Liability for Destruction of Cultural Property in International Criminal Law: Reading the Al Mahdi Reparations Ruling

17th August, 2017 will go down in history as a momentous day in Transitional Justice. On this day Trial Chamber VIII of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a reparations order in the case of The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi holding Mali Isalmist militant Al Mahdi liable for 2.7 million euros in expenses for individual and collective reparations for destruction of cultural property in Timbuktu, Mali, the second time in the history of the Court where orders for reparations have been made, the first being in Germain Katanga’s case.

Background

Al Mahdi was convicted of war crimes on 27th September, 2016 following an admission of guilt by Trial Chamber VIII, composed of Presiding Judge Raul C. Pangalangan, Judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua and Judge Bertram Schmitt. The war crimes pertained to attacking 10 protected objects as co-perpetrator under Articles 8 (2) (e) (iv) and 25 (3) (a) of the Statute. The 10 projected objects were the mausoleum Sidi Mahmoud Ben Omar Mohamed Aquit, mausoleum Sheikh Mohamed Mahmoud Al Arawani, mausoleum Sheikh Sidi Mokhtar Ben Sidi Muhammad Ben Sheikh Alkabir, mausoleum Alpha Moya, mausoleum Sheikh Sidi Ahmed Ben Amar Arragadi, mausoleum Sheikh Muhammad El Micky, mausoleum Cheick Abdoul Kassim Attouaty, mausoleum Ahamed Fulane, mausoleum Bahaber Babadié, and the Sidi Yahia mosque.​

The attacks which took place between 30th June 2012 and 10th July 2012 resulted in a nine year prison sentence for Mahdi that was delivered by the Court in September 2016. Pursuant to the conviction, the Chamber initiated a reparations phase calender and granted applications by the UNESCO and other amici curiae to file submissions on reparations related issues. Additionally, general submissions on the reparations from the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV), Legal representative of Victims (LRV), defence, Office of the Prosecutor (OTP), Registry and Malian authorities were invited. This process set in motion the reparations process. A total of 139 reparations applications were submitted by the LRV claiming both collective and individual reparations.

Applicable Law

Article 75 (1) of the Rome Statute provides that the Court shall establish principles relating to reparations of victims including restitution, compensation and rehabilitation. On this basis the Court is competent to determine the scope and extent of any damage, loss and injury to victims.  In addition, the UN Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power and the UN Basic Principles on Reparations for Victims complement Article 75 to establish principles relating to reparations.

Reparations in the present case, according to the Court, ought to be designed  to relieve the suffering caused by the serious crime committed, addressing the consequences of the wrongful act committed by Al Mahdi, enabling the victims to recover their dignity and deter future violations. In addition, these may assist in promoting reconciliation between the victims, the affected communities and the convicted person.

Principles of Reparations enunciated by the Court

The Chamber emphasized the following principles to be fundamental while deciding on reparations:

All victims are to be treated fairly and equally as regards reparations, irrespective of whether they participated in the trial.

The victims of the crime shall have equal access to information relating to the reparations proceedings as part of their entitlement to fair and equal treatment throughout the proceedings. However, at the implementation phase, it is acceptable to prioritise reparations to those victims who are most harmed by the convicted person’s conduct.

Victims should be allowed to participate throughout the reparations process and all support to make this participation substantive and effective should be undertaken.

Reparations shall be granted to victims without distinction on grounds of gender, race, age, colour, language, religion or belief, political or other opinion, sexual orientation, national, ethnic or social origin, wealth, birth or other status.

During the process of deciding reparations the safety, physical and psychological well-being and privacy of the victims shall be respected.

Adequacy and promptness of the reparations are of paramount importance.

Reparations should reflect local cultural and customary practices unless they are discriminatory or deny victims equal access to their rights.

Award of reparations in the present case does not exonerate States from their separate and independent obligations, if any, which may exist under International Law.

A reparations order cannot be inconsistent with the rights of the person required to give reparations.

Lastly, a reparations order should contain the following five mandatory elements:

  • It must be directed against the convicted person
  • It must establish and inform the convicted person of his/her liability with respect to the reparations awarded in the order
  • It must specify and provide reasons for the type of reparations ordered, namely collective, individual or both.
  • It must define the harm caused to direct and indirect victims as a result of the crimes of which the person was convicted. In addition, the modalities of reparations that the Chamber considers appropriate in the case should be mentioned.
  • It must identify the victims eligible to benefit from the awards for reparations or set out the criteria of eligibility based on the link between the harm suffered by the victims and the crimes of which the person was convicted.

Who are the Victims?

In the Victim Participation Decision of the Court on 8th June, 2016, the criteria to be met for individuals or organisations to be considered as victims was laid down.

