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Destruction of Historic Sites (Syria and Iraq)

Volume 592: debated on Thursday 12 February 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered destruction and looting of historic sites in Syria and Iraq.

I thank the Speaker for granting this debate, the Backbench Business Committee for making the debate its own and allowing it to be heard on the Floor of the House, and the Minister and the shadow Minister for taking time out of their schedules to be with us. I also thank those who have far greater knowledge of this subject than I do for their wise counsel, especially Neil MacGregor of the British Museum and his exceptional specialists.

The current conflict in Syria, which has now enveloped large parts of Iraq, has ended its fourth year. We have seen at least 250,000 people killed, 6.5 million people displaced, 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries, and abuses, killings and ethnic and religious cleansing on an almost unimaginable scale by ISIL, the Assad regime and many others, and there is no sign of abatement. In a time of such terrible human suffering, the question must be asked: why should we turn our attention, even momentarily, to the destruction and looting of heritage—of mosques, libraries, souks, castles and churches?

The first reason is that the scale of the destruction and loss is so great—the greatest anywhere in the world since the end of the second world war—that it deserves to be better understood as just one element of the tragic conflict in the middle east. These are ancient civilisations of great beauty, accomplishment and intellectual achievement. It is an extraordinarily rich history bound up with our own history and that of other cultures and civilisations throughout the world. Some of the sites in question, such as in Aleppo, Mosul and Nineveh, are relatively well known. ISIL alone now controls more than 4,000 places of historic and archaeological interest as well as libraries, great and small, such as the Mosul library, in which it recently destroyed all the books that it took issue with including the entire children’s section.

No one group has done more to put the world’s cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL, and ISIL is not concealing its destruction; it is doing so brazenly with bulldozers and bombs, and it is available for all of us to see in arresting before-and-after images produced by the university of Pennsylvania and the United States Government. Those images are then broadcast by ISIL on social media. How shocking and shameful it would be if the west did absolutely nothing in the face of this destruction.

There is also a human dimension. I am talking about the unbelievably brave men and women on the ground—the curators, the site guards, the librarians, monks and academics—who are trying to protect what they hold dear by producing inventories or by bearing witness and producing the facts for the rest of the world. Many are unable or unwilling to leave, and hope—I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say this—still to be alive when it is all over to pick up the pieces.

Let me tell one story that was told to me by the British Museum. In October, a site warden at Nineveh was executed by ISIL, and every adult male who came to mourn him disappeared, and are presumed murdered. They were remarkable individuals. Most of their stories cannot and should not be told for fear of endangering them. In part, this debate pays tribute to them and salutes what they are doing.

There is a second reason for focusing our attention on the destruction. These tragic events are occurring for one of two reasons, both of which should concern us. First, it could be a deliberate attempt to subjugate communities by destroying the buildings and the heritage that they hold dear and to rob future generations of any connection to the past, or the ties that bind them together, that might allow reconciliation or even facilitate functioning economies based on tourism and visitors. That is madness applied to monuments. Secondly, systematic looting might be viewed as a significant revenue stream for ISIL, the Assad regime and others. I am talking about sculptures being turned into tanks. There is a fault line in ISIL, as there was in the Taliban in Afghanistan, between those two competing but equally concerning motivations.

Many will recall watching the TV news and seeing the Taliban dynamiting and destroying 1,700-year-old Buddhas at Bamyan in 2001, but what is considerably less well known—the story that has not been told—is that elements of the Taliban were on the telephone to wealthy individuals only 20 minutes before pressing the button and detonating the explosives trying to negotiate a $10 million ransom in return for saving and exporting those works of art. Those who sought iconoclasm and propaganda won on that occasion, but it is not always the case.

ISIL and the Assad regime are employing contractors to seek out antiquities, working at times with couriers and agents for dealers. ISIL is deploying militants to ensure its control of sites and to supervise digging in a disturbing fashion that reminds us of blood diamonds in Africa in the ’80s and ’90s. It is also licensing looting with a formal tithe or tax of 20% on those who do the work themselves.

For some local communities in Syria and Iraq, the harvesting of low-value pieces is a continuation of centuries of tradition—harvesting antiquities instead of crops. We should recognise that they are doing so because they are starving and they have no other source of income. But looting should concern us because it provides an insight into an extremely dark and dangerous underworld that affects this country. We need to understand it and to penetrate it as a way of tackling the financing of terrorism and serious organised crime. That looting, especially at the higher end, almost certainly continues the systematic looting in Iraq that was undertaken by Saddam Hussein and his regime as a significant source of revenue. As ISIL today facilitates the lines of communication that were established by Saddam, we can see that everything in history repeats itself, but with different players. Those lines of communication and passages to neighbouring countries are interwoven with the drugs trade, the arms trade and human trafficking. They are as dark and dangerous as criminality gets.

There is some mystery over where the looted works are heading. At the bottom end, one can see them freely sold on the market stalls at the Turkish-Syrian border, and some have appeared on eBay. At the top end, many of the artefacts may well be in storage until “the dust has settled”. I am pleased to report that there is little or no evidence of their emergence on the legitimate market of UK auction houses and respectable dealers, but works are believed to be appearing in other countries, most notably Germany and the city of Munich, which has a history of being a conduit for antiquities and stolen works of art.

There is a pervasive and disturbing culture of private sale in the Gulf states. Many of the ruling families of those states profess to be great lovers of art and are investing vast sums in the legitimate art market and in building some of the world’s most remarkable new museums, often in partnership with western institutions such as our own. It is extraordinary then that those states should tolerate a culture that allows the illicit trade in antiquities to thrive and to be entirely accepted. None of those Gulf states, save Sharjah, has any antiquities law or proper law enforcement. The ruling families of those states, many of whom are personally committed to the arts and view it as part of their own nation’s rise to prominence, should examine their conscience and change that culture.

The third and final reason for our taking a greater interest in this matter, and it is the most important reason as far as this debate goes, is that while this cultural barbarism appears utterly hopeless—as hopeless as the rest of these conflicts—there are practical steps that we, as one nation, could take to make a real difference and that would do our reputation in the region and the world no harm.

