Watershed ruling for war crimes against culture

The Malian terrorist Ahmad al-Faq al-Mahdi has been deemed liable for damages amounting to €2.7m in connection with the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Site buildings in Timbuktu. This was decided in The Hague (18 August) by a division of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Al-Mahdi had been convicted and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment back in 2016 for his involvement in the destruction of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Efforts to rebuild the ancient city have since been actioned by locals and UNESCO.

Cultural sites were left ravaged when it was occupied by Jihadists in 2012. The conflict saw 14 of the 16 mausoleums with UNESCO heritage status destroyed, including the library where around 4,200 texts were decimated.

Man holding a burnt manuscript, IHERI-AB, Timbuktu 2013 © UNESCO Bureau of Mali

Man holding a burnt manuscript, IHERI-AB, Timbuktu 2013 © UNESCO Bureau of Mali

Germany’s Federal Foreign Office supported international efforts to save the relics by setting up a modern archive in order to safeguard the manuscripts’ rightful place in humanity’s cultural heritage.

At the time of the occupation, the federal foreign office in Germany quickly stepped in to provide support for a clandestine rescue effort that saved 285,000 precious manuscripts from the World Heritage Site library in Timbuktu from destruction and, with the help of locals, transported them to Bamako for protection.

At the session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn in 2015, German minister of state, Maria Böhmer, presented awards to representatives of the Timbuktu guild of masons, who had worked tirelessly to restore the mausoleums made of traditional mud construction that were badly damaged in 2012. The ruling marks a watershed movement for the protection of cultural property.

Manuscripts of the Ahmed Baba Centre, Timbuktu © UNESCO

Manuscripts of the Ahmed Baba Centre, Timbuktu © UNESCO

Böhmer, also a special representative of the federal foreign office for UNESCO World Heritage, UNESCO Cultural Conventions and UNESCO Education and Science Programmes, issued the following statement on 18 August:

“The International Criminal Court (ICC) has brought about a watershed and sent a strong message in favour of the protection of cultural heritage. Cultural monuments and cultural heritage sites give people roots as well as an identity. Their destruction is therefore also an attack on the dignity and faith of society, extinguishing a part of humanity’s shared cultural consciousness forever. The perpetrators inflict economic and, above all, serious psychological harm on a community. People in Timbuktu and in the whole of Mali are to receive compensation.

Repairs to the library | Timbuktu, Mali © UNESCO Francesco Bandarin

Repairs to the library | Timbuktu, Mali © UNESCO Francesco Bandarin

“Protection of the world’s cultural heritage remains a considerable challenge for us in conflict-ridden times such as these, and all sections of the international community must therefore pull in the same direction. I called for this back in 2015 when I was president of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. During my term of office, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee strongly condemned the destruction of world cultural heritage as a potential war crime in the Bonn Declaration. In response to our joint initiative with Iraq, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2015 stating that the destruction of world cultural heritage could not be justified by any religion and should be regarded as a war crime. These decisions played a major role in bringing about the ICC proceedings.

“At the session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn in 2015, I presented the special prize of the UNESCO director-general to the masons of Timbuktu for their work in restoring destroyed buildings. It was a moving moment: without the dedication of masons in Mali, the reconstruction of the mausoleums destroyed by radical Islamists would not have been possible and this world cultural heritage would have been lost forever.”

Timbuktu, Mali © Vincent Ko Hon Chiu

Timbuktu, Mali © Vincent Ko Hon Chiu

SOURCE Federal Foreign Office, Federal Republic of Germany.

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