The main gate of the Sidi Yahya mosque of Timbuktu will only be opened, according to local belief, when the end of the world comes. In Islamic eschatological writings, the “end times” will bring a reversal of the natural order of things, and all humans will be divinely judged.
A few weeks ago, militant Islamists of the Ansar Dine, or “Defenders of the Faith,” destroyed the main gate of the Sidi Yahya mosque, ostensibly to challenge and invalidate these beliefs. They have targeted the legendary city’s mosques, manuscripts and mausoleums and have engaged in the deliberate and systematic destruction of Mali’s cultural heritage.
Can the international community prevent the “end times” for Timbuktu and its World Heritage sites? No concrete action has so far been taken by any government or intergovernmental organization to save this universal heritage of humanity.
Chaos and anarchy spread throughout Mali in March, following a military coup in the capital, Bamako. Two armed groups — Ansar Dine and rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by the French initials M.N.L.A. — seized control of the north, including Timbuktu.
Ansar Dine, whose aim is to impose strict Shariah law throughout Mali and neighboring states, soon overpowered the M.N.L.A., a movement of mostly secular Tuareg rebels seeking independence for the Tuareg-inhabited regions of various North African countries.
In Timbuktu, the Ansar Dine immediately started defacing shrines, destroying the tombs of local Sufi saints, and disfiguring mosques. The militants, who consider these sites idolatrous and contrary to their puritanical interpretation of Islam, have vowed to destroy the remainder of the city’s shrines, including the 13 remaining World Heritage sites.
Founded nearly 1,000 years ago on the southern edge of the Sahara just north of the Niger River, Timbuktu grew into a wealthy trading point for salt, ivory and gold. It also became, in the 15th and 16th centuries, a center of Islamic scholarship and the cultural, religious and intellectual hub of western and northern Africa. Ahmed Baba, a celebrated 16th century scholar, is reported to have had a personal library of more than 1,600 volumes, described as one of the city’s smaller collections.
Today, Timbuktu’s three great mosques — Sankore, Djingareyber and Sidi Yahya — recall Timbuktu’s golden age, and conjure up nostalgic images of Africa’s intellectual history and achievements in mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, medicine and geography.
The protection of this city, so rich in history and legend, is the collective responsibility of all 172 states that are parties to Unesco’s 1972 World Heritage Convention, including the United States, all E.U member states, China, Russia, Japan and other Asian countries, as well as almost all African and Latin American states.
Unesco has condemned the attacks and called for an immediate end to the violence. But the United Nations organization has limited influence over the rebels and even less power at the international level. Its demands appear only to have further incensed the militants.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Economic Community of West African States, known as Ecowas, have only denounced the militants’ actions, without initiating any concrete measures to halt these cultural atrocities.
In the meantime, the transitional government of Mali struggles to survive in Bamako and exercise control over the southern half of the country. It’s in no position to take military action against the Ansar Dine in the north.
Nonetheless, Mali, as a state party to the Rome Statute, has referred the matter to the International Criminal Court, which has characterized the rebels’ actions as war crimes.
The intentional and discriminatory destruction of “buildings dedicated to religion” and historic monuments qualifies as a war crime under the Rome Statute. The persecution of religious or cultural groups is also characterized as a crime against humanity. The jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has confirmed this legal interpretation. In the improbable eventuality that the I.C.C. determines that it does not have jurisdiction, states should prosecute these crimes against humanity under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which empowers any country to prosecute such crimes.
The crimes of the rebels in Timbuktu mirror those of the Taliban in 2001, when it declared that the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan were idolatrous and destroyed them. The field of international criminal law has matured significantly since then, following the establishment of the I.C.C. and the attainment of various jurisprudential milestones through the decisions of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. It is now necessary to use these legal tools to hold the Ansar Dine, both as a group and as individuals, accountable for the destruction of property belonging to the universal heritage of humanity.
If the rebels continue their campaign of destruction, unrestrained by the international community, nothing will be left of Timbuktu but a faded memory of the vibrant reality that once was.
Guled Yusuf is a lawyer in London specializing in international law and arbitration. Lucas Bento is an attorney in New York specializing in complex litigation and international arbitration.