First, we could raise the priority of this matter in our diplomatic efforts—at the UN where a resolution is being sought; in bilateral relationships with neighbouring countries such as Turkey; through our embassy in Beirut, a key conduit for this market; and in our relations with the Gulf states. There are those in Government and the British royal family who hold some sway with those ruling families in the Gulf states. In the longer term, we should bring into law The Hague convention on works of art from conflict areas, which would be a powerful symbol of intent. It is hard for us to continue to justify not signing it, especially as the United Kingdom—proudly for me, as someone who used to work in the art business—is the leading hub in the world for that growing and extremely successful business.

Secondly, in the spirit of the monuments men of the second world war, we could make a modest but far-sighted contribution by establishing a commission to gather information to establish the truth from the fog of the war and to introduce actions in concert with our partners around the world. That could be encouraged under the auspices of the unequalled expertise of the British Museum and, as the US has under the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry, we could make some modest funds available to help those brave individuals on the ground, funding training and mentoring such as that conducted by the British Museum and University college London both in person and, as it is the 21st century, over the internet via Skype. We could help them to inventory their collections, which is key. We need to work with groups such as the one that contacted me—the brave monks in Irbil who are scrabbling to digitise their manuscripts to preserve Iraq’s Christian heritage while time allows.

Culture is frequently neglected by the international development community in development plans and in funding choices, despite its obvious contribution to civil society, reconciliation and rebuilding economies post-conflict. I suspect that that is because most of us who live in and enjoy the west and our rich cultures take that for granted, like the air that we breathe. That is not the case in many parts of the world and certainly not in Syria and Iraq today.

Lastly, in case the deeply disturbing networks of organised criminals and terrorists seek to bring this material to our shores in the future, we should get our own house in order by ensuring that our counter-terrorist financing specialists include this work in their many priorities. It might indeed prove easier to trace these works, which are often large, difficult to transport and known to experts.

I am listening with fascination and horror to my hon. Friend’s account of what is happening. Does he agree that the importance of this cannot be overestimated? The first written work, the epic of Gilgamesh, is still being uncovered and studied, but the horror is that there are things we will never know about that great work because they have already been destroyed.

I concur. These works, once lost, will never be recovered and many have not been properly inventoried. There are not the records that there should be. The inventory of the Kabul museum is only still being finalised with the help of the university of Chicago years after the start of the conflict. These efforts take time and resources, and they require the support of the western community.

On counter-terrorism, I suspect that it will prove easier to trace some of these incredibly dark and dangerous networks through antiquities than through drugs or arms. They are all bound inextricably together. That work must be done, understandably, without fanfare, but it is incredibly important and I would love to have reassurance that our expertise is being deployed in this area.

We should resource our current but woefully inadequate law enforcement in this area. The only dedicated law enforcement in this country is the Metropolitan police’s art and antiques squad, which comprises three officers. They are wonderfully dedicated individuals, but they are so hopelessly under-resourced that they are reportedly unable even to attend the relevant Interpol conferences to discuss and co-ordinate these activities. That is policing from an era of lovable antiques rogues in the spirit of Lovejoy and is totally not fit for purpose in dealing with serious organised crime, terrorist financing and the greatest destruction of works of art that we have known for half a century. That is unacceptable and warrants a review.

We could encourage co-operation, the key to fighting the trade in illicit antiquities, and promote good market behaviour such as the voluntary decision of some of the auction houses to set the year 2000 as one before which sellers must prove the provenance or the collected history of works of art, effectively shrinking the market for illicit works. That good practice is occurring and there is good news within this country, but it deserves the support of Government and deserves some co-operation. The Government could aid those efforts by appointing a co-ordinator to lead on the issue, bringing together the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and could bring the museums, the art trade and law enforcement together to ensure that this country is a shining example of responsible cultural stewardship, whether in our great public collections or in the art business.

In conclusion, we are witnessing cultural barbarism at its worst and its consequences run deeper than arts and culture. Madness is being applied to monuments and sculptures are being turned into tanks. I believe we should act to help Iraqis and Syrians protect and preserve their heritage against terror, acknowledging our shared culture and common responsibility. By acting, however modestly, in some of the ways that I have suggested—modest efforts will have the most practical effect—we will do a good that will last long after our own time and, in the world of politics, leave a legacy for future generations.

At 2 o’clock I must chair the Public Accounts Commission, so I will not be able to stay for the debate. I apologise to the House and I will try to come back.

I very much wanted to take part in the debate to talk about my personal experience, having visited both Syria and Iraq. I also felt that it was right to support my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). I support everything he said in his most impressive speech and I will not repeat all the excellent advice that he has given to our Government.

This issue might seem a long way away, but it is of the most dramatic importance. It is not just a cultural catastrophe, as my hon. Friend has outlined, but a humanitarian catastrophe of the first importance. One cannot divorce the preservation of artefacts from the preservation of local community. Only on Monday, Archbishop Warda of Irbil was at a meeting in the House of Lords, which I attended. He also gave a sermon in Westminster cathedral yesterday. He spoke most movingly about the trauma suffered by his community, which is of appalling proportions. The problems we have in our own country, the issues we were debating and getting very heated about in Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday and the budget I will be discussing later in the Public Accounts Commission all pale into insignificance when one listens to a man such as Archbishop Warda talk about his local community.

Twenty-five thousand Christian families have fled the Nineveh plain and 125,000 people—men, women and children—are without their homes. That is not happening in 1915 or 1940; it happened in August of last year. I have been to these places and I shall describe them a little in a moment, because I feel passionately that having started all this we have a responsibility to finish it.

Let me first follow on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Newark was saying about Syria. I have been to Syria, but I must admit it was not a recent visit. I have also received an invitation to speak at Damascus university on the plight of Christians, but I think that perhaps discretion is the better part of valour in not going to speak in Damascus at present. However, I have been to Damascus in the past and I visited the house in Straight street where St Paul was converted in the home of Ananias. Apparently that house is in good order and has not been destroyed. Whether that is because it is in a part of Damascus that is controlled by Assad forces, I do not know.

As my hon. Friend said, the destruction in Syria has been truly appalling. According to the United Nations, 300 cultural sites in Syria have been affected by the civil war. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research has accumulated a great deal of knowledge on what has been going on. Focusing on 18 areas of particular importance, UNITAR found 24 sites destroyed, 104 severely damaged, 85 moderately damaged and 77 possibly damaged. Those are sites of world heritage status. Such status is not granted casually; they are vital sites.

