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The Mali cultural destruction trial at the ICC poses a moral dilemma

6 September 2016

On 22 August 2016, the International Criminal Court was the subject of extensive news coverage. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Malian of Tuareg parentage, pleaded guilty to being individually criminally responsible for ordering the destruction of sacred religious buildings in Timbuktu in 2012. As journalists ran out of the public gallery moments after his plea to file their stories, the court was left with five days to sift the evidence that will inform his sentence expected on the 27 September 2016.

For the first time, the ICC has put someone on trial for war crimes against cultural heritage. It is also the first time in the court’s history that someone has pleaded guilty. Given recent events in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, it is easy to understand why the international community, and in particular UNESCO, are keen for a strong message to be sent out. In her opening comments, Fatou Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor, stated that it was the court’s responsibility to set a precedent in this matter. Yet beyond the symbolic value of the trial, many complex political and philosophical questions remain.

Broadly, the trial can be seen in two ways. There is the ‘moral snapshot’ view: Mahdi has pleaded guilty. As head of the ‘Hesba’ morality police, he, together with other members of Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are alleged to be complicit in the stonings and amputations of the local population. There is therefore a background of dehumanisation to the destruction of the mausoleums. The destructions were experienced by local residents as humiliating and catastrophic, even though the mausoleums have since been rebuilt with UNESCO funds and reconsecrated through public ceremony.

Timbuktu is known as the City of 333 Saints. During its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a centre for Islamic learning. However the site is viewed as idolatrous by Islamic extremists: the worshipping of mausoleums in Timbuktu and across Mali is part of a Sufi tradition in Islam, a form of devotion that is anathema to Islamists such as Ansar Dine. Marabouts (religious teachers) engage in petitionary prayer and the preparation of amulets. These practices, as well as listening to music, playing sport, the way people dress and sexual unions out of wedlock, are the stated reasons for the brutal assaults by Ansar Dine and AQIM on local populations.

A second, more troubling reading of events would question whether the destructions, taken in isolation, would have warranted such global attention. The crimes against cultural heritage in Mali are many and include a history of jihads and counter-jihads that have led to the destruction and rebuilding of mosques across the country; the looting of archaeological sites fuelled by the demand of the illicit art market; and widespread corruption. Paradoxically, concern with authenticity is at the heart of both the destructions and the illicit art market. For the radical Islamists, the mausoleums are inauthentic and have to be destroyed. For the illicit art market, the authenticity of the objects gives them their economic value and the trauma of their loss is a secondary concern to collectors.

It is an uncomfortable truth that whereas Africa is vastly underrepresented on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, cases at the ICC overwhelmingly concern Africa. The relationship between identity, dignity, cultural heritage and its international recognition is complex. The acknowledgement of each other’s humanity through material culture is a philosophical exercise, which would benefit from a broader discussion than a single moral snapshot. It remains to be seen whether conflating the destruction of people and things is a step towards greater understanding and respect for one another. By that measure, the ICC’s ruling is welcome but poses difficult moral questions for the international community.