Prosecutor v. Al Mahdi: A Positive New Direction for the ICC?

by Marina Lostal

[Marina Lostal is a Lecturer in International Law at The Hague University of Applied Sciences.]

On 27 September 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC or the Court) entered a conviction and sentence that marked several firsts in the history of the Court. It found the Accused – Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, guilty of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments (in violation of Article 8(2)(e)(iv)of the Rome Statute). He was sentenced to 9 years of imprisonment. Al-Mahdi’s conviction is not only the first at the ICC arising from a guilty plea, but it is also the first for destruction of cultural heritage. In the latter respect, it raises an important conceptual question: is the adjudication of these crimes contingent on showing anthropocentric harm, or are they independently actionable before the Court?

Al Mahdi was accused of having been involved in the attacks in Timbuktu against nine mausoleums and the door of the mosque of Sidi Yahia during summer of 2012 in the context of the non-international conflict in Mali. Al Mahdi was a member of the Ansar Dine, a militant Islamist group involved in the armed conflict in Mali, and the head of the Hisbah, the body which acted as a form of morality police which mandate included deciding on the fate of the shrines, mosques and antiquities of Timbuktu. This was an important role in light of Timbuktu’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage List site, deemed to be of outstanding universal value for the whole of humanity.

Al Mahdi has received the lowest sentence to date at the ICC. This may be due to his guilty plea, but also to the fact that the attack was directed against property since, according to the Trial Chamber, “even if inherently grave, crimes against property are generally of lesser gravity than crimes against persons”.

Underlying Al Mahdi’s conviction lies a conceptual question going to the essence of the Court’s substantive jurisdiction. During the confirmation of charges hearing, the prosecution consistently emphasized the human impact of Al Mahdi’s crimes saying, for instance, “[w]hat is at stake here is not just walls and stones”. In doing so the prosecution indicated that human suffering is an essential prerequisite for any substantive proceedings before the Court. Indeed, in the words of Fatou Bensouda:

“[T]he Rome Statute prohibits and punishes the most reprehensible criminal acts: Crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. These crimes can be perpetrated in various forms, but they all have one common denominator: They inflict irreparable damage to the human persons in his or her body, mind, soul and identity.


Such an attack against buildings dedicated to religion and historic monuments falls into the category of crimes that destroy the roots of an entire people and profoundly and irremediably affect its social practices and structures. This is precisely why such acts constitute a crime under Article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Rome Statute.”

It is true that the tangible and intangible dimensions of cultural heritage are, usually, two sides of the same coin. According to the Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right of everyone to “take part in cultural life” enshrined in Article 15(1)(c) of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is “associated with the use of cultural goods”. Former UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, Farida Shaheed, was of the view that “access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage as a human right is a necessary and complementary approach to the preservation/safeguard of cultural heritage.” In this line, UNESCO has adopted two treaties emphasizing the immaterial side of cultural heritage; the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

However, traditionally, the prohibition of attacking cultural heritage has not been associated with the impact it carries for individuals. In fact, the existence this prohibition predates the movement of human rights altogether. One of its first examples dates back to the Lieber Code of 1863 which declared that “classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections, or precious instruments . . . must be secured against all avoidable injury” (Art. 35). The 1899 Annex to the Hague Convention (II) with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land contained provisions demanding respect for edifices dedicated to religion, art, science and charity, historical monuments, works of art or science without making their application contingent on human suffering (Arts. 27 and 56). Similarly, Article 27 of the 1907 IV Hague Regulations, which represents customary international law and the basis for Article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Rome Statute, does not incorporate a requirement of human harm. Back in 1907, the concept of human rights still had to wait decades to take hold. Discourses on the intrinsic connection between the tangible and intangible sides of cultural heritage would only appear almost a century later.

There have been subsequent more complete instruments dedicated to the protection of cultural property in armed conflict, such as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its 1999 Second Protocol. These treaties are founded on the idea that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind”. Yet, none of their articles specifically rely on establishing a link between the offences against cultural heritage (e.g. acts of hostility, military use) and harm caused to human beings, their social structures or religious practices.

