War destroys. It ends lives, shatters societies, ends governments and rends nations. Often overlooked amid the carnage and slaughter is the destruction of culture during a conflict. The loss of heritage can be as dislocating as actual defeat. A country without history is an orphan. Thus, the decision last month by the International Criminal Court to declare the intentional destruction of cultural sites a war crime is an important step forward in international law and the protection of humanity's patrimony.

The Malian city of Timbuktu was founded by indigenous tribes between the fifth and 12th centuries; it became a vital trading hub and the center of Sufi Islam during the 14th century. In recognition of its role, the city was filled with religious artifacts, books, monuments and buildings, many of which have been placed on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. These places are not just tourist locales, but sites of essential importance to world history and culture.

Ahmed al-Faqi al-Mahdi was a member of Ansar Dine, an al-Qaida linked rebel group that occupied Timbuktu from April 2012 to January 2013. He was a leader of one of the "morality brigades" established by the radical Islamic group to patrol the city, enforcing the strict moral and religious code established by the group. Since Sufi Islam is considered heretical by al-Qaida and its offshoots, Timbuktu's treasures were not just stripped of their protections but were seen as targets that had to be destroyed. Al-Mahdi not only directed the militants that destroyed nine mausoleums and a mosque, but actively participated in many of the attacks. Their commitment to destruction was so complete that as French and Malian troops retook control of Timbuktu in January 2013, the Islamists used their final hours in the city to burn a library and its precious manuscripts dating back nearly 1,000 years.