Tracey Crouch is Minister for Sport and Member of Parliament for Chatham and Aylesford.
Not since the Second World War has global cultural property been under greater threat. Ancient sites and buildings have been bulldozed and plundered in Syria and Iraq in recent years, and historic structures have been damaged in conflicts in Mali, Yemen, and Libya.
This destruction is a global tragedy that the UK unequivocally condemns, and we take the threat of further destruction to the world’s cultural heritage very seriously. That is why we have brought in world-leading measures to protect, preserve, and restore precious sites and artefacts in areas affected by armed conflict.
As we work to build a more global Britain, this is an issue that the Government has been at the forefront of tackling with the Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill. That is why I am so delighted it received Royal Assent yesterday.
It will be recognised as an important milestone in our drive to protect cultural property, not only in this country, but across the globe.
The legislation stands as a true testament to this Government’s commitment to protecting irreplaceable cultural heritage. It enables us to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and accede to its two Protocols. Together, they provide protection for cultural heritage of the greatest importance.
Since 2004, successive governments have promised to bring forward the legislation required for ratification. I am delighted that this Government has been able to do so, and enshrine in law measures to protect not only our own cultural heritage, but the world’s, from the devastating effects of war.
This Act will make it an offence to deal in unlawfully exported cultural property from an occupied territory. It will also ensure that we are able to protect cultural property that is brought to this country from conflict zones until it can be safely returned.
The UK is now the first permanent member of the UN Security Council to have legislation in place to give effect to the Hague Convention and both its Protocols – something that we should all be proud of. By bringing this Act through the House, we may even have encouraged France and China to begin their own procedures to accede to the Second Protocol.
This great step forward is part of our wider work to protect cultural property.
Our £30 million Cultural Protection Fund, delivered by the British Council, once again underlines the UK’s position as a world leader in this area. The Fund has so far invested £8.8 million in nine projects. These projects use British knowledge and expertise in places where cultural heritage is at risk.
One of these is the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, which is helping to build capacity in the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage by training staff in the latest archaeological techniques.
The first group of Iraqi participants completed their training in November. One of them has already been appointed by the Iraqi State Board to lead the assessment of the site of Nimrud, a place recently liberated from Daesh control. Already, a second group has begun their training too.
In addition a modern-day team of ‘Monuments Men’ – and of course women – the Cultural Property Protection Unit in the British Army, will ensure the protection of cultural property is embedded in our Armed Forces.
As the Minister that has taken this Bill through, it has been a privilege to be responsible for such an important issue.
It has taken sixty years to ratify the Hague Convention, and ten years to get the Act onto the statue book. But at a time when we see some of the great sites of the world in increasing danger, I am so proud that this Government has passed this important legislation.
Without doubt, it is completely right that we have acted to protect the world’s most preeminent cultural heritage for all people today and generations to come.