Over the past twelve months, two international initiatives have been closely watched because they appear to set the terms for a new, globally punishable, architectural criminality. The Italian-Jordanian initiative Protecting Cultural Heritage: An imperative for humanity mobilized the UN, Interpol, and UNESCO to stem the looting and smuggling of antiquities out of war-torn Syria by demonstrating that their traffic “finances terrorism” and is “linked to international crime.” At the same time, the International Criminal Court of the Hague tried and indicted Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a Malian citizen who orchestrated the destruction of ten mausoleums and mosques in Timbuktu on behalf of Ansar Dine (an affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magrheb, AQIM) in the broadest-ever judicial ruling that architectural destruction is punishable as a war crime.
These two projects promise to bridge two notions, “heritage” and “humanity,” that have been separated in international law for at least a hundred years. Legally, the bifurcation can be traced to the aftermath of World War II. Since the 1954 Hague Convention, heritage laws have protected architecture as a kind of collective property, whereas texts such as the 1948 Human Rights Declaration codified humanity as an attribute of individual personhood. Any reference to cultural heritage was deliberately excluded from the 1948 Genocide Convention, signed that same year.
But historically, the split predates these laws. World War I was the first conflict where modern nation-states competed and collaborated to protect their art and architecture. In fact, these protective measures were so well-publicized that after 1918 Europe’s cultural elite became consumed with debates about whether armies had been more concerned with their art than with their citizens. Fearing that humans and things might have to compete for protection in future wars, international lawyers found themselves split for much of the twentieth century in an apparent opposition: advocate either for culture or for human rights.
Fast-forward to September 2016. The ICC’s judgment against Al Mahdi explicitly seeks to move past this split legacy. “Crimes against property are generally of less gravity than crimes against persons,” states the ICC Chamber, but this particular attack was “heightened by the fact that it was relayed in the media”—that is, it was amplified by its consequences for the international community.
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