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Repatriating relics

July 04, 2019

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EUROPE has a complicated view of reckoning with its colonial past, particularly the question of acknowledging the theft of art, artefacts and archives from their former colonies. Last year, in a move bypassing French law which prohibits the return of items in public art collections, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the repatriation of African relics to their original homes. In this context, the recent return of hundreds of smuggled artefacts intercepted by French authorities in 2006 to Pakistan in a ceremony at its embassy in Paris might be viewed as a welcome ancillary of Mr Macron’s stated aim. For, besides treasures looted under colonialism, the West has an ethical responsibility to curb the continued trafficking of antiquities from postcolonial states with patchy governance. Since it is an open secret that demand from the international art market drives this sort of smuggling, as well as its links with global money laundering, more steps should be taken to ensure financial transparency and documented provenance in acquisitions by both public and private collectors.

Alas, as heartening as it is that a part of our rich and diverse cultural legacy has been restored to us, another tragedy must be acknowledged — this one entirely of our own making. Many priceless smuggled antiquities returned to our government in recent years remain languishing in Pakistani missions around the world, with no news of when the people to whom they belong will see them proudly displayed at home. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no record of the extent to which relics are being secreted away from Pakistan, or whether occasional, chance busts by Customs officials have made any dent in this illegal trade. With virtually negligible public funding, many of our heritage sites are not even being secured against casual plunder, let alone preserved and restored. Particularly for the people of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a strong case must be made for breaking this cycle of appropriation and alienation of their history by returning these priceless artefacts to their rightful custodians.

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2019