All 1 Baroness Deech contributions to the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Act 2019

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Thu 9th May 2019

Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill Debate

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Baroness Deech

Main Page: Baroness Deech (Crossbench - Life peer)

Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill

Baroness Deech Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 9th May 2019

(5 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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My Lords, this short, very welcome and deceptively straightforward Bill raises a host of ethical questions. We are in the middle of worldwide discussions about compensation and restitution for past injustices and deprivations. Let me make it clear that this Bill in no way opens up the sort of difficult questions that have recently been raised in Cambridge about the slave trade, or about the Elgin marbles. Those issues were raised when the original Bill was introduced 10 years ago, and settled in favour of restitution, although the number of works of art that have been returned to their rightful owners in the last 10 years is fairly low. Sadly, the work is far from done, although the original sunset clause was understandable. There are survivors, and there are possibly hundreds of thousands of looted works of art in question.

The checking of the provenance of a work of art with a wartime question over it is now routine. The display of a looted work of art is not so much a work of beauty as a reflection of the pain and suffering surrounding its looting, for the Holocaust was not only genocide but the greatest theft in history. The Government should be praised for using their good offices to ensure justice. Klimt’s stolen portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, often known as “The Woman in Gold”, now on show in New York, has added lustre because it is shining legitimately. The restitution of these works of art is somewhat unusual, in that the restorer is not usually the wrongdoer but a museum that may have purchased the object in good faith—but it is symbolically important. The rightful owners or their near descendants are still alive, and it sends a message to this war-torn world that, if the enemy despoiler does his worst, nevertheless, in the end that wrong will be righted. Ancient treasures from Syria and Iraq are currently being sold: this is a warning.

My noble friend Lady O’Neill has written extensively on the topic of compensation and restitution. Although she wrote before the recent Cambridge exercise on slavery, she sensibly pointed out that it makes more sense to seek action to redress present disadvantage than to provide compensation for historic wrongs. This is different from restitution: restoring the situation that obtained before the wrong was done. It is important as a symbol, and, far from going back too far in time to what some might regard as a closed episode, the looting in the Middle East today reminds us of the importance attached to a people’s art works and the part they play in the pride and in the continuation of the history of a nation.

In another way, too, this is unfinished business. What about the real property looted during the Nazi era, most of which is situated and identifiable within EU countries—not here, of course? The Terezin declaration, to which this country is a party, called on those countries that have not yet made restitution to do so along the lines of the declaration. The most egregious offender is Poland, squatting on the property of 3 million victims of the Nazis—the only country in modern Europe to refuse to set up a scheme for compensation, presenting yet another example of Poland’s cavalier attitude to the rule of law and European obligations. The European Parliament, the American Congress and British parliamentarians have urged Poland to do justice—so far to no avail. Indeed, racism is rising across Europe and, sadly, to spend £105 million on a Holocaust memorial—something like the sixth in this country, in the wrong place, which does not speak to the heart—will not stop anti-Semitism. It is a sad state of affairs to see it politicised.

Democracy, as we have seen, does not stop genocide. Genocide is due more to religious and ethnic hatred—and that we see on the rise across Europe, where there is democracy and there are many memorials. The more memorials we build, it seems, the more anti-Semitism rises. We need to think afresh about the causes of this hatred. This Bill is the right way forward and a credit to the United Kingdom. I hope that it also serves, first, to encourage our Government to put pressure on Poland to restore stolen property; and, secondly, as a warning to those who are looting historical objects in war zones today.