Apollo Magazine offers two brief but insightful Op-Eds on the recent heritage destruction trial at the ICC. Brian Daniels notes some of the controversy and responses to the guilty plea of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi of intentionally destroying cultural heritage in Timbuktu in 2012. He notes the difference between crimes against people and crimes against art, but then rightly points out that the perpetrators of these acts see them differently:
Those who intend to do civilians harm have two goals: to eliminate that population and to remove any material evidence of that people’s existence. Mass killing and cultural destruction are simply two different stages in the same violent process of ethnic cleansing and genocide. If we consider the intent of violence against civilians, then the division collapses between crimes against human life and crimes against culture. Present-day oppressors and terrorists do not see this distinction in their actions. Neither should we.
Helen Walasek links the criticism of the Al Mahdi trial to similar criticism which took place during the Bosnian conflict:
Human-rights organisations commenting on the Al Mahdi case have all agreed that the intentional destruction of cultural property during armed conflict is a war crime. While some wished the indictment had been widened to include other war crimes, others gave unqualified support. The conviction of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, said Human Rights Watch, sent ‘a clear message that attacking the world’s historical treasures will be punished’. Mark Ellis, chief executive of the International Bar Association and a war crimes expert, observed: ‘Destruction of cultural heritage is not a second-rate crime. It’s part of an atrocity to erase a people.’
This week at the ICC the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi began. He stands accused of directing the destruction of medieval tombs and a mosque, all world heritage sites, and all a part of Timbuktu’s 15th century heritage. Owen Bowcott reports for the Gaurdian that:
No Taliban or al-Qaida leader was charged with the destruction of Afghanistan’s sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas, which were dynamited in 2001. Khmer Rouge genocide trials did not deal with the looting of Cambodia’s Hindu temples. Nor have Islamic State leaders been indicted for destroying Assyrian statues from Nineveh or razing Roman ruins in Palmyra.
The damage inflicted on Timbuktu, known as “the city of 333 saints”, followed the rebellion of al-Qaida-inspired Tuareg militias, armed with weapons from Libya, in the central African state in 2012.
Faqi, a local ethnic Tuareg, is said to have been a member of Ansar Dine and the head of Hesbah, known as the Manners’ Brigade, which considered the mausoleums – built to pay homage to deceased saints – to be blasphemous.
He is accused of directing attacks on 10 ancient mud-brick buildings in June 2012 and July 2012. One of the desecrated sites was the Sidi Yahya mosque, built in 1440 when Timbuktu was a regional centre for learning. It contained Prof Sidi Yahya’s mausoleum.
This image taken from a video shows armed men smashing a 15th century mosque in Timbuktu on Monday
Members of an armed group in Northern Mali have committed a number of acts of destruction in Timbuktu and the surrounding areas. They have smashed the “sacred door” of one of three ancient mosques. As many as six other mausoleums have been intentionally destroyed. Intentional destruction during armed conflict presents difficult problems, and Mali has asked the international community for concrete assistance.
The first step is a threat by the ICC. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda has described this destruction as a war crime: “My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate”. Her claims may have an impact, but more other concrete steps may be needed to halt this intentional destruction.
The destruction mimics that which took place in 2001 when the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed. Extremist groups in Mali are systematically destroying sites. Perhaps urgent action by the ICC, or better yet the United Nations Security Council can halt this systematic destruction.
From Al Jazeera, here is a report showing the destruction: