Tag Archives: United Nations

On trial: the destruction of history during conflict

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to plead guilty to destroying sacred sites in Mali. Will other sledgehammer-wielders take note?

NEW YORK // When the Roman Emperor Jovian ordered the burning of the Library of Antioch in the 4th century AD, there was nobody around to make him answer for what ancient Syrian culture buffs deemed a “barbaric act”, according to records.

Modern history is littered with cases of wartime razing, from the levelling of Dresden to the Taliban’s Buddha demolition at Bamiyan. Politicians have been slow to crack down on ruinous acts, but experts hope that this month the curve will bend in the right direction.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is expected to plead guilty to war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague after allegedly destroying holy and historic sites in Timbuktu as his al-Qaeda-linked group swept across Mali in 2012.

For heritage lovers, it is a watershed moment. The first ICC prosecution solely for tearing down monuments will deter other wreckers, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, they say.

“The case sets an important precedent by demonstrating, once again, that these attacks on heritage are really attacks on people,” said Tess Davis, a director of The Antiquities Coalition, which seeks to end ISIL-style racketeering.

“We’ve seen it before, from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban, and we must end impunity for these crimes.”

The ICC has probed the events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels seized chunks of the country’s northern deserts and desecrated mosques, shrines and monuments in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

French and Malian troops pushed them back in 2013.

According to prosecutors, al-Mahdi, a former teacher in his 40s, led an anti-vice squad called al-Hesbah, which acted for the Islamic court of Timbuktu, while he was a member of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg rebel group allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He is accused of directing attacks on nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu, a trade hub that became Islam’s “intellectual and spiritual capital” in Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to UNESCO.

In broad daylight, pickaxe-wielding men tore down mud-brick walls in front of television cameras. Mahdi himself spoke on screen, using the alias Abu Tourab, to declare the structures “forbidden” under Islam.

Some 4,000 ancient manuscripts were lost, stolen or torched during the group’s reign. Fatou Bensouda, ICC prosecutor, decried an “irreplaceable” loss of history “felt by the whole of humanity, and at the expense of future generations”.

Al-Mahdi, from Agoune, 100km west of Timbuktu, the so-called “City of 333 Saints”, was later detained by officials in neighbouring Niger and handed over to the court in the Netherlands, where he is in custody.

He is expected to plead guilty at the start of a week-long trial, which can be seen online. It will hear from lawyers, expert and character witnesses and a representative of nine victims before its three judges retire to consider the outcome.

If convicted, al-Mahdi faces jail, a fine and reparation payments to victims. Lawyers contacted by Al Jazeera estimated sentences of between four to 10 years, but said it was hard to predict how the ICC would balance the needs of justice in its first plea bargain.

According to heritage buffs, the case is needed now more than ever.

The Middle East hosts many ancient and valued sites.

“In a matter of days, weeks and months we’ve lost entire chapters of history and sites and objects that had survived for millennia. We’re losing so much from the cradle of civilisation on our watch,” said Davis.

ISIL famously destroyed The Temple of Bel and other sites among the 2,000-year-old ruins of Palmyra, in Syria, and smashed up many statues from the ancient Assyrian era after seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2015.

But less well-known strikes on buildings belonging to Shia Muslims and Yazidis – groups that ISIL views as heretics – are more worrying to Davis, who sees heritage-trashing as a “red flag of an impending genocide”.

According to Lisa Ackerman, an official of the World Monuments Fund charity, heritage destruction in the modern-day Middle East compares to Europe’s intra-Christian violence of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Back then, an “incalculable number of sculptures was destroyed for being the wrong expression of Christianity,” Ackerman told Al Jazeera. In both periods, religious puritanism led to blood and toppled towers, she added.

The ICC’s Bensouda has spoken of prosecuting atrocities in Iraq and Syria but is hamstrung by the court’s limited jurisdiction. Ackerman and Davis both said that global rules on preserving heritage lack teeth.

The ICC builds on national and international laws that mention protecting valued sites in wartime, such as the Lieber Code, signed by then US President Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War, and The Hague Conventions.

Laws accompany practical steps. In World War II, conservators removed statues from plazas and stained-glass windows from churches across Europe to save them from aerial bombing raids, said Ackerman.

Similarly, many relics were shipped from Mosul’s museum to Baghdad before ISIL rolled into town.

