“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” is the magic phrase of the Disney classic animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.With respect to the current situation in Indonesia, it should be: “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, which country has the most priceless cultural heritage?”
The question is relevant, as the media have been reporting lately on stolen cultural objects that belong to Indonesia.
In August, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi and Education and Culture Minister Muhadjir Effendy witnessed the return of five Indonesian cultural heritage objects. The objects consisted of three Asmat skulls and two Dayak that were smuggled and trafficked to Australia.
The two ministers and the Australian ambassador to Indonesia underlined that the cultural objects’ return demonstrated the commitment of the two countries in protecting priceless cultural heritage objects.
The world has an umbrella international law that covers this issue: the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
The convention issued under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) grew out of a pressing need to respond to a troubling trend in the late 1960s, which saw cultural artifacts smuggled out of their countries of origin to land in private collections or national museums, either illegally or with their origins obscured.
The convention commits state parties to institute preventative measures to combat the illicit practice, outline provisions for restitution and strengthen international cooperation.
To date, the convention is ratified by 136 states, four ASEAN states and 18 G20 economies.
The 1995 International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects complements the 1970 convention by covering elements of international private law not regulated by the Unesco Convention.
The 1995 convention deals more specifically with the harmonization of legislation in the restitution of cultural objects.
In adopting this convention, states commit to uniform treatment for restitution of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects and allow restitution claims to be processed directly through national courts.
In short, the 1995 convention covers all stolen cultural objects, not just those that have been inventoried and declared, and stipulates that all cultural property must be returned. As of today, 44 states — including ASEAN’s Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar — have ratified the 1995 convention.
Indonesia is, however, not — or at least not yet — a party to either convention.
Indonesia has its own national legal mechanism: Law No. 11/2010 on cultural property and Law No. 5/2017 on advancement of culture.
The former calls for the establishment of a national registry of cultural heritage objects and their safety, prohibits their illicit trafficking and prohibits their export unless for research, promotional or exhibition purposes.
Meanwhile, the latter law governs registration of cultural property as well as the protection of manuscripts and works of art.
While the focal point of education and culture, including cultural preservation, is the Education and Culture Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and its diplomats are at the vanguard in addressing Indonesia’s membership to UNESCO in Paris and to UNIDROIT in Rome.
In addition, Indonesian missions overseas are tasked with facilitating the return of the country’s cultural property from abroad.
Taking into account the need for stronger engagement between the Foreign Ministry and the Education and Culture Ministry, the Directorate General for Legal Affairs and International Treaties hosted on Aug. 27 a focus group discussion on the protection of cultural property.
The discussion produced three major outcomes. First, an emphasis that the protection of cultural property must adhere to the prevailing national law while respecting international law, including the 1970 Unesco Convention, in protecting Indonesia’s cultural heritage. In addition, the 1970 convention will enable Indonesia to foster cooperation to protect and return Indonesian cultural property that has been trafficked abroad.
Second is the pressing need to formulate standard operating procedures in addressing the restitution of stolen or illicitly obtained cultural property.
Third, the discussion’s participants underlined the undisputed role of the Foreign Ministry and its overseas missions in managing the protection of cultural property, including its assistance in adopting new laws.
Indonesia’s ratification of the two conventions is not necessarily a panacea. However, it is a step moving forward to a more secure and friendly environment in safeguarding our cultural heritage.
Dubbed a cultural superpower, will Indonesia remain silent and only watch as others steal our priceless and treasured cultural heritage? Or will we ensure that no other party can ever steal from us again through the enactment of binding laws as well as regulations?
We need to think on and act wisely in this matter, as the future of Indonesia’s cultural objects and heritage depend on our response.
The writer is deputy director for education and culture at the Foreign Ministry’s Directorate General for Legal Affairs and International Treaties. The views expressed are his own.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.