There is nothing in the wording of Article 8(2)(e)(iv) (or (b)(ix)) of the Rome Statute nor the elements of crimes that requires demonstrating human harm to prove this crime. To the contrary, the elements are consistent with the historic reading of the provision and require, inter alia, that the perpetrator directed an attack against one or more protected buildings, which did not constitute military objectives; and that s/he intended to direct such attack. As such, suggesting that profoundly affecting a people’s social practices and structures “is precisely why such acts constitute a crime under Article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Rome Statute” is a legal innovation, which may bear unforeseen consequences.

Insisting on the possible human consequences of attacks against cultural heritage may restrict the applicability of these provisions. For example, the Buddhas of Bamiyan dynamited in 2001 were not in active use as a cultural or religious site; indeed there is no record of Buddhism in Afghanistan after the 14th Century. Granted, this destruction predated the ICC era and it is generally accepted that these acts took place during peacetime. But, what if it happened today in the context of an armed conflict? There are important similarities with the case of Timbuktu: the sites had either tentative or declared world heritage status; their destruction occurred as a consequence of sheer iconoclasm; and, in both cases, the international community reacted with shock and outrage. However, the approach in Al Mahdi where harm to the human persons is paramount would potentially exclude such attacks from the coverage of the Rome Statute provisions on cultural heritage.

The Prosecutor’s declaration that the common denominator of all core Rome Statute crimes is that they inflict irreparable damage to the human persons may have a profound effect on the Court’s future activities. Recently, the prosecution indicated that it wishes to focus on acts harming the environment. Would such acts also require an anthropocentric impact in accordance with the Al Mahdi approach? If so, is there really any independent value in declaring a willingness to address environmental harm, or attacks on cultural heritage, for that matter?

Ultimately, all crimes have some anthropocentric rationale: it is humans who define them, and we inevitably choose to criminalise what we deem important to us. In the case of cultural heritage, it could be its time-capsule quality as a source of knowledge about our past, it could be its beauty, its symbolic relevance, or all of these things combined. In the case of the environment, it may be as simple as the fact that earth is our only home. However, stretching the anthropocentric emphasis in line with the prosecution’s approach in Al Mahdi entails the risk of turning a blind eye to the independent value of objects and entities in and of themselves.

3 Responses

  1. RespoVery interesting and challenging post. Perhaps by emphasizing the human damage element, Ms. Bensouda had essentially in mind sentencing issues the Court had to address later rather than indulging on intangible cultural heritage. I don’t believe that the “stretching the anthropocentric emphasis in line with the prosecution’s approach in Al Mahdi entails the risk of turning a blind eye to the independent value of objects and entities in and of themselves”. But you have raised the intriguing issue of the protection of intangible cultural heritage and cultural rights in the context of armed conflicts which is almost entirely unexplored. I was long wondering to what extent cultural rights (to include historical narratives, ancestry and so on ) could prohibit attacks on intangible cultural heritage when such attacks fall short of prohibited instigation to genocide and/or instigation to hatred. Probably the Al Mahdi decision may represent one of those rare decisions (along with the ICJ, Application of the Interim Accord of 13 September 1995 (The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia v. Greece), Judgment of 5 December 2011) which may support the (unintended) development of cultural rights. Curiously the ECtHR seems to be rather blind in this respect (reference is to Grand Chamber, Case of Aksu v. Turkey).nse…

  2. I apologize for having posted (pasted) my comment in the mid of the wort “Respo … nse”

  3. Dr. Lostal, many thanks for the interesting post. To my mind, this tallies with the missing criminological narrative in ICL; the absence of a comprehensive system of norms in international legal discourse. I think, more often than not, ICL tries to reverse engineer values from codified crimes. Read against that background, I think that all international crimes have an anthropological dimension. The question is one of remoteness of the connecting link between the violation and the dimension in question. In that context, I think the question can be reframed from whether or not such anthropological dimension should exist or not to an issue of how proximate should damage to humans be in order to justify the making or prosecution of an international crime. I could be wrong of course. Thank you again for the interesting post.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.