A candidate for the secretary-general’s post at the United Nations has told journalists she initiated the case on the destruction of Timbuktu’s mausoleums at the International Criminal Court.
Irina Bokova, who is director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, said she sent a letter to Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the ICC.
“She took it very seriously,” Bokova says, and she developed a “very close contact” to the head of the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC.
When Bokova learnt about ancient mausoleums having been destroyed during the armed conflict in Mali, she gathered information that helped Bensouda to bring charges against Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a local religious scholar in Timbuktu in Northern Mali. He is alleged to have been an accomplice in the destruction of religious monuments in 2012. Al-Mahdi is said to have cooperated with two radical Islamist movements, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine.
Al Mahdi is the first suspect to be charged under Article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Rome Statute, the Court’s founding treaty.
The provision stipulates that it is a war crime to attack “one or more buildings dedicated to religion, […] historic monuments, […] which were not military objectives”.
Al Mahdi’s trial is scheduled to start on August 22. It is not only the first ICC trial about attacking religious buildings and historic monuments as a war crime. It is also the first ICC trial about Mali and the first such trial where the accused has expressed the intention to plead guilty.
“He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed. And he wants to ask at the same time for pardon from the people of Timbuktu and the Malian people,” his lawyer has said.
The former teacher is alleged to have been an accomplice in the destruction of religious and cultural monuments in 2012 when fighting broke out between government soldiers backed by French troops and militants.
Bokova, a 63-year-old Bulgarian national, spoke in The Hague, the Dutch city which is the seat of the ICC, at an event organized by the Foreign Press Association of The Netherlands.
Bokova is a candidate to succeed Ban Ki-moon as secretary-general of the UN.
Diplomatic observers say that her chances are good: she would finally be the first woman head of the world’s top international organisation, after eight men. And she would be the first UN secretary general from Eastern Europe. It is now this region’s turn, many say, after secretaries general from Western Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Bokova is visibly proud of her seven-year tenure as head of Unesco. Her work is “not only about bricks and stones”, she says. Heritage and monuments are “the best way of dialogue between cultures”.
Whoever destroys monuments, destroys “part of us, part of our common identity”. With her long experience as head of one of the specialized agencies of the UN, she feels prepared to lead the organisation as a whole: “I can do the job.”
Al-Mahdi was surrendered to the ICC on 26 September 2015 pursuant to a warrant of arrest issued on September 18, 2015.