"A very dark future for the local populations in Northern Mali," warn UN experts

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GENEVA (10 July 2012) – Two United Nations Special Rapporteurs strongly condemned grave violations of cultural rights and the right to freedom of religion and belief in the Northern part of Mali, through the destruction of sites of religious significance, including mausoleums in the World Heritage site of Timbuktu.

“These events seem to announce a very dark future for the local populations in Northern Mali,” warned the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed. “The destruction of tombs of ancient Muslim saints in Timbuktu, a common heritage of humanity, is a loss for us all, but for the local population it also means the denial of their identity, their beliefs, their history and their dignity.”

“It is important that all actors in Mali and the international community join their efforts in ensuring respect and protection of the rights of the people in Northern Mali, in particular their cultural rights and their right to freedom of religion and belief,” said Ms. Shaheed, who also called on neighbouring countries “to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property coming from the Northern region of Mali.”

For the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, “attacks on places of worship and the desecration of cemeteries violate the rights of not only a single believer, but also the group of individuals forming the community attached to the place in question.” Mr. Bielefeldt said that “the destruction of the tombs is the deprivation of an immense wealth to local populations, all Malians and the global community.”

“People and communities express their humanity, give meaning to their existence, build their worldviews and encounter with their environment through their heritage, which they legitimately wish to protect and transmit to future generations,” the human rights expert on cultural rights added.

The two Special Rapporteurs urged States to ensure that religious sites are fully respected and protected. Recalling the 2001 UN General Assembly resolution on protection of religious sites, the rights experts appealed to all relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations to contribute to such efforts.

The Special Rapporteurs echoed the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in urging the perpetrators to stop the deliberate attacks against historical religious sites which may constitute a war crime. They also welcomed the World Heritage Committee's decision calling on the Director-General of UNESCO to create a special fund to help Mali in the conservation of its cultural heritage.

Finally, Ms. Shaheed and Mr. Bielefeldt said they have received information according to which a ban on music was issued in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in April 2012. “This amounts to a clear violation of cultural and artistic freedoms,” they underlined, “and further indicates the design of armed groups settled in Northern Mali to impose their world vision on the local populations.”

Farida Shaheed took up her functions as Independent Expert in the field of cultural rights in 2009. She has worked for more than 25 years promoting and protecting cultural rights by fostering policies and projects designed in culturally sensitive ways to support the rights of marginalized sectors, including women, peasants, and religious and ethnic minorities. She has been the recipient of several national and international human rights awards, and is an experienced participant in negotiations at international, regional and national levels. Learn more, log on to: []

Heiner Bielefeldt assumed his mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief in 2010. He is Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. From 2003 to 2009, he was Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution. Mr. Bielefeldt’s research interests include various interdisciplinary facets of human rights theory and practice, with a focus on freedom of religion or belief. Learn more, log on to: []

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