GENEVA, 4th March, 2016 (WAM) – “It is impossible to separate a people’s cultural heritage from the people itself and their rights,” the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, said today.

As the confirmation of charges hearing opens in the case related to Timbuktu cultural destruction at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Ms. Bennoune stressed that the destruction of cultural heritage by States and non-State actors must be urgently addressed by the international community.

“Clearly, we must now understand that when cultural heritage is under attack, it is also the people and their fundamental human rights that are under attack,” she noted. “When mausoleums – as well as ancient Islamic manuscripts – were being destroyed by armed groups during their 2012 occupation of Northern Mali, various forms of cultural practice were also under attack, including music and religious practices.”

The UN Special Rapporteur welcomed the decision of the ICC Prosecutor’s Office, for the first time, to charge the destruction of cultural and religious sites, as well as historical monuments, as a stand-alone war crime. However, she stressed that she does not want to prejudge the ongoing individual case before the ICC.

In a report to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council this coming Thursday 10 March, the expert will address further the links between destruction of cultural heritage and violations of cultural rights. She will also make a number of key recommendations, including for international cooperation and technical assistance.

“In particular”, she said, “we must protect cultural heritage professionals on the frontlines of the struggle against destruction and ensure their safety and security, provide them with the conditions necessary to complete their work, and grant them asylum when necessary.”

“We must not wait to rally to the cause of at-risk cultural heritage defenders until we are mourning their deaths,” the human rights expert said, while honoring the memory of Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, retired chief of antiquities for Palmyra, killed in 2015.

“Moreover, we must also pay tribute to ordinary people who step forward to defend cultural heritage, like those in Northern Mali who reportedly hid manuscripts beneath the floorboards of their homes to protect them or those in Libya who tried to peacefully protest destruction of Sufi sites,” Ms. Bennoune said.