An Islamic extremist last week pleaded guilty before the International Criminal Court in The Hague to destroying 10 tombs from the 14th century in Timbuktu, Mali. This case sets two important precedents.
The first was that it will be the first conviction of an Islamist, in this case Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, 41, a Malian, for a war crime of this sort. The second is that it will be the first successful prosecution by the ICC of someone who has destroyed pieces of cultural heritage.
Al Mahdi is subject to a sentence of from nine to 11 years for this 2012 crime. He may be tried for other war crimes as well; he was a leader of Ansar-al-Dine, an organization affiliated with al-Qaida as it occupied Timbuktu and other northern Malian cities, inflicting harsh, sometimes deadly, rule on its inhabitants until forced out by French military action.
Some of the destroyed monuments in Timbuktu, an ancient trade and education crossroads in the desert, have been rebuilt by UNESCO, although security there remains uncertain and sporadic.
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Perhaps the most important aspect of ICC prosecution of Al Mahdi and his guilty plea is the precedent it sets for people in a position to damage or destroy other cultural monuments in the world’s many ongoing wars. In March 2001, the Taliban of Afghanistan destroyed ancient statues of Buddha in Bamiyan. Islamic State forces have destroyed parts of Palmyra, Syria. Croatian forces shelled into pieces an Ottoman-era marble bridge over the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, during the 1990s wars that surrounded the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The Al Mahdi trial should serve as some protection for cultural monuments in other areas of warfare, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, with the potential for eventual accountability looming, but there is no guarantee for them whatsoever. The United States has not adhered to the ICC, partly from fear of being held to such account.