Emerging Voices: A Case of Firsts for the International Criminal Court: Destruction of Cultural Heritage as a War Crime, Islamic Extremism and a Guilty Plea
[Andrea Bowdren (LLM (LSE), BCL International (NUI)) is a trainee solicitor at Arthur Cox in Dublin, Ireland. All views are the author’s own.]
The trial of Ahmed Al Faqi Al Mahdi before the International Criminal Court represents a series of firsts for international law and justice. Al Mahdi is the first individual from Mali brought before the International Criminal Court, the first Islamic extremist to face charges at the International Criminal Court, the first individual to be prosecuted solely for cultural destruction as a war crime, and the first individual who has indicated an intention to plead guilty to a charge of the International Criminal Court.
Ansar Dine, a militant Islamist group associated with al-Qaeda, aimed to enforce an extreme interpretation of Sharia law throughout Mali. In the territories under its control, Ansar Dine banned alcohol, smoking and Friday visits to cemeteries, among many other restrictions. Al Mahdi’s role in the group was head of the “hisbah,” or morality brigade, enforcing sharia and “preventing vice” among the population.
In June and July 2012, Ansar Dine destroyed nine mausoleums of Muslim saints and the door of Timbuktu’s famous Sidi Yahia mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Al Mahdi stands accused of jointly ordering or carrying out the attacks against the historical monuments, which UNESCO have described as “places of pilgrimage for the people of Mali and neighbouring West African countries.”
On 24 March 2016, the International Criminal Court judges ruled they would commit Al Mahdi to trial for one charge of the war crime of attacking “buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals or places where the sick and wounded are collected, which were not military objectives” under Article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Rome Statute. In this confirmation of charges hearing, it was stated Al Mahdi is criminally responsible:
- as a direct co-perpetrator under Article 25(3)(a) of the Rome Statute;
- for inducing the commission of such a crime under Article 25(3)(b) of the Rome Statute;
- for facilitating the commission of such a crime by aiding, abetting or otherwise assisting in its commission under Article 25(3)(c) of the Rome Statute; and
- for contrinuting in any other way to the commission of uch a crime by a group acting with a common purpose under Article 15(3)(d) of the Rome Statute.
The prosecution showed video extracts of interviews with Al Mahdi at the time of the attacks, where he explains the Islamic jurisprudence informing his actions.
On 1 March 2016, in an unprecedented move, Al Mahdi explicitly expressed his wish to plead guilty to the war crime charge. Defence counsel Mohamed Aouini has stated that Al Madhi “wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed. And he wants to ask at the same time for pardon from the people of Timbuktu and the Malian people.” This guilty plea has been described as a “milestone in the history of the International Criminal Court” by chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. It provides both the prosecution and judges with an opportunity to reflect on how best to develop an institutional practice conducive to guilty pleas while advancing the interests of the International Criminal Court and justice.
What is the role of international law in this area? Why is the protection of cultural property important? What could this trial mean for the future interpretation of war crimes and the future of combatting terrorism?
Although the International Criminal Court has previously focused on attacks against people causing physical injury, the Rome Statute clearly provides that intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes or historic monuments is a war crime, provided they are not military objectives. Thus the Rome Statute envisages prosecutions of people like Al Madhi and recognises the effect that the destruction of cultural and religious monuments has on the psyche of the communities subjected to these attacks.
“A community’s cultural heritage reflects its life, history and identity. Its preservation helps to rebuild broken communities, re-establish their identities, and link their past with their present and future,” said Vibeke Jensen, UNESCO. Cultural heritage destruction is a powerful tool used to weaken morale and reinforce the authority of a new regime, which may have won control through violence or other criminal acts. In deciding to prosecute Al Madhi, the International Criminal Court underscored the seriousness of the destruction of cultural property and consequential psychological harm to the Malian population and highlighted the importance of accountability for perpetrators.
International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the court:
“The charges we have brought against Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi involve most serious crimes. They are about the destruction of irreplaceable historic monuments and they are about a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations and their religion and historical roots.”
Similarly, the Minister of Culture of Mali summarised these feelings aptly on 25 February 2013, when he called the destruction “an attack on the lifeblood of our souls, on the very quintessence of our cultural values. Their purpose was to destroy our past … our identity and, indeed, our dignity …”
Pursuing and prosecuting those responsible for cultural destruction and resultant harm could yield important changes in the way the international community approaches violent extremism and terrorism. This approach by the International Criminal Court corresponds with former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo’s contention that combating terrorism would be more effective and humane if terrorists were treated as criminals to prosecute rather than enemies to bomb.
The trial is set to proceed on 22 August 2016 and the Chamber aims to complete the trial in a single week. This case breaks new ground for the protection of humanity’s shared cultural heritage and for the procedural future of the International Criminal Court, as it affords the Chamber an opportunity to reflect on what is best for the advancement of the interests of the International Criminal Court and international justice.