In one world heritage site in Syria, the old city of Aleppo, UNESCO believes that 121 historical buildings have been damaged or destroyed—equal to 30% to 40% of the area covered by the world heritage designation. The minaret of the 11th-century Umayyad mosque has been toppled, while the citadel of Aleppo is being occupied by military forces and has suffered at least three violent explosions.

The oldest surviving Byzantine church, that of St Simeon Stylites, built on the site of the famed hermit’s pillar, is at risk given its location 19 miles north-west of Aleppo. There is also damage to Krak des Chevaliers, which was created by the Hospitaller order in the 12th century. I should declare an interest because I am a Knight of that order. We are still around after all these centuries, trying to do good work in hospitals around the world, particularly in the middle east, and the work is extremely challenging. Illegal excavations are occurring in the Valley of the Tombs and the Camp of Diocletian—some of them undertaken using heavy machinery, bound to do a great deal of damage. The damage in Syria has been absolutely appalling.

I now turn to Iraq. When Saddam Hussein was in power, I visited the Christian communities there. I also visited Babylon, which, of course, is one of the great wonders of the world. Alexander the Great chose it to be the capital of his world empire. Following the mistaken invasion of Iraq, the coalition, unbelievably, created a military base right on top of the archaeological site, 150 hectares in size.

Babylon is a strange place. There is a lot of pastiche renovation undertaken by Saddam, but the damage to Babylon has been appalling since the invasion and it is getting worse, so I think that we do have a certain responsibility. Looters have attacked cities such as Nimrod and Nineveh, whose names resound with biblical and literary echoes that have rolled down the centuries, and they are now at the centre of destruction.

Let me quote from the prophet Nahum, whose tomb I visited in the village of al-Quosh. Of all the villages that I visited in the Nineveh plain in 2008, only two of those Christian villages—and I visited several—have not been occupied by ISIS forces. They are the villages of al-Qosh and Sharafiya. In the village of al-Qosh one can still find the tomb of the prophet Nahum, and what he wrote all those years ago still resounds today:

“Take ye the spoil of the silver, take the spoil of the gold: for there is no end of the riches of all the precious furniture. She is destroyed, and rent, and torn: the heart melteth, and the knees fail, and all the loins lose their strength: and the faces of them…are as the blackness of a kettle.”

That was Nahum talking thousands of years ago, and his tomb is right there, in one of the only two Christian villages that have not been pillaged and had their population expelled and churches trashed.

Unbelievably, in 2008 I was saying much the same thing. I organised a debate in Westminster Hall on the plight of the Christians and the Christian sites in the Nineveh plains. I also quoted Nahum, who said:

“Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them.”

I said in that debate—it is there in Hansard

“When I went to the Nineveh plains, what struck me was that there was a sense of security in those ancient, entirely Christian villages. I met many displaced people who had come up from Basra and Baghdad to settle in the Nineveh plains, and I heard some absolutely heart-rending stories.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 26WH.]

I went on to describe them.

It is extraordinary that, having started all this mess, having invaded Iraq—Saddam, for all his faults, was protecting some of these sites—

Yes, but they were not actually being looted and the population was not actually being dispersed. Although things were bad under Saddam—I am no apologist for Saddam—I can tell my hon. Friend that they are infinitely worse there.

Back in 2008 I was given various reassurances by the then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Bill Rammell, who told me:

“It is difficult to separate this issue from the broader picture in Iraq which, as a result of improving security and progress towards reconciliation, is a far brighter one than we have seen for several years—certainly brighter than it was a year ago.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 41WH.]

We have a responsibility. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark has given some practical ideas of what we can do, but I have visited those churches and I have listened, in those churches in the Nineveh plains, to services being held in Aramaic, the ancient tongue of our Lord, and I know that it is impossible to separate the expulsion of a people from the issue of the protection of those sites. ISIS, as a result of coalition bombing, has retreated from quite a few villages on the Nineveh plains. The Christian population could possibly be enticed to go back there—because the best way to protect the villages and the archaeological sites is to get the original population back—but they are too terrified to return because they do not trust the Iraqi army.

When ISIS enter a Christian village, they tell the Christians that they have three choices—“You leave, or you convert to Islam, or you die”—so most leave. If ISIS discover that someone is a Shi’a, they give them no choice; they kill them. I am afraid, however, that the Christian population in the Nineveh plains do not have confidence that the Iraqi army, dominated by Shi’as—because many Sunnis have joined or collaborate with ISIS—can protect them. It is therefore down to us.

I am not suggesting that we send some regiment from Aldershot to those burning hot plains where they will make themselves a target, but surely there must be a way forward. Having, in a sense, destabilised Iraq and put the Christian population at risk, can we just walk away and say, “We have fulfilled our side of the bargain by just putting in six planes”? I think we have to do far more than that. We have to arm the local Christian population; that is what they are asking for. I asked that question specifically of Archbishop Warda on Monday. He said, “That is what we want you to do—send in the international peacemakers, protect our people, let our people go back to our villages, and then we can protect their sites.” The same thing, surely—although it would be an infinitely more difficult and complicated picture—applies to Syria.

I will end on that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark has done a great service to the House in directing our attention to the appalling problems and humanitarian and cultural disaster going on in that part of the world. I hope that people in our country feel that, given our history, we have some sense of responsibility.

It is a real pleasure to be able to speak in a debate such as this, which seems to be on a rather obscure and specialist subject. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) so ably put it, there are far greater ramifications of what is going on in the cultural pillaging of Syria and Iraq beyond the appreciation of culture and the great treasures that are gradually disappearing.

I declare an interest not only as the vice chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on archaeology and chairman of the British Museum all-party group, but as someone who has studied Mesopotamology at Cambridge. It is not often that one gets the opportunity to revisit one’s studies in this place. I have also visited Syria twice. On my last visit there, five years ago, we went to Aleppo, a city which I think we would find hard to identify now. I found the museum there and went in search of some of the excavations by the great Mesopotamologist Sir Max Mallowan, who went to school at Lancing college in my constituency and was, of course, married to Agatha Christie. When I eventually found some of the finds from Tell Brak—one of his great excavations—rather alarmingly, I was asked by the guard who was on duty which of them I would like to buy.