Not every effort has worked. In the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, “blue shield” markers on historic sites, used to discourage attacks, were instead used by commanders to target buildings that were valued by an enemy ethnic group.

“They were used for the exact opposite purpose for which they were intended,” said Ackerman.

The ICC treaty outlaws hits on “buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments” and hospitals. But, in a crucial caveat, it permits acts that advance “military objectives”.

This is problematic. In World War II, Allied officials said bombing Dresden and other cities helped shatter German morale, slow the Nazi war machine and end the conflict. The same justifications are available to modern-day generals.

Meanwhile, historic sites are targets for other aims. The thick walls and high ground of Crac des Chevaliers, a fortress in western Syria, were as useful to rebel fighters in 2012 as they were to the Crusader force that built them 800 years earlier.

Syrian army generals knew this too, and bombed the castle’s chapel to dust.

The so-called “military necessity” waiver is among the toughest legal aspects of wartime conservation. Some examples of destruction are clear-cut – neither al-Mahdi’s mosque-trashing nor Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht served a military purpose.

But other examples are trickier. Did US troops err by toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue at the end of the Iraq War? Was Al-Qaeda’s Pentagon hit on 9/11 a reasonable target, given the group’s military goals?

And, hypothetically, if ISIL chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were holed up in a historic citadel, would US warplanes be correct to bomb the building – killing the leader but destroying a prized landmark in the process?

Experts are divided on such tough questions.

Tim Slade, the director of The Destruction of Memory, a movie on the topic, said he wanted generals to think twice before pulling the trigger, but acknowledged that they are “weighing up various factors” in split-second decisions.

Others take a tougher line. For Nada Hosking, a director at the Global Heritage Fund, a conservation group, there are no exceptions and buildings deserve similar protections to people. “It has to be a law across the board,” Hosking told Al Jazeera.

For Ackerman, the key is keeping better inventories of valued sites and objects, especially in poorer countries, and protecting them when fighting starts. For Davis, the ICC needs to be able to flex its muscles more easily.

According to Harvard Law School scholar Alex Whiting, progress is slow, but gains are palpable.

“When the US invaded Iraq, there was chaos, looting and the destruction of art and culture. No one had prepared for it at all,” Whiting told Al Jazeera.

“This process is about drawing attention to the importance of those things. Hopefully, more care will be paid in the future.”

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

A mushroom cloud hangs over Obama’s Hiroshima visit

Has the world failed to learn any lessons from the 1945 US atomic strikes on Japan?

LAGRANGEVILLE, NEW YORK // Of all her painful memories from August 6, 1945, what vexes Tomiko Morimoto West the most is how she argued with her mother on that fateful day, trumpeting her role in Japan’s war effort and slamming the door on her way out.

It was an eventful morning in Hiroshima. The world’s first deployed atomic bomb burst into a 4,000C fireball and flattened the city with a hurricane-like blast, killing thousands instantly and some 140,000 by the end of the year.

West, now 84, recalls a B-29 bomber painting “beautiful” vapour trails above Hiroshima. A “bright, bright light” and the thud of buildings falling. A red flare, looming like a setting sun. A city-wide inferno. Black rain. Charred flesh. Riverbeds full of corpses.

But her overriding memory is how she, as a hot-headed 13-year-old, left her mother on bad terms. At the time, lessons were cancelled and schoolchildren worked in farms and factories or trained to fight off gun-toting US infantrymen with bamboo sticks.

Pumped up with pride and nationalist fervour, her parting words were: “I’m working every day for the government.” The door slammed. It was weeks before she found her mother’s body, under a crushed building, only identifiable by her clothing.

“When you leave the house you have to hug. You never know, you might not see each other again. Had I known she would have died that day, would I have argued? I never would have done that,” West said.

“So, every morning I go pray. I say: ‘Mum, I’m sorry. I was not very nice’.”

It was a tough lesson, but not the only one that month. Nagasaki’s people learned the destructive power of atomic weapons on August 9 and, six days later, Japanese Emperor Hirohito and his generals agreed to surrender, ending World War II.

As Japan picked itself out of the rubble, West left the blighted area, studied and got a job with the occupying US forces. She later married a US serviceman. Nowadays, they live in the leafy Hudson Valley, in an all-American home with Japanese cherry blossoms growing at the front.

