Cultural Destruction Is Finally Prosecuted as a War Crime

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 13, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The International Criminal Court is prosecuting cultural destruction for the first time. Last week it began proceedings against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, leader of the Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine that took over Timbuktu in 2012 and destroyed ancient artifacts before being ousted in 2013.

In its statement announcing the surrender of al-Mahdi last month, the ICC explained the legal basis for prosecution of cultural destruction as a war crime: "Intentional attacks against historic monuments and buildings dedicated to religion are serious crimes under the Rome Statute -- the founding treaty of the ICC, adopted by more than 120 states from around the world. No longer should such reprehensible conduct go unpunished."

Ancient Artifacts for All of Humanity

The international body also provided the deeper, emotional reasoning for its actions, stating, "It is rightly said that 'cultural heritage is the mirror of humanity.' Such attacks affect humanity as a whole. We must stand up to the destruction and defacing of our common heritage." The ICC hopes that taking this step will prevent similar tragedies.

The Ansar Dine rebels destroyed mausoleums at the Saharan crossroads known as the city of 333 saints. Muslim holy men were said to be buried there and the buildings stood for centuries, drawing travelers of all religions from the world over to Mali.

Destruction Continues Undeterred

Yet, despite the ICC's stated goal of deterrence, the tragedy of Mali is being repeated even as the ICC proceeds against al-Mahdi. In Syria, the Islamic State destroyed an ancient temple in August in Palmyra, a 2,000 year old Roman City. Earlier this month, at the same location, the group blew up the Arch of Triumph which stood among the ruins.

These acts in Mali and Syria bring to mind similar moves made by the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2001, the Taliban televised their destruction of giant Buddha statues from the sixth century for all the world to see, claiming "it has given praise to God that we have destroyed them."

War Crime Victims in Mali Wait for Their Time

As a New York Times editorial on the cultural destruction prosecution pointed out, the people of Mali need justice for more than just ancient artifacts. Calling for more accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Editorial Board wrote, "In Mali, Ansar Dine committed rape, torture, abduction and forced marriages. Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer for a group of victims in Timbuktu, laments that these crimes are not mentioned in the charges the International Criminal Court has brought against Mr. Mahdi."

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