Hands off our heritage: a stark warning for cultural iconoclasts

Access to the comments Comments
By Catherine Hardy  with Reuters, ICC
Hands off our heritage: a stark warning for cultural iconoclasts

It is a clear sign that crimes like this will not go unpunished

The organisation responsible for protecting the world’s cultural heritage hopes the first trial for destroying valuable artefacts will send a clear message that such crimes will not be tolerated.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bukova, has told Euronews that there will be no impunity for those who destroy important monuments and individual items.

“I think we should not allow impunity for those who destroy this heritage. When the extremists in Mali destroyed the mausoleums in Timbuktu, we not only reconstructed them but we also worked with the International Criminal Court, with the Chief Prosecutor Madame Fatou Bensouda, in order to bring to justice those perpertrators.The first suspect is already in the Hague.”

Ms Bukova spoke to Euronews at the Global Teacher Award ceremony in Dubai.

The award went to Palestinian Hanan Al Hroub.

“Delegates at the forum discussed the ongoing refugee crisis,” said Euronews correspondent, Rita del Prete. “How can we prevent the younger generations of migrants from being left to fend for themselves? Education, it is said, is the main tool we have to fight extremism and radicalisation.”

What is happening at The Hague?

An alleged Islamist rebel is on trial in the Hague, accused of destroying ancient monuments in Mali’s Timbuktu.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court say Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi led an Islamist “morality squad” called al-Hesbah.

The group helped execute the decisions of the Islamic court of Timbuktu.

As Hesbah leader, Mahdi is accused of directing attacks against nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu.

al-Mahdi is also accused of belonging to Ansar Dine, a salafist group that backs strict Sharia and Islamic law.

It considers the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam in Timbuktu to be idolatrous.

What happened?

  • 2012 – Islamist Tuareg rebels seize large parts of northern Mali
  • They impose strict Sharia law and begin desecrating monuments and shrines in Timbuktu
  • 2014 – Rebels pushed back by French and Malian troops
  • 2014 – March – Malian masons begin to rebuild mausoleums
  • 2015 – September 18 – ICC issues arrest warrant for Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi
  • 2015 – September 26 – al Mahdi arrested in Niger and handed to ICC

The earthen tombs of Sufi saints, located in the UNESCO-listed desert city, were destroyed in July 2012 by militants from the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine group.

Video footage from the scene shows armed militants hacking at the site.

Thousands of ancient manuscripts were also incinerated during a suicide bombing.

Why is the trial significant?

The ICC says this first “cultural destruction” trial sends a “clear message” that crimes targeting world heritage sites and artefacts will not go unpunished.

Many have suggested the court look at ISIL’s destruction of ancient archaeological sites in Palmyra.

However, Syria is not in the ICC’s jurisdiction, leaving the court with no mandate to act.

What they are saying

“It is a clear message that crimes like this do not go unpunished. Of course, we understand that this is one case, one person and what we see today on many fronts is massive destruction”UNESCO Assistant Director General for Culture, Francesco Bandarin.