Like Tomiko and Melvin West, the US and Japan get on fine these days. On Friday, Barack Obama will become the first sitting US president to tour Hiroshima’s ground zero, accompanied by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It is a big deal for both countries and revives a thorny question: was the US right to drop apocalyptic bombs on civilians, ostensibly to hasten Japan’s surrender and avert a land invasion that would prove costly in US lives?

Critics of that decision say Japan would have surrendered anyway, and that Washington was more interested in showing off its new city-killers to the Soviet Union, pre-empting the coming Cold War and its nuclear arms race.

This puts Obama on the spot. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is warier of deploying military hardware than many of his predecessors and his decision to lay a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial suggests remorse over the double doomsday bombings.

White House officials say Obama will not apologise during his remarks. Fifty-six percent of Americans believe the atomic strikes were justified under the circumstances, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll.

Joseph Gerson, an anti-war activist, said a formal US apology would “upset the debate in the coming presidential election” and give Republicans ammunition against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, who pledges to advance Obama’s legacy.

“But, at some point, you have to face history,” Gerson, from the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, told Al Jazeera.

Obama’s problems do not end there. In April 2009, upon taking office, he delivered a speech in Prague calling for a world without nuclear weapons. Now his presidency is winding down, critics question his efforts on nuclear disarmament.

There have been gains. The New START deal with Russia, ratified in 2010, limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550. Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit meetings have reduced global stockpiles of weapon-making isotopes.

His 2015 nuclear deal with Iran may have helped avert a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. According to Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, the administration has “bent the curve in the right direction”.

But the gains may be dwarfed by the setbacks.

The US is spending as much as $1 trillion over three decades to modernise its nuclear arms stockpiles. Britain plans to renew its missile-launching submarines. North Korea is now believed to be able to mount a small nuclear warhead on missiles capable of striking neighbours.

Pakistan is deploying small, tactical nuclear weapons that are vulnerable to theft or misuse. Kenneth Luongo, president and founder of the Center for a Secure Nuclear Future, a policy group, described the situation as a “free-for-all in South Asia”.

According to Setsuko Thurlow, 84, a Japanese peace activist who was 1.8km from the hypocentre of Hiroshima’s blast, Obama is a “decent human being” but he “hasn’t done enough to be complimented” on his nuclear disarmament efforts.

Thurlow has her own horror stories from the carnage of 1945. She recalls “thick, black liquid” oozing from sickened relatives as their organs rotted. When dressing, she scoured her skin for “purple spots” of radiation poisoning that were a “sure sign you were to die”.

A witness to such terrors, the Toronto resident argues fervently for wholesale nuclear disarmament. Her views are shared by many younger people who endured the Cold War, fearful of nuclear Armageddon. For millennials, however, the threat is less palpable.

“People went back to sleep,” Thurlow told Al Jazeera.

Prospects for more deals between the world’s top nuclear hoarders – Russia and the US – are bleak, given tensions over Ukraine and Syria. Instead, activists focus on a so-called “humanitarian initiative” to stigmatise nuclear arms via UN talks in Geneva.

Others call for unilateral disarmament – a move that requires more courage than most politicians can stomach.

“The pathway to ultimate nuclear disarmament is filled with hairpin twists, and is a very long road,” Luongo said. Belt-tightening in Washington, Moscow and other cash-strapped capitals may hasten arms reductions more quickly than pressure groups, he added.

Army chiefs want weapons they can use on battlefields, not locked up in missile silos. “At some point, decision-making will be driven by dollars, not necessarily by ideology or by arms control calculations,” Luongo said.

This would, of course, fall short of the universal scrapping of nuclear weapons demanded by Thurlow, West and other survivors of Little Boy – the oddly innocent codename for the bomb that levelled their city. But it may be the best deal on offer in an unstable world.

West learned her lesson from Hiroshima. Her mother’s memory looms large. Instead of rowing with her husband, she turns the other cheek. “I just say: ‘OK’. My mother should just see me now,” said West, who doesn’t have children. “I’m like a different person.”

But broader lessons from the calamity have not been learned. Seven decades since mushroom clouds towered over southern Japan, it seems as though humanity will still have enough weapons to wipe out life on the planet for many years to come.

“School systems are failing; media is failing; governments are failing to help young people understand the world they live in,” said Thurlow. “They don’t know what it means to live in a nuclear age.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.