Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The ICC Prosecutes Destroying Historic, Cultural and Religious Buildings

Palmyra is dynamited. The giant Buddhas of Bamiyan are shot to pieces. Many other historic, cultural and religious sites have been similarly destroyed.  Insurgents make rubble of these precious, beautiful, irreplaceable places to parade their ideology and brand of religion. Now the International Criminal Court is considering confirming war crime charges against a leader in destroying historic, cultural and religious sites in Timbuktu, an ancient city in Mali. The Court heard the charges on March 1 and has until the end of April to decide to dismiss or confirm them. Confirmation will be rapidly followed by trial

Although for many Westerners Timbuktu is still the stereotype of a remote and exotic place, for years it was a center for trade whose profits bought libraries of early Islamic documents and treatises and built the sites. Those mausoleums of saints and a mosque, built in the 13th to the 17th centuries, have attracted pilgrims from across the Muslim world ever since. Their structures and beauty have drawn students of architecture and art worldwide. These buildings and the libraries also made the city a center for scholars of Islamic culture and religion. Timbuktu has advanced human understanding of religion and of the creation of beauty. UNESCO has rightly declared it a World Heritage Site.

The suspect is Ahmad Al Mahdi al Faqi. Frequently described as a radical or extremist Islamist, he is alleged to have been a senior member of the jihadi group which occupied Timbuktu in 2012 and to have supervised for it then the destruction of the mausoleums and mosque. He is the Court’s first alleged Islamist defendant and the first to be charged only for the destruction of cultural, historic and religious sites. This charge has its own paragraph in the Court’s Rome Statute in a section on war crimes committed during internal conflicts. It therefore does not have to be charged in association with other crimes and need not involve loss of life or occur in an international war.

A successful conviction of al Faqi and the decision declaring it would be an important precedent and extension of the Court’s reach. Insurgents’ plans to destroy the historic, cultural and religious buildings treasured by their opponents will not seem quite so safe and free of consequences. Majority groups will have to think twice before annihilating the physical heritage of the cultures, religions and histories of minorities such as indigenous peoples. The Office of the Prosecutor is preparing a policy paper to guide similar such prosecutions in the future. A new dimension in the work and identity of the Court is opening, extending its appeal to potential new supporters and members..


AMICC now resumes its blog postings. As before, we will cover events and issues about the ICC of general significance to Americans interested in the Court and the US relationship with it.
interested in the Court and the US relationship with it.

Written by John Washburn