Letters: The Rosetta Stone

It's time to gracefully relinquish the Rosetta Stone

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The Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles are priceless, culturally significant antiquities brought to Britain under arrangements that were perfectly legal at the time, and so Egypt and Greece have no claim that could succeed in any court (The Big Question, 9 December).

In the past, that has been considered sufficient justification by the British Museum for it to reject any requests for their return. When you add the facts that Egyptian museums have been less secure, and that had the marbles remained in position on the Parthenon they would have decomposed in the atmospheric pollution so as no longer to be recognisable, then most rational people would have supported that position.

The situation has changed, however, gradually with the passage of time; Egypt and Greece are now perfectly capable of providing dedicated, secure environments using the latest technology to preserve these artifacts intact. And it is now possible to produce close-to-perfect copies that could be put in place of the originals in the British Museum, so that the experience of the visitor would in no way be diminished.

The time has come when the British Museum should recognise the change in relative status between Britain and the rest of the world. We are no longer the imperial masters and increasingly need to build constructive working relationships as between equals. We can no longer demand and bully, but must request politely that others join with us in collaborative ventures against terrorism and other global threats.

These artifacts are of immense cultural significance to Egypt and Greece. To return them would not require any admission of legal title, or of any past wrongdoing, but would simply be a gesture of goodwill. They would be very well received (perhaps an understatement of the response that should be expected), and it would reflect well on Britain that we didn't have to give them back, but chose to do so anyway.

Peter Groome

Berrow, Somerset

Incarceration of children must stop

Medical Justice doctors see immigration detainees at the rate of about 1,000 a year, including over 100 children. Our findings accord exactly with those of the Royal Colleges of General Practitioners, Paediatrics and Child Health, and Psychiatrists, and the UK Faculty of Public Health – that detention of children is unacceptable and should cease without delay ("Immigration camps 'harmful to children'", 10 December). The harm being caused by detention centres is so widespread, and so intrinsically linked to the act of detention itself, that the only ethical solution is to close them down.

Over the years, when challenged, the response of UK Border Agency (UKBA) and the private companies it subcontracts detention-centre healthcare to have ranged from pleading ignorance, to painting walls a different colour, to publishing hundreds of pages of action plans, which prove meaningless because the health outcomes for children remain frightening. In our experience, UKBA all too often tries to pass something serious off as an "isolated incident".

At the recent Royal Colleges' conference, David Wood of UKBA seemed to indicate an important shift. He stated that a risk of absconding, which used to be the main justification we heard from UKBA for detaining people, is now not used as an argument for the detention of families with children. It is hard to understand the continued justification for a policy that causes such damage to children's health.

Mr Wood went on to say that detaining families and children is the only way to ensure they are removed from the UK, yet most of these families are eventually released back into the community without removal, some after being brutalised by months of detention. This seems a senseless waste of public funds, not to mention actively harming children's health.

Dr Fred Martineau

Paediatrician, Medical Justice,

London N7

We have long known that incarcerating vulnerable children is detrimental to their health. Children held in UK detention centres suffer physical and psychological problems, in addition to the exacerbation of existing conditions.

Children are first and foremost children, and their status as refugees or asylum seekers should at best be a secondary consideration. At the moment, someone in a UK prison has better access to medical care than a child in a detention centre.

The British Red Cross does not believe the detention of children is an appropriate policy; it is clearly harmful to the children involved and sets them apart from society at an early age, creating huge barriers to community integration.

When detention is used, conditions must be adequate for the physical and mental well-being of those detained.

Nick Scott-Flynn

Head of Refugee Services,

British Red Cross, London EC2

Can Israel be called an apartheid state?

Howard Jacobson (5 December) may be right in his view that the current Israeli government cannot be described as an "apartheid regime" because the government is freely elected. The real issue is whether Israel is an apartheid state.

Successive freely elected governments have denied equal access to land in Israel to non-Jewish citizens. Israeli governments, whether hardline/right-wing or self-labelled liberal/ moderate have pursued a discriminatory Jewish-only immigration policy and steadfastly refused to allow dispossessed Christians and Muslims to return to their homes and villages in Israel.

Trevor Johnson


According to Howard Jacobson, being a Zionist should not render one ineligible to serve on an inquiry that has at its heart gathering the truth behind the invasion of a country regarded by Israel as a bitter enemy. By the same token, the findings of an inquiry into, say, the paying of enormous bonuses by banks, would not be prejudiced by having as members of that inquiry those with allegiance to those very banks.

The semantic detours undertaken by your writer (by suggesting, for example, linguistic conspiracies by those using such words as "ardent" or "active" before "Zionist") cannot disguise the reality that the Iraq war's greatest cheerleaders came from groups in the West – especially in the United States – who are the most vocal supporters of Israel and the most energetic lobbyists on its behalf. Perhaps Mr Jacobson would care to look again at the evidence from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, from Richard Perle, Elliot Abrahams et al, before attempting to rewrite history.

