The name Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi might not ring a bell for many. But on 27 September 2016, he made history by being the first person ever to be sent to prison by the International Criminal Court for the war crime of destroying cultural heritage. He got nine years. Under the nom de guerre Abu Tourab, he was a member of North Africa’s Tuareg Islamist militia Ansar Dine, where he oversaw the destruction of ten religious and historical monuments in Timbuktu, Mali. The case is significant for the precedent it set, but also for emphasising the important place cultural heritage holds for humanity. Cultural heritage, to quote former UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, carries values, a message and a story. It is the collective story of humanity as a whole. Heritage is categorised as tangible and intangible. The tangible includes such as buildings and the monuments al-Mahdi oversaw the destruction. The intangible include cultural “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces.” In Rwanda, think for example, of the Inyanga musical instrument and the ornamental Agaseke baskets. Or, the Intore dance and its captivating ballet routine by women favourite of tourists that is steeped in Inyambo cattle culture, which also includes Imigongo cow dung art. But consider that there are more than 3000 different cultures in Africa, each unique in its tangible and intangible heritage and each containing vast amounts of knowledge including from the natural world with traditional medicines and the like. The destruction of even a small section of the heritage amounts to great loss. In Africa, of which the al-Mahdi case is a prime example, civil unrest and conflict constitute the greatest danger to our cultural heritage. Of the 39 sites on the global Danger list, 17 are in Africa, mainly because of civil unrest and war. This accounts for 44 per cent of the endangered sites. Twelve of the sites in Africa constitute natural heritage, while three cultural. The poaching, logging and resource exploitation in the unending war between the militias in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is one example. One might also think of the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic, which is also in the Congo Basin. Although the continent has long been the victim of looting and destruction of its cultural heritage, the Middle East is among the most notable recent in the conflict in Iraq and Syria by the Isis Islamists. Cultural heritage destruction is not new, however. History is replete with examples of the crime through the ages. For this reason, international instruments such as the 1954 and 1972 UNESCO Conventions have been in place to try and curb it. The 1954 Convention calls for the protection of cultural heritage during conflict and war. The 1970 and 1972 UNESCO Conventions draw attention to safeguarding and protecting world heritage by state parties. While the Conventions show the international will that exists to deal with the problem, it has clearly not been enough. Earlier this month, Fatou Bensouda, the outgoing ICC prosecutor, published her Office’s Policy on Cultural Heritage. It seeks to build on and strengthen previous efforts, including the above conventions. Among its objectives is to help strengthen the protection and the prevention of harm to cultural heritage. Another is to raise awareness on the importance of protecting the heritage, including by supporting national efforts. To conclude with the al-Mahdi case: In August 2017 the ICC issued an individual, collective and symbolic Reparations Order for the community of Timbuktu. His liability was determined to be 2.7 million Euros (RwF 3.2 billion). One should hope that more culprits are brought to book. It is personal for many that this should happen. Speaking for myself the anger I feel is still raw to think of the 2001 blowing up of the magnificent Buddhist statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley by the then-Taliban government after it declared the statues idols. It is heartening however that technology has shown how the magnificence of such monuments can be re-enacted as happened in the 2015 3-D light projection of the Bamiyan Buddhas on the cliffs they were once carved.