The Committee on International Cultural Heritage Law (Committee) was established by the Executive Council of the International Law Association (ILA) at the 63rd Conference in Warsaw in 1988. The previous year, we had written to the then Chairman of the Australian Branch, Rodney Purvis, proposing the creation of the Committee. Rodney supported the idea wholeheartedly and went through the necessary steps to have it placed on the agenda for the Warsaw meeting. At that meeting, Patrick was going down in the lift at the conference hotel when Ian Brownlie, then Director of Studies, entered and announced that the Executive Council had recommended establishment of the Committee and that he, Patrick, had been nominated as Chairman. He asked for a recommendation of Rapporteur – to which Patrick suggested Jim Nafziger of Willamette University in Oregon – and a topic – to which Patrick proposed the preparation of a Draft Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Both proposals were endorsed by the ILA in due course.

Patrick and Jim began work on the Draft Convention at the same time as the Committee was being formed. The Committee worked hard for the next four years, engaging with subject matter which was very controversial and involved complex issues of public and private international law. The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention contained two provisions – Articles 149 and 303 – relating to archaeological and historical objects at land and sea which were generally considered confused and inadequate. The Committee had to find solutions more effective than these. For example, it proposed that there be a “Charter” – developed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) – to govern archaeological investigations. The Charter would be attached to the Draft Convention and enforced by states using nationality and port-state jurisdiction. Provisions on the movement of unlawfully excavated material were included. The Draft Convention was adopted by the 66th Conference at Buenos Aires in 1994.

The ILA has consultative status with UNESCO, the major international organisation with responsibility for cultural matters. The Draft Convention was forwarded for consideration to UNESCO which had just decided to make protection of underwater cultural heritage a priority topic. UNESCO and the United Nations Division of Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea took the Draft Convention and used it as a basis for their own working document. This was debated by states during four negotiating sessions in Paris before being adopted as the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage in 2001 with 87 states in favour, four against and 15 abstentions. As at January 2015, there were 48 States Parties. Patrick attended all negotiating sessions as an observer and Jim was frequently present, when he could leave his post in Oregon. Without the work of the ILA there may not have been a UNESCO Convention on the subject.

Following work on the Draft Convention, the Committee has undertaken a number of significant projects. One was a Blueprint’ to guide research, progressive development and codification of the cultural heritage law. It was felt that when a problem arose a state often tried to devise a solution without looking to see what other states had done in similar circumstances. Comparative studies might not provide a solution but they could give guidance. In particular they could assist the development of law in a logical manner rather than a series of ad hoc decisions as a reaction to particular crises. The studies were published as a symposium in (2004) 9 Art Antiquity & Law. They do not form a single blueprint for action, but provide a set of suggestions and designs for reform and development of international cultural heritage law in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Patrick resigned as Chairman in 2002. Jim was appointed in his place and Bob Paterson from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver became Rapporteur. The Committee continued with its work.

In times of great disaster people often want to keep their national treasures free from harm, even if this means sending them to a foreign country. Famous examples from around the time of World War II include the Crown and regalia of St. Stephen of Hungary (sent to USA); the tapestries from Cracow Castle in Poland (sent to Canada) and Picasso’s Guernica (sent to USA before the War but kept there at Picasso’s request as long as General Franco remained in power). In all these cases there was conflict over when and how the objects should be returned. More recently, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan brought to the fore fears concerning the safety of Afghan cultural heritage in foreign countries. There were moves to acquire these objects and keep them in a secure place until they could be safely returned to responsible authorities in the country. The great danger with this approach is that it could encourage illicit traffic in such objects if those responsible know they have a market.

The ILA Committee proceeded to draft a set of Guidelines for the Establishment and Conduct of Safe Havens for Cultural Material, including a Safe Haven Model Contract (adopted at the 73rd Conference, Rio de Janeiro, 2008). It covers not only the Afghan type of situation but also those where cultural material has been removed from its normal location due to natural disasters such as earthquake. Under the Guidelines, a safe haven ‘shall not engage in any activity the result of which would be to stimulate illegal trafficking in cultural material or other threats to it.’ Material is to be returned when there is a bona fide request. However, and this is a controversial clause, the safe haven must be satisfied that the entity making the request is capable of fulfilling ‘conditions for safekeeping and preserving the material.’ In the three cases from World War II specifically mentioned above, return was controversial because of the political persuasion of the requesting state. The Guidelines are intended to be incorporated into the operating rules of international organisations, ranging from the World Bank to museums and other relevant entities.

Another international convention is in the making with the Draft Convention on Immunity from Suit and Seizure for Cultural Objects Temporarily Abroad for Cultural, Educational or Scientific Purposes. This was adopted by the ILA at the 76th Conference, Washington, April 2014. The Draft was to be distributed to, inter alia, the United Nations, UNESCO, the Hague Conference on Private International Law, the European Union and the Council of Europe.

This topic raises complex political and legal issues. Many cultural objects have a disputed ownership history. People have had their prized possessions lost or seized as a result of war, social unrest or societal change. The owner (or his or her heirs) later finds the object in a foreign state and begins legal proceedings for its return. Complexities arise when the object of concern is on public display in the foreign state. The Preamble to the Draft Convention states that cultural objects ‘in light of their special importance, should be treated differently under international law from other objects.’ In particular, rules on immunity from seizure should apply to facilitate ‘the mobility of cultural objects’ and overcome ‘the reluctance of lenders to send their cultural objects into a foreign jurisdiction where they might be subject to some form of judicial seizure.’ The Draft Convention had to balance protecting the security of loans against the need to guard against assisting illicit traffic. It attempts to do this by emphasising that the object must be only temporarily in the receiving state. This is defined as not more than five years from the time the object enters the state. During this time no order can be issued preventing its return. Moreover, its presence in the state shall not form the basis for any legal process.

The Committee has long been interested in the legal rules governing the transfer of cultural objects. For example, it produced a set of Principles for Cooperation in the Mutual Protection and Transfer of Cultural Material which was adopted by the ILA in 2006 at the 72nd General Conference. This emphasised what the Committee saw as the ‘need for a collaborative approach to requests for transfer of cultural material, in order to establish a more productive relationship between and among parties.’

In 2014, Jim Nafziger and Bob Paterson edited a volume entitled Handbook on the Law of Cultural Heritage and International Trade, published by Edward Elgar. This contains 20 specialised state reports by local experts (Craig Forrest wrote the one on Australia) plus a general chapter on international trade; one on human rights and export controls; another on export controls on objects of foreign origin and finally one setting out a ‘legal pluralist approach to international trade in cultural objects’.

The Committee’s newest project is to prepare a set of guidelines or recommendations on landscapes as cultural heritage pertaining to indigenous groups. The project will involve a series of detailed examples of landscapes significant to indigenous cultures and an identification of issues related to those landscapes in the context of corresponding indigenous understandings and national legal systems.

The original concept of the Committee was that of a body which produced high quality research into particular subjects, but also used the results to advance selected areas of international law through publications, guidelines and draft conventions. This would seem to have been achieved. The challenge continues to be delivering the Committee’s work to those with the means and the enthusiasm to implement it.

Patrick J. O’Keefe and Lyndel V. Prott are members of the Committee on International Cultural Heritage Law. Patrick was founding Chairman of the Committee, and is former Adjunct-Professor of law at ANU. Lyndell is former Director of UNESCO’s Division of Cultural Heritage and former Professor of Cultural Heritage Law at the University of Sydney.

The key documents of the Committee can be found here.