Landmark ‘cultural genocide’ trial begins

Culture vulture: Al-Faqi is accused of attacking ten religious monuments in Timbuktu, Mali. © PA

A jihadist leader has been charged with razing historic buildings in Mali. This is the first international trial to focus on such a crime. Is it an important milestone, or a waste of time?

The trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, which begins today at the International Criminal Court (ICC), sets several precedents. Al-Faqi is the first jihadist to be brought to the court, and the first participant in the armed conflict that engulfed Mali in 2012. But most significantly, this is the first time the ICC is treating the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime.

In 2012, an alliance of jihadist groups occupied parts of northern Mali, including the city of Timbuktu. One of those groups, Ansar Dine, destroyed ancient Sufi shrines and a mosque in the city, before French forces drove it back in 2013. As an alleged leader of the group, al-Faqi stands accused of the destruction.

Timbuktu has a rich tradition of Sufism, a mystical version of Islam that differs sharply from the one followed by hard-line jihadists. Ansar Dine sees Sufis as heretics, which is why it razed their buildings. Yet the loss was not just felt by the locals. As beautiful UNESCO-listed structures which attracted pilgrims and tourists, the mosque and shrines had a universal value.

This sort of crime is well defined in international law. The Rome Statute of the ICC outlaws ‘attacks against buildings dedicated to religion… provided they are not military objectives’. There has been the odd prosecution, but violators have mostly gone unpunished as the international community has been more interested in such war crimes as systematic rape and genocide.

Ansar Dine could be forgiven, then, for thinking that it would get away with its actions. Instead, when al-Faqi was arrested in Niger, the ICC decided to build its entire case around the crime. Some welcome its decision, arguing that it will warn off would-be vandals (not least Daesh). Others regret the move, pointing to reports of other war crimes in Mali: torture, rape, murder.

As this historic trial gets underway, the question arises: is cultural destruction a grave enough crime to merit the full attention of the ICC?

Laying down the law

No, say some. Al-Faqi is no angel, but others are far worse. Take his father, who ordered beatings, an amputation and an execution in his role as the Ansar Dine judge in Timbuktu. This sort of stuff is still happening in the country. The razing of the shrines is tragic, but why focus on that when humans are being targeted?

Because it is not just a question of pretty buildings, counter others. Those monuments represent the soul of a community. Ansar Dine was trying to obliterate Sufism – its attack on the shrines was a kind of cultural genocide. One of the aims of international law is to set examples. It is about time we sent out the message that enemies of culture will be brought to justice.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite building? Why?
  2. Is the trial of al-Faqi a waste of time and resources?


  1. Look up pictures of the Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu. What does it remind you of? How does it make you feel? Pair up, and give your thoughts to your partner.
  2. Look up the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Choose a site that isn’t on it (natural or man-made), and write a 500-word letter to UNESCO recommending its inclusion.

Some People Say...

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Winston Churchill

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m never going to go to Timbuktu anyway. What do I care?
Even if you’re not a Sufi or a fan of medieval Islamic architecture, this trial is of interest. All communities cherish certain buildings, from churches to football stadiums. Sadly, no building is safe from destruction. But the hope is that, by acting as a deterrent, this trial will make them that little bit safer.
What else are we doing to protect our cultural heritage?
Modern technology is proving useful. The Global Xplorer project is using military satellites to monitor cultural sites from the sky; volunteers are asked to report signs of looting or damage. And the University of Oxford is spearheading a campaign to take high-quality 3D photos of threatened sites, so that something of them remains in case disaster strikes.

Word Watch

International Criminal Court
Founded in 2002, the ICC is responsible for prosecuting individuals over war crimes and crimes against humanity. It sits in The Hague.
A small city on the edge of the Sahara desert. It flourished in the Middle Ages as a hub for the trade of gold and salt, and became a centre of Islamic learning. Today, its economic and cultural influence is greatly reduced.
The agency of the United Nations tasked with promoting the exchange of ideas and culture. It provides funds for the protection of sites of outstanding importance, such as the whole of Timbuktu.
The odd prosecution
Notably, criminals involved in the Balkan Wars were convicted of destroying historic bridges and buildings in the 1990s, but cultural destruction was not the main charge in the proceedings. They were tried by the precursor to the ICC, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The jihadist group (so called ‘Islamic State’) has destroyed sites of vast cultural significance in Syria and Iraq, including parts of the ancient cities of Palmyra and Nimrud.

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