or the other when it comes to other pieces of art, but what I do insist on, is that the Parthenon is unique and symbolises the beginnings of democratic society, 2,300 years ago.
“It’s a non pareil. There is no other work of art that so symbolises what is nothing less than the beginning of human civilisation. This was 450BC, this is the first society that we can call civilised; it’s democracy, the place where philosophers walked around the market thinking and questioning and the place where history started being written.
“I think that international law has evolved. In my judgement, it has evolved to a point where unique pieces of art, which are important historically to the world and are the keys to the history of a particular sovereign country, can be ordered to be returned.”
For Robertson, the time is now for Greece to go to the International Court of Justice to request the development of a rule that would require Britain to reunite the marbles under the blue attic sky, “because there is a special place for them; in the Acropolis museum which is just below the Parthenon”.
“That’s where they were originally and that’s where they should be now.”
As for Britain, “Britain is Great Britain, and it actually obeys international laws”.
In any other case, this extraordinary work of art will remain hostage in the Duveen Gallery in honour of Lord Duveen “who was a crook and an art forger; proving the moral insouciance of the British Museum trustees that put the Parthenon Marbles in a gallery dedicated to a crook”.