Preservation of antiquities in Syria and Iraq has always left rather a lot to be desired, but there is a sense of déjà vu about this issue. After the first Gulf war there was extensive looting of the regional museums in Iraq in particular—that cradle of civilisation, Mesopotamia, to which my hon. Friends have alluded. It is estimated that the museums in Basra, Kufa and Kut, the great Nebuchadnezzar museum in Babylon and the museums in Kirkuk and Duhuk lost between them something like 4,000 priceless objects.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and after the great museum of Baghdad was miraculously almost untouched by the bombing, in April 2003 it fell foul of the looters. That was one of the great museums of the world; it had one of the greatest collections of cultural treasures in the world—treasures from Ur, Babylon, Nineveh, Nimrod and Ashur, examples of the earliest writing, fantastic cylinder seals and cuneiform clay tablets. Some 15,000 objects from the Sumerian, Akkadian and other periods were pillaged, including 5,000 cylinder seals, and gold and silver objects. Among them was, famously, the great vase of Warka, from the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, one of the great treasures of the world. It was found in the temple complex of the Sumerian goddess Inanna by German archaeologists back in the 1930s. It is one of the earliest known surviving works of narrative relief sculpture with human figures, going back to the fourth millennium BC. That vase was wrenched from its base in the cabinet in the Baghdad museum. Then it went missing.

There followed an incredible story which is probably much more interesting than what happened in that rather poor film, “The Monuments Men”, about a fascinating part of history. A small delegation of mostly reservists from America were put in charge of trying to retrieve some of those treasures from the Baghdad museum. An amnesty was issued and, remarkably, out of those 15,000 objects, some 4,000 gradually trickled back to the museum. That included, remarkably, the great vase of Warka. Its return was described in The Times back in 2003. Three unidentified men in their early twenties turned up outside the Baghdad museum driving a rather clapped-out red Toyota. The Times went on:

“As they struggled to lift a large object wrapped in a blanket out of the boot, the American guards on the gate”—

at the Baghdad museum—

“raised their weapons. For a moment, a priceless 5,000-year-old vase thought to have been lost in looting after the fall of Baghdad seemed about to meet its end. But one of the men peeled back the blanket to reveal carved alabaster pieces that were clearly something extraordinary. Three feet high and weighing 600 lb intact, this was the Sacred Vase of Warka, regarded by experts as one of the most precious of all the treasures taken”

during that looting.

The vase of Warka was returned. There was great concern because it was in about 20 pieces, so it was thought to have been damaged. In fact, when the Germans dug it up in the 1930s, it was in about 20 pieces, so with a lot of conservation work and a good deal of glue the great vase of Warka was put back together. Alas, I do not know where the great vase of Warka is at present; whether it has been taken to a site of safety, I do not know. Others may have more information on that.

We had a fascinating talk from one of the reservist colonels who led that group of American soldiers retrieving those objects, who came to Parliament some years ago. Indeed, a book has been published about the looting of the Baghdad museum. He told us the story of the red Toyota and he showed us some amazing pictures. The looters tried to get into the Bank of Baghdad, where many of the treasures had been taken for safety, the gold treasures in particular.

I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who has now left the Chamber, that quite a lot of things that were thought to have gone missing were in the private collection of Saddam Hussein and other members of the Government of Iraq, so Saddam did his bit for early looting.

Among the pictures is a photograph taken from the vaults of the bank in Baghdad where, apparently, some rather hapless looters used a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to try to get through a solid steel German safe door. All the picture shows is a small dent in the safe door and a pair of boots from a hapless individual who tried to gain access. Fortunately, the looters did not succeed and many of the treasures in that bank vault were later returned to the Baghdad museum.

So there is a history of looting in that country. In addition to the 4,000 objects which were returned during that amnesty, over subsequent months and years further objects were recovered from Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Italy and the United States. It is estimated that around half of those looted objects were returned. Where they are now, I do not know. Where the others went to, we do not know.

This debate is timely. We are about to see the release of a film about the amazing life of Gertrude Bell based on the book by Georgina Howell, “Daughter of the Desert”. Gertrude Bell was an extraordinary individual who, in her time, was the oriental secretary to the high commissioner for Iraq. She played a part in the Cairo conference in 1921, alongside Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence and others. She was part of those who created the constitution of Iraq and she was also responsible for the founding of the museum of Baghdad in 1926, the major hall of which is devoted to her memory.

What happened in the 1920s sowed the seeds of what we are reaping now—what has happened in recent decades in Iraq and the greater middle east, and the history that produced Saddam Hussein. So the debate is timely. The situation in Iraq and in Syria, as we have heard, is difficult to assess, because for obvious reasons we cannot get access. I, too, have been speaking with the British Museum, which has been liaising with the UK Border Force and other agencies in case any of those objects come into our geographical territory. I have also been speaking to Sam Hardy, to whom I think my hon. Friend the Member for Newark has spoken as well. He is an archaeologist who has spent a long time specialising in the illicit trade in antiquities.

We have limited information, but from the aerial photos it is very clear that so many of these important sites have been badly damaged and looted. There have been extremely disturbing reports, to which my hon. Friend alluded, of the cold-blooded execution of those who bravely guarded these great museums, in particular the museum in Nineveh, where the site guards lost their lives trying to protect those priceless objects.

The destruction of Syria’s archaeological sites has become catastrophic. There are unauthorised excavations going on, and the plunder of and trafficking in stolen cultural artefacts which is an escalating problem. Many of the objects have already been lost to science and society, and the context in which many of them are being dug up in unsupervised conditions will be lost for ever. The trading in looted Syrian cultural artefacts has apparently become the third largest trade in illegal goods worldwide. It is big business. Back in the 1960s it was a buyer’s market as there were few national collectors interested in Islamic art or other antiquities in Syria, but that has changed dramatically since the Gulf countries—Qatar and Abu Dhabi in particular—have become interested in the artefacts. There is also great interest in China and from Germany.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a crossroads of trade and culture for countless centuries, has been especially hard hit. Its vast, labyrinthine souk—the largest covered souk in the world—was tragically gutted by a fire in 2012. The Citadel, a castle that dates back to 3,000 BC, has been damaged. The minaret of the Umayyad mosque was toppled by fighting in 2013. Hundreds of other sites have been looted. Shops selling Syrian antiquities dot the Turkish side of the border, just 40 miles north of Aleppo.

Another wonderful site is Palmyra. I remember my visit to Palmyra—one of the most beautiful and dramatic archaeological sites in the world. I got up to see the sun rise from the temple of Bel. I had the entire complex of that huge Roman city to myself. I fear the security there left a lot to be desired in those days, let alone now, open as it is. It is an ancient settlement founded in around 2,000 BC, made famous by the great Queen Zenobia—a caravan city during Hellenistic and Roman times, on the edge of the Roman empire. Serious damage has been happening there. Syrian authorities confiscated three busts from Palmyra dating from 200 AD that had apparently been hacked off a tomb.

