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.
The International Criminal Court may be on the verge of dramatically increasing the profile of cultural heritage crimes. Perhaps even ushering in a new era of thinking about international criminal law’s role in the destruction of cultural heritage.
This potential shift comes with the announcement that the ICC will prosecute Ahmad al Mahdi Al Faqi for alleged war crimes violations in intentionally directing attacks against religious and historical monuments in Timbuktu. The offense alleged, in Article 8 (2)(e)(iv), charges him with war crimes. Specifically, he is charged with directing attacks against mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in the city. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement:
The people of Mali deserve justice for the attacks against their cities, their beliefs and their communities. Let there be no mistake: the charges we have brought against Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi involve most serious crimes; they are about the destruction of irreplaceable historic monuments, and they are about a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations, and their religious and historical roots. The inhabitants of Northern Mali, the main victims of these attacks, deserve to see justice done.
Matt Brown, writing at Opinio Juris argues the decision by the ICC prosecutor should be seen as a watershed moment:
This news is an exciting development in efforts to enhance protection of cultural heritage and bring the perpetrators of cultural attacks to justice. At the same time however, it throws up many more questions about the broader definition of ‘culture’, victim participation in cultural matters, and whether this could give the Court a unique opportunity to tackle an issue of growing importance in international law.
Joshua Hammer has done some terrific reporting on the effort to preserve medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu last year:
At the time Haidara also had no idea if the militants knew how many manuscripts were in Timbuktu or how valuable they were. But quietly, determined not to attract attention, he laid contingency plans. With funds that Haidara’s library association already had on hand from foreign donors, he began purchasing footlockers in the markets of Timbuktu and Mopti, and delivered them, two or three at a time, to the city’s 40 libraries. During the day, behind closed doors, Haidara and his assistants packed the manuscripts into the chests. Then, in the dead of night, when the militants slept, mule carts transported the chests to safe houses scattered around the city. Over three months, they bought, distributed and packed nearly 2,500 footlockers.
Intentional destruction of an ancient shrine in Timbuktu in July
Destruction in Mali appears to be ongoing:
In the searing summer heat, and against a stifling climate of fear, the Ansar Eddine is ratcheting up the pressure. In late July the group gave the order for the city’s centuries-old Sufi mausoleums to be leveled, declaring them to be at odds with their own hardline blend of Islamic faith. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Timbuktu has for centuries been associated with Sufis, a mystical and spiritual fraternity, themselves closely connected with Islam. More than 200 Sufi saints are buried in free-standing mausoleums and within the compounds of mosques, tombs that have become the latest target of the Defenders of the Faith. Regarding them as idolatrous, the Islamist militia has taken hammers and shovels to their baked-mud adobe walls. They even destroyed a pair of ancient tombs set in the compound of the city’s celebrated Djingareyber mosque.
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: