Euston StationHistory was made at the International Criminal Court in The Hague today when a man was found guilty of Cultural Destruction. His name was Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi and he was charged with leading the Radical Islamist group that destroyed invaluable antiquities in a mosque and numerous mausoleums at a World Heritage site in Timbuktu four years ago. Some of the artefacts he destroyed covered subjects such as astronomy and were exquisite examples of Islam’s cultural flowering, an age Islamic Fundamentalists regard as a heretical aberration, so determined are they to eradicate any evidence that contradicts their own twisted take on their chosen faith as they present that to both Believers and Infidels alike as the only incarnation of Islam.

The actions of the thugs Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi led mirror those of endless others terrorising the Middle East and parts of Africa in the present day, though they also mirror the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism that took place within Christianity five-hundred years ago, when similarly ‘idolatrous’ images were brutally vandalised by the philistine foot-soldiers of sovereigns such as our very own Edward VI. Unusually, today’s accused vandal apologised for his actions and entered a guilty plea, though this won’t save him from an expected sentence of around 30 years.

Anyone who saw the appalling videos documenting the barbarians of ISIS when they rampaged through the glorious site of Nimrud in Iraq last year will feel little sympathy for Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi when he receives his sentence later this week. The discredited practice of nineteenth and twentieth century archaeologists shipping buried treasure from such sites to European museums now seems quite benevolent in the light of more recent acts of vandalism on the artefacts they left behind, preserving what would otherwise be lost forever when so many of these locations are situated in some of the world’s most perilous trouble-spots. The tumultuous events in Egypt over the past five years have even placed that nation’s prized possessions in danger, so any unlicensed ‘theft’ on the part of western archaeologists can appear considerably less like the colonial burglary that the ignorant and ill-educated are prone to pointing the finger at.

For the ICC to stage such a trial as the one that climaxed with the guilty verdict today is a positive development, a long-overdue recognition that the destruction of the planet’s cultural heritage is as criminal as all the other wanton destruction perpetuated by terrorist groups. Mind you, were those responsible for the similarly senseless erasure of architectural jewels in this country to be consigned the dock, The Hague wouldn’t be able to squeeze in any war criminals due to the town-planners and architects clogging up the courtroom. Their vandalism may be motivated by profit and greed rather than religious fanaticism, but the damage they leave in their wake is no less destructive.

What of men like Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his Transport Secretary Ernest Marples, who ignored all schemes and suggestions to save London’s Euston Arch in the early 60s, when that landmark monument to the pioneering power of Britain’s nineteenth century railways was dismantled and discarded in favour of a faceless and forgettable facade for the new-look Euston Station? What of Bolton Corporation, who gave the green light to raise the superb Victorian Gothic majesty of St Saviour’s church to the ground in the 70s, an act of desecration that provoked one of architectural critic Ian Nairn’s most impassioned critiques when he stood in the ruins during one of his memorable BBC TV films of the era? Reading Nairn’s London guidebook (published in 1966), I became aware of the sheer volume of churches Christopher Wren built in the City of London, and while the Blitz was to blame of the disappearance of so many, ‘progress’ was equally responsible for finishing off what the Luftwaffe failed to do.

While there is a valid argument for not preserving every single building simply because it’s old, there is a fine line between unnecessary demolition and necessary redevelopment. It was only after the Euston Arch had been torn down, for example, that it was discovered that the new Euston Station would have had the space to simply relocate the monument elsewhere after all. Too late, alas – although there is an ongoing campaign to resurrect one of the capital’s great lost architectural achievements, thanks in part to the tireless investigations to locate the stones of the original monument by TV historian Dan Cruickshank.

We like to think that the worst of the demolition in the UK largely took place in the 60s and 70s, as though we’re somehow superior to our predecessors in recognising commercial interests over aesthetic ones when we see them today; but the sneaky tricks employed by the planners and developers in the twenty-first century are merely more cunning and less blatant than those employed in the twentieth, and they don’t need a Holy Book to justify their vandalism when it rips the heart out of a city centre. If only Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi had proposed replacing Timbuktu’s antiquities with a glass complex incorporating restaurants, cinemas, cafes, shops, bistros and various other ‘leisure facilities’, he might not now be looking at three decades behind bars.