The majority of looted artefacts from Syria are now being held in antiquity investment storage pits and other stash sites for future sale at higher prices once the buyer’s market glut of cultural heritage artefacts has dissipated. In effect, these objects are being warehoused for people to make a fast buck in future. They will re-emerge, but in the meantime we have little intelligence as to where they are or whether they are being looked after properly. I am afraid that while countries such as China have a ravenous appetite for these archaeological artefacts, this market will exist. We need to appreciate the scale of destruction that is going on, with priceless objects plundered and hidden, and sites destroyed, losing vital historical information and its context for ever.

Some hon. Members—not in your case, I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker—do not appreciate culture and the importance of the amazing sites and priceless antiquities that several of us have mentioned. However, there are also major implications for how we deal with terrorism, how we rebuild that troubled part of the world in future, and how we approach international aid. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark said, people who buy looted artefacts from Syria or Iraq are feeding insurgencies, fuelling the purchase of arms, and financing foreign extremists and mercenaries, as well as all sorts of other criminality.

It is estimated that looting is IS’s second largest revenue source after oil sales. My hon. Friend alluded to 4,000—although I think the figure is nearer to 4,500—archaeological sites, including UNESCO world heritage sites, which are now under the control of IS. Iraqi intelligence claims that IS alone has collected as much as $36 million from the sale of artefacts. It is the equivalent of what the Taliban were doing through the cultivation and sale of heroin in Afghanistan to feed markets in the west. We took that very seriously, and it was a priority for the invading and occupying forces in that country. Yet the devastation and profit involved in the plundering of these sites and the sale of antiquities does not seem to register remotely as clearly on the radar of the world.

We are facing a quadruple threat. First, jihadists are looting these sites, claiming some sort of religious reason for doing so—my hon. Friend the Member for Newark alluded to the destruction of the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan—but they in fact, entirely hypocritically, profiting on international black markets from their destruction. Secondly, it is alleged that President Assad is knowingly selling antiquities to pay his henchmen. There are videos showing Assad’s soldiers at Palmyra, some time ago, ripping out grave relief sculptures and smiling for the cameras as they are loaded on to trucks. Thirdly, the Free Syrian Army, in its various different guises, is looting antiquities as a vital source of funding. Fourthly, an increasingly active part of the population is involved in looting. Ordinary people are looting Syria’s cultural heritage because they have no jobs, income or tangible economic prospects, and are increasingly turning to age-old plundering techniques, in some cases looting to order. As a result of the activities of those four different parties, the fantastic culture of Syria and Iraq is being systematically plundered, yet that is hardly featuring on the radar in the west. We are also having to face the consequences of the financing of terrorist organisations through the plunder of antiquities.

Looking forward to a day in future when peace, in some form, comes to the region, the looting also threatens to deprive Syria, in particular, of one of its best opportunities for a post-conflict economic recovery based on tourism, which until the conflict started contributed some 12% of national income. There is the fantastic site at Palmyra that I mentioned; Dura-Europos, a fantastic Hellenistic caravan city; Ebla, a bronze age site; the Hama water wheels; the third millennium city of Mari; and the cities of Raqqa and Ugarit.

What should we be doing? My hon. Friend mentioned some practical solutions that we need to address with a greater sense of urgency. Collecting looted antiquities is a white-collar crime. The 1970 UNESCO convention, from an international law perspective, is a rather weak measure that exacts, at the most, a slap on the wrist for violators. The 1995 UNIDROIT—International Institute for the Unification of Private Law—convention is stronger and could potentially enforce more robust international law. Yet, for that very reason, far fewer countries have ratified it, fearing that it might target their citizens’ auction houses and museums. Another problem is that the law frequently differs between the source country from which the artefacts are looted and the country to which they are smuggled and then sold. That is a defence lawyer’s dream come true.

After the maelstrom of violence in the region, a 2003 United Nations resolution called on all 197 UN members to stop the trade in Iraqi antiquities without verified provenance. That now also applies to Syria. The European Union has recently banned the import of antiquities from Syria, but, inexplicably, this prohibition has not been followed by the International Council of Museums. Interpol has drawn up red lists of material known to be stolen from Syria. UNESCO has held workshops on how to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage property from Syria and elsewhere. One sign of progress, I hope, is a new law in Germany that could point the way forward in requiring a certified export licence for an antiquity in order to secure an import licence. That is encouraging, but it still does not tackle the situation in the Gulf states and in China, in particular, where such safeguards are not in place.

As my hon. Friend said, we need, on a practical level, a proper survey of exactly what is going on before we can come up with solutions. There is a pressing need for more training of more specialists who can work in customs offices and at airports and sea ports to intercept some of these things and investigate whether there is any information about their having hit the market. He also mentioned the draft resolution before the UN Security Council requiring all member states to prevent the sale of antiquities from Syria, similar to the measure passed 10 years ago on antiquities from Iraq.

My hon. Friend alluded to blood diamonds. Everybody knows what blood diamonds are. There was a very successful film about blood diamonds. They have ended up on everybody’s blacklist, and we understand why. We should apply the same criteria to antiquities of such importance from these countries. It should be easier to do that because they are more easily identifiable and we know their provenance, as opposed to one diamond looking very much like another. That is the approach that we should be taking. There should be no excuse for being any part of a trade in these illicit antiquities that have been taken from their rightful homes in Syria and in Iraq.

By participating in such trade, and by countries not doing everything they possibly can to clamp down on it, we are creating a rod for our own back, because it allows for the financing of terrorist activities, which have affected our everyday lives, not to mention those of the brave servicemen and women who go to fight the cause in the middle east and try to contain the turbulent situation in those two troubled countries. We ignore the pillaging of their cultural background at our peril. To those who think that those dusty sculptures from centuries ago are of no relevance, I say that they are absolutely key to how we deal with that part of the world and, most importantly, hopefully to how we restore peace to a particularly troubled part of the globe.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on persuading the Backbench Business Committee to hold this debate, on the quality of his speech and on his success in persuading the hon. Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to come along and make excellent and provocative—in the best sense of the word—speeches.

