16.02.2017 - UNESCO Office in Kabul

First footsteps for restitution of Afghanistan’s lost cultural heritage – 13/02/17

MONDAY 13th February, National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul – Senior Government officials met with the Japanese Ambassador and UNESCO to mark the return of some of Afghanistan’s most important cultural treasures that had been removed from Afghanistan during the Taliban era. One of the most famous pieces to be returned is the so-called ‘left foot of Zeus’, which was found at Ai Khanum in Baghram, and dates to the 3rd Century BC.

Attended by some 150 people including Ambassadors of Australia, Finland, India, Indonesia, and Spain, Monday’s ceremony marked an important moment for Afghanistan. In total 102 objects have been returned to the Museum from Japan, which follows a precedent set by Britain and Germany, who have both returned artefacts to Afghanistan in the past. The artefacts were collected in Japan led by the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Property. This committee was led by the late Professor Ikuo Hirayama, former Rector of the Tokyo University of the Arts and Goodwill Ambassador to UNESCO.

 In recognition of Professor Ikuo’s dedication to protecting Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, he was awarded the prestigious Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan medal, which is awarded for services to culture. H.E. Mr. Mitsuji Suzuka, the Ambassador of Japan received the medal on behalf of Professor Ikuo.

 In his speech to the gathered guests, Deputy Minister of Culture H.E. Bawary expressed his thanks to the Government of Japan and the late Professor Ikuo Hirayama. He reiterated the strength of the bond between Afghanistan and Japan, and noted Japan’s long-standing support to Afghanistan.

 H.E. Mr. Suzuka, the Ambassador of Japan said that many people in Japan wished for the safe repatriation of displaced cultural properties from Afghanistan. In his remarks, H.E. the Ambassador noted that the collection had attracted a lot of attention in Japan. Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan, and the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had seen the artefacts when they were on display in Tokyo. He concluded by expressing his wish for this act of repatriation to pave the way for peace in Afghanistan.

 UNESCO Head of Culture Unit, Masanori Nagaoka praised the National Museum staff and the Government of Japan for this initiative. He said that the Museum has come to represent the hope of a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, reminding guests that the Museum lay in complete ruin little more than 15 years ago.

 The National Museum of Afghanistan was plundered and destroyed during the civil war and during the Taliban era. Thousands of looted artefacts found their way into auction houses across the World, particularly the UK and Japan.

 However, under the Government of Afghanistan’s strong leadership, UNESCO collaborated with ICOM to produce a Red List of Antiquities at Risk in Afghanistan which provides a practical tool for museums, art dealers, customs officials and collectors to identify objects that could originate illegally from Afghanistan. Interpol has also been closely involved in this process.

 The Government of Afghanistan has long been committed to protecting Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. In 1979, it ratified the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and in 2004 passed its own law on the preservation of historical and cultural heritage. The following year, it accepted the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and has accepted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

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