Simon Jenkins writes:
If you demolish a historic building in Timbuktu you commit a war crime. If you demolish one in Britain you apply for retrospective planning permission. What is the difference?
The decision of the international court in The Hague this week to prosecute a former al-Qaida insurgent, Ahmad al-Mahdi, for destroying nine ancient tombs in Mali is deeply significant.
For the first time, the concept of war criminality has been extended from killing people to trying to wipe out their cultural heritage.
In 2012 al-Mahdi led a band of jihadis in the systematic destruction of relics of Mali’s ancient culture of pluralism, claiming it as an offence to Islamic fundamentalism. Timbuktu’s three mosques and its mausoleums were the great treasures of Saharan Africa, a culture that flourished at the time of Renaissance Florence.
Despite the efforts of their custodians, manuscripts and books dating back to the 13th century were lost. Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, called the attack part of “a genocidal project, an attempted annihilation of otherness”.
The mayor of Timbuktu said the shrines “belong to the whole world”.
In theory, the definition of a war crime has long gone beyond killing. It embraces torture, rape, the use of certain weapons and the destruction of property.
Conventions in 1954 and 1977 specifically extended the protection of international law to “cultural property”, including sites, monuments, museums and art works.
A 1999 protocol set out criminal sanctions covering such matters. Prosecutions were never brought.
This was partly for fear of appearing to elevate objects above people, but also because few hands are clean in this matter.
No action was taken over the 1993 demolition by Serbs of Bosnian mosques and other historic structures. No action was taken in 1999 over Nato’s senseless bombing of historic structures in Novi Sad in north Serbia.
Britain itself has never even ratified the 1954 convention, despite promises as recently as in last May’s Queen’s speech.
It is believed the RAF lobbied against doing so. In other words, the Hague case could open a can of worms – and with luck will do so.
One of the most depressing books I have read is Robert Bevan’s The Destruction of Memory.
From Cortés in Mexico to Britain’s bombing of historic Lübeck and the retaliatory Baedeker raids in the second world war, Bevan records systematic attacks on heritage targets as integral to military conquest.
In case after case - mostly recently the Taliban in Bamiyan and Isis in Palmyra - wiping out the culture of a hated people was a means of subjugating them.
Even in peace, communist regimes knew that destroying old buildings played a part in countering the conservative enemy within.
The jihadis’ destruction of Islam’s past may have seemed appallingly systematic.
But its effect on the ground was no more appalling than the reckless western, and now Russian, aerial bombardment of urban targets in Iraq and Syria.
Some 50,000 bombs and missiles have fallen on these countries since 2003. The tally of civilians killed by such bombs is almost certainly greater than those killed by Islamic State.
The cultural devastation cannot be computed.
America standing by during the firing and looting of Baghdad’s library and museum during the 2003 invasion was in flagrant defiance of the Hague convention.
It makes al-Mahdi’s crime seem almost petty.
Timbuktu’s assiduousness in pursuing its case reflects the complex relationship of all countries to their past.
Old places are not simply relics for scholars. Millions visit historical sites because they see them as exemplars of continuity and stability amid change.
As Bevan points out, that conquerors so crave their destruction is a measure of their significance.
I like old places not because I always find them beautiful – many are not beautiful while some new buildings are.
Rather I prefer the display of the old as illuminating the new. It pleases the eye and stimulates memory.
It is older quarters of towns that nowadays attract crowds. This applies even where they have been drastically rebuilt.
If the 19th century had not restored so many Gothic cathedrals and old towns, 21st-century Europe would be immeasurably the poorer.
Historic buildings possess the same cultural vitality as do great sculptures and paintings. We have international laws governing the restitution of art to its owners.
The Hague prosecution suggests that we might treat destroyed old buildings the same, protecting them in time of war and restoring them to their cities if damaged afterwards.
Warsaw rebuilt its old square, Dresden its Frauenkirche and the National Trust its fire-damaged Uppark.
It is to Unesco’s credit that it has already used local craftsmen to rebuild the shrines smashed by al-Mahdi, even if it cannot recover their books and contents.
By prosecuting those who did the smashing, the court greatly strengthens the case for such rebuilding. Yet a new fundamentalism is emerging, that of “historical authenticity”.
Unesco still cannot make up its mind to restore the Bamiyan buddhas, even though parts of them were already copies.
Argument is raging over whether the bombed temples of Palmyra should be rebuilt – as conservationists stand ready to do – or left as piles of rubble as obscene monuments to Isis.
The future of old Aleppo faces those caring for Syria’s past with a clear choice: to restore as in Warsaw, or to “modernise”.
Our debt to the past is growing more complicated than either wiping it out or putting up fences and charging for entry. The challenge is constant.
In Britain this week, Liverpool is demolishing its earliest cinema, the Futurist, and Grimsby seeks to wipe out the legacy of its maritime dockside.
The cause may be development value rather than war. The loss to communal memory is the same.
If a vase is broken or a picture slashed we do not leave them unrepaired. Why treat a building or a neighbourhood or a whole culture more harshly, when we now have the means and the skills to repair them?
To retreat into some ideological “truth to materials” or “conserve as found” is elitist, obscurantist and, in the case of jihadi outrages, a glorification of terrorism.
The Hague trial honours the obligation of today’s generation to guard the evidence of the past, at least in times of conflict.
In admitting his guilt, al-Mahdi’s lawyer says “he regrets all the acts he committed… and feels pain and a broken heart at what he has done”.
Would that all who perpetrate similar destruction, in war or peace, might say the same.
Imprisoning al-Mahdi cannot do much good. Making amends by correcting his destruction is far better.
If Timbuktu is any guide, the miseries lately inflicted on Iraq and Syria could yet be turned to recompense and renaissance.
When peace returns, we cannot breathe life into dead bodies, but we can redress the murder of memories.