Stolen fair and square
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 14, 2010
PRIME MINISTER Kan Naoto announced earlier this week that the Japanese government would “hand over” the Uigwe, records of the royal protocols of the Joseon dynasty, to South Korea. The Japanese governor-general of Korea took them to Tokyo in 1922, and few people knew of their existence or whereabouts until 2001.
As this detailed article on Historynet.com explains, however, the return of items such as these is not as cut and dried as one might think, particularly for older relics. An additional complication is that international law has been hazy on this issue until recently.
The article notes:
Over the past two decades, globalization, changing attitudes, and the spread of both international law and civil lawsuits have emboldened aggrieved nations to demand the return of cultural property seized by enemy forces decades or even centuries ago, and a few holders of these spoils have complied. Five years ago, Japan returned a Korean monument on the centennial of its theft during the Russo-Japanese War; three years before that, Italy returned a 3,000-year-old obelisk taken during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.
The fact is, there is no legal or customary basis to demand the return of anything plundered prior to the turn of the 20th century. Doing so successfully is ultimately a matter of public relations, of convincing whoever possesses the object that giving it back is the right thing to do.
“There’s no source of international law that clearly goes back before the late 19th century, and there’s no [international] statute of limitations that would get you back to the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries,” says Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum, and Cultural Heritage Law at the DePaul University College of Law. “There are examples of things being returned from long ago, but they were done on a cooperative or moral basis, not a legal one.”
Repatriation becomes a more confusing undertaking for objects seized in the early 20th century, a period for which legal remedy is uncertain, but possible. This “gray period” spans the time between the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1954, a half-century in which the wartime plunder of cultural objects went from being frowned upon to being explicitly forbidden under international law.
As to the Uigwe:
The picture is further complicated in the early part of this period because most of the world was under colonial rule. For the colonized, this often felt like a belligerent occupation, particularly when independence movements were crushed with military force. But if a now independent nation seeks the return of objects allegedly plundered during such occupations, a former imperial power can easily dismiss a suit on the grounds that at the time the colony was, legally speaking, its own sovereign territory. Under such circumstances, claimants can turn only to the court of public opinion.
The French wound up with the originals of the Uigwe in the 1860s, and the absence of international law applicable for the time likely explains their insistence that they retain ownership and have only “loaned” them to the Koreans. The items in Japanese possession are copies. Meanwhile, were the Japanese of a mind to be ungenerous, they could claim that taking the Uigwe to Tokyo was merely a shift of the items from one part of the country to the other.
Meanwhile, here’s a Yonhap article about the Uigwe with more details about the items in Japan, but it does not examine the issues with the French.
Lest my fellow Americans begin to think that “we wouldn’t do anything like this”, here’s another excerpt from the article:
American forces took the three bells from a church tower on the central Philippine island of Samar during the Philippine-American War, fought primarily from 1899 to 1902 (although the Moro Rebellion phase lasted until 1913). For the past 13 years, the government of the Philippines has pressed for their return, so far without success.