Is Cultural Heritage a Human Right?

One of the horses from a four-horse chariot group

The Guardian reported over the weekend that Turkey plans to petition the European Court of Human Rights for the return of sculptures from the mausoleum of Helicarnassus, currently held by the British Museum.  Norman Palmer is quoted in the piece, “I have not heard of it [human rights] being used to raise a claim for the specific restitution of particular tangible objects … This would be a novel claim.” That strikes me as exactly right, I’ don’t see a direct human right to specific cultural objects. And my initial reaction is skeptical of attempting to use a rights-based approach for repatriation. One difficulty that this principle will have is in application. How would a court decide what should be repatriated and what should not. Are all objects from a region tied to that people’s human rights? And is this right only related to the original situs of the object. Could Londoners argue that they have a corresponding human right in some of the objects in the British Museum which is created because of the display and care of the objects. Lots of interesting questions, and this will be a legal challenge to follow closely. The Guardian makes sure to note that Turkey has had its own human rights record challenged by the Strasbourg court.

The mausoleum sculptures were first removed from what is now modern Turkey in 1846 by the British ambassador to Constantinople and others were taken in subsequent excavations by archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton.

The piece also notes that the mere act of announcing a challenge will raise questions about the British Museum’s ownership of the sculptures, and will of course cause similar questions to be asked of other bits and pieces of the ancient 7 wonders which are currently held by the British Museum.

  1. Dalya Alberge, Turkey turns to human rights law to reclaim British Museum sculptures the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/dec/08/turkey-british-museum-sculptures-rights (last visited Dec 10, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

1 thought on “Is Cultural Heritage a Human Right?”

  1. I have argued for years in almost all my articles that withholding the cultural artefacts of a people is a permanent violation of their human right to independent cultural development and practice. In one of the articles I stated: “Westerners must finally accept that the stealing, directly or indirectly, the cultural objects of others, constitutes a violation of their human rights and in the case of funeral objects such as the “vigango”, a violation of their religious rights. The greed of some for exotic art cannot be placed above the human rights of others.”
    http://www.museum-security.org/2009/01/africans-need-african-cultural-objects-more-than-europeans-and-americans/

    In another article, I wrote,” The withholding of the cultural objects of the Chinese, for whatever reason, is in itself a violation of the human rights of the Chinese to culture and cultural development as foreseen in Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Moreover, the social and cultural development envisaged in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1988) can hardly be achieved if a State or community is deprived of its cultural objects”.
    http://www.modernghana.com/news/203909/1/is-it-not-time-to-fulfil-victor-hugos-wish-comment.html

    Faced squarely to determine whether withholding cultural object of another nation is a violation of their human rights, a court that is properly and adequately advised, cannot but come to the conclusion that the withholding is a gross violation of a human right. Is cultural development not the great distinction between humans and animals?

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