Last week the V&A announced that it had reached an agreement with the Republic of Yemen (‘Yemen’) to research and temporarily care for four ancient carved funerary stelae that had been discovered by an archaeology enthusiast in an interior design shop in East London.
The museum’s announcement explained that the objects, dated to the second half of the first millennium BCE, are likely to have been looted from Yemen and illicitly trafficked to London. Under the agreement, the V&A will take responsibility for the objects on a temporary basis until Yemen deems it safe to return them to their country of origin. They will be displayed as part of the V&A’s “Culture in Crisis Programme”, which works to “[protect] the world’s cultural heritage and [support] communities that suffer cultural loss, whether through conflict, criminal acts or the impacts of the climate crisis”.
The V&A’s announcement marks a pertinent moment at which to reflect on both the impact that eight years of fighting has had on Yemen’s extraordinary cultural heritage, and also the UK’s role in the conflict.
What began as clashes between Yemeni government forces and Houthi rebels in 2015 has developed into a war between the Iranian-backed rebels and a multinational coalition of forces led by Saudi Arabia. The UN estimates that almost a quarter of a million people have died as a result of the conflict and describes its wider consequences as having created “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.
Alongside the devastating human cost of the war, the impact on Yemen’s millennia-old cultural heritage has been profound. Yemen is home to some of the world’s oldest and most striking feats of human skill and ingenuity.
For example, the ancient cities of Sana’a and Ma’rib have been inhabited for many thousands of years and are both designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Describing its Outstanding Universal Value, UNESCO says of Sana’a that it “is defined by an extraordinary density of rammed earth and burnt brick towers rising several stories above stone-built ground floors, strikingly decorated with geometric patterns of fired bricks and white gypsum. The ochre of the buildings blends into the bistre-coloured earth of the nearby mountains. Within the city, minarets pierce the skyline and spacious green bustans (gardens) are scattered between the densely packed houses, mosques, bath buildings and caravanserais”.
Both cities have suffered significant damage from airstrikes and now appear on UNESCO’s endangered heritage list. Following strikes on Ma’rib and its millennia-old dam in May 2015, then Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, expressed deep concern for the ongoing destruction of Yemeni cultural heritage. She described the great dam of Ma’rib as “one of the most important cultural heritage sites in Yemen and in the Arabian Peninsula, and a testimony [to] the history and values shared by humankind”. A week before the strikes on Ma’rib, the National Museum in Dhamar containing more than 12,000 artefacts had been completely destroyed by aerial bombardment.
Writing for the New York Times, archaeologist Lamya Khalidi has suggested that these incidents are not simply examples of the collateral damage of war, but rather represent “a targeted and systemic destruction of Yemeni world heritage”. The intentional targeting of cultural property during times of conflict is expressly prohibited as a matter of international law, pursuant to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1954 (‘Hague Convention 1954’) and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (Protocol I, Art.53). Saudi Arabia is a party to both the Hague Convention 1954 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (including Protocol I).
The question of the legality of Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen was central to the legal challenges that the NGO Campaign Against Arms Trade (‘CAAT’) has brought against the UK Government in relation to its decision to grant licences for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia.
According to CAAT, the UK is one of Saudi Arabia’s leading arms suppliers. It estimates that the value of UK arms licensed for export to the Saudi-led coalition since 2015 is more than £28bn.
In 2016, CAAT initiated judicial review proceedings that challenged the lawfulness of the Secretary of State for International Trade continuing to license the export of arms to Saudi Arabia when there was, it was argued, a clear risk that the arms might be used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law (‘IHL’). While the claim was initially dismissed by the High Court, that decision was partially overturned by the Court of Appeal in its 2019 judgment. Accepting one of CAAT’s grounds of challenge, the Court of Appeal found that the Secretary of State’s assessment of the risk of future violations of IHL could not be considered rational because, in making that assessment, he had failed to properly consider whether there was an historic pattern of breaches of IHL on the part of the Saudi-led coalition.
The Secretary of State was subsequently granted permission to appeal the Court of Appeal’s judgment to the Supreme Court. However, on 7 July 2020, the then Secretary of State, Liz Truss, issued a statement to Parliament explaining that, in light of the Court of Appeal’s judgment, all allegations of potential breaches of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition had been subject to detailed analysis by reference to the relevant principles of IHL. The statement explained that the analysis had not revealed any patterns, trends or systemic weaknesses in relation to breaches of IHL and that “notwithstanding the isolated incidents which have been factored into the analysis as historic violations of IHL, Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and capacity to comply with IHL”. The Secretary of State concluded that “there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL” and the Government would therefore “begin the process of clearing the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners”.
In response, CAAT issued new judicial review proceedings, again challenging the legality of the Secretary of State’s decision to continue granting licences for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia. In June 2023, the High Court dismissed that renewed challenge. The Court rejected CAAT’s argument that the Secretary of State’s decision was irrational, stating that the evaluations carried out since the Court of Appeal’s earlier judgment had been “assiduous, extensive, rigorous, balanced and multi-layered”.
The CAAT challenges understandably focused on alleged attacks on civilians when seeking to evidence the risk of breaches of IHL. However, the Courts have now accepted the rigorousness of the Government’s assessments of potential breaches in broad terms. We can therefore but assume that those assessments have included analysis in relation to alleged attacks on cultural property.
It is right that we celebrate the custodian role that cultural institutions in this country undertake. We can but hope that Yemen will be able to receive the return of these re-surfaced artefacts before long and when it does, no doubt the V&A will be there to offer its support for what will be a long and painful cultural recovery.
At the same time, we must not allow this type of support to obscure the wider role that the UK has played in Yemen. But rather, we must continue investigating potential breaches of international law and hold the UK Government to account where there is evidence of systemic targeting of irreplaceable cultural heritage. Anything less makes a mockery of UK efforts to protect world heritage.
Serenella Sessini, V&A East Assistant Curator, with two ancient funerary stelae which were likely illegally looted from the Republic of Yemen. Part of a group of four, likely dating from the second half of the first millennium BCE. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London The image is used here under fair dealing for criticism, review and quotation (s. 30 CDPA). The source of the image is the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and can be found here: The V&A and Republic of Yemen • V&A Blog (vam.ac.uk). If you are a rightholder in this image, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will happily respect your wishes around image use.
Old City of Sana’a, 2013, Julian-G. Albert via Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0 – File:Old city of Sana’a (10874202276).jpg – Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Ma’rib, 1986, Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0 – File:Ancient Ma’rib 01.jpg – Wikimedia Commons