The hon. Member for Newark rightly referred to the danger the current conflict in Syria and Iraq poses to the peoples of both countries and to its implications not only internationally and domestically, but for some of the world’s great cultural sites in both countries. As he said, any debate about the damage to Syria and Iraq’s great cultural sites cannot ignore the security realities in those two countries, whose peoples are experiencing huge turmoil. The hon. Member for Gainsborough underlined the fact that thousands of lives have been lost and millions have been forced to flee their homes as sectarian, religious and political fault lines have opened. Ensuring an effective response to the rise of ISIL remains fundamental and we as a country must continue to play our part in ensuring that Iraq has the political, security and diplomatic support required, including strong support for the Kurdistan Regional Government and the peshmerga.

In Syria, ISIL-governed territory is being used to draw in, train and radicalise jihadists, including from Britain. Although the Assad regime cannot have a long-term future, the international community must continue to maintain efforts to achieve a transitional agreement of the type envisaged in the Geneva II process. I recognise the scale of the barriers to such an agreement, but the threat posed by ISIL must continue to be a motive for our international efforts.

As the three hon. Members who have already spoken underlined, both Iraq and Syria are exceptionally rich in terms of their cultural heritage. Indeed, parts of what is now Iraq and Syrian territory have long been regarded as the cradle of human civilisation. There are an enormous number of ancient sites in both countries, including Syria’s great Umayyad mosque, the 13th-century citadel that is part of the world heritage site in Aleppo, the site of Palmyra, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned, the Krak des Chevaliers and the Salah Ed-Din, the ancient city of Bosra and the many monuments in Damascus. It is clear that Syria has much to lose in terms of its cultural heritage from the ongoing conflict. As the three previous speakers have outlined, Iraq, too, has much to lose, including the ancient cities of Ashur and Samarra, and many other great sites of cultural heritage, which are under attack from the conflict within its borders.

There may be some outside this House who ask, “Does what’s happening to those cultural sites in Iraq and Syria really matter? If it does, is it really that important for the UK?” I share the view of the three previous speakers that it does matter and that, at its most basic level, heritage gives us a sense of place, gives a people a sense of their shared identity, and helps to bind nations together. Even though we in the UK may never visit some or all of the sites mentioned in this debate, our shared humanity means that parts of our common heritage are being attacked.

As the excellent Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN-Arab League joint special representative for Syria, said recently:

“Destroying the inheritance of the past robs future generations of a powerful legacy, deepens hatred and despair and undermines all attempts to foster reconciliation.”

Indeed, the director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has talked of attacks on cultural heritage being, on occasion, part of a strategy of deliberate cultural cleansing, with implicitly a recognition that it is designed to erode collective identity, encourage hatred and therefore make it easier for people to access less tolerant, less inclusive, more hostile and destructive ideologies.

It is therefore not a surprise that ISIL has been involved in much of the worst recent attacks on cultural heritage, blowing up, for example, the shrine to the prophet Jonah in Mosul. There are also reports of ISIL bulldozing ancient statues along with Sufi and Shi’a shrines in Raqqa province.

As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was at pains to point out, however, it is not just ISIL that is at fault. The Syrian air force bombed the Krak des Chevaliers, and looters have taken advantage of the lack of Government to destroy eastern Syria’s ancient Roman city of Dura-Europos. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s assessment of what is being done locally, in this incredibly dangerous and difficult conflict, to safeguard a series of key cultural sites in Syria and Iraq that are under sustained attack.

UNESCO, the UN’s cultural and heritage body, has documented the multiple threats to Iraq and Syria’s most important cultural sites, including deliberate attacks, destruction as collateral damage in fighting, the greed of unscrupulous traders and collectors, and the organised vandalism by terrorist and other organisations wanting to erase the past achievements of their cultures. It would be good to hear from the Minister how the Government are supporting UNESCO in its work.

UNESCO leads on a series of international conventions that set international standards to deal with the specific risks faced by heritage during conflict, including most recently the statutes of the International Criminal Court, which have defined the intentional destruction of historical buildings as a war crime. As the hon. Member for Newark said, Britain has not yet signed up to the Hague convention on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. Labour began the process of signing up to it, but I understand that the current ministerial team at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has not yet followed up that work. Is the Minister able to give a new commitment or is he only able to give—I say this gently—some weasel words?

UNESCO has sought to raise international concern about the destruction of cultural heritage in conflict zones and to encourage better local readiness to prevent and minimise devastation of cultural sites in the event of conflict. It would be good to hear from the Minister the Foreign Office’s assessment of UNESCO’s effectiveness in raising the issue’s profile internationally and in helping local communities prepare for and mitigate the impact of conflict on cultural sites. Following on from a point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, how much funding, if any, does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development allocate to help?

Illegal trafficking of cultural property is a major threat to crucial heritage sites during conflict. In theory, UNESCO, Interpol, the World Customs Organisation, the International Council of Museums and many others are already lined up to work together to alert the art market about the dangers of traded goods and to attempt to limit such illegal trade. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister the Foreign Office’s assessment of the scale of such trade, and what, if anything, is Britain’s contribution to attempting to limit it. Are Foreign Office Ministers, as the hon. Member for Newark encouraged, raising the issue of illicit trade with our middle east allies?

Last July, UNESCO held an emergency meeting that brought together cultural heritage experts from Iraq and the wider international community to develop an action plan to mitigate the cultural damage from the recent upsurge in conflict. A further international meeting was organised in late September by the French and Italian delegations to UNESCO to develop such ideas. What was Britain’s contribution to those meetings?

The brutality of ISIL demands a continuing, determined international effort to confront and limit its capabilities in Iraq and Syria, while, as the hon. Member for Newark rightly set out, the scale of their damage and that of others to crucial cultural sites demands that Britain should be part of the international effort to help in minimising the damage and should stand ready to support efforts to rehabilitate the sites where possible. I look forward to hearing the Minister say how Britain is fulfilling that role and how it will do so in future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on securing this debate. Its quality has been hugely increased by both the long-standing interest and the long experience that he and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) bring to policies on archaeology and the trade in cultural antiquities.

