The Destruction of Memory

Tim Slade

Tim Slade’s films have screened at more than 70 international film festivals. He has won a Gold Plaque at the Chicago HUGO Television Awards, and was nominated for awards at the Banff World Television Festival, the International Documentary Association Awards, and the Australian Film Institute Awards. Other documentary films include Blank Canvas and Musical Renegades. He studied film at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.

DOI: 10.18278/aia.2.1.9

In 2010, I read Robert Bevan’s The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. The book is an exploration of intentional cultural destruction and its use as a tool of warfare. Cultural destruction in this book becomes a type of war in its own right, in which the targets are buildings and monuments rather than an opposing army or enemy population. Bevan, an English heritage architect, writer and journalist, skillfully invests the book with urgency and revelation.  Bevan draws out the crucial relationship between physical attacks on a people and simultaneous attacks on their cultural identity, as part of a concerted attempt by the perpetrator to erase the group’s trace and singular presence.

Historical events such as the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, the horrors of Kristallnacht and the fate of Carthage were known to me.  But I did not know the extent to which the dynamics of this pervasive and deliberate process receded into the fog of war and conflict. Often seeming or being passed off as collateral damage, cultural destruction is an insidious process in which history, present, and future of a people can be effectively erased. People are more than their human form. Their cultural artefacts – their books, their buildings, their monuments, are where their collective identity is stored. When they are destroyed, so is this identity.

I embarked on adapting Bevan’s book as a documentary in mid 2010, and the completed film was released in 2016 at a time when tragic ongoing events in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere gave the message of Robert Bevan’s book and the film an extra urgency. Despite humanity’s attempts to preserve its heritage, Bevan’s message remains important: the general public as well as politicians, military personnel, lawyers and policy makers ¬– need to continue to hear it.

Rebuilding of Ferhadija Mosque, Banja Kuka, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Image: Derek Wiesehahn, Copyright 2016 Vast Productions USA


What struck me most in the book, and would become the backbone of the film, was the way in which the international community responded to the issue, or more tellingly, didn’t respond to the issue. The international community here includes states, international organizations, and transnational civil society.  As a filmmaker, I felt that the ways in which laws and policy moved in or out of step with the destruction itself was a crucial part of the narrative.

There are few really compelling examples of a response to cultural heritage crimes. These include the jailing of two senior naval officials for their roles in the now infamous shelling of Dubrovnik’s old town in December 1991, and the 27 September 2016 ruling at the International Criminal Court (ICC) that found Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi guilty of crimes against humanity for the destruction of the Timbuktu mosques in June-July 2012.  The latter ruling, recognising that destruction of cultural heritage is a crime against humanity, speaks eloquently, even if tragically, to Robert Bevan’s thesis.

My film examines the history and the lack of urgency in humanity’s efforts to curtail cultural destruction. To understand this, and to forge the possibility of better protection and response in the future, the film would have to first look to the slow but gradual efforts internationally to protect our cultural heritage.

The 1863 Lieber Code, commissioned by Abraham Lincoln, is an interesting early instance of legislation to protect heritage.  The Code arose from the ashes of property targeted by enemy combatants in the ongoing U.S. Civil War and was the first piece of legislation to call for the protection of cultural property during armed conflict (Note 1). The first true universal exploration came in the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, which declared forbidden ‘to destroy or seize the enemy’s property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war’.

The international community was responding primarily to the increased efficacy of the tools of warfare, including the advent of dirigibles, airplanes and advanced naval technology.

In 1933, Raphael Lemkin, a young Polish Jewish lawyer, prepared to present a paper to a League of Nations conference in Madrid. Inspired by the lack of action taken against aggressor states after World War I, Lemkin put forward a plan to create formalized international laws to prosecute ‘barbarism’, the systematic killing of particular ethnic or religious groups, and ‘vandalism’, the destruction of the cultural property and built environment of the targeted group. Lemkin saw the two modes of destruction as parallel processes that intended to erase a racial or ethnic group as well as their cultural imprints in architecture, iconography and dissemination of ideas.

