Repatriating colonial-looted artefacts through Global Civilization Initiative

In ancient times, people lived in the prehistoric and pre-civilized way of life. The people were living like any other wild animals in bushes and forests. Through time people innovated tools and fire that helped them to be advanced than other animals. In the later period, people started writing systems that led them to move to the historic period and civilization era. In different parts of the world, there were various civilizations. Mesopotamia is regarded as the first place of civilization in human history. In the later period, however, civilization could spread to different parts of the world.

The word civilization is derived from the Latin word civites which means a city. There are different definitions of the word “civilization”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines civilization as “human society with its well-developed social organizations, or the culture and way of life of a society or country at a particular period in time”. Civilization is a driver in shaping the history of a nation. In broader terms, civilization can be divided into ancient and modern civilizations.

Ancient civilization refers “to the first settled and stable communities that became the basis for later states, nations, and empires”. Modern civilization is characterized by noteworthy progress in technology, science, and industry in the recent era of human civilization. The modern one covers the period from the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century to the present day. Other scholars categorize civilizations into three stages: the preagricultural (hunting and gathering) stage, the agricultural stage, and the industrial stage. Others categorize civilizations as Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age civilization, and the like.

China has taken various global initiatives focusing on the improvement of global governance, economic development, and the prevalence of peace and security for the betterment of the people of the world. These initiatives can reinforce one another. The focus of this piece is on the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) which was forwarded by President Xi Jinping in March 2023. GCI promotes dialogues among civilizations to avert a “clash of civilizations”. It is a reflection of the foreign policy of China that emphasizes on peaceful resolution of international disputes. It also promotes civilized discussion, negotiation among nations, and inclusiveness to avert conflicts and wars.

According to the president, GCI will focus on four fundamental issues that include “advocate the respect for the diversity of civilizations, advocate the common values of humanity, advocate the importance of inheritance and innovation of civilizations, advocate robust international people-to-people exchanges and cooperation”.

Unlike the colonial period, which believes there was only one Western Civilization, scholars have identified many civilizations in the world. Recognizing the presence of many civilizations and rendering respect to the diversity of civilizations will help peace and security in the world. GCI promotes these fundamental issues. To accommodate the diversity of civilization there is a need to recognize, tolerate, accept, and live in harmony with other civilizations.

Parallel to this, promoting the common values of human beings including peace, development, equity, justice, and freedom are fundamental to tolerance. Dialogues and communications among various civilizations through forums can solve challenges and disagreements among nations. Such communication should not be done only by the leadership circles. At the grassroots level people to people relations are crucial to accommodate differences. Colonialism had various negative impacts on colonized people including death of people, loss of independence and freedom, loss of resources, labor exploitation, hindering economic, political, and cultural developments, and the like.

Many colonized countries have lost their artifacts because of European colonizers. Colonized people call the artifacts taken by the colonizers as they are looted artifacts however, colonial powers call them treasury. Colonizers are proud of getting artifacts after victory. Colonized people call them looters.

So, whose history is the plundered artifacts? The one who got them by force or the one who made them and later lost them by force? Who should display the artifacts in a museum? The people who produced it or who plundered it?

Colonial powers should not be proud of the looting of art, artifacts, and other cultural property. According to a source this looting of artifacts “may be an opportunistic criminal act or maybe a more organized case of unlawful or unethical pillage by the victor of a conflict.” War and conflict are one of the factors for the crash of civilization. Because of this, civilization could rise and fall through time and space. Some countries in the world have continued civilizations for a long time.

Advocating the importance of inheritance and innovation of civilization is directly linked with the repatriation of ancient artifacts to the people who crafted them. Repatriation of artifacts will help countries to fill gaps in their history and culture appropriately. GCI should denounce colonial-era and cultural theft and facilitate their return to their original place. China’s Global Civilization Initiative is aligned with UNESCO’s mandate. Article one of the UNESCO states about the purposes and functions of the organization. One of them is “conservation and protection of the world’s inheritance’’.

Civilizations contribute to the well-being of human beings and society in the world. They are not the outcome of one specific people and nation. Many countries have contributed to the civilizations of this world. For instance, the Chinese created the skill of paper making and the use of the compass. Others had also created something very important to human beings. Similarly, Ethiopia is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It’s also the cradle of mankind. Ethiopian ancient civilization is noticed in “writing, urbanism, foreign trade, metallurgy, plow-agriculture, monumental architecture”.

Artifacts have their own stories to tell about civilizations of the period in a specific area of a country. Detaching them from their original place will create a gap and vacuum in the history of the people of the owner. Artifacts are firsthand information or evidence for research on civilizations. It is also good to mention the return of some artifacts to the original place. The obelisk of Aksum can be regarded as a case in point.

The obelisk was taken by the Italian colonial power from Ethiopia in 1937 and returned in 2005. We have to appreciate such measures. Similarly, Germany has sent back 22 bronze-made artifacts to Nigeria. So far, however, Ethiopia could not get back many of her artifacts taken at the time of the invasion of British forces during Emperor Tewodros II and the invasion of Italian colonial power in the 19th and 20th Centuries respectively. The same is true for many other African and Asian countries.

As mentioned above, artifacts are firsthand information or evidence for research on civilizations. Especially, archaeologists use them to learn how people lived in specific places and times. So far, African archeologists and historians are traveling to the former colonizers’ museum to study their history and civilization. They have to pay for their travel, accommodation, and museum entrance. This is one of the injustices in this world. In particular, British and French Museums have accumulated many looted artifacts and heritages of the people of the world. From the visit of tourists in their museum, they are collecting a significant amount of money. Currently, about six million people visit the British Museum each year. Some part of this income should have been the income of the former colonized people.

Museum expert Elaine Gurian stated that “artifacts provide us a way into history.” Thus, artifacts are very important to trace historical events, so we can recall and learn about their civilizations. Moreover, artifacts hold symbolic cultural roots in their creations. The former European colonial powers must repatriate them to “honour those roots and the people who have evolved from them”.

It can be easy to trace the origin of artifacts that are displayed in Museums. On the other hand, some artifacts have no specific places to get them. This is because of the presence of an “antiquities market” where anyone can buy and sell them to any buyers. Because of this, one artifact can move from country to country through selling and buying processes.

Artifacts and heritages are symbols of ancient civilizations. They are creative products of the people of the area. They had been taken away from them by force of arms. This has created damage to their history and culture. If the artifacts were with them, they could generate income by displaying them in museums. It is distressing to know that the former colonial powers are dragging their feet to return the plundered artifacts. Rather they preferred to put them in their museums forever.

In conclusion, the Global Civilization Initiative of China is a good opportunity for Ethiopia and other countries that have ancient history. They have to use this initiative as a dialogue place to request and get back their lost artifacts from the colonial period. The former colonial powers should be willing to return the artifacts to the owners and producers. They should also pay compensation from the income of the museum. Similar to “neo-colonialism”, peoples of the world should fight against “neo-civilization” which is still going on in the world.

(The author MELAKU MULUALEM K is a Researcher in International Relations and Diplomacy, Institute of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia)

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