Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi at the opening of his trial © ICC-CPI

An historic first for the International Criminal Court

Yesterday saw the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi at the International Criminal Court for the intentional destruction of world heritage shrines in Timbuktu during the 2012 occupation of the city by the Islamic rebel group Ansar Dine. The trial marks two important milestones for the court: this is the first time a suspect plead guilty, and also the first case of cultural destruction as a war crime. Yet as positive as a step this is, it also serves as a reminder of how little progress has been made in bringing justice to the victims of Mali’s conflict.

Cultural Destruction as a Crime of War

The destruction of numerous shrines, mausoleums and manuscripts at Timbuktu remains one of the most defining moments of the Northern Mali Conflict and the chaos that followed a military coup in March 2012. There are several international treaties and agreements that protect cultural heritage in times of conflict, but until now none of those laws have been enforced. With the limited resources, understandably the focus of the ICC has been on major crimes against people, like genocide and recruiting child soldiers.

But with the increased targeting of cultural heritage sites – from the Stari Most bridge in Mostar during the Bosnian war and the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 to the demolition of several sites in Iraq and Syria by ISIS – the international community is beginning to take the issue more seriously. Thus when the ICC gained jurisdiction over the Mali conflict, the destruction of Timbuktu was solidly on its radar.

Mosoleaum in Timbuktu © UNESCO Author: Francesco Bandarin
Mosoleaum in Timbuktu © UNESCO/Francesco Bandarin

Events in Mali in 2012 took many observers by surprise. Following the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the long simmering tensions between ethnic Tuareg in the north and the government erupted. This in and of itself was not that unexpected as relations with the Tuaregs has always been a sore spot in Malian domestic politics. But a shocking military mutiny and coup, the entrance of Islamic groups backing the Tuareg and the inability of the Malian military to contain the conflict meant that is soon spiraled out of control.

Cities throughout northern Mali were targeted in the conflict but it was Timbuktu that the puritanical Ansar Dine really wanted. The site of world renowned Sufi shrines and Islamic scholarship, it is exactly the type of place that extremist groups despise. After attempts to dissuade locals from praying at the shrines failed, Ansar Dine began to destroy them.

Al-Mahdi led those efforts. By the time French and Malian forces retook the city 10 months later, at least 14 mausoleums and part of a mosque had been destroyed. Although locals were able to save many of the manuscripts housed in the city, the damage that had been wrought was irreversible.

A remarkable statement of contrition for a war crime

At the start of his trial yesterday, Al-Mahdi stated his regret over his actions and acknowledged the damage that his actions had on the legendary city.

It is with deep regret and great pain I had to enter a guilty plea and all the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I regret all the damage my actions have caused. I regret the pain I have caused to my family, my community in Timbuktu, my home nation of Mali and the international community as a whole. My regret is directed particularly to the ancestors of the mausoleums I have destroyed. I would like to make them a solemn promise that this is the first and last wrongful act I will ever commit.

With a guilty plea, the ICC will be spared a lengthy and expensive trial. It also paves the way for potential future prosecutions over cultural destruction in other conflicts. But Al-Mahdi’s trial also highlights how little progress the ICC has made in bringing justice to Mali since the situation was referred in 2012. Despite evidence of numerous other war crimes, including summary executions and sexual slavery, Al-Mahdi’s case on cultural destruction remains the only case formally brought by the court.

Al-Mahdi himself was accused of many of these crimes, but only faces the charges of cultural destruction. In the meantime, the people of Mali are left rebuild from the 2012 conflict and seek justice on their own. In a country that is facing numerous problems from all sides – the threat of another Tuareg rebellion, Al Qaeda led terrorist attacks and a weak government in Bamako being just some of the issues facing Mali – help from the wider international community is desperately needed. In this regard, Al-Mahdi’s landmark case represents a small step forward but also serves as a reminder of just how much more is needed.