The ICC has dramatically increased the profile of heritage crime

Militants destroying a shrine in Timbuktu in July, 2012
Militants destroying a shrine in Timbuktu in July, 2012

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.

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