Throughout history, wars and colonization have led to the appropriation of cultural objects by the conquerors to the detriment of the vanquished or colonized peoples. The transfer of the cultural object outside its culture of origin irreparably deprives it of one of its dimensions. A loss of this kind can occur in a historical context in respect of a work of art which, initially, is more a testimony to the sacred than a form of aesthetic expression.
At the same time as the dominated peoples and developing countries were being abominably exploited by slavery and colonization, their cultural heritages were being looted. Nowadays, cultural goods which belonged to these people and countries are easily to be found in the museums of the Western world, without any quid pro quo, of course. This cultural looting of the third world by the former colonial powers is continuing through a traffic knowingly organized by them. They are acting thus in contempt of the laws of the third world countries and flouting the international standards worked out by the international community to which they have freely acceded.
For the victim peoples and countries, slavery, colonization, apartheid and the cultural looting of the third world were frameworks for gross and systematic violations of human rights and for a total disregard of their right to development. These violations have never been redressed and deprive the victims of any possibility of developing themselves and leading a decent life.
The practices listed above belong to the past but have baneful consequences for the economic life of the peoples and countries that were the victims. Today, these peoples are living in a state of absolute poverty, as frequently noted by the international community. The serious crimes of massive violations of human rights produced by these practices are ongoing ones. The principle in such cases is that, so long as the nefarious action has not ceased, there can be no prescription, the more so as these are crimes against humanity which are thus imprescriptible and subject to the principle of universal jurisdiction. This principle makes it possible for the courts in all countries to take cognizance of an act constituting a crime against humanity.
The Third World is pressing for the restitution or return of its cultural heritage, but although general public in the West is now aware for the first time of the massive scale of cultural loss suffered by the Third World, the initial response to Third World demands for restitution has not been good. Fearing a massive onslaught on their possessions, the guardians of Europe's and the USA' treasure houses are preparing to prevent the removal of their treasures.
The West is caught in a painful dilemma. To concede the principle of restitution which in terms of its own moral or ethical code it is bound to do, involves the admission that the goods were illicitly acquired in the first place: a harder look at the dark side of Europe's 'civilizing mission'. Colonialism is scarcely a generation away. It will take longer that that for Europe to re-write the history of Empire in the image of the Third World. Seldom raised as a rational objection to the demands for restitution, this factor constitutes a major barrier in Western thinking on the matter. In securing the return of its cultural heritage, the Third World may well have to show greater tolerance towards the psychological problems of their former rulers than was ever extended to them as subject peoples. The transfer of cultural items is the strongest case yet for historical redress: the Third World is asserting the primacy of its own culture against centuries of cultural domination by the West.