Why the ICC is trying Mali cultural destruction as war crime

Attacks on cultural heritage in war zones – in this case, in Timbuktu – have spiked as part of a strategy of hate and persecution. Some say such trials can be key to peace-building.

Joe Penney/Reuters/File
The rubble left from an ancient mausoleum destroyed by Islamist militants, is seen in Timbuktu, Mali, July 25, 2013.

A former Islamist rebel admitted on Monday to destroying Muslim shrines in Mali and begged forgiveness on the opening day of his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Ahmad al-Fahdi al-Mahdi said he had been caught in an “evil wave” during Mali’s 2012 civil war when he led a jihadi team armed with pickaxes that leveled 14 adobe mausoleums in the city of Timbuktu. The buildings – UNESCO World Heritage sites – had housed the tombs of Muslim scholar-saints since the 14th century.

Mr. Mahdi is the first man to appear before the ICC charged with cultural destruction as a war crime. Prosecutors hope that the case will draw attention to the increasingly common attacks on cultural and religious sites in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State (IS).

“This prosecution is timely” in light of the “stark increase in crimes against cultural property” in war zones, says Richard Dicker, head of the International Justice program at Human Rights Watch.

The world first noticed the trend when Taliban fighters in Afghanistan blew up two monumental Buddha statues in 2003. IS fighters burned down the Mosul library in Iraq last year, and also blew up monuments at the Roman site of Palmyra in Syria.

Until now, the ICC and other international courts have focused on crimes against individuals, such as murder, rape, and torture.

While those kinds of crimes “have an immediate impact,” says Erica Bussey, a senior legal adviser to Amnesty International, “the consequences of cultural destruction go beyond the victims; it’s an attack on people's cultural identity.”

“The intention in almost every case is to attack the dignity” of those who attach importance to the wrecked buildings or monuments, says Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Worse, he says, such attacks “should be seen as a signal of serious persecution to follow,” since they are often “precursors to crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing.”

“The destruction of culture is a central element of a global strategy of hatred,” wrote Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, recently. “The protection of such heritage – including by ending impunity for crimes – must … move to the forefront of peacebuilding."

For the people of Timbuktu, freed from Islamist occupation by French troops in 2013, Mahdi’s trial is “a vindication of the importance of their culture and the place these shrines hold … as symbols of the culture,” says Cynthia Schneider, co-director of the Timbuktu Renaissance initiative.

They were built at the height of Timbuktu’s cultural glory as a Sufi center of learning, noted for its diversity, plurality, and spirit of inquiry. The shrines are “a foundation of civilization in Timbuktu,” says Dr. Schneider, who also teaches diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington.

Mahdi, a member of the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine group, targeted the shrines “precisely in light [of] and because of their religious and historical character,” according to the ICC charge sheet.

Mahdi has pleaded guilty to the charges, expressing regret for his actions, and in return is expected to receive considerably less than the maximum 30-year jail sentence he faces.

But the trial “shows that the international community takes these things seriously,” says Judge Goldstone. While IS commanders may hold little regard for the ICC, he says, “regular and serious investigations and prosecutions will deter at least some of them, and that is ample justification.” 

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