The current crisis in the Middle East has been widely discussed in the Western press, with the tendency being to focus upon the devastation that ISIL has had on the population of the region and their use of social media to recruit Muslim deadbeats, or ‘pop jihadists’, sometimes those whose families have been living in Western Europe for two or even three generations. Another aspect of ISIL’s policy, more sporadically mentioned, is their persistent pillaging and destruction of cultural and holy sites. In Mosul, Iraq, between June 2014 and February 2015, for example, the terrorist organisation plundered and destroyed nearly thirty historically and religiously significant buildings. In fact, ISIL has established a settlement battalion – Kata’ib Taswiyya – specifically tasked with selecting eminent targets and destroying them. These have so far included the 7th-century Al-Tahera Church (blown up in February 2015) and the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor, Syria which was destroyed on the 21st of September 2014.
Their justification for this form of heritage destruction is clear; this mass cultural eradiation provides the terrorist group with the slate on which to establish their own version of the Islamic State, whilst simultaneously propagating the nature of their violence globally by grabbing headlines, and thus promoting their cause. However, holy sites of other religions are not the only targets, as ISIL preaches that all other denominations of Islam bar Salafi jihadism are blasphemous – thus mosques such as Mosul’s Al-Qubba Husseiniya and Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya Shrine in Tal Afar have also fallen prey to ISIL’s campaign of terror and destruction. In addition to seeking notoriety for said deeds, ISIL is also pillaging for profit to fund its campaign, as ‘conflict antiquities’ trade reached an estimated $2.2 billion this year, according to UNESCO.
The demolition of heritage and culturally symbolic districts is nothing new- when Khmer Rouge declared ‘Year Zero’ in April 1975, their sole purpose was to obliterate any existing links to the outside world and to religion, and the period witnessed the destruction of almost all of Cambodia’s 3,369 Buddhist temples as well as all of the country’s seventy-three Catholic churches. The war in the former Yugoslavia saw irreparable damage to the Mostar Bridge, the National Library in Sarajevo, and the Old Town of Dubrovnik as the Serbs aspired to create a mono-ethic realm. And, of course, the Nazis are well known for their expropriation of the artistic and cultural property of the Jews as part of the ‘Final Solution’ and extensively looted Europe’s public collection in an attempt to create a supermuseum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz in Austria. One does not have to look very far for examples. One can debate as to whether the demolition of ‘cultural heritage sites’ is concomitant with the deaths, forced immigration en masse and the fleeing of civilians in conflict zones, though one would be hard pressed to defer. Regardless, the consideration of the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime may fundamentally aid in its preservation during conflict and, as of last month, the International Criminal Court (ICC) agrees.
Despite the fact that there is a Hague regulation concerning the ‘Laws and Customs of War on Land’ as well as a convention for the ‘Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict’, this year will be the first time that war crimes against cultural heritage are the main charge of an international criminal proceeding. The man against whom this charge has been brought? Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi, a member of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg Islamic extremist militia in North Africa, and who were participants in the 2012 north Malian conflict. Ansar Dine aimed to implement Sharia law in Timbuktu and during the fighting were responsible for the destruction of the UNESCO world heritage site which is known as “City of 333 (Sufi) Saints”. Furthermore, around 4,000 ancient manuscripts were also lost, stolen or burned during the fighting and more than ten important mausoleums attacked, including the well known Sidi Mahamoud Ben Omar Mohamed Aquit mausoleum.
Albeit the International Criminal Court’s warning at the time in 2012 that there were prepared to consider the pillaging of the city as a war crime, this did not arrest the culturally chauvinist terrorist group. Happily, the court stayed faithful to their threat and charged the involved parties accordingly after peace was declared. Does this constitute misappropriation of gravitas? Perhaps. But, as Mark Ellis, the chief executive of the International Bar Association, and a specialist in war crimes cases, stated:
“Politically, there will be those who will question why [Fatou] Bensouda [the chief international criminal law prosecutor on the case] is focusing on ancient sites rather than going after rape, torture and murder convictions, but destruction of cultural heritage is not a second-rate crime. It’s part of an atrocity to erase a people. I hope it will act as a deterrent to similar acts in other countries.”
In the opinion of this writer, nothing is more important than a human life, but the destruction of art and artefacts represents an affront to the values, history, identity and civilisation of the communities that flourished there. Destruction of cultural heritage as the main charge in this case takes the remarkable step of setting a precedent whereby prosecutors will be able to cast a wider net when pursuing criminal punishment, and it makes a move towards placing the protection of values on a par with physical protection of peoples affected by conflict. The ICC only confirmed the charge and committed Al Faqi to trial in March this year, and the process is set to be as interminable as any bureaucratic shift. Nonetheless, one can hope that, from here on out, those committed to the idea of inaugurating a new state will think twice about doing so at the expense of the culture and values of previous generations.