Lemkin served in the Polish Army during the 1939 siege of Warsaw, later escaping to the United States, but the loss of several family members in the Holocaust as well as the targeted destruction of his own Polish Jewish cultural patrimony compelled him to write: “It takes centuries and sometimes thousands of years to create a natural culture, but Genocide can destroy a culture instantly, like fire can destroy a building in an hour.” (Note 2)

Lemkin’s proposal fell on deaf ears at the League of Nations, but its successor organization, the United Nations, created in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, responded to Lemkin’s appeals by creating an international convention to prevent and prosecute genocide. However, the ‘cultural genocide’ clauses of Lemkin’s initial drafts were excised, partly due to the lobbying of nation states whose colonised Indigenous communities and their cultures had been victims of these processes.

Nevertheless, in late 1945, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) was formed to ‘respond to the firm belief of nations’ that ‘peace must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity’ (Note 3). In 1954, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was crafted and signed by member states of UNESCO. Some states immediately ratified the Convention. Other key nations, such as the United Kingdom have yet to ratify it, although such a bill is being debated by Parliament that could become UK law early in 2017 (Note 4). The convention’s subsequent two Protocols give further protections, the Second Protocol (1999) going some way in closing the military necessity loophole that has arguably limited the efficacy of the Convention.


A soldier patrols in front of Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu. Image by Francois Rihouay from ‘The Destruction of Memory’


In 1993, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). It has its own rules and regulations specific to the Balkan context, which recognised the need to tackle the extensive cultural heritage crimes perpetrated during the Balkan Wars. The way the Tribunal would approach these crimes would draw on existing frameworks such as the 1954 Hague Convention. However, the military necessity argument limited the extent to which some seemingly clear cut targeted attacks, such as the shelling of the Mostar Bridge in November 1993 by Croat forces, were treated at the tribunal.

Importantly, the judgment in the Krstic case, examining the killing of Srebrenica’s Bosnian Muslims and the parallel destruction of their mosques, stated that “where there is physical or biological destruction there are often simultaneous attacks on the cultural and religious property of the targeted group as well, attacks which may be considered as evidence of an intent to physically destroy the group.” (Note 5)

Despite such important recognitions, there has been a lack of consensus at the Tribunal on how to view such crimes. In April 2015, appeal judges in the Tolimir case ruled that the trial judges had ‘committed a legal error in considering the destruction of mosques’ (Note 6). The appeal judges determined that targeted cultural destruction cannot be considered as evidence of genocide, nor possibly even intent of genocide, noting that ‘cultural genocide’ had been discluded from the scope of the Genocide Convention.


Reconstructed mausoleum, Timbuktu, Mali, Image: Francois Rihouay, copyright 2016 Vast Productions USA


Despite these contradictions, the overall work of the court, and of individuals like András Riedlmayer, has been vital to the success of such prosecutions. Riedlmeyer is bibliographer at the Aga Khan Fine Arts Library at Harvard University. He meticulously collected evidence in Kosovo and Bosnia in the aftermath of hostilities and served as an expert witness in several ICTY cases.  Riedlmayer’s work has set an informal standard for some cultural heritage workers collecting and documenting evidence of possible cultural crimes in recent and ongoing contexts.

The ICC is governed by the Rome Statute, which was adopted in 1998 and entered into force in 2002. Under Article 8 of the statute, War Crimes explicitly include ‘Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals…provided they are not military objectives’ (Note 7). The court’s then newly appointed Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, made an immediate public reference to this provision when Islamic mausoleums were intentionally destroyed in Timbuktu, Mali in July 2012, warning the perpetrators, allegedly members of extremist group Ansar Dine, that their actions could constitute war crimes. The Prosecutor’s office, at the request of the Malian government, began preliminary investigations and subsequently opened a case looking into various alleged crimes perpetrated in northern Mali.

In September 2015, Malian authorities arrested Ansar Dine member Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi and handed him over to the court. His trial took place in late August 2016, and at its opening, Al Mahdi admitted guilt as to the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against historic monuments and buildings dedicated to religion, including nine mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu.

