Return of the colonial loot: A theft is a theft is a theft

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‘repent and Return’ so that all sins may be wiped away seems to be the credo that the Netherlands is adopting to return some of the looted artifacts taken away from Lanka during its conquest of the island for nearly 150 years (1658-1796).

It took two and a half centuries to express remorse for a historical wrongdoing amounting to theft, and eventually come out smelling of roses, or tulips, in the halo of publicity this week in Colombo by signing the ‘transfer’ of the loot to the now sovereign Government of Sri Lanka. One is expected to forgive, but is one expected to forget as well?

The role of the colonial powers from Europe that carved out the world and exploited their colonies has increasingly become a focal debate worldwide. Those European nations that decimated indigenous populations in North America, Africa and Asia transporting ‘slaves’ across continents to work in the tea, coffee and cotton plantations have been troubled by this historical dilemma when they project themselves as liberal democracies and the final arbiter of human rights in the modern world. Thus, a legitimate question arises: Is this a mere illusion of propriety to whitewash the past to face the present and the future?

Calls for the return of stolen artifacts date back several decades. In Sri Lanka, the J.R. Jayewardene Government compiled a list of Lankan artifacts in Western museums and made a somewhat feeble demand for their return, the statue of Tara now at the British Museum now a prized possession among its collection.

Egypt had one of the most consistent, driven repatriation efforts at winning back its treasures, some not necessarily spirited away by its one-time colonisers, but by a multinational network of antiquities smugglers of more recent times, selling them to private collectors in Europe and America. A state-of-the-art museum with the largest collection of its priceless artifacts is to be opened near Cairo very soon. It was the US that began returning stolen artifacts to their original owners.

The British remain stubborn. They passed a law back in 1963 and engaged in a deaccessioning policy banning the return of any objects in their collections unless they were duplicates or no longer of public interest.

China has now waded into this new turn of events and decided to ride on the momentum demanding the restitution of its many objects from the foreign museums, free of charge. Only last Sunday, the semi-official Global Times timed this call on the eve of the visit of the British Foreign Secretary to Beijing this week. While its Government hasn’t commented, yet, it is clear that this subject is potentially opening a fresh rift between the colonised countries and the West, and China is not going to miss out on a golden opportunity to side with the victim-nations in at least a propaganda war against the West.

Ironically, the British Museum has 23,000 Chinese items on show this year called ‘Summer Exhibit of China’s Hidden Century’ (Qing Dynasty) which includes Buddhist sutra-scrolls of the Wei and Jin Dynasties.

President Jayewardene privately said, however, that though his Government asked for the return of stolen Lankan artifacts, they may be safer in Western museums. There was truth in what he said, when the Colombo Museum lost some of its own items not long ago, and the culprits, believed to have had political backing never caught.

Not that the Western museums are all that safe either. The British Museum Director resigned recently when an internal investigation showed as many as 1,500 items had gone missing due to poor record keeping and cataloging. That does not give the licence for the Colombo Museum not to adopt stricter security mechanisms for its own existing collections, and hopefully with more to come due to the newfound show of remorse by the nations of the rapacious colonial empires of yesteryear.

Human rights façade of neocolonialism

And so, while a new chapter in world history is being written in the restitution (without compensation) of stolen artifacts with the end of colonialism, neo-colonialism remains in full swing.

Sri Lanka, like many former dependencies of those Western powers, is in the thick of it. This month, a team from the West-dominated IMF arrives to check if the country qualifies for a second tranche from its EFF (Extended Fund Facility) to maintain ‘economic stability’, with its mantra to ensure the country has the wherewithal to survive in this world financially. Elsewhere, at the West-dominated UNHRC in Geneva, Sri Lanka will be under scrutiny on how well it is doing on the human rights front.

The Government has made a wise move this time. That is to downplay the optics of the council’s September sessions with no high-level representation as in the past. The last time two cabinet ministers went one read out a speech and the other contributed carbon dioxide. The new strategy seems to be one of no huge delegations, no huge spectacle. The session on Sri Lanka after all is merely a periodic reporting by the UNHRC Secretariat on Resolution 51/1 of the council, which the Government of Sri Lanka, anyway, does not recognise.

An advance copy of the Secretariat’s report must have reached the Foreign Ministry by now, and so too the Government’s observations been conveyed to the country’s ambassador in Geneva. Resolution 51/1 against Sri Lanka is basically on two counts; a) allegations of human rights violations during the last stages of the armed conflict waged by the LTTE in 2009, and b) where the council shifted the goal-post to include human rights violations due to the state of the economy.

The UNHRC office in Geneva would have pieced together material from disgruntled Diaspora groups, Colombo-based diplomatic missions and the foreign-funded NGO sector. The mandate of the UNHRC to include the latter, however, is not only highly contentious, it has become a bad precedent. It has opened the door for the UNHRC to link human rights to how a country handles its economy and how it impacts education, health and trade union rights.

Either way, it appears that Resolution 51/1 and the UNHRC are the North Star for the modern-day crusaders of human rights to atone for the sins of their forbears and history, in a sense, repeating itself by its domineering role over its former colonies.



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