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.
Al-Mahdi was captured and put on trial in August. At the trial, he pleaded guilty — a first among ICC defendants — and apologized for his actions and urged other Muslims to not do what he did. The guilty plea made the court’s work easier. It ruled unanimously on Sept. 27 that he was guilty of the war crime of intentionally destroying cultural sites. The court also decided that his cooperation earned him a lighter sentence: Rather than the 30-year maximum, he was given just nine years in prison.
The decision set an important precedent. As UNESCO noted in its response to the ruling, “Deliberate attacks on culture have become weapons of war in a global strategy of cultural cleansing seeking to destroy people as well as the monuments bearing their identities, institutions of knowledge and free thought.” Now all who wage war know that they can be punished for the willful destruction of culture. Or, as UNESCO added, the ruling is a “crucial step to end impunity for the destruction of cultural heritage.”
The destruction in Timbuktu was not unique. The Taliban launched its own assault on history with its destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These were two huge (53 and 35 meters tall) statues of the Buddha carved into the wall of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, which the Taliban under direct orders of then leader Mullah Omar dynamited in 2001 because they were thought to be symbols of idolatry. Since then, the Islamic State and other militant groups have been destroying cultural and religious monuments throughout the Middle East and Africa; for them, destruction of such monuments for other faiths is central to their mission of building a caliphate cleansed of the stains of unbelievers.
Fortunately for the world, much of this destruction is not permanent. When Islamic groups are defeated or run out of the territory they occupy, governments can rebuild many lost treasures. Japan has played a large role in pushing for the rebuilding of the Bamiyan Buddhas, as well as mustering the financial support — along with Switzerland — for reconstruction efforts. But it has not been decided whether the Buddhas should be rebuilt; some argue that there is not enough left over to meaningfully call the replacements reconstructions or whether they are entirely new statues. Other critics argue that leaving the emplacements empty sends a powerful message.
In Mali, most of the destroyed mausoleums have been rebuilt by local stonemasons who used traditional building techniques. But some of the damage, such as the manuscripts that were burned, are beyond repair or reclamation.
It is unlikely that the savages behind those attacks will pay much attention to the ICC ruling. The other acts of war that they commit — beheadings, degradation and rape of women, kidnapping of children — have already condemned them; destruction of cultural artifacts is just another weight on an already overloaded scale. Moreover, zealots claim that they answer to a higher law, not that of any secular international authority.
Nevertheless, the destruction of a culture’s heritage is as damaging an act as the taking of a life. A country is nothing without its history; indeed, a country is its history. The ICC has taken the long overdue step of defining such acts as war crimes. Now the rest of the world must enforce that judgment.