The Government are deeply concerned by the destruction of cultural and religious sites in both Syria and Iraq, and particularly by the looting of historic artefacts and the illicit trade in them. In Syria, damage has been caused to all six UNESCO world heritage sites. As hon. Members have said, they include the old city of Aleppo, which houses souks going as far back as the 12th century, and Krak des Chevaliers, which has stood since the 11th century. We believe that all sides in the conflict have a responsibility to protect these sites of cultural importance. We are dealing not only with action by ISIL but, as has been said, with military tactics used by the Assad regime in Syria that have caused considerable damage, particularly to Aleppo, including air strikes, artillery and barrel bombs.

As was the case with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the terrorists linked to al-Qaeda in Mali, we are dealing with an extremist group in Iraq that is seeking to impose iconoclasm on any evidence of religious practice that does not conform to its extremely narrow and perverted interpretation of Islam. In Iraq, the Green Church, one of the oldest orthodox Christian churches in the middle east, and the Mosque of the Prophet Younis have both been deliberately obliterated by ISIL explosives. As my hon. Friends the Members for Newark, for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for East Worthing and Shoreham have explained, the wanton destruction is not only a cultural crime, representing the loss of irreplaceable artefacts and manuscripts of times past, but something with profound consequences. It has an impact on diversity in the middle east, not just historically, but today and in looking forward to a middle east where, we hope, it will remain possible for people of different faiths or different origins to live together in peace.

The destruction is undermining the rich cultural heritage, history and sense of belonging of all communities in Iraq and Syria. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough was right to remind the House, as he did in 2008—I spoke in that debate as the then Opposition spokesman—and on a number of occasions since, about the traumatic situation faced by Christians in their daily lives in the middle east. In both Iraq and Syria, the destruction of heritage is placing an even greater strain on social bonds, which were already stretched to breaking point. Looking forward to the day when there is stability again in both Syria and Iraq, one consequence of the destruction of cultural monuments is that the opportunities for cultural tourism will be much diminished, which will harm the efforts of both countries to rebuild their economies and give their people opportunities.

Hon. Members asked what the Government are doing to raise such concerns with countries in the region. I can tell the House that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has responsibility for dealing with the middle east, has already raised those concerns during meetings in Egypt and the Gulf, and he is doing so during his visit to Baghdad today.

The Government are concerned that the smuggling of historic artefacts is being used by terrorist organisations, including ISIL, to raise revenue. ISIL is the most abhorrent, brutal terrorist organisation that the world has seen—certainly in modern times—and we have all been horrified by the abuses it has committed against the people of Syria, Iraq and the wider region. It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that although we rightly speak and think about the threat to ancient Christian communities, Yazidis and others, the majority of ISIL’s victims are Muslims. ISIL has as little respect for the lives and safety of Muslims as it does for the lives and safety of others.

ISIL’s licensing of the wholesale looting of archaeological sites by criminal gangs is a further example of its cynicism. Our assessment is that ISIL is generating the majority of its revenue from oil smuggling and extortion, rather than from the illicit trade in antiquities. However, it is clearly our responsibility to ensure that we use all possible measures to deny ISIL access to funds and to constrain it from executing its brutal campaign.

The Government have been active on the international stage to discourage and disrupt smuggling, including of antiquities. UN Security Council resolution 2170, which was adopted during the United Kingdom’s presidency of the Security Council last August, prohibits all trade that assists ISIL. A further Security Council resolution due to be adopted today will oblige states to take steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property illegally removed from those countries. The second resolution demonstrates for the first time the international community’s resolve to suppress the financing of ISIL through the illegal trade in cultural artefacts. As a co-sponsor of the resolution, we have played a key role in ensuring that this source of terrorist funding was addressed by the Security Council. We continue to work with our partners in Europe and beyond to ensure the rapid and full implementation of both Security Council resolutions, and to impose sanctions on individuals involved in ISIL’s financing networks.

We are engaging with our European partners to amend the EU Syria sanctions regime to put beyond doubt the principle that, under its terms, the trade in artefacts from Syria is illegal. We co-sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council last September, which highlighted and condemned the destruction of monuments, shrines, churches, mosques and other places of worship in Iraq, and encouraged the Government of Iraq to protect those sites.

Before I come on to the specific points made during the debate, I want to issue a word of caution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark acknowledged, we must be realistic about what the United Kingdom can do on the ground to protect historic and religious sites in Syria and Iraq. We do not have a diplomatic presence in Syria, and we have no dialogue with the Assad regime. We are, however, aware of the ongoing destruction in that country—notably by that regime itself—and such attacks, while wreaking appalling cultural damage, also have a terrible human cost.

We remain committed to degrading and defeating ISIL so that it no longer poses a threat to the UK, the people of Syria and Iraq, or to that region’s cultural heritage, but we must recognise that this will be a long-term campaign. The Government continue to push for an inclusive political transition in Syria that will see the end of the Assad regime, and we continue to support the Iraqi Government’s efforts to push back ISIL, recover Iraqi territory, and meet the needs and provide for the safety of all Iraq’s communities.

We are assisting refugees and displaced people throughout the region with the provision of more than £800 million of humanitarian relief. When it comes to spending priorities, I think we are right to give priority to that humanitarian catastrophe and the millions of refugees—people who have been displaced within Iraq and Syria and those who fled to neighbouring states—over other forms of relief. We will therefore continue to prioritise our efforts to end the conflict in Syria and Iraq so that peace and stability can be restored, and cultural and religious sites protected.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked about the 1970 UNESCO convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit trade in cultural goods. That is generally accepted as the key point of reference for an ethical approach by museums to their acquisitions, leading to greater checking of the origin and provenance of items. The UK is party to that convention, and we supported the 1970 threshold as far back as 2000. As my hon. Friend knows, the Museums Association code of ethics published in 2002 includes that 1970 threshold, and we are open to trying to persuade other countries that have not yet signed up to that convention to do so.

My hon. Friend asked about the implementation by the United Kingdom of European Union and United Nations sanctions on cultural property. Sanctions orders are in place for both Syria and Iraq. The Syria regulation covers

“Syrian cultural property goods and other goods of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance,”

and prohibits their export, import, transfer or the provision of brokering services related to their export, import or transfer

“where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed from Syria without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of Syrian law or international law”.

The order applies to objects that have been removed from Syria on or after 9 May 2011. Exporting or importing such goods contrary to prohibitions under that order automatically became an offence and attracted penalties under the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979—indeed, the order increased penalties for those offences. We believe that the Syria order provides an effective means by which to enforce EU and UN resolutions.