The prosecution’s evidence was substantial – part of the highly public style of destruction favored by Da’esh, Ansar Dine and other extremist groups.  The prosecution presented plentiful and incriminating video and photographic evidence of these acts of cultural destruction before the international court.


Destruction of Memory Trailer


Al Mahdi expressed remorse and publicly disavowed the ideological frameworks that persuaded him to take part in the destruction.  His admitted culpability presumably influenced sentencing; he received a term of 9 years after the prosection asked for 9 to 11 years.

What will be the short and long term impacts of this prosecution? Will other extremists see this as a deterrent? Will generals or political leaders be further cautioned?

In October 2016, Burundi and South Africa announced their intention to withdraw from the ICC. The nations argued that the court’s focus was unfairly weighted towards prosecuting crimes in African states. But, the response from observers including journalists and human rights experts is that impunity for sitting heads of states and governments is a key factor in the desire to leave the court (Note 8).

There should never be impunity for crimes against culture. The UN member states, international courts and governments must unite to ensure that destruction – whether wanton, disproportionate, or explicitly willful – is not swept under the carpet of political convenience.

But there are glimmers of hope for the future legal persecution of attempts to erase people and their collective identity and memory. Experts in international cultural heritage and rights, including Professor Patty Gerstenblith as well as Professor Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, are passionately encouraging awareness and writing about how such frameworks could be crafted.

In 2015, Justice Trindade made direct references to Raphael Lemkin’s thwarted efforts in an International Court of Justice dissenting opinion. Rather than simply accepting the current language of the Convention as the appeal judges had done in the Tolimir case at the ICTY, Justice Trindade wrote: ‘The (Genocide) Convention, essentially people-centered, will have a future if attention is rightly turned to its rationale, to its object and purpose… Already for some time, attention has been drawn to the shortcomings of the Convention against Genocide as originally conceived, namely: a) the narrowing of its scope, excluding cultural genocide…’ (Note 9)

It is an enormous satisfaction to a filmmaker that the source author feels the adaptation has worked. Robert Bevan has written of the film that he may personally have made something more ‘jagged’ and ‘pugnaciously dramatic’, but that ‘Tim has instead, created an effective call to peace rather than arms that, though passionate, appeals to our intellect more than our anger. It works… It is Tim’s great skill that this central message comes through loud and clear: attacks on architectural heritage are not just an evidential “mark” of a genocidal project but can be an effective mechanism of carrying out this crime of crimes (genocide).’ (Note 10)

Making the film, and delving into the history and present of cultural destruction, made clear for me the belief that there must be a concerted, sustained effort by the international community to address the issue and to assert the connection between cultural and human rights.  I urge policy and decision makers to continue to create effective legal tools to bring justice to those whose identity and integrity are threatened by these acts, and I urge cultural heritage professionals to continue their brave, necessary work. Our past, and our future, depends on it.


Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge ideas contained in the book The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War by Robert Bevan, and conversations with interviewees during the creation of the film The Destruction of Memory, in the writing of this article.


  1. Sourced from website for the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield.—treaties-1863-1977.html
  2. Raphael Lemkin, The Evolution of the Genocide Convention, Lemkin Papers. New York Public Library, as quoted in Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War (2006, Reaktion Books, London).
  3. Sourced from UNESCO website
  4. Stone, Peter. (2016) Why ratifying the Hague Convention matters. The Art Newspaper, November 29 <;
  5. ICTY Trial IT-98-33-T (Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic), Judgement, 2 August 2001.
  6. ICTY Appeal Judgement Summary for Zdravko Tolimir, 8 April 2015.
  7. ICC Rome Statute, Article 8 (b)(ix)
  8. Simwaka, Fletcher. (2016) Africa’s Retreat from the International Criminal Court is about impunity, not dignity. The Washington Post, November 8. <;
  9. ICJ, Dissenting Opinion of Judge A.A. Cancado Trindade, Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Croatia v. Serbia) 3 February 2015, Clause 520.
  10. Robert Bevan, Milano Design Film Festival 2016 catalogue, introduction to ‘The Destruction of Memory’ film.