Saturday 16 May 2015

Greece rules out legal action to recover Elgin Marbles

As reported by Jeremy, the Greek government publicly stated this week that it would not be pursuing restitution of the Elgin Marbles through international courts, despite being advised by their high-profile British legal team that it is a “now or never” opportunity.  

The Greek culture minister Nikos Xydakis told Greece’s Mega TV: "One cannot go to court over whatever issue. Besides, in international courts the outcome is uncertain", adding “the road to reclaiming the return of the sculptures is diplomatic and political.” The Greek government would instead switch to “low-key, persistent work” to effect the Marbles’ return to Athens.

The comments came 48 hours after a 148-page report prepared by Geoffrey Robertson QC, Norman Palmer QC and Amal Clooney was presented to the Greek government, urging it to consider legal action against the British Museum through the International Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

Elgin Marbles east pediment (Image: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia)

Background to the report

The Greek government has made longstanding appeals for the return of the controversial Elgin Marbles, the sculptures removed by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in the early 1800s that, following their purchase by the British Government in 1816, became part of the British Museum’s collection. 

The dossier, commissioned following a high-profile visit to Athens by the team of lawyers last October, is reported by the Independent to make a compelling case for the Greek government to pursue legal action and sets out which steps needed to be taken. “The British adhere to international law…The Greek government has never taken advantage of this Achilles’ heel,” the report is quoted as saying. “You must take legal action now or you may lose the opportunity to do so due to future legal obstacles.”

The report proposes first making a formal request for the Marbles’ return, then lodging a claim at the International Court of Justice. If the Court were to refuse jurisdiction, an approach should be made to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). A “75-80 per cent chance” of success is estimated if an international court accepts jurisdiction, and the report cites a 1962 International Court of Justice ruling which forced Thailand to return sculptures removed from the Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia. The advice also suggests the case would also be looked upon favourably under the European Convention on Human Rights.

One possible future obstacle is the new Conservative government’s election pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and to consider making Strasbourg judgments non-binding on UK courts. The new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, has also previously made clear that he supports the British Museum in the dispute.


Despite such obstacles, the Greek government’s comments have been somewhat unexpected. Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, led far-left Syriza to power in January on the back of nationalist sentiment and declared his intention to secure the return of the Elgin Marbles. In March Mr Xydakis responded to the British Museum’s refusal to consider mediation by condemning British “negativism” and “lack of respect for the role of mediators”. Furthermore, a considerable amount of goodwill has been generated by recent efforts (not least Amal Clooney’s highly-publicised involvement in the matter), with public opinion in the UK also supporting the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens.

It has been speculated that the Greek volte-face is the result of pressure from the EU and IMF over Greece’s massive debts and the looming possibility of an exit from the eurozone. However, the report was funded by a third party, and there have been several offers to assist in funding any legal action. It remains to be seen whether the Greek government will follow any of the report’s recommendations. For now this development counts as a major victory for supporters of the British Museum, but it is evident that the dispute is nowhere near its conclusion. 

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