Comparable arrangements are in place for Iraq where we have the implementation of United Nations rather than European Union sanctions. The 2003 Iraq order prohibits the import or export of any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property, and requires anyone who holds or controls any such item to transfer it to a constable—there is a legal duty not only to refrain from participating in that trade, but if someone has such property, they must hand it over to the police without delay. The order defines illegally removed Iraqi cultural property as

“any other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance”

that have been illegally removed from any location in Iraq since 6 August 1990.

In terms of practical implementation, my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have highlighted those orders with key stakeholders, including the art market, the police and museums. The Arts Council’s export licensing unit, which handles export licence applications for objects of cultural interest, has provided exporters with notices on the prohibitions applicable to cultural objects from Iraq and Syria. That guidance highlights the prohibitions and explains that when export licences are sought, the export licensing unit must be able to rule out the possibility that those items fall within the prohibited categories.

The Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to deal dishonestly in tainted cultural property from anywhere in the world, and someone found guilty is liable on conviction in the Crown court to a prison sentence of up to seven years and/or an unlimited fine. If convicted in a magistrates court the maximum sentences are six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000. DCMS has issued guidelines for collectors, auctioneers, dealers and museums, and the Arts Council now runs a dedicated cultural property advice website aimed precisely at those who are collecting, buying and selling art and antiquities in the United Kingdom.

Let me respond to a number of specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark. I mentioned what the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is continuing to do in the middle east, but my hon. Friend also mentioned Germany, and hinted at other European countries as places where some of this illegal traffic is taking place. From my experience of dealing with the German Government, I think that they would wish to crack down, and be seen to crack down heavily, on such illicit trade. I am happy to ask our ambassadors and our consul general in Munich—my hon. Friend particularly mentioned that city —to speak with the relevant authorities there. It would be helpful if he could provide me with any detailed evidence that we could draw to the attention of the legitimate prosecuting and police authorities in those countries.

My hon. Friend also asked about turning the Hague convention into law. The Government’s position is that we remain committed to ratifying it by amendment to statute, although it has not yet been possible to secure the parliamentary time needed to pass the relevant legislation. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) slightly marred what was otherwise a constructive speech by trying to sound a little partisan. I have to remind him that the adoption of the second protocol, as far back as 1999, removed the objections that previous British Governments had had to adopting the original convention. It took the then Labour Government five years before they announced the intention to ratify in May 2004, and they then had another six years in office when they were unable to find the parliamentary time to do so. I am glad that there is cross-party support for putting this into statute and I think it best if we approach the issue in that fashion.

Will the Minister confirm whether there are any remaining blockages to the Hague convention on the protection of cultural property being implemented? Has the necessary parliamentary device been drafted, or do a series of consultations still have to happen? Are there any other blockages preventing it from happening?

It is just a matter of finding parliamentary time against other priorities for Government legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark asked what work we would be doing with Iraqi museums to try to safeguard cultural properties. Again, this is a subject that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East will be raising in Baghdad during his visit. Our embassy has for some years worked to strengthen the links between the archaeological communities in the UK and Iraq. Between 2013 and 2014, the embassy funded a project run by the university of Manchester and the Iraq state board of antiquities and heritage, which involved initiation of a joint archaeological research and excavation project at a settlement near Ur in southern Iraq. It involved Iraqi scholars and practitioners in exploring the cultural heritage of their own country, giving them access to British expertise through a programme of joint research and publications. We continue to do what we can to promote best practice in Iraq and to help that country to safeguard its own cultural heritage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark asked me if the Government could take a number of further steps. He talked about a commission to gather information on making what he described as “modest funds” available, and various actions to enhance the priority that the police and other counter-terrorist agencies give to dealing with the trade in antiquities. I am not at all unsympathetic to what he is saying, but I provide a word or two of caution. Given that the United Kingdom does not have access to the ISIL-controlled areas of either Iraq or Syria and that we currently have no diplomatic mission in Syria at all, I question whether the British Government are best placed to carry out the assessment that he has in mind. We are not seen by the Assad regime, in particular, as a neutral party. UNESCO or another international agency might be better equipped to tackle this matter.

Similarly, when it comes to requests for funds, whether it is the Government or the police, money spent on one item, however deserving, means money subtracted from another good cause, so there is a question of priorities. We would have to think through how such action would actually help the people on the ground—the curators, the brave defenders of cultural heritage that my hon. Friend described. Given the problems in gaining physical access or sending money and other resources out to Iraq and Syria, I would want to be certain that we were delivering a good outcome and not just indulging in gesture politics.

It might be helpful to my hon. Friend, interested colleagues and people from the museum and art world, if I arranged a meeting with me, the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and representatives of the relevant Government Departments and agencies. We could sit down and thrash out some of these ideas together and discuss whether there are ways in which we can have the constructive effect that he and everyone who has spoken in the debate would wish.

I am grateful again to my hon. Friend for bringing this subject before the House this afternoon and for speaking with such passion and knowledge. I hope we can build on what the Government have already been doing and help in whatever way we practically can to safeguard what is the cultural heritage not just of Iraq and Syria, but of the human race throughout the world.

I thank the House for today’s debate. As we have heard, we all agree that an appalling human tragedy is occurring in Syria and Iraq, and nothing we have said today can divert our attention from that. However, there are important questions that deserve to be answered, because the destruction of these sites, the looting and the streams of revenue coming out of it are financing that same loss of human life. It is all bound up into one appalling tragedy.

I thank Members who have spoken, including my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who gave his personal experiences, as well as the appalling experiences of the Christian community in Syria and Iraq. We all agree with his comments. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), sitting at whose feet was like receiving a history lesson from a professor. He is the Gertrude Bell of the House of Commons, and I thank him for his incredible expertise on this issue.

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for giving up his time and showing the commitment of the Labour party. I know that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to whom I have spoken about this several times, also feels strongly. We will need to revisit the issue of The Hague convention, which should be in the cultural manifestos of both main political parties—I suspect it will be in Labour’s, but I would love to see it in ours as well. I also thank the Minister for his generous response, and I would certainly like to take up his kind offer to meet, as too, I am sure, would other Members.

I have had the history lesson, and now I have some homework to do. There is more we can do to support the brave people on the ground trying to preserve this cultural heritage and to take some of the modest steps I have described to tackle the financing of ISIS, in order to defend both cultural property and human life in the region and to promote reconciliation in the future.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered destruction and looting of historic sites in Syria and Iraq.