The legal framework for the destruction of cultural heritage in Timbuktu during 2012-2013: Concluding considerations (7/7)

Nanette Askholm BulowArticle, Report1 Comment

Man in Timbuktu. Photo credit: Mission de l'ONU au Mali - UN Mission in Mali via / CC BY-NC-SA

The destruction of Sufi shrines and ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali, received a good deal of intention from the national and international community. Attitudes to cultural heritage has occasionally been criticized for being euro-centric. The prosecution of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for the destruction of the shrines by the ICC under the Rome Statute, the action taken to safeguard the manuscripts, and the funds raised for the quick reconstruction of the shrines assisted by UNESCO however highlight the significance of African and Muslim heritage. The self-referral of the Malian state to the ICC and its decision to sign the Second Protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention in light of the destruction of the shrines is evidence of the will to protect the heritage of Mali within the possible international framework. These actions taken also suggests a highly successful approach to the conflict and the dangerous situation it has put the cultural heritage of Mali in.  The management of the situation should be accredited to the people and state of Mali and their cultural connection to their heritage. This connection may best be expressed through the highly risky mission of smuggling the manuscripts out of Timbuktu, but also through a long history of educational and legislative initiatives by Mali to protect their cultural heritage. 23 different sites were thus identified and given instructions for their protection already in 1953 by the French colonialists. Following a rise in looting in the 1980’s a body of national legislation was implemented banning both looting and the export of archaeological artefacts and materials. The problem proved continuously difficult to fight and efforts were therefore extended to educational measures to improve local and public awareness. This have resulted in an appreciation and understanding of the value of the cultural heritage of Mali and the efforts have helped create the foundation which made the efforts of 2012-2013 possible. Programs and initiatives for educational and preventive efforts for the protection of cultural heritage should therefore be emphasised and pursued rather than solely emphasise the sensationalism of destruction.


The attitude of pride and responsibility transcended through the public to the state of Mali. Upon the continued destruction of the shrines and statements by Ansar Dine condemning the international community, Mali appealed to UNESCO for entry of the sites of Timbuktu and the tomb of Askia onto the World Heritage List in Danger and for support for the protection of these monuments. Mali further referred itself to the ICC and applied for emergency entry into the Second Protocol of 1998 of the 1954 Hague Convention under Article 44 on Armed Conflicts.  These actions may have resulted in the international attention and assistance, which has resulted in the finished reconstruction of the temples only 3 years after their destruction. On the 4th of February 2016 a consecration ceremony was held for the shrines in Timbuktu, a ceremony not held since the 11th century and thus a local and cultural initiative symbolizing the rebirth of the shrines. The historic prosecution for the destruction of the shrines as a war-crime under the Rome Statute is further significant for both Mali and for the international perception of cultural heritage and its significance. Ahmad Al Faqi al Mahdi charged with the crime was moved to The Hague on the 26th of September 2015. He has since pledged guilty and asked for the forgiveness of his people, though the trial is expected to begin in August of 2016 and the outcome is therefore still uncertain. The application of available international legal frame-works by Mali is a reminder of the broad legal framework available for the protection of antiquities and cultural heritage – either as a human rights violation, war-crime or a violation of the 1972 UNESCO convention. Another approach could be within the WTO and its framework on property rights. Efforts to create awareness and connection to the past is however fundamental in order to consolidate the support for legal protection in regards to looting of antiquities, illicit trade of antiquities and the destruction of cultural heritage.


Agence France-Presse, 2016:
‘Malian jihadi to plead guilty in ICC cultural destruction trial’ in The Guardian, 24th May, available at: ( [last accessed: 01 July 2016]
 UNESCO, 2016:
‘900-year-old consecration ceremomy held for the Timbuktu mausoleums’, 04 February, available at ( [last accessed 01 July 2016)
UN News Center, 2015:
Mali: peace process ‘back on track’ but vigilance necessary, says UN envoy’, 6 October 2015, United Nations, available at:
( (last accessed 10 October 2015)
UN News Center, 2016:
UNESCO and ICC join forces to end impunity for destruction of cultural heritage, 14 June 2016, United Nations, available at:
( (last accessed 01 July 2016)
All research published through this series of blog-posts was originally presented as post-graduate work at University College of London, Institute of Archaeology
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Nanette Askholm Bulow

Nanette Askholm Bulow

Nanette is currently completing an MSc in Global Governance at Birkbeck University in London and is in the midst of moving back to Copenhagen, her bicycle and dark winter nights. She has previously finished an MA in Archaeology from UCL with emphasis on modern engagement with cultural heritage and has done field work in Jordan and Sudan.

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