Last week, the International Criminal Court found Islamic militant Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to nine years in prison. Al-Mahdi now joins the ranks of Jean-Pierre Bemba, Germain Katanga, and Thomas Lubanga Dyilo as one of the only people to be convicted by the International Criminal Court since its inception in 2002. But unlike Bemba, Katanga, and Dyilo, al-Mahdi was not found guilty on the grounds of rape, torture, conscription of child soldiers, or ethnic massacres. Rather, in a groundbreaking case, the ICC ruled that he was guilty of war crimes for intentionally destroying religious buildings and historical monuments during the war in Mali in 2012.
A religious scholar, al-Mahdi was the spiritual adviser of the Ansar Dine group, which attacked nine mausoleums and the ancient door of the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu when it seized the city along with a coalition of militant factions. As commander of the Hisba, the religious police, al-Mahdi was charged with ordering and overseeing the destruction of the shrines. His trial, the first to rule cultural and religious destruction a war crime, has been touted by many, including the head of UNESCO and the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, as a groundbreaking advancement in international law and an important precedent in its definition of crimes against humanity. UNESCO has declared the ICC ruling an important step in the international movement “to restore human dignity, self-esteem, and confidence, including global campaigns to teach about cultural diversity and human rights, in order to prevent the danger of radicalization . . . heritage must be at the frontline of peacebuilding, and a central component of our response to the new conflicts of the 21st century.”
UNESCO’s declaration is reflective of the way we have understood and interpreted recent conflicts. The ICC ruling is representative of a global trend that recognizes the symbolism of attacking cultural heritage sites as a means of waging ideological war and a world that is increasingly more intolerant of such rampage. Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, has said that “the intention in almost every case is to attack the dignity” of the people — such attacks “should be seen as a signal of serious persecution to follow” and as “precursors to crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing.”
During the trial, Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda compared the attacks in Timbuktu to the Islamic State’s capture and destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra, which is considered one of the major turning points in the Syrian conflict. During their occupation of the city, Islamic State militants turned the monumental first century Temple of Bel into a pile of ruins, demolished the Arch of Triumph, and set off explosions at the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baalshamin. When the Assad regime recaptured Palmyra, few archaeological treasures remained intact. The Syrian government, the international community, and civil society groups immediately mobilized to restore and vindicate Palmyra. A few weeks after the recapture, the Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology unveiled a scale model of the Arch of Triumph in Egyptian marble in London’s Trafalgar Square as an act of solidarity and, as London Mayor Boris Johnson has described it, an act in “defiance of the barbarians.” Russia brought the St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra to perform in one of the only sites that was still standing in the city, the Roman amphitheater. An audience of international reporters, Syrian soldiers, Russian officials, and UNESCO dignitaries gathered to listen to Bach in the ancient city, a symbol of “hope that our contemporary civilization will be relieved from this horrible disease, international terrorism,” as Putin declared. Archaeologists and experts from the United States, Germany, and Poland, among others, gathered to assess the damage, release a report, and plan the reconstruction effort so that the city could be rebuilt. It was a grand collaboration to demonstrate cultural and ideological victory — an important signal to the world that civilization will always triumph, even in an ideological war.
But the recapture of Palmyra and the international campaign to condemn cultural destruction and rebuild the city rings slightly hollow. The reason why cultural destruction has been declared a war crime is because of its overlap with genocide, in that it is an attack on a specific group of human beings defined by their religion or ethnicity with the intention of erasing their culture. The devastation of precious artifacts or religious and historical monuments is significant because of the role these objects occupy in a specific community’s collective identity. It is a crime against humanity and an attack on human dignity, not merely an attack on physical things.
In Palmyra, this human aspect has been lost in the symbolism. The international community has been more concerned with the fate of Syria’s museums, monuments, and artwork than the communities that surround them and suffer under these attacks. For all the talk about the loss of the Temple of Bel, little has been said about the 280 people that were executed during ISIL’s occupation of the city. The Russian concert might display the “triumph of civilization,” but Bach means much more to foreign dignitaries than to the people of Palmyra. The project director of the Arch of Triumph model said that the message of the replica was that “we have common heritage. Our heritage is universal — it is not just for Syrian people.” As a result of this attitude, the Syrian people have been largely erased from international efforts to rebuild Palmyra.
In Timbuktu, with the conviction of al-Mahdi and the official declaration of cultural destruction as a war crime, the world must not forget that these are attacks on a people. The obliteration of artifacts and temples are only as significant as their physical, psychological, and human effects, and a symbolic victory is not true restoration. As his former teacher wrote, al-Mahdi “is just a little fish.” Wars may look like they are being fought in culture and ideology, but repairing artifacts without addressing human losses is merely catching little fish and declaring grand victories in restorative justice.