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Timbuktu’s Cultural Artifacts at Risk as Mali Crisis Grows

A Tuareg nomad stands near the 13th century mosque at Timbuktu, Mali (file photo).
A Tuareg nomad stands near the 13th century mosque at Timbuktu, Mali (file photo).

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Ricci Shryock

With rebel groups in northern Mali in control of the ancient city of Timbuktu, international groups are raising concerns about the many cultural sites housed at the legendary UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The director of the United Nations agency dedicated to education, science and culture (UNESCO), released a statement about her concern for the "heritage treasures."

“The recent takeover of these cities by the Tuareg rebels could have damaging effects on the management and conservation of the three mosques and 16 mausoleums of Timbuktu, as well as the Tomb of Askia in Gao,” read the statement by Director Irina Bokoba.

Mary Ellen O'Connell, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in international art law, said the city was founded around the fifth century and grew into an Islamic and academic hub in the 15th century.  She said buildings and artifacts from Timbuktu’s golden age remain in the city today.

“Because it has been a seat of learning all this time, there are ancient manuscripts there and they’re scattered around the town,” she said.

According to O’Connell, there is recognized “customary international law that has grown out of the Geneva Conventions,” that dictates that destroying these artifacts is a crime.

“We are confident in the world of international law that rebels and government forces must respect and go out of their way not to damage in anyway the manuscripts, documents or the buildings related to this priceless cultural heritage,” she said.

She added that prevention of artifact destruction is the main priority, but if groups do destroy property, they could be subject to charges – though it is tricky to determine who would hold them accountable.

She says, among others, Red Cross observers routinely urge armed groups to respect international law.

But the situation in Timbuktu is further complicated because it is an internal conflict, meaning some of the international laws may not apply. It raises the question: do local populations have the right to destroy local sites, even if the international community has deemed them valuable to world heritage? O’Connell says no.

“Significant fighting within a country is of interest to international law,” O’Connell said. “Every country has the ability and even the obligation to make sure that if somebody is responsible for the destruction of the cultural heritage, they bring them to justice.”

Heavily armed rebels arrived in northern Mali after the fall of neighboring Libya and launched an insurgency in mid-January. Tuareg separatists have been seeking autonomy for decades.

Government soldiers overthrew the president on March 22 after claiming they were not being sufficiently equipped to fight the rebels. The separatists have been joined by Islamist factions, though the full extent of the cooperation between the Tuareg groups and Islamic militants is unclear. 

On Tuesday, the United Nations said at least 200,000 people have fled the unrest in northern Mali, roughly half of them seeking refuge in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

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