Skip to main content

Cultural rights

The destruction of cultural and religious sites: a violation of human rights

24 September 2012


The destruction of cultural and religious sites constitutes a violation of human rights.

United Nations experts have spoken out against the destruction of Sufi religious and historic sites in Libya and the intimidation and excessive use of force against unarmed protesters opposing the destruction.

The destruction of Sufi sites started in October 2011 in Tripoli and continued in 2012 in other parts of Libya. In August 2012, several sites were also destroyed, including one of Libya’s most important Sufi shrines, Sidi Abdul-Salam al Asmar al-Fituri in Zliten, and the al-Shaab Mosque in central Tripoli. Tombs were desecrated and libraries were targeted.

“These events amount to a violation of numerous human rights provisions,” three UN experts said in a press release, highlighting the right to freedom of religion and belief, the right to enjoy and access cultural heritage, as well as the rights of religious minorities to the protection of their places of worship. The UN experts are Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Rita Izsák, Expert on minority issues, and Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

Sufism is a several centuries old mystic Islamic movement. However visits to Sufis tombs are considered as contrary to orthodoxy by some other parts of Islam".

“The attacks on Sufi religious sites require a swift and rigorous response by the authorities, without which they are likely to continue and spread,” the UN experts warned. Bielefeldt also stressed that such attacks “violate not only the rights of individual believers, but also send an intimidating signal to various communities attached to the places in question.”

Izsák expressed alarm over “the wanton and widespread destruction of important minority religious sites that has taken place before the eyes of the authorities and with no steps to prevent it.”

The destruction of Sufi religious sites in Libya brings to mind similar events that took place in Mali earlier this year.

In July 2012, the sacred sites and mausoleums of the World Heritage site of Timbuktu in Mali were attacked with axes and shovels by fighters from the Ansar Dine group, an armed Islamist group which controls the northern part of the country.

The sites in Timbuktu were included in the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in 1988. They are reminders of Timbuktu’s past as an intellectual and spiritual capital, and a focal point for spreading Islam in Africa.

The UN expert on cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, condemned the violent destruction of “a common heritage of humanity” in a joint press release with the UN expert on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt.

Shaheed further stated that “it is a loss for us all, but for the local population it also means denial of their identity, their beliefs, their history and their dignity.”

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, States parties must protect people’s freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching. In addition, in those States parties in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language. Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, everyone has the right to take part in cultural life, which implies, according to the Expert in the field of cultural rights, the right of everyone to access and enjoy cultural heritage.

24 September 2012