At a time when the brutal destruction of cultural heritage is being wielded as a powerful weapon by groups like ISIS against communities around the world, the protection of cultural heritage in the international context has become more crucial than ever. Accordingly, the Al Mahdi case recently before the International Criminal Court (ICC) marks the first time that war crimes for the destruction of cultural heritage have been the principal charge in an international criminal case. This is a promising and timely development in the protection of cultural heritage in the international criminal context (especially considering Al Mahdi’s plea of guilt). Although charges for the destruction of cultural heritage have been brought in other international criminal cases, they have always been auxiliary to other charges. In bringing this case, the ICC Prosecutor emphasized that ‘[t]he destroyed mausoleums were important, from a religious point of view, from an historical point of view, and from an identity point of view.’ The question arises: important from whose perspective? Such cultural sites could be deemed important from a universal perspective as part of so-called ‘world cultural heritage’ or its importance could be established in relation to a certain community or population to whose identity the cultural site is crucial. The author argues that in determining whether future cases based on the war crime of destruction of cultural property should be brought before the ICC, the Prosecutor and Chambers should utilize a relativist approach to identifying the gravity of the destruction in question.
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