Washington lifts efforts to deter illegal trafficking of Yemen artefacts

The State Department signed an agreement with Yemen’s US ambassador to help prevent trafficking of antiquities

Artefacts that were recovered before being smuggled out of Yemen, at the National Museum in Taiz on February 22, 2022. AFP
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Washington is cracking down on the illegal trafficking of stolen and looted artefacts from Yemen, which has been ravaged by nearly nine years of civil war.

Assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs Lee Satterfield on Wednesday signed a preliminary agreement with Mohammed Al Hadhrami, Yemen’s ambassador to the US.

The agreement established a cultural property pact that will allow Washington to enforce import restrictions on archaeological and cultural artefacts from Yemen.

Cultural heritage and artefacts are often a forgotten victim of war, and Yemen’s rich heritage has been looted and depleted since the conflict began in 2014.

“Many ancient civilisations lived and thrived in our country,” said Mr Al Hadhrami. “We are very proud of our heritage as it represents who we are as Yemenis.”

He said that Yemen’s “heritage is also one of the victims of the war".

Mr Al Hadhrami blamed the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who seized control of the capital Sanaa in 2014, sparking nearly a decade of violence and humanitarian strife, for creating an environment that has allowed rare and precious antiquities to be smuggled out of the country.

“The Houthis made it easier for violent extremists and terrorist organisations to collude and illegally traffic our precious Yemeni antiquities for their own financial benefit,” he said.

The agreement signed on Wednesday will apply to objects of cultural significance that are more than 250 years old, and objects and materials created by tribal groups that reflect the cultural heritage of local communities.

It “will empower our colleagues at the US Department of Homeland Security to identify and ultimately return illegally exported material before it enters the country,” said Tim Lenderking, US special envoy for Yemen.

The agreement comes as the prospects of peace, while still far off, are the highest they have been in years.

“It is a great moment to do something like this when there's a de-escalation that's sort of reigning in Yemen and there's a fledgling move toward a peace effort,” Mr Lenderking told The National.

“It's a great moment, I think, to walk into this space and try to highlight Yemen's rich heritage.”

Updated: August 30, 2023, 9:00 PM