Ghayth N Armanazi

London W8

Unimpressed by public art galleries

Michael Glover's review of the current ICA exhibition is very amusing (8 December), but behind many a jest there is a salutary lesson. Having been involved in the art world for nigh on 40 years, I have found that quite often one's favourite public galleries suddenly become no-go areas. I assume this is because directors of these institutions change and with them the character of the exhibition programme. Is this because I am becoming old and conservative I ask myself?

I think not. I find the shows at commercial galleries such as White Cube, Haunch of Venison, Victoria Miro, etc both stimulating and life-enhancing. But these galleries have generally to amuse us to survive. Public galleries do not. How often do I go to the ICA, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, or the Arnolfini now? Never. Nor is the opening show of the refurbished Whitechapel propitious. Hasn't the sociological approach to "art" favoured by Sophie Calle been thoroughly explored long ago by Steve Willats?

Gallery directors in the public sphere need to broaden their scope. All too often what is shown is an exploration of their own egos rather than a reflection of contemporary art practice.

Robert Senecal

London WC1

Why are there so few sperm donors?

Your leading article "Fertility for sale" (10 December) raises some very important points about the challenges presented by the shortage of sperm and egg donors. It also correctly identifies the loss of donor anonymity as being a crucial factor in this debate.

The BMA argued against the loss of anonymity, predicting just the sort of problems that have occurred. The lack of donors in the UK means that people are either denied treatment that could help them have a much-wanted family, forced to use informal and unregulated means of obtaining donor sperm, or go overseas for their treatment to countries where the use of anonymous donors means a plentiful supply. These options entail risks of a variety of harms which need to be balanced against the benefits of people being able to know their genetic parents. As a society we need to decide what is most important.

Tinkering at the edges by making practical changes, and the introduction of payment for gametes, may make a difference, but if lack of anonymity is the main obstacle to donation, then it may not. What we really need is good-quality research into what motivates and deters potential donors. Without this, there is a risk that a significant policy shift may have little effect on the problem it is intended to solve.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson

Head of Science and Ethics,

British Medical Association,

London WC1

Girls, boys and a mixed education

In her defence of single-sex schools (letters, 8 December), Heather Hanbury says that girls in her sixth form are not surrounded by boys they feel they need to impress. Let me assure her that in all my years in mixed education, not one girl ever showed the slightest hint of a need to impress me.

Dave Woods

Hull, East Yorkshire

Mobiles in cars

I wonder if the increase in mobile-phone usage by drivers (report, 11 December) is not because the penalty is seen as paltry, but because offending drivers see the chance of getting caught while using the phone is so slight that it's worth the risk? In other words, the penalty for breaking any law is pointless if the enforcement of that law is inadequate.

Laurence Williams

Thetford, Norfolk

Bared breasts

Angela Elliott (letters, 11 December) is rightly upset that she was not permitted to breastfeed her baby in a theatre, on the grounds of public decency. Surely, though, she should realise that in a warped and hypocritical society like Britain, it is only acceptable for women to bare their breasts for erotic purposes in the media, or to flaunt them to leery blokes in town centres on a Saturday night. They are not permitted to expose their breasts in order to deploy them as nature originally intended.

Pete Dorey

Cardiff University

The joys of Frankfurt

While agreeing totally with Jonathan Pearsall that bankers who wish to flee the country in pique (letters, 11 December) should be allowed to do so, I would take issue with his description of Frankfurt as "boring". We have visited the city five times in the past couple of years and now prefer it to Paris. It has a wonderful resident opera company, good concerts, a riverside lined with museums, interesting galleries and historic houses and the best food we have eaten anywhere in the world. And it is considerably cleaner and tidier than London.

Doraine Potts


Pope mustn't preach

I earnestly hope that Pope Benedict XVI, as leader of the least free and least democratic sect of Christendom, will not include in his address to MPs (11 December) Ms Ann Widdecombe's suggestion that he "remind parliamentarians of their duty to guarantee freedom and democracy". In the light of the recently reported abuse of children by clergy of the Catholic church in Ireland and the refusal over decades of the Vatican to act, it would be the height of hypocrisy to demand that other institutions, namely our Houses of Parliament, be lectured on virtues which his institution does not practise.

Dr Michael B Johnson


Spoon alert

I should like to make readers aware that they should not take large spoons through security at Heathrow airport. I had three serving spoons of about 25cm confiscated as being too large. As a pensioner, I feel I do not present a threat to my fellow passengers as I am unlikely to attack them with spoons. The items had decorative coiled ends, so could not be described as sharp. At this time of year, many of us are carrying Christmas gifts, so if you are planning hand luggage only, think twice about your choice of gifts.

Janet Hyde

Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire

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