The Importance Of Cultural Heritage: Timbuktu

Timbuktu ‘s historical site is priceless. Their destruction is a loss for humanity, but for Mali, it means denial of culture, identity, dignity, and beliefs.


News broke out in 2012 regarding an attack within Timbuktu. The severity of the damage was unknown until a full analysis of the ruins reported, and the findings were made public. As a result, the cultural significance of the city prompted a global outcry against extremist behaviors. The international community calls for equity for all humanity and to prosecute the perpetrators of this violent crime.

As the pressure mounted up to hold the perpetrators accountable, the Malian regime had no option but to request the ICC to prosecute and bring equity for the Malian people. However, will justice be served when the people in the first place rejected the government’s move to enlist these historical sites in UNESCO’s Heritage lists? Although the people may have rejected support based on religious beliefs, the government had the international community on its side to decide to hold those who committed these acts guilty before the court of law.

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The choice to prosecute currently lies within the ICC’s hands or allow those liable to the acts of destroying cultural properties to escape justice. However, will the Court charge the perpetrators when nobody has stood trials against a heritage site? Such a call to pursue the intentional destruction of objects or monumental structures constitutes a test of law. Therefore, public prosecutor v Al-Mahdi is going to be a landmark case against all attacks on historical monuments and religious sites before the ICC.

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Once the public Prosecutor declared to prosecute, several around the world welcomed the news.The decision, however, brought mixed feelings in such a way that this segment would deal with the legal perspective of the case. However, before we continue, a short history of Timbuktu will be restrained, followed by his trials.

History of Timbuktu

Timbuktu is an ancient town and a major economic hub in the geographical region. The city grew and has become a non-secular and intellectual capital for learning. Scholars traveled throughout the Islamic world to share knowledge. Its prestigious University of Sankore and also the library became a center of learning. The calculable records of scholars were around twenty-five thousand. It was additionally a vital spot for the trading of the manuscript. Alternative things were additionally listed and exchanged in this place. Salt, gold, grain, and oxen are the products that create wealth for the town. All the homes of worship were designed to mirror the mosques in Mecca.

The Djingareyber house of God was designed when Sultan Moussa returned from his pilgrim’s journey in Mecca; however, Al Aqib later remodeled the house of God. Qadi has been added as well as the cemetery, and also the walls within the south. The central tower overlooks the town, and it is one amongst the foremost landmarks of Timbuktu’s urban landscape. Al Aqib restored the Sankore house of God to reassemble the dimensions of the Kaaba in Mecca. Al Aqib repaired Sidi Yahia’s house of God. These mosques, shrines, and sixteen mausolea reflect the fantastic past of this town. However, civil unrest plans to ruin this West African civilization. The responses of the government and other interested party are of importance as we glance into Al Mahdi’s case.

Arrest Warrant

The duty to protect objects and structures with cultural significance from plundering or destruction dates back to an earlier period. However, no one has ever faced charges for destroying items of cultural value to a community or society. So, Al-Mahdi’s case was a challenge for the Court since its establishment in 2002. The voluntary acts Al- Mahdi to target buildings that are significantly valuable to the community attracts attention and the calls for his conviction for the international Court in the Netherlands. Notwithstanding the frequent attacks on historical sites around the world in modern times is shocking. A typical example of extended assault by the Islamic State against world heritage sites is that of Iraq and Syria.

Since the war in Syria is ongoing, ICC issued an arrest warrant against Al-Mahdi on the 18th of September 2015. Al-Mahdi apprehended and extradited to The Netherlands by the Niger’s government on the 26 of September 2015. ICC claimed that al-Mahdi was actively involved with a terrorist group Al- Qaeda Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine in 2012 while Timbuktu was under their control. The town and the citizens came under strictly enforced sharia rule. Al-Mahdi Islamic Court in Timbuktu while he was the head of the Manners Brigade. All atrocities committed, directly or indirectly, with extremist groups, the Court charged Al-Mahdi for deliberate assault on monumental historic sites linked to early Islamic reasoning in Timbuktu, Mali.

The Pre-trial and Trials

Al-Mahdi came to Court for pre-trial, and the gravity of offenses was made known to him by the presiding judge. This practice was developed for efficiency and to reduce the workload of the Court. The Court charged him based on the statute of Rome, which prohibits the destruction of anything that is of value to the community or society (article 8(2e) ‘ Deliberately focused assaults on religious, educational, cultural, science or charitable buildings, historical landmarks, medical facilities, and spaces wherever the ailing and the injured are gathered, as long as they were not military artifacts.’. Al-Mahdi’s case became the only case in history to be judged based on article 8(2e)iv. As a result of this, the court concentrated on the elements and interpretation of the crime.

Firstly, Al Mahdi and his cohorts were seen assaulting sacred sites. The results of their actions caused grave damages to the sites. The Court clarifies the part of directing attacks to mean any forceful action against anything that is of value to humanity. However, ICC refused to differentiate between objects that were damaged by resentments and those allegedly handled by armed groups.This dividing line will jeopardize privileged rights of sacred, authentic, and social artifacts, the court observed.

Further, ICC saw those buildings as having religious and historical significance owing to the city’s role in spreading Islamic knowledge. Nine of the thirteen sites are recognized as UNESCO Heritage sites. Thirdly, on the far side affordable, the Court was convinced that Al-Mahdi used these attacks to draw international attention thanks to the worth related to the buildings. Fourthly, the independent agency agrees that the destruction occurred thanks to civil unrest within the country. The Court was convinced that Al-Mahdi meets all required components in Article 25(3a).

At this point, it is necessary to deliberate on how the recognition of Mali sites as a UNESCO World Heritage Site was fundamental for the prosecution of al-Mahdi’s case. First, the Court must establish its relevance in order to have a strong case against him.

The level of crime committed by Al-Madi baffled the moral code of humankind.How the United Nations described the sites as a component of the inseparable legacy of humankind is touching. The laws and interested parties to the case make it different from the cases since the formation of the ICC. All these comments played a key role in the case.

Witnesses were also called upon by the Court to testify in Al-Mahdi’s case. The notable ones were UNESCO and Mali’s cultural experts whose testimonies were taken into consideration by the Court. Both of them stressed the importance of Timbuktu to the world, especially in the spread of Islamic ideology and religion in Africa. They also claimed that the citizens cherished the town of Timbuktu. However, the same people rejected the government’s decision to enlist these sites in the UNESCO World Heritage Lists. Therefore, it will be hard to conclude whether the people had a passion for the place, but this segment our focus is on the Court.

The ICC maintains that UNESCO recognized the sites; therefore, their assaults impact the people of Mali and humanity. In this case, the ICC formulated a universal doctrine proving the seriousness of the violation, in response to the Prosecutor’s report.

Al- Mahdi plead guilty

The Court found him liable, and Al-Mahdi pleaded guilty before starting his trial on August 22, 2016. The prosecution team and the defense team did not appeal to the sentencing of the defendant, who happened to be Al-Mahdi.

The ICC pronounced that al-Mahdi was guilty of the crimes levied against him on September 7, 2016, for destroying sacred religious sites. The ICC took into account Al-Madhi’s plea, remorse to his action, refusal to commit the crime, ethical behavior in detention, and cooperating with the Prosecutor. He was given nine years, and time spent deducted from the years the judges set. The Court asked him to pay twelve million dollars for damages done to the buildings. This case was unique because Al-Mahdi became the only person to stand trial for damaging an objects valuable to humanity.

The outcome of the case

The ICC found mitigating factors that impact Al Mahdi’s sentencing. The first part has already been mentioned above. Al Mahdi pleaded liable, and His cooperation shortened his sentencing. As a result of his plea, the Court took into account his unwillingness to break the law at the initial stage makes him less accountable to the crime. It will be logical to think that it will be the case for Al Mahdi to receive less punishment. However, it turns out that Al- Mahdi was only sentenced to nine years because he did not destroy the whole sites but left some places untouched must be considered. The Court was surprised when the case ended, and they commended Al Mahdi’s for making the Prosecutor work less stressful by cooperating with them. First, it allowed the Prosecutor to establish, clarify what they will present to the Court. Second, Al-Mahdi cooperated with the prosecution team despite putting his family at risk.

The understanding Al- Mahdi exhibited towards those affected by his behavior, and his statement that he made by calling extremists to turn away from violence was also a turning point in this case. However, the arguments of the Court and the Prosecutor appear to be weak. Moreover, it has less impact on the nature of the wrongful act that qualifies an essential part of the case.

Human right and cultural Heritage

To grasp this verdict’s significance, one needs to know the importance that Cultural Heritage is intertwined with human rights. The initial act of safeguarding objects of significant benefit in humanitarian rule sprang the importance of tolerance to the promotion of knowledge, history, and science. However, that notion has changed tremendously in modern times due to the increased value placed on civil liberties. The protocols and contentions, especially the 1954 pacts, are essential for spreading cultural differences and sensitize society about keeping the past.

However, the framework to protect cultural Heritage was formed as a result of the impact world war had on Cultural legacy. Throughout Resolution 33/20, the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR) asserted that the annihilation or harms to cultural identity could have a harmful and irreversible impact on a range of artistic rights, in particular, the liberty of everyone to partake in cultural life, including the right to obtain and experience the social culture.


Even though the case is considered as a milestone in preserving objects that are not of military benefit, this ruling will likely escape reviews. These analyses may intend to concentrate on actual issues that the court failed to address in Al-Mahdi’s case.

First, the defendant was acting at his boss’s commands. Therefore, if the ICC’s role is to prosecute those who commit the most severe crimes and those who carry the highest responsibility, why did al-Mahdi be punished? Would those self proclaim extremists rulers that control Timbuktu during the unrest faced trials? From whom Al-Mahdi received orders to assault these sites? If all the perpetrators are not held accountable, the Court has failed to execute equity.

Finally, the case was not well examined. The people did not receive justice after being abused, brutally murdered, beaten, and assaulted throughout the war. The court failed to consider all their complaints because both factions adopted excessive violence, and they must be prosecuted. ICC affirms the ability to render equity for all, even when they lost their social identity. Reparation to the victims occurred quickly after the verdict was announced. So, Justice for those who lost their lives during the war never met. The case did not set a precedent for other cases because the judges were not specific in what they aim to achieve. Many sacred and Heritage sites are being destroyed in Syria and other parts of the world, but no one has been held accountable. Most Africans see the Court as biased against Africa because most of the cases that the ICC has tried are from Africa. Was the Court created for Africans? Though on papers, it appears otherwise, Africa has been the victim for quite a while now. The world has to wake up and see that justice must be done because no one is above the law.


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The Importance Of Cultural Heritage: Timbuktu. (2022, Jun 06). Retrieved from

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