On August 30, the United States and Yemen signed a bilateral agreement agreement on cultural property, committing both countries to combat the illicit trade in antiquities. The new agreement builds on and strengthens the emergency import restrictions put in place in 2020to ensure that undocumented items from Yemen that may have been illegally exported will not cross U.S. borders.
Yemen is experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis due to a conflict that has raged for more than nine years following the Houthi coup. in 2014, endangering its rich cultural sites and artifacts due to looting, smuggling and destruction. Yemen has five world heritage sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
But in the midst of this crisis, while facing significant loss of life, devastation of its communities, and countless political challenges, Yemen’s government prioritized protecting its heritage , proving once again the importance of culture for the identity and history of a nation. how its preservation in times of conflict can provide a sense of continuity and hope for the future.
To take advantage of available international protections, Yemen achieved a series of Herculean feats in 2019, including ratifying the UNESCO Convention of 1970 on ways to prohibit and prevent the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.
Recognizing that the American art market constitutes an important market 45 percent of the world total and often serves as the ultimate destination for antiquities stolen from Yemen and other conflict zones, Yemen has embarked on the complex process established by U.S. law and regulations to prevent stolen cultural heritage from entering the States -United.
This resulted in emergency import restrictions — a major step and victory for Yemen — that closed the U.S. market for stolen antiquities to the country, which has also faced challenges preserving its cultural artifacts from looting by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and extremist militants, including the Houthis.
Currently, the United States does not have the legal authority to quickly close its borders to antiquities looted from countries in crisis. Instead, it requires foreign governments to prepare onerous applications and navigate a multi-step bureaucratic process governed by a 40 years American law. Although the example of Yemen shows that this is possible, this process represents too heavy a burden for countries in crisis and may be inaccessible to countries that need it most.
Recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan and Niger show that we cannot always predict when and where culture will be threatened. A proactive system to respond quickly to crises or emergency situations is a more effective approach to responding to the growing threats of cultural racketeering.
The case of Yemen, which uses close engagement with the US government to combat antiquities trafficking, can serve as an example for other countries around the world. He contributed to the successful repatriation of 79 of its antiquities and the expansion of cooperation with cultural institutions for the preservation and presentation of its cultural heritage.
The United States is a favored destination for looted artifacts, and the need remains imperative to put an end to these illicit activities in order to safeguard cultural treasures like those of Yemen’s rich history, which have survived for millennia.
Yemen’s civilians and heritage will certainly remain at risk until peace returns, an outcome that can only be achieved by supporting United Nations efforts to end the conflict in accordance with relevant UN resolutions and the terms established benchmarks. However, the U.S. government can ensure that the American art market does not contribute to the tragedy in Yemen – or to the harm of other nations that find themselves in danger.
Deborah Lehr is President and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition and CEO of Edelman Global Advisory.
Mohammed Al-Hadhrami is Yemen’s ambassador to the United States.
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