Why war crimes charges now extend to the destruction of ancient monuments

October 9, 2015
Woman walks on a bridge in the Old Sanaa city

A woman walks on a bridge in the Old Sanaa city January 10, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

For the first time, the International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened war crimes proceedings against an Islamist militant accused of leading in the destruction of historical monuments.

The charges reflect a heightened global concern about the safety of antiquities across the Middle East and North Africa, including in UNESCO world heritage sites. Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates are increasingly launching deliberate assaults on treasured religious monuments.

That concern should be extended to Yemen, particularly its capital.

The views of the Old City of Sanaa from the rooftop restaurant at the Burj Al Salam Hotel are spectacular. Mosques and minarets jostle for space in this “city within a city” in Yemen’s capital. Multi-tiered buildings of compacted earth and bricks forming intricate geometric white patterns often compared to wedding cakes are crammed together along narrow streets. Small gardens add splashes of green.

Houses are seen in the old city of Sanaa

Houses in the old city of Sanaa, May 30, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Inhabited for more than 2,500 years, Sanaa’s Old City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. Its roughly 6,000 houses and more than 100 mosques were built before the 11th century. The structures have housed families for many generations. Yet it is all now at grave risk.

A year ago, Ansar Allah forces, also known as the Houthis, infiltrated from northern Yemen and occupied the capital. By February, they had driven out the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. On March 26, a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab countries began an air campaign against the Houthis. The United States is providing intelligence and logistical support.

The air campaign has been responsible for most of the roughly 2,100 civilian deaths from the fighting, according to the United Nations. Many air strikes on Sanaa, on the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada and on other cities have used cluster munitions – bombs, rockets or shells containing multiple bomblets designed to explode after spreading out over a wide area. The weapons indiscriminately harm civilians in violation of the laws of war. The Houthis have also committed abuses, including indiscriminate rocket attacks.

A view of the side of a damaged house in the historical city of Sanaa

A view of the side of a damaged house in the historical city of Sanaa March 24, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Houthis have been moving into Sanaa’s Old City since 2011. Stationing troops or storing weapons there could subject the site to military attacks. More recently, Yemeni loyalist forces, backed by troops from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have been advancing on the strategically important city of Marib, 170 kilometers east of Sanaa, which some scholars believe is the capital of the biblical kingdom Sheba. This could become the base for a ground attack on Sanaa.

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, has noted the threat to the Old City, adding it to its 2015 List of World Heritage in Danger. After a June 12 explosion in the Old City that destroyed several buildings and killed five people, UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, urged all parties to protect Yemen’s cultural heritage.

“I am profoundly distressed by the loss of human lives as well as by the damage inflicted on one of the world’s oldest jewels of Islamic urban landscape,” Bokova said. “I am shocked by the images of these magnificent, many-storeyed tower-houses and serene gardens reduced to rubble.”

People walk past the Bab al-Yemen gate of the Old Sanaa city

People walk past the Bab al-Yemen gate of the Old Sanaa city January 6, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The coalition, meanwhile, denied that the explosion was the result of an air strike. But on Sept. 19, a coalition air strike did hit an Old City apartment building, reportedly killing nine members of one family.

Since the first codifications of the laws of war in the 19th century, there has been recognition that civilization’s most precious objects deserve special care and protection. The massive destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage during World War Two — the abbey of Monte Casino in Italy is just one of many tragic examples — gave impetus to the drafting of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, now ratified by 111 countries, including Yemen.

The Hague Convention and its 1999 protocol seek to protect “property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people” by prohibiting parties to an armed conflict from using the property for purposes likely to expose it to destruction or damage.  Hostile acts may not be committed against such property unless it is being used for military purposes, and there is an imperative military necessity to do so.

People walk on a bridge in the Old Sanaa city

People walk on a bridge in the Old Sanaa city, January 10, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court makes it a war crime to deliberately attack historic monuments, among other structures, unless they are military objectives.

This means that the Houthis should be moving their forces away from the Old City. It also means that the coalition forces need to take the Hague Convention protections into account if they decide to attack any Houthi forces there.

International law alone could not stop the Saudi coalition from attacking Sanaa’s Old City if Houthi military forces are deployed there. The United States and other coalition backers, including Britain, need to make clear their concern for this impending threat to Yemen’s — and humanity’s — cultural heritage.

The views from atop the Burj Al Salam should not become just a memory.

4 comments

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Will ICC open up an investigation about the pedophilic Turkish men that married underage Syrian girls as a second wife’s?

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Rape, slavery, savage murder/mutilation of innocent (specifically Christian)populations, beheading, crucifixion in the name of a cult god Allah/Satan etc on a mass scale is no longer a war crime? We just care about the ancient buildings . . .

Posted by recalcitrant | Report as abusive

So let’s see… They’re beheading Christians and the International Court is offended because they’re knocking down old buildings and statues? What kind of a court is this???

Posted by Watcher23 | Report as abusive

I wonder how old the buildings were in the historic districts of Hiroshima.

What a joke. The only country in the world to have used a nuclear weapon against a massive civilian population…. twice…. suddenly has concerns about buildings. That’s rich.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive