As is well known, unilaterally canceling a scheduled meeting with leaders of other countries at the last moment, unless there are sufficient and justifiable reasons or some force majeure, constitutes a very serious diplomatic breach of etiquette. The UK, in this manner, treated the visiting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis by cancelling his meeting with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak just a few hours before the originally scheduled time. The Greek government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis stated in a media interview that Sunak's stance was "unprecedented and disrespectful" to the Greek prime minister and the Greek people.
According to information from London, the cancellation of the meeting with Mitsotakis was primarily because Downing Street had expressly asked Mitsotakis not to "publicly grandstand about the Marbles," but "the Greek prime minister reneged on a promise not to use his visit to London to publicly demand the return of the Parthenon Sculptures." However, Greece has denied this. From a third-party perspective, reclaiming what rightfully belongs to a country is a natural and legitimate right, and the UK has no authority, let alone the qualification, to prevent it. It is even more excessive to not allow open discussion on the matter.
So, why is it that the UK, which often speaks loudly about "democracy" and "openness" on the international stage, becomes so overbearing in demanding other countries to "shut up" when it comes to its own issues? The dispute over cultural relics is different from issues of sovereignty or military security; it is not something that cannot be discussed. Some British media have described Mitsotakis' legitimate request as "provocative." This mixture of sensitivity, defensiveness, greed, and selfishness reveals that the remnants of imperialism not only persist in the British Museum but also stubbornly exist in the minds of some people in the UK.
How did those sculptures, which originally sat properly at the Parthenon, "legally" end up in the UK? There are many doubts in this matter, and the UK has consistently failed to provide a clear explanation. Regardless of any seemingly justified reasons, the British Museum holding the national treasures of other countries is an undeniable fact. Greece, as the "creditor," has maintained a rational attitude, approaching the issue with a willingness to negotiate. On the other hand, the UK, as the debtor, not only refuses to repay the debt but also adopts a brazen attitude of openly shirking responsibility. Even the British Labour Party cannot stand it, criticizing the government for being "petty" and "small-minded," which can be seen as a summary of the impression Downing Street has left on the public in this incident.
The British Museum has over 8 million collections, most of which were looted during wars initiated by Britain from the 18th century to the 19th century. Taking the Greek Parthenon Sculptures as an example, many British people now refer to them as the "Elgin Marbles," but that is not their original name, but they were named after 7th Earl of Elgin who "transported" the sculptures to Britain at that time. His son was the notorious commander of the British forces, 8th Earl of Elgin, who ordered the burning of the Old Summer Palace. It can be said that the "Elgin Room" showcasing the Parthenon Sculptures actually exhibits the notorious deeds of this family and serves as a symbol of the suffering brought by the former "empire on which the sun never sets" to its colonies.
The UK was once the world's largest colonial country, and its colonial history ranks among the top. However, when it comes to reflecting on the history of colonialism, returning and compensating for cultural relics during the colonial period, the UK is at the bottom, forming a stark contrast. In recent years, countries such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands have returned some cultural relics, with some national leaders even offering apologies. However, the British government has been largely indifferent, despite polls showing that the majority of the British public actually support the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. It can be said that the British public's reflection and awareness of history surpass that of Downing Street. London's preoccupation with past glory has actually hindered the progress of the UK in the tide of the times.
The Global Times published an editorial in August of this year after over 2,000 cultural relics were exposed to have been stolen from the British Museum, demanding the unconditional return of Chinese cultural relics. We would like to take this opportunity to reiterate this point. Any country has the right to demand the return of its own cultural artifacts from the British Museum if they are found there without a traceable and verifiable legitimate origin.
China, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Greece, and many other countries share a unified stance and mutually support each other morally. Avoidance is not a solution to this issue, as the British government cannot indefinitely evade its responsibility to return these artifacts. While it may "silence" Greece by cancelling a planned meeting, but can it silence the global public opinion?
Photo: A man views the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum in London, Britain, September 7, 2023 © Xinhua.
Source: The Global Times.