The International Criminal Court began legal proceedings last week against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a radical Islamist accused of directing the destruction of 10 religious sites in Timbuktu, Mali. The destruction
occurred in 2012 when Ansar Dine, a group linked to Al Qaeda, overran Timbuktu and tried to impose its version of an Islamic regime. The group was ousted from Mali in 2013 when French forces intervened.
This is the first time the International Criminal Court will examine the destruction of religious sites as a war crime. The court’s action is important as it comes as the Islamic State continues its destruction of ancient monuments in Syria. On Sunday that group blew up the Arch of Triumph in the 2,000-year-old Roman city of Palmyra, despite international protests over its destruction of the ancient Temple of Baal at the same site in August.
The case against Mr. Mahdi in the International Criminal Court strengthens hope that members of the Islamic State will, one day, also face justice for their cultural and religious crimes. The head of Unesco, Irina Bokova, hailed the case for breaking “new ground for the protection of humanity’s shared cultural heritage and values.”
Ansar Dine, like the Islamic State, sought nothing less than the obliteration of an entire culture with the destruction of its practices and religious beliefs. Prosecution for such cultural crimes, however, must proceed in tandem with accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity. 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.
There is precedent for considering the destruction of religious and cultural sites as war crimes. Such charges were brought and adjudicated in numerous cases in the United Nations-backed tribunal that examined crimes committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s as both war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court should redouble efforts to identify and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against Mali’s people, along with the destruction of their religious heritage.