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Iraq: Nimrud

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 12 March 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage Arab states and Iran to condemn the destruction by Islamic State forces of the remains of ancient Nimrud, northern Iraq, and demand that they desist.

My Lords, the Government utterly condemn ISIL’s wanton destruction of cultural heritage sites in Iraq. We are not alone. The United Nations Security Council, the head of UNESCO, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Arab League have all condemned ISIL’s systematic destruction of historic sites and relics. We will continue to work with Arab states, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to counter ISIL. We recognise the important contributions they are making to the global effort.

I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Does he agree that in destroying these iconic sites in Mesopotamia, ISIS is trying to destroy what are part and parcel of everyone’s civilisation, our common civilisation, with elements imparted into all three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and that this is the moment for leaders, both political and religious, in the West and the Middle East to proclaim this together? Does he also agree that those considering joining ISIS from this country, from Britain, should be asked rather sharply to acknowledge that attempts to justify such acts of iconoclastic vandalism are as arrogant and as threadbare as any that could be found for bulldozing Stonehenge?

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned iconoclasm. It has been an aspect of a number of religions including, sadly, Christianity in the past. When I, from time to time, give tours of Westminster Abbey for charity, I point out to people the various bits of destruction that the Puritans had executed there, as in many other churches around Britain. We are faced with a radical ideology, which has a particularly narrow definition of Islam, in which iconoclasm is part of what it wishes to do.

My Lords, is not the sacking of historic Nimrud, the great Assyrian capital, as mindless as the bulldozing of ancient Hatra, only 100 kilometres away from Mosul? Is it not ironic that the so-called Islamic State, in its gothic ignorance, is bulldozing one of the earliest centres of Arab civilisation? Will Her Majesty’s Government remind the modern-day, latter-day, Arab nations that their cultural heritage is part of the cultural heritage of humankind, which is a matter of concern to us all?

My Lords, it is not entirely easy to communicate with the leadership of ISIL and it is a question of Muslim heritage and pre-Muslim sites which it is concerned about. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, has a great deal of expertise in all this and I also know that for all those engaged in the study of ancient history this is an extremely painful experience. We are doing what we can.

My Lords, is not the bulldozing of the ancient city of Nimrud, the Assyrian city that stands for so much of Mesopotamia’s history, as the noble Lord said, on a par with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Sufi monuments in Mali in 2011? Is not this destruction of the collective memory of humankind that has just been referred to, and the murder by ISIL of so many of the people who live in that part of Iraq and in Syria, what Ban Ki-moon called earlier this week crimes against humanity? Will the noble Lord tell us what will be done to bring those responsible before the International Criminal Court where they may be tried? What is being done to stop the artefacts that have been acquired now being sold on international markets? What is being done to retake the plain of Nineveh?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of questions. Part of what is going on is the deliberate destruction of these sites, including by heavy explosives, and part of what is happening is the smuggling of antiquities. They are parallel, rather different, activities. We are working with all our partners in the European Union and through UNESCO to stop that trade, which of course provides a means of financing these radical movements. In the Middle East, there are allegations that some of the antiquities are being sold in Lebanon and Turkey.

My Lords, I agree with everything that has been said across the House and elsewhere in condemnation of these appalling actions. May I, in the interests of the continuity of civilised standards, ask the Minister what he thinks of the way in which Margot Wallström, the Swedish Foreign Minister, was prevented from speaking at the Arab League on the subject of women’s rights?

My Lords, we regret that event, which was part of a long dialogue between advanced countries and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia was deeply unhappy with it. As part of my preparation for this programme, I have just read a very interesting and depressing article on the links between authoritarian government in the Middle East and authoritarian behaviour in families across the Middle East. We are all beginning more and more to understand that raising the status of women is essential to moving towards more enlightened government and better social and economic development.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that because of the Wahhabi doctrine, which the Saudi Arabians promote, they believe in the destruction of historic monuments, even those associated with the life of the Prophet? Will the Government remonstrate with the Saudi Arabians about the practice of destroying sites associated with the Prophet?

My Lords, I am well aware that the strictest form of Salafism believes in the destruction of idols. There is a certain amount in the Old Testament about the destruction of idols, for those of us who remember those particular chapters. Unfortunately, these are part of the most ancient and crabbed versions of different religions. We argue with the Saudis about producing a much more enlightened version of Islam and encouraging that within their own country.

My Lords, if any further proof was needed, the destruction of the remains of ancient Nimrud shows the sheer barbarism of ISIL. By the way, I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the Minister a happy birthday today. We know him to be a very busy and conscientious Minister with many tasks. Will he confirm that there are now no remaining blockages to Britain signing up to the implementation of the Hague convention on the protection of cultural property?

My Lords, the blockage on that has been a matter of finding legislative time. Reading through the preparation for this, it seems to me that this is an ideal Bill for one of us to take through this House if there is not time in the first Session of the next Government. We last considered the question of ratification in 2004. Sadly, no Government since then have found time in their legislative programme.

My Lords, we all think that is extremely sad. Can my noble friend tell us what we are doing to educate Muslim pupils in British schools in the fact that their heritage is being destroyed and despoiled by these evil people?

My Lords, I will have to write to the noble Lord about that. It is a very good question. The complex history of the Middle East and the relationship between different religions in the Middle East is part of what is being destroyed. Those of us who have visited, for example, the Great Mosque in Damascus, which has the tomb of St John the Baptist inside it, will know the extent to which what is happening in the Middle East is sadly destroying its historic diversity. That is something that we certainly need to teach our Muslim British about.