The Harm Principle

To be eligible for reparations, a victim must have suffered harm as a result of the commission of the crime. The Appeals Chamber of the ICC defined ‘harm’ in the Lubanga case to mean ‘hurt, injury and damage’. The hurt may be direct or indirect but it should be personal to the victim. It may be material, physical or psychological. Harm may be caused to a natural person or an artificial entity. In case of artificial entities, demonstration of harm to their properties is essential. The concept of moral harm is recognized, which should be estimated without consideration of the economic situation of the local population.  The crime committed should be the actual and proximate cause of the harm for which reparation is claimed. The test of ‘Reasonable Foreseeability’ will be employed to determine proximate cause. The applicable standard of proof is that of ‘balance of probabilities’.

Types and Modalities of Reparations

Reparations may be either individual or collective. They are not mutually exclusive and may be awarded concurrently. Individual business and families may receive financial support as part of collective reparations. As regards modality of compensation, Article 75 of the Rome Statute gives a non-exhaustive list including restitution, compensation and rehabilitation of victims.

Compensation is understood as money awarded to victims recognizing the harms they may have suffered.

Rehabilitation seeks to restore the victims and their communities to their former conditions. This may incorporate economic, social, medical and legal services.

Reparations can be symbolic in character suited to remedy the harm caused to a community.

Who were the victims of Mahdi’s crimes?

According to the Chamber, the victims of the destructions of the Protected Buildings were not merely the direct victims of Timbuktu but all the people of Mali and the international community.  While 3 broad categories of victims were identified, the Chamber noted that the degree of harm suffered varied for each of the groups. Needless to mention, the community of Timbuktu suffered the most on account of Mahdi’s crimes. No applications were submitted for compensation either by Malians outside Timbuktu or members of the international community. Interestingly, even the UNESCO did not submit any application for reparation and stated that the local communities of Timbuktu have been the principle victims of Al Mahdi’s crimes. Despite the same, the Chamber acknowledged the destruction of the protected buildings as an erasure of a part of the heritage of mankind. All but one of the buildings destroyed were UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Most significant was the determination that addressing the harm caused by the Timbuktu community will adequately address the broader harm suffered by Malians and the international community as a whole. This was all the more significant according to the Court as it would ensure the maximisation of reparations awarded to the Timbuktu community. Additionally, the reparations must be directed at the local community so as to bolster their ability to strengthen the cultural heritage of their community in the wake of systematic destruction.

Mahdi’s Apology

While accepting Mahdi’s apology as genuine, categorical and empathetic, the Court did not view the same as a substitute for monetary compensation. A video excerpt of Mahdi’s apology posted in the ICC’s website along with a transcript translated into the primary languages spoken in Timbuktu, according to the Court would also serve as symbolic reparations. A hard copy of the apology could be made available to any of the victims on demand.

Economic Loss caused by Mahdi

The chamber determined that Mahdi caused economic harm. Guardians of the mausoleums, the macons tasked with the prominent responsibilities in maintaining them and people whose business could not exist without the Protected Buildings including those dependent of tourism and economic activity were adversely affected by Mahdi’s acts.  The chamber awarded individual reparations to those whose livelihoods exclusively depended upon the Protected Buildings. For the others, the chamber determined that collective reparations would serve the purpose. Individual reparations imply direct monetary compensation, whereas, collective reparations should be aimed at rehabilitating the Timbuktu community. This may include, according the chamber, community based educational and awareness raising programmes to promote the unique cultural heritage of Timbuktu.

Moral harm caused by Mahdi

The chamber concluded that Mahdi caused moral harm. This includes mental pain and anguish including losses of childhood, opportunities and relationships to the members of the local community. The disruption of the cultural life of the local community is a moral dimension of the harm caused. The protected buildings were viewed as protectors of the community from external harm and its destruction shattered the communities’ collective faith. 

Award of Compensation

Adding up the total cumulative liability of Mahdi’s act, the chamber set his total liability at 2.7 million euros. The figure includes both individual and collective reparations. Symbolic reparation of 1 Euro was ordered to be granted to the international community best represented by UNESCO.  The fact that Mahdi was indigent would have no bearing on the question of personal liability. Rule 97 (1) provides that the Chamber shall take into account the ‘scope and extent of any damage, loss or injury’, however, the personal financial circumstances of the convicted persons are not mentioned.  However, since Mahdi is indigent, the Chamber encouraged the TFV to complement any individual and collective reparations to the extent possible and engage in fundraising events to the extent necessary to complement the totality of the award. The TFV is required to notify the draft implementation plan for the reparations award by 16 February 2018 on which the Defence and LRV are required to file observations within 30 days of the notification. While the TFV’s implementation plan will be keenly awaited, the Trial Chamber order does a great service to International law by articulating the principles of reparations in International Criminal Law, thereby strengthening the anti-impunity framework in a creative and robust manner.

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Abraham Joseph

Advisory Board Member

Abraham Joseph is a PhD candidate in International Criminal Law from NLSIU, Bangalore and an Assistant  Professor in Ansal School of Law, Ansal University, Gurugram.

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