Report on Webinar "To give or not to give it back to Sri Lanka?"

"To give or not to give it back to Sri Lanka?" - Webinar 24 May 2023 –

by Matilda Mulder

The LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development hosted a webinar on May 24th titled “To give or not to give it back to Sri Lanka?” as part of an initiative launched by The Netherlands-Sri Lanka Foundation and endorsed by The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Sri Lanka to commemorate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. 


The event saw the participation of Her Excellency Ms. Drs. Bonnie Horbach, the Netherlands’ Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives; Dr. Evelien Campfens, expert on international cultural heritage law; Prof. dr. Naazima Kamardeen, Chair Professor in Commercial Law at the University of Colombo; and Prof. dr. Georg Frerks and Dilip Tambyrajah representing the Netherlands Sri Lanka Foundation.

The webinar addressed Dutch possession of cultural artifacts from Sri Lanka and their willingness to return them as a way to address past injustice. Yet, practical questions arise regarding the repatriation process: where and to whom do the artifacts truly belong? What could the potential outcomes of restitution be? The need to revive Sri Lanka’s colonial past was emphasized, as it has been largely overlooked in modern Dutch society.

Moderator Bonnie Horbach highlighted the persistent traces of colonialism in the present and the need to reflect on how present actions can inadvertently perpetuate power structures. The embassy seeks to facilitate communication and exchange between committees in both countries, to connect stakeholders from different fields and promote mutual engagement.

Professor Naazima Kamardeen, joining us from Colombo, stressed the importance of a properly worded request as the starting point for any restitution process, but noted that a lack of transparency and inclusivity on Sri Lanka’s side currently complicates the process. It is important for Sri Lanka to construct and broaden the narrative about the colonial past in a participative and mutually enriching dialogue to avoid causing harm. A clear timeline of actions and steps should also be outlined.

Lawyer Eveline Campfens’ intervention emphasized the importance of cooperative provenance research and avoiding restitution as a simple neo-colonial gesture. Restitution should be treated as a matter of human rights, rather than just a means of making prosperity claims. Campfens proposed a humanized approach to cultural heritage law, that prioritizes the rights of heritage communities by recognizing them as owners of cultural goods with access rights.

Given that public international law is a Western European product, the need for novel conventions and criteria for assessment was also explored. Consensus could be reached on new standards and norms for restitution processes. Overall, the conference underscored the value of cooperation. While it is acknowledged the need of “professionalization” of the discourse on both sides of the table, it is also critical that cooperation extends beyond intra-governmental bodies to include other stakeholders and community perspectives; this will prevent nationalistic thinking from entering the scene and reducing artifacts to simple diplomatic tools. The picture is promising, nonetheless the debate must be kept alive now that the Netherlands has demonstrated political will to grapple with such issues. Everyone believes that it will be a lengthy process requiring a significant amount of labour on both the Dutch and Sri Lankan sides.