Platform Created in february 2022
Why a Platform?
Disputes relating to cultural heritage – especially claims for the restitution of cultural objects, such as paintings, statues, religious or ceremonial objects – are on the rise in the international arena. These can involve a multitude of actors, including States or State institutions, private entities, individuals and indigenous communities.
The role of cultural heritage as a tool for diplomacy is often underestimated. Nevertheless, cultural heritage has become a key element in the relations among States. In effect, diplomacy often uses it as an important instrument to develop or strengthen inter-state relations or to prevent or resolve international disputes.
The restitution of cultural heritage items can contribute to cultural diplomacy. The political discourse has also changed, with restitution becoming an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic and cultural ties between states. For instance, this is demonstrated by the bilateral agreements concluded between States and between States and museums. These constitute two-way deals that do not simply help to foster restitution of cultural objects but also a broad cultural cooperation. In effect, such deals have allowed the parties to establish programs involving reciprocal loans of cultural objects, the sharing of information about potential acquisitions, and collaboration in the areas of scholarship, conservation, and archaeological investigation. From the point of view of local populations and communities, restitution allows them to recover their identity and memory and can, therefore, play an important role in terms of transitional justice and reparation of past injustices.
For this reason, the University of Geneva (its Art-Law Centre and UNESCO Chair in the International Law of the Protection of Cultural Heritage) established an Platform for Cultural Heritage Diplomacy.
The Platform: purposes and aims
The Platform offers a place where cases concerning the restitution of cultural heritage objects can be discussed and negotiated with experts in the field.
It seeks to intervene, among others, in relation to voluntary restitutions.Today, the public debate on the restitution of cultural property is gaining momentum. The demands are increasing and so is the willingness to return. Nevertheless, it can sometimes be difficult to implement the process of restitution of cultural heritage. In this view, in the cases where an individual or a collecting institution wishes to restitute an object to the legitimate owner (whether or not the latter has submitted a request), the Platform advise on the steps that should be taken to hand in the object at stake with respect to such issues as legal grounds, insurance, transport, liability, awareness-raising and cooperation.
The restitution of cultural property may also involve other issues that are directly related to it. To that end, the Platform intervene, as well, with issues relating to:
- ‘Orphaned’ objects: the Platform help persons or institutions in possession of an ‘orphaned’ object in all confidentiality on how to obtain information on its origin, on how to prevent a legal dispute, or on how to return it.
- Safe havens: the Platform can advise States or museum authorities on how to ensure the protection of cultural property from risk situations through safe havens; in particular, the Platform could put in contact museum authorities whose collections are in danger with the States that offer safe havens (such as Switzerland and France) and support them in the conclusion of agreements covering such issues as transportation, insurance, exhibition and restitution.
- Dispute resolution:states or individuals wishing to recover a cultural object often do not know how to proceed, wondering whether it is more suitable to initiate legal proceedings – which can prove lengthy and expensive – or to resort to alternative means of dispute resolution (such as arbitration, mediation or negotiation); in these cases the Platform can provide advice on the choice of the best avenue for the parties and suggest possible solutions, or even participate in the resolution of the case itself.
- Transitional justice: in many cases cultural heritage is important in societies in transition, notably when representative cultural objects have been removed (and exported) or destroyed. The Platform provide advice to the international organizations, national authorities and non-governmental organizations involved in the development of reconciliation or peacebuilding strategies in post-colonial, post-conflict or post-dictatorship contexts. In this view, the Platform contributes to the development of such strategies by helping in the restitution, providing advice on how to address the destruction of cultural heritage, either with reconstruction or memorialization.
The Art-Law Center and its experience
The Art-Law Centre and the UNESCO Chair in the International Law of the Protection of Cultural Heritage of the University of Geneva have been engaged with the problem of the settlement of art and cultural heritage disputes for several years.
In 2010, the Centre created the database ArThemis. This open-access database contains more than 150 case notes analyzing disputes relating to cultural property, with a focus on the procedures and the solutions adopted by the parties.
The Art-Law Centre also provides consultancy to various Swiss authorities (Federal Office of Culture, cantonal museums and local cultural administrations, Swiss Commission for UNESCO, etc.) and international bodies (UNESCO, Unidroit, ICCROM, Council of Europe) within the framework of specific projects (UNESCO Committee of Experts, negotiations for the adoption of the Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property of 2017).