The legal framework for the destruction of cultural heritage in Timbuktu during 2012-2013: Overview (1/7)

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The military coup in Timbuktu in March 2012, caused the escalation of political and religious unrest in Northern Mali. The internal instability of the country soon caught the attention of the global public after two separate cases of destruction of cultural heritage in Timbuktu had occurred. The first of these events occurred in the summer of 2012 months after the coup, when a series of ancient shrines within the city were purposely targeted and destroyed. These shrines were re-built in the summer of 2015, only three years following their destruction. Novel prosecutions under the Rome Statute for the destruction of cultural heritage as a war-crime is further currently on-going in The Hague. In the beginning of 2013, the ancient manuscripts within the library of Timbuktu were also at risk of destruction during the occupation of the city. Through the library was destroyed, about 95% of the manuscripts were smuggled out and saved through an undercover mission initiated by employees at the library.

Through a series of posts, these two cases will be considered within the international framework available for the protection of cultural heritage.  The background of these events will therefore be considered within a socio-political and legal context, but also in regards to the response of the international community. The degree of satisfaction of international responses will be evaluated along with possible recommendations for how this case can further the protection of cultural heritage in the future.

The West African nation of Mali has a rich cultural heritage and a developing heritage tourism. The total contribution of tourism made up 10.1% of the GDP of the country in 2014, a number only expected to rise significantly over the next years. The Malian sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, are ‘The Old Towns of Djenné’ inscribed in 1988, the city of ‘Timbuktu’ inscribed in 1988 and the ‘Tomb of Askia’ in 2004. In common for these sites are however not only their potential for sustainable African tourism development, but their significance and cultural connection to the local population of Mali. This can be considered both passively through the physical presence of these sites but also actively, as the need for restoration is representative of the mudbrick Sudanic architectural style, requiring yearly re-plastering.  At the most famous Malian monument – the mosque of Djenne, this is a communal responsibility. The highly social task takes place at a yearly festival involving all groups of society with children, women and men all being assigned different responsibilities in the restoration. Mali has been plagued by looting since its days as a French colony due to its rich heritage, but with growing awareness of the social and cultural significance of its history, the sense of pride and responsibility has also grown. For example, in Joforogo where villagers distraught by continues looting kept ancient artefact hidden away while planning the construction of a local museum within the village.

This tendency of of aversion towards looting has been widespread across Mali – with local museums and a sense of connection to the past and a hope for the future through heritage tourism. The attitude of the Malian people should therefore be kept in mind when considering the events of Timbuktu in 2012-2013 which were essential for the considerable successful outcome.



Boas, Morten and Ellin, Liv., 2013:

‘The trouble in Mali – Corruption, collusion, resistance’ in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 34, Issue 7, pp. 1279-1292, Routledge

Joy, Charlotte, 2011:

‘Negotiating material identities: young men and modernity in Djenne’ in Journal of material culture no. 16 (4) pp 389-400, Sage publishing

Global Heritage Fund, 2015:

Safeguarding Mali’s Manuscripts”, February 18th  2015, available at: ( (last accessed 14 October 2015)

Togola, Tereba, 2002:

‘The rape of Mali’s only resource’ in (eds.) Brodie, Neil and Tubb, Kathryn: Illicit Antiquities: The theft of culture and extinction of archaeology, One World Archaeology (OWA) no. 42, Routledge, London

UNESCO, 2013, January 29th:

“UNESCO determined to help Mali restore and rebuilt its cultural heritage”, United Nations, available at: ( [last accessed 7 October 2015]

UNESCO, 2015:

Director-General praises the people of Timbuktu for the reconstruction of the city’s mausoleums”, United Nations, July 19th 2015, available at: ( [Last accessed 7 October 2015


World Heritage List – Mali: United Nations, available at: ( [last accessed 04 October 2015]

World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), 2015:

Travel & Tourism: Economic impact 2015 – Mali’, WTTC


All research published through this series of blog-posts was originally presented as post-graduate coursework 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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