With the International Criminal Court (ICC) set to open its first trial for the destruction of UNESCO listed buildings in Mali’s Timbuktu, we bring you 10 examples of historic, religious and cultural structures destroyed in conflict through the ages.
Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan, 507AD–Mar. 2001)
Two ancient Buddha statues, 53 and 38 meters tall, were intentionally shelled and dynamited over 25 days by the Taliban in March 2001. Radical clerics campaigned for the destruction, which local officials resisted.
The man responsible for the order, Mullah Omar, claimed to act in protest of aid given solely for the preservation of cultural property during a famine crisis.
The act was condemned by several Islamic governments, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Several restoration projects are being developed.
Stari Most (Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1566–9 Nov. 1993)
The Stari Most was a bridge commissioned by 16th century Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent and was considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture. At 30 meters long and 27 meters high, the bridge inspired awe in a number of famous travelers.
During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croat forces deliberately shelled the bridge over 60 times before it collapsed, citing military reasons. While international law allows exceptions in the case of protected buildings being used for military purposes, the strategic benefits of destroying the bridge are hotly disputed.
The Stari Most was reconstructed and reopened on 23 July 2004 “as a symbol of reconciliation” and has been a World Heritage site since 2005.
Old City (Jerusalem, 1535–1948)
The Old City of Jerusalem, whose walls were also built by Suleiman the Magnificent, was taken by Jordanian forces during the 1948 Israeli-Arab League war. It is home to several sites of religious importance and is traditionally divided into four areas: the Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian Quarters.
It is alleged that 34 of 35 synagogues were deliberately destroyed during the Jordanian occupation, including the 300-year old Hurva Synagogue. Upon retaking the Old City in 1967, Israeli forces destroyed what was once the Moroccan Quarter.
The Old City became a World Heritage site in 1981 at the request of Jordan.
Serbian Orthodox Churches (Kosovo, c.1100–2004)
155 to 200 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were destroyed by ethnic Albanians between June 1999 and March 2004 in Kosovo. These included the medieval World Heritage sites of the Gracanica and Decani monasteries, as well as the Church of the Virgin of Ljevisa.
Kosovo Police established a special investigation team to handle cases related to the 2004 unrest, with 143 Kosovar Albanians convicted by the end of 2006 in proceedings with prosecutors and judges experienced in international law.
NATO peacekeepers have also been accused of not doing enough to protect the buildings during the Kosovo War of 1998 to 1999.
Palmyra (Syria, c.2000BC–13 May 2015)
In the absence of Syria joining the ICC, the Court can only intervene to investigate alleged crimes by nationals of member states if competent domestic authorities are not doing so or in the event that the UN Security Council refers the situation in Syria to the ICC – which it failed to do in 2014.
Iraqi National Museum (Iraq, c.2000BC–April 2003)
Amid scenes of widespread looting during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the ransacking of the Iraqi National Museum and its collections of relics and artistic masterpieces stood out.
Critics have pointed at Coalition forces for not doing enough to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage, both during and after the invasion. International law sets out norms specifically intended for the preservation of cultural property during occupation.
Al-Omari Mosque (Gaza, 647AD–August 2014)
The al-Omari mosque, part of which dated back to the medieval Mamluk period, stood at the center of Jabaliya and was known as ‘the Great Mosque’ by local residents.
It was bombed in August 2014 during Israeli operation Protective Edge, which damaged 203 mosques and completely destroyed 73. Israel, involved in a long-standing conflict with Palestine, claimed “weapons caches and Hamas command and training facilities” were concealed within the mosques.
Jaffna Library (Sri Lanka, 1933–1 June 1981)
The Jaffna Library contained a number of irreplaceable documents with cultural significance for the Tamil population. It was burned down on 1 June 1981 after an opposition rally, during a three-day, allegedly government-backed pogrom. Over two nights, unchecked fires burned more than 97,000 volumes of rare and historical books.
The burnt volumes included works that had helped shape the Tamil culture, and Sri Lankan authorities were not initially sympathetic. Since 1991, however, the government has apologized for the destruction. While the library itself was restored in 2001, its original contents can never be recovered.
Old Summer Palace (China, c.1800-1860)
The Old Summer Palace, originally called the ‘Imperial Gardens’, once hosted the last imperial dynasty of China. The complex of palaces and gardens in present day Beijing was known for its vast collections of art and architecture as much as it was for its imperial functions.
When they arrived at the Old Summer Palace during the Second Opium War in 1860, French and British troops initially conducted extensive looting and destruction. On British orders, the troops finally destroyed the complex entirely in retaliation after negotiations with the Qing empire failed.
The Anglo-French expedition to China was largely intended to further open the country to western trade and influence.
Warsaw Old Town (c.1200-1939/1944)
The German Luftwaffe damaged the Warsaw Old Town during its invasion of Poland in 1939. The German army further destroyed the Old Town during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Designed to instill terror and destroy morale, the attacks targeted the city’s residential areas and historic landmarks.
After World War II, the Old Town was rebuilt with care and attention to assure the survival of one of the most important testaments to Polish culture. Pre-war student architecture drawings were used to guide the reconstruction effort.
Protection of cultural heritage under international law
The modern source of law for the crime of destruction of cultural property, the 1954 Hague Convention, defines “cultural property” as “movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people” and obliges state members of the Convention to take measures to preserve such property during peacetime, armed conflict, and occupation.
The ICC stands as the first independent international judicial mechanism competent to try intentional attacks on buildings dedicated to religion or art, or historic monuments as war crimes, and, depending on the circumstances, as the crime against humanity of persecution.
Timbuktu destruction ICC trial to open 22 August 2016
The ICC deals with the destruction of historical and religious monuments as a war crime for the first time in the upcoming trial against the Tuareg Islamist allegedly associated with Ansar Eddine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who headed the Hisbah (‘Manners’ Brigade’) in Timbuktu, Mali, is charged with the destruction of ten mausoleums and mosques in the UNESCO World Heritage city. The case will be an important step for clarifying the ICC’s competence to deliver justice for different types of victims and harms.
The case is also significant as the only to date at the ICC in which a defendant has expressed the intention to plead guilty. The single-week trial, beginning 22 August 2016, will be one to follow.
Practical information for the Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi trial at the ICC
Read more: What is the significance of the ICC’s war crime charges of attacks on cultural property in Mali?
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