SIGN UP for our newsletter ✉️ :

Get the latest stories delivered straight to you

Repatriation of Indigenous items not 'simple': UK envoy

Britain needs to confront its colonial history in the Indo-Pacific region but requires more time to "unpick" the issue of returning the remains of Indigenous Australians and their culturally significant artefacts.

UK high commissioner to Australia Vicki Treadell told the National Press Club Britain understood the importance of cultural treasures taken from nations under colonial periods but returning them wasn't a straightforward process.

"You have to understand that different organisations and institutions have constitutions - sometimes it is because it is within the law, and sometimes these things take time to unravel, unpick," she said.

"If life was simple, we wouldn't be having this question."

Asked why the UK government hadn't changed laws to allow some of these artefacts to be returned, Ms Treadell said there were "legislative agendas and the priorities of government".

"This is a live debate," she said.

"We need to confront that (colonial legacy). We need to understand it and that will inform the way we work and how we develop ... modern partnerships.

"We can dig around and open old wounds when actually this should be about healing and moving forward and actually respecting each other for who we are today."

The high commissioner pointed to Cambridge's Trinity College's decision to return Indigenous spears looted by Captain James Cook to their community in Sydney.

"It's through a process of understanding, through a process of dialogue, and we will see more returns come as individual institutions will take that path," she said.

The British Museum has previously refused to return the skulls of Torres Strait Islanders, despite appeals from their communities.

The museum has in the past only agreed to loan Indigenous items to Australia if it could be guaranteed traditional owners would not have a legal basis to take them.

The move followed a dispute in 2004 after Indigenous activists took three barks belonging to a Victorian community while they were on loan from the museum in Melbourne.

Asked if the UK felt a special responsibility in the Indo-Pacific because of its history, Ms Treadell said her nation needed to "redefine" those relationships in the modern context.

"We are seeking partnerships of equals, or partnerships where we can help others who need that help," she said.

"We want to know what people want. It is not us telling the world - it is listening to what our friends and partners tell us."