Enforcing Freedom of Religion or Belief in Cases Involving Attacks against Buildings Dedicated to Religion: The Al Mahdi Case at the International Criminal Court
The international community has increasingly witnessed widespread and systematic attacks on buildings dedicated to religion in armed conflicts. Such violations of international law have deprived many individuals of places to express their beliefs within their communities. Although international law sources already protect these buildings, recent experience suggests that greater protections are required, particularly in times of armed conflict. This Article seeks to determine the extent to which the International Criminal Court (ICC) can operate to protect human rights, particularly the right to freedom of religion or belief, while dealing with intentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion. The Al Mahdi case at the ICC provides the analytical foundation for this research. Al Mahdi was convicted in 2016 of the war crime of attacking buildings dedicated to religion. The attack, implemented by a militant group associated with al Qaeda, targeted ten religious buildings in Timbuktu, Mali, severely affecting the city’s religious and cultural diversity. A critical analysis of the Al Mahdi case provides normative guidelines for legal issues arising from the protection of buildings dedicated to religion during armed conflicts. This Article argues that the ICC largely focused on violations of the collective right to cultural life at the expense of a proper consideration of serious breaches of freedom of religion or belief. We also discuss potential interactions between the ICC and international human rights law.