Editorial Board

A War Crime Against Culture

Photographer: Sebastien Rieussec/AFP/Getty Images

The destruction of a mausoleum cannot compare to the rape and murder of innocents. But it is a war crime nonetheless -- and the importance of prosecuting it should not be underestimated, for the present day or for posterity.

When the terrorist group Ansar Dine invaded Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, it not only attacked the local population, but also destroyed a historic mosque and several graves. Now its leader, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, is before the International Criminal Court, charged with the destruction of Unesco World Heritage sites. After a hearing in the Hague this week, the court will decide whether Al Mahdi will stand trial.

QuickTake International Criminal Court

The idea that the intentional destruction of culturally valued property is a war crime is not new. This case would mark the first time that such an act would be the main charge in a war-crimes tribunal.

The seriousness of the crime is beyond doubt. The purpose of destroying cultural heritage is to eliminate all the attachments of a people under attack -- to obliterate not only one's enemies, but also any trace of their existence. As the court's prosecutor made clear in her opening statement, at stake is more than simply "walls and stones." The accused was attempting to "destroy the roots of an entire people."

This case will not serve as a deterrent to militants such as those in Syria and Iraq, who consider the destruction of cultural heritage to be part of their war against infidels. But the pursuit of justice is valuable for its own sake, and at the very least a trial will help create a reliable record of the devastation Ansar Dine wrought.

However this case is decided, its value will lie mainly in the establishment of that historical record. In prosecuting the erasure of Timbuktu's cultural heritage and community identity, the ICC would be documenting the attacks, going some way toward restoring the dignity of those whose sacred places were destroyed.

How this prosecution affects the legitimacy of the court itself, which has not lived up to the extravagant hopes once claimed for it, remains an open question. The court has been accused, not without reason, of irrelevance, incompetence and unfairness. It's possible that this case will show it's not too late for the court to serve the vital purpose for which it was established nearly 14 years ago.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.