The trial concerning Timbuktu is also an important contribution towards a comprehensive response to violent extremism, and a strong statement on the role culture should play.

Timbuktu (Mali)

History will remember 27 September 2016 as the date when impunity for the destruction of heritage finally came to an end.

In a world scarred by recurrent violence against people and their heritage, the conviction of Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi for war crime by the International Criminal Court marks a turning point for justice in Mali and beyond.
It is the first international trial to focus exclusively on crimes against historical and religious monuments.
Fifteen long years after the blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the sentencing for the destruction of the mausoleums of Timbuktu was passed as the world is still reeling over spectacular acts of devastation in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

This sentence marks new recognition that deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime, reinforcing previous judgments passed by the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which treated crimes against heritage, notably in Dubrovnik, as part of broader charges involving murder and theft.

The trial concerning Timbuktu is also an important contribution towards a comprehensive response to violent extremism, and a strong statement on the role culture should play.

The deliberate destruction of heritage has become a weapon of war, in a broader strategy of cultural cleansing that includes murder and persecution of people in the short term, and annihilation of identities and destruction of social fabric on the long term. Monuments are targeted, damaged or looted to fuel illicit trafficking and finance criminal activities. Schools and media are hijacked, cultural practices, including music and dance are banned, intellectuals are silenced. The aim of this brutal strategy is to enslave minds and prohibit free thinking. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, head of the “Hesbah” vice squads was a linchpin of this heinous scheme.

This goes well beyond Mali – humanity itself is targeted, and we are all concerned.

This means the war against extremism must be fought also on the battlefield of culture, education and the media. No military arsenal is strong enough to defeat an ideology that fuels violence. We must win the battle of ideas, by teaching about the history of religions, fostering dialogue among cultures, sharing the wealth of knowledge contained in the manuscripts of Timbuktu, which hold the promise of a new humanist renaissance that could change our understanding of Africa and of Islam, strengthening young people’s capacity to resist those who exploit ignorance and hatred.

This broader vision of security is gaining ground. The destruction of heritage, long considered as mere collateral damage of war, is increasingly recognized as a direct target, in a strategy intent on disseminating fear, catching media attention on a global scale.

The United Nations Security Council has recognized the link between culture and security, and the contribution of illicit trafficking in the financing of criminal activities. Member States are seizing dubious objects at their border, strengthening cooperation among services. Armed forces in France, Italy, the US, Austria are training their soldiers and officers to protect heritage. This is already the case in Mali, where peacekeepers are working with UNESCO. Change is underway, to better connect the dots between the cultural, humanitarian and military concerns that are so deeply intertwined in current crises.

When I went to Timbuktu in 2012, immediately after the liberation of the city, I promised that we would rebuild the mausoleums, and we did. I returned last year to celebrate the completion of this task with the local masons and the Imam of the Djingareyber Mosque. I saw the joy of people reclaiming their heritage and I am more convinced than ever of the role of culture in healing the wounds of war, as a building block of sustainable peace.

Such opinions might have been considered dangerously naïve ten years ago. But when extremists pay so much attention to the power of heritage to harm communities when it is destroyed, they show us how much power culture holds to heal and recover when it is preserved.

Let us act on this understanding and rise to the unprecedented challenges we face with stronger programmes and increased resources. We need far closer cooperation at the highest level on education to counter extremism and far stronger commitment to protect heritage under attack.

While we are appalled by the loss of cultural heritage, we must take heart from the judgment of The Hague, which exhorts us to strengthen our resolve and take action, to ensure Justice prevails, in Mali and anywhere else.