On 14 July 2020, the International Criminal Court began the trial of Addoulaziz Al-Hassan for crimes which took place during the occupation of Timbuktu by Islamist and Tuareg militias. There had been a first ICC trial on the same grounds against Ahmad Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi who had pleaded guilty and was given a nine-year prison sentence. Al-Hassan’s lawyers have said that he is too ill and confused to stand trial. The Court said that the trial should begin and that the health issue would be considered later.
Timbuktu was an important city for the trans-Sahara trade from about 800 CE until 1591 when Moroccan troops destroyed the then Songhai Empire of Mali. At the same time in the late 1500s, Portugal and other European countries developed a sea-going trade that largely replaced the trans-Sahara trade.1
Timbuktu was an important intellectual and cultural center and home for Sufi-influenced teachers. In the Sufi-influenced Islamic tradition, the graves of teachers are honored often with elaborate tombs and ceremonies are carried out on the anniversary of the birth or death of the teacher. However, such Sufi-influenced practices are strongly opposed by the modern Islamist movements active in the Sahel and North African States. Thus when the Islamist militia Ansar Dine took over Timbuktu, they started to destroy the tombs and Sufi-influenced mosques in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Goods with UNESCO as the official body for its safeguard. The 1954 Treaty has been progressively enriched by the development of UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage sites. Timbuktu as a whole is on the Cultural Heritage list.
From April 2012 until January 2013, Timbuktu was under the control of Islamist and Tuareg-led militias. The control of the city by the Mali central government was restored with the help of French troops although the whole of northern Mali is still unsettled.
These ICC trials highlight the crucial link among human rights standards, humanitarian law and world law to protect educational and cultural institutions in times of violent conflict. The trial of Al-Hassan should be followed closely for the precedent it sets.
1See Raymond Mauny. Tableau géographique de l’Ouest africain au Moyen Age (Dakar: IFAN, 1961, 587pp.)
In English: Horace Miner. The Primitive City of Timbuktoo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953, 247pp.)
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