What is it?

The Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill (the "Bill") was announced in the Queen's speech and received its first reading in the House of Lords on 19 May 2016. The first draft of the Bill was published the next day.

The Bill, if passed, will ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (the "Hague Convention") and allow the UK to formally accede to its two Protocols. The policy objective for this accords with the Government's intention to stand on the global stage as a protector of cultural property, by helping to prevent artefacts being looted from conflict zones, objects being obtained illegitimately or items being removed (for example by displaced peoples) from their country of origin whilst a country is occupied by the forces of another.

The Culture White Paper, the second white paper of its kind to set out the government's approach and policies in relation to promoting art and culture (the last of which was published over 50 years ago), states that it will "work with partners globally to protect world heritage". This will be achieved, in part, by signing the Hague Convention and also by creating a new £30m Cultural Protection Fund, which we wrote about here in the context of Islamic State militants destroying cultural property in the Middle East.

What laws will be introduced once the Hague Convention is ratified?

To protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict, the new legislation will create the following offences:

  • Making cultural property the object of an attack.
  • Dealing in cultural property that has been unlawfully exported from an occupied territory and provision for the seizure of such property and eventual return to a competent authority once the conflict is deemed over.

The legislation will also introduce two more concepts:

  • A Blue Shield emblem will be adopted that will signify the property is protected by the Hague Convention.
  • Immunity from seizure of cultural property in the UK that is in the process of being transported for safekeeping during a conflict between two or more states.

Offence of dealing in cultural property and implications for the art market

The offence of dealing in unlawfully exported cultural property will carry a maximum seven-year jail term. This should be a significant warning to any art dealers or auction houses whose activities might be caught by this offence. Those working in the art world now have a greater incentive to make sure effective due diligence is carried out on the origin and provenance of items.

However, there have been concerns that the definition of 'cultural property' as set out in the Hague Convention is too vague, and could result in legitimate activities being caught by the offence.

The Hague Convention defines 'cultural property' as:

"movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above".

The Chairman of the Antiquities Dealers' Association (ADA), Chris Martin, said that this definition is too unspecific, and that loose interpretations of cultural heritage of every people could "unintentionally blight artworks and objects that have nothing to do with this issue".

Martin suggests that a definition taken from the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage defining cultural property in terms of "outstanding universal value", would be less restrictive to dealers.

Because the Bill is still being finalised and must pass through other legislative stages in Parliament before it becomes law, it is possible concerns such as these may be dealt with in new drafts.

However, in its current form the Bill is an admirable attempt to cement the UK's place as a champion for the world's cultural heritage and should be applauded.