Official Opening of the Permanent Premises of the International Criminal Court

Should the destruction of culture be a war crime?

Last week, The International Criminal Court (ICC) sentenced an Islamist militant to 9 years in prison, exclusively on the basis that he had played a part in destroying the sacred shrines of Timbuktu.

Unfortunately, it is not the first time that we are hearing of heritage sites being desecrated by extremists. The Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra were all but obliterated at the hands of The Taliban and Daesh respectively. This case does mark, however, the first time that the ICC have tried an individual for cultural destruction. For some people, the 9 year prison term will seem disproportionate to the crime committed. Others will be disappointed that the sentence is not closer to the higher end of the spectrum; if he so wanted, judge Raul Pangalangan could in theory have handed down a sentence of up to 30 years.  Legally speaking then, the act of destroying places of cultural importance is most certainly a war crime.  The question is whether you, as an individual, believe that this is a valid assertion.

Essentially, the argument revolves around two rather subjective concepts; ‘culture’ and ‘war crime’. As a result of this subjectivity, you must be certain about your own interpretation of these ideas before assessing the value of culture and what is suitable to be classed as war crime.

Let us begin by unpacking the words causing all the trouble. Even though in this case we are talking about tangible culture, for example monuments, artefacts and holy places of worship, the existence of such heritage also feeds into intangible elements, such as common social practices and rituals. Already, we can begin to see that culture definitely has a direct impact on people’s lives – even more so, surely, in war ravaged regions. It allows people to reinforce their collective cultural identity, at a time where conflict is steadily stripping them of their collective individuality.

More broadly, culture is a manifestation of human intellectual achievement, and its presence serves as a constant reminder of our shared history as humans. In fact, Harvard professor Eduard Sekler went as far as to say that: “as long as historic monuments remain without falsification and misleading imitations, they will, even in a neglected state, create a sense of continuity that is an essential part of cultural identity.”

It is safe to say that cultural destruction is harmful to humanity as a whole; heritage is irreplaceable. At this juncture however we enter murkier waters, as we speculate about whether or not it is appropriate to call cultural destruction a war crime. Many believe that it is insensitive to include cultural destruction in and amongst heinous crimes such as mass rape or ethnic cleansing. However, it is not necessary to compare war crimes based on their level of atrocity. At the end of the day, a war crime is a “serious violation of the laws or customs of war as defined by international customary law and international treaties.” If cultural destruction is included in this widely accepted set of laws, then it will hopefully act as a deterrent and prevent any similar acts taking place in the future. This is surely something to rejoice about.

To put it into a western perspective, monuments act as symbols for entire civilisations – the Big Ben proudly represents England, the Eiffel Tower stands tall and embodies the French spirit. If these were to fall, they would leave a gaping hole in the fabric of both of these nations. In conclusion, it seems logical to say that the destruction of culture is very rightly a war crime.

Image: United Nations Photograph

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