ECHR reject first-ever legal bid to return Parthenon Marbles

The first-ever legal bid to force the UK to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece was thrown out by the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday.

The court ruled that because the alleged theft of the sculptures from the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple took place more than 150 years before the UK signed up to the human rights convention, it did not have the power to consider the lawsuit.

Campaigners for the return of the sculptures pointed out that the court had not made a ruling on the “merits of the case”.

The marbles were taken from the temple by the Earl of Elgin in the 1800s and he then sold them to the British Government in 1816 after running into financial difficulties.

At the time, Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Lord Elgin obtained a ‘firman’, a legal document, that apparently allowed him to take some stones but some believe it did not entitle him to cut sculptures from the building.

The marbles are regarded as some of the finest sculptures ever created and the Parthenon, built by the democratic Athenians after victory over the Persian Empire, is arguably the most important historical monument in Europe.

The Greek Government was given extensive legal advice from lawyers Amal Clooney and Geoffrey Robertson, but appears to have decided against taking Britain to court.

Instead, the case against the UK was brought by the Athenians’ Association, a cultural group, after the British Government refused an offer last year by UNESCO to mediate between Greece and Britain.

The British Government and the British Museum, where about half the surviving Parthenon sculptures are on display, insist the Earl of Elgin acquired them legally.

On July 10, a cross-party group of British MPs launched a Bill to return the sculptures to Athens, where the new Acropolis Museum was built specifically to house them within sight of the Parthenon.

“The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history,” read a British Museum statement.

“The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history.”

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