2016 Year in Review - Cultural Heritage

By Navy Thompson

In a year marked by major shifts in the international political and legal communities, many may have missed important developments in the growing area of cultural heritage law. These changes have occurred in both national and international arenas, and may have a broad range of potential consequences.

On September 27, 2016 the International Criminal Court’s Trial Chamber VIII found Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi guilty of the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against religious and historic buildings.” The buildings in question were ten religious shrines in Timbuktu, Mali, which were destroyed between June and July of 2012, in the context of a domestic armed conflict in the country. Al-Mahdi, viewed as “an expert on religious matters,” allegedly worked with groups known as Ansar Dine and AQIM, which took over Timbuktu after the Malian military retreated from the area. During the occupation, Al-Mahdi ordered the destruction of the sacred buildings and mausoleums, none of which held military significance. Nearly all of the sites had also been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such that the court found their destruction to cause injury to the international community in addition to those directly affected in Mali. Al-Mahdi personally helped to destroy five of the sites, and the ten attacks constituted war crimes according to the provisions of the Rome Statute. He eventually confessed and apologized for his role in the crimes in order to receive a shorter sentence of nine years.

The decision has been hailed as a great step toward effectively holding destroyers of cultural and religious property accountable in international law. Most significantly, the case marks the first time in history that the ICC has tried a war crimes case based solely on destruction of cultural heritage charges.
Several countries enacted their own diverse cultural heritage protection laws in 2016.
Also of note, Art Recovery International launched Artive, the world’s first non-profit focused on identifying claims on works of art and on consolidating information regarding stolen, destroyed, or looted cultural property and art pieces. The project will function as a database platform for the preservation of cultural heritage property. Its creation may play a significant role in the future of cultural heritage protection as it creates a network through which information regarding such issues and claims can be shared and circulated worldwide.