In its first such case, the International Criminal Court heard an Islamist rebel confess to the destruction of ancient Muslim shrines and mausoleums in an outbreak of devastation that horrified both the religious and secular worlds.
Ahmad al-Fahdi al-Mahdi said he was caught in an “evil wave” during Mali’s 2012 civil war when he led a jihadi team armed with pickaxes that smashed 10 architecturally beautiful, historically precious mausoleums in the city of Timbuktu. The buildings – UNESCO World Heritage sites – had housed the tombs of Muslim scholar-saints since the 14th century.
Until now, the ICC and other international courts have focused on crimes against individuals, such as murder, rape, and torture.
The court’s action is important as it comes as the Islamic State blows up ancient monuments in Syria, such as the Arch of Triumph in the 2,000-year-old Roman city of Palmyra, despite international protests.
Still, cultural concerns should not override other serious crimes committed by religious extremists, experts advise.
“Prosecution for such cultural crimes must proceed in tandem with accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the New York Times wrote in an editorial. “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.”
Guardian reporter Jonathan Jones added: “From the blowing up of Afghan Buddhas that eerily preceded the attack on the World Trade Center to the horrible confluence of vandalism and cruelty in Palmyra, it is clear that for those who psych themselves up to destroy great art, it is just a short step to killing people.
“Yet the two are not the same. The most precious work of art in the world is still worth less than a single human life. War crime as a category must be kept distinct. It needs to be highly specific.
“The destruction of art is vile and offensive to many – but it is not mass murder and we should not pretend it is the same, nor that it belongs in the same court.”
Director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, praised the court for taking action.
“The cultural heritage of Mali belongs to all humanity. It is vital that the criminals be brought to justice,” said the Director General. “This is justice for Mali, the identities and history of its people — this is justice for all women and men everywhere.”