By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
“The first casualty when war comes is truth” — a platitude, to be sure, but one that has again assumed relevance in the midst of the war raging in Ukraine. Often truth, historical truth, is not collateral damage, but a primary target in conflict.
Sometimes part of that truth can be rescued. That is the message relayed by a bold measure taken by the European Parliament (EP) in regard to the assault on truth waged in 2020 by Azerbaijan as part of its war in Nagorno-Karabakh. On March 10, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on “Destruction of cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh.” The vote tally was 635 in favor, 2 opposed and 42 abstentions. It stands out for its clarity of purpose and demands for forceful, effective action.
The text draws on a series of previous resolutions and conventions, of the EP as well as the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) regarding the protection of cultural heritage, to denounce Azerbaijan’s wanton destruction of Armenian monuments in its attempt to rewrite history. Among the documents cited are “the European Cultural Convention, the revised European Convention for the Protection of Archaeological Heritage, and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, to which Armenia and Azerbaijan are parties” as well as “the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict,” to which both are also parties. This latter document contains protocols, one applied to occupied territories and the second, to cultural property, “which prohibits ‘any alteration to, or change of use of, a cultural property which is intended to conceal or destroy cultural, historical or scientific evidence’…”
The Physical Destruction
Moving to specifics, the resolution details the nature of the damage: “1 456 monuments, mainly Armenian, came under Azerbaijan’s control after the ceasefire of 9 November 2020; whereas considerable deliberate damage was caused by Azerbaijan to Armenian cultural heritage during the 2020 war, particularly during the shelling of the the Holy Saviour/Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha/Shushi, as well as the destruction, changing