Experts calls for return of looted relics

Updated: 2014-09-12 07:59

By Wang Kaihao in Dunhuang, Gansu(China Daily)

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Cultural relics stolen and lost overseas should be returned to their true owners, the countries of origin, scholars participating in the fourth International Conference of Experts on the Return of Cultural Property agreed.

The three-day conference, which ended on Thursday in Dunhuang, Gansu province, attracted nearly 100 scholars and officials from about 20 countries.

The conference focused on the return of cultural property lost overseas due to clandestine excavations before the items were listed among their home countries' inventories. Attendees passed a recommendation calling for their return - the Dunhuang Recommendation on the Protection and Return of Illicitly Exported Cultural Property.

"It is the first time China has taken the initiative to make an international rule on the return of cultural property. This time, we chose clandestine excavation, which is commonly considered to be a difficult issue. It's a trial and a good start," said Huo Zhengxin, a professor of international law at China University of Political Science and Law, who participated in drafting the recommendation.

"This recommendation is not as compulsory as laws, but it represents the world's common wish and a future trend of development of international law in this field," Huo said.

Conceding that China is among the countries most seriously affected by the loss of cultural relics overseas, Li Xiaojie, head of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, remained optimistic due to the country's close cooperation with multiple international parties after joining the 1970 UN convention in 1989 - the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970.

"Many international treaties like the 1970 Convention altogether ended the situation that the world had no law that could halt the trafficking of cultural property," Li said. He said that the convention was still in need of more rigid supervision and enforcement, and that it does not apply to anything stolen before 1970.

China is also one of 33 parties joining the 1995 International Institute for the Unification of Private Law Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which complements the 1970 Convention.

Invasions by foreign forces in the late 19th century, the large-scale smuggling of cultural relics by Western adventurers to China in the early 20th century and Japanese aggression during World War II were major periods when many of China's cultural relics were looted and taken overseas.

Li added that diplomatic, judicial and non-governmental channels are all important for the return of looted relics.

China has signed bilateral agreements with 18 countries to fight smuggling and illegal trafficking of cultural property.

"We face the same problem of finding it difficult to repatriate objects stolen before 1970. We're ready to cooperate with China. When we make a friend, we can move together for modification of current laws," said Ali Ahmed Ali Farhan, director general of the repatriation department of the Ministry of Antiquities of Egypt.

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