© The Editor


AdolfWhen Radovan Karadzic received a forty-year sentence after being found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague last week, the trial of the former Serbian politician, poet, fugitive and advocate of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War had taken six years to reach its conclusion. By contrast, the trial of Nazi War Criminal Adolf Eichmann in Israel half-a-century ago took just eight months between the opening of the prosecution case and Eichmann being sentenced to death. At the time of Eichmann’s capture in Argentina by Mossad agents in 1960, a mere fifteen years had passed since the end of the Second World War; when Karadzic was finally found ‘hiding in plain sight’ in Belgrade, twelve years separated the present day from the conflict in which Karadzic had earned his notoriety. His crimes were as fresh in the memory of those affected by them as Eichmann’s had been for death camp survivors in the early 60s. In many respects, they remained present tense.

Karadzic’s ability to evade arrest for over a decade was aided by his standing amongst many Serbs, who didn’t regard his actions as those of a criminal; neither did he; he privately expressed his conviction that a ruthless policy of ethnic apartheid in the former Yugoslavia was both morally and intellectually indisputable. Adolf Eichmann had said towards the end of WWII that he would ‘leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction’. Did he fulfil his promise when the noose was slipped round his neck in June 1962, I wonder? Neither man appears to have recognised or acknowledged that their warped judgement on their fellow-man was in any way flawed or repugnant, and any notion of remorse was conspicuous by its absence.

The need for justice to be seen to be done is understandable in the case of both Eichmann and Karadzic. Their respective decisions led to the deaths of thousands (in the case of Karadzic) and millions (in the case of Eichmann); the innocent lives lost as casualties of inhumane ideology resonated throughout families for generations and the natural human desire for somebody to be held accountable galvanised the searches, arrest, imprisonment and trials of both men. The gap between crimes and capture is fairly similar, though the difference in the length it took between the beginning and ending of their respective trials is considerable. In terms of speed, Eichmann’s trial was reminiscent of the Nuremberg Trials in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, where 23 leading members of the Third Reich were tried and sentenced in the space of twelve months. These were military tribunals, of course, with judges provided by Britain, France, the US and the USSR, and were carried out at a moment whilst much of Europe still stood in ruins, with the thirst for retribution at its height.

The most prominent Serb war criminal to stand trial at The Hague prior to Karadzic was ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 before the trial was completed; at the time of his death, it was a mere five years into proceedings. The establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1993 and 1994 respectively both predate the official formation of the International Criminal Court, which didn’t come into being until as recent as 2002, one of the reasons why Milosevic refused to recognise the body that had begun his trial the year before. That it took decades for the ICC to be established after the initial proposal for such a concept was mooted as far back as 1919 is perhaps reflected in the unsatisfactory length of time it takes for a judgement to be reached. When one considers 23 Nazi military and political personnel were tried, sentenced and convicted in a year from 1945-46, it would seem the institution sitting at The Hague still has a lot to learn from historical precedents.

Although victims of Eichmann gave evidence at his trial in 1961, one of the ICC’s key provisions is that victims of whoever happens to be in the dock have a right to make their voices heard at a trial, which might perhaps explain why the process drags on for so long. There is also the factor of state participation in ICC indictments; an incumbent head of government cannot be forced to surrender to the body and many rulers accused of crimes against humanity, particularly in African countries, cling onto power as it continues to provide them with immunity. The difficulties in dragging a defendant to The Hague in the first place is then compounded by the tedious legal chess game that constitute the trial itself, fuelling the opinion in many quarters that the International Criminal Court is an insufficient means of dealing with the problem of war crimes.

One thing that can be said in the ICC’s favour is that the trials at The Hague tend to be held no more than a decade after the crimes of which the defendant is accused were allegedly committed. Justice rather than vengeance is the prime objective. When it comes to frail men in their 90s being wheeled into the dock and charged with something they are alleged to have done long before most of those present in court were even born, concepts of justice become more problematic.

If someone who regards an octogenarian as a young man is hauled before a court and charged with a crime committed when he was in his 20s, the paucity of witnesses to and survivors of his crime often suggests vengeance is the prime motivation for his presence there. After all, what kind of prison sentence is someone within a whisker of being one hundred-years-old really expected to serve? The fact that the vast cast of Nazi war criminals who evaded justice in the first few years after the end of the War have already died seems to be no impediment to the hunger for vengeance, and those intent on pursuing the few that are left has seen guards at concentration camps carry the can for the actions of their superiors. They were, as the cliché goes, ‘only obeying orders’. There has to be a cut-off point for a conflict that ended over 70 years ago now, just as there has to be in all cases of ‘historic crime’ of whatever nature. Vengeance is not the same as justice, though domestic courts in this country have yet to accept this. Just ask Wen Zhou Li.

© The Editor