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Timbuktu destruction: landmark ruling awards millions to Malians

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ordered Malian radical Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to pay €2.7m in reparations for his role in the destruction of the UNESCO world heritage site in Timbuktu in 2012.

This is the first time the court has demanded reparations for the destruction of cultural property. The ruling sends a strong message that perpetrators who target cultural heritage can be held to account.

Al Mahdi was one of the leading perpetrators in the Islamic militant group Ansar Dine. The group attacked Timbuktu in 2012, taking control of the area.

Initially, Ansar Dine banned people in the region from visiting the mausoleums of their ancestors and the saints, as this was seen as an idolatrous and superstitious practice. When visits continued, the group decided to destroy the mausoleums. The aim was partially to stop the practice of worshipping there, but also to defy the international designation of Timbuktu as a world heritage site.

A total of 14 mausoleums were destroyed along with residents’ tombs. The Sidi Yahya mosque door, which some in the area believed would remain closed until the end of days, was also destroyed.

In September 2015, Al Mahdi was arrested in Niger and transferred to the ICC in the Netherlands. In August 2016, he plead guilty to the charge of destruction of cultural property as a war crime, in exchange for a nine-year sentence. Al Mahdi has apologised for his role in the destruction of the world heritage site in Timbuktu, but the ICC requires convicted people to make reparations to the victims affected by their crimes – hence the heavy fine.

Psychological harm

With the help of significant international funding, Timbuktu has been largely rebuilt since the attack – including the Sidi Yahya door. The reparations decision focuses on the human impact the destruction had on the community in Timbuktu.

Many Malians in the area have a close spiritual connection to the mausoleums and the Sidi Yahya mosque. The attack by Ansar Dine not only took away their ability to worship their saints and ancestors, it also caused psychological harm. Some 139 victims applied for reparations at the ICC. They spoke of their shock and bereavement at the destruction.

The loss of the world heritage site at Timbuktu and ongoing conflict in Mali also meant that tourists and pilgrims could no longer travel to the site. That in turn led to a loss of income for the local people who act as guardians of the sites.

While the ICC recognised that the international community (represented by UNESCO and Mali) had suffered harm, it only awarded them a symbolic €1 each. Instead it focused reparations on the community in Timbuktu. The court awarded individual compensation to victims seen as most affected by the destruction. These included the guardians of the site who suffered a loss of income following the destruction, and the descendants of those whose mausoleums were destroyed who suffered mental harm.

Al Mahdi at his trial in 2016. EPA/Patrick Post

The court also ordered collective measures to benefit the community in Timbuktu. These include community education, return and resettlement programmes for those displaced, and micro-credit grants.

There are of course difficulties ahead, too. Mali is still not a safe place, which will make it difficult for these reparations to be made. In the space of just one week, seven people, including peacekeepers, were recently killed in Timbuktu. The instability makes it difficult for the money to be put to practical use.

What’s more, Al Mahdi doesn’t have any money. That means the reparations will be delivered through the Court’s Trust Fund for Victims, which is supported by donors.

Lessons for Syria?

Over the past few years, cultural property has been destroyed across a number of conflicts, particularly in Syria. Islamic State targeted the UNESCO world heritage site in Palmyra, and indiscriminate fighting in cities like Homs and Aleppo has destroyed dozens of cultural property sites. The Al Mahdi case offers some hope that those responsible for this destruction can be held to account. However, given that the fighting in Syria is ongoing, such restoration and accountability may be a long way off.

Cultural property is specifically protected in international law to ensure the rich diversity of communities that in turn enriches humanity as a whole. Attacking cultural property is explicitly prohibited during times of war. The Al Mahdi case emphasises that in rebuilding sites like Timbuktu, we also need to remedy the psychological and moral harm caused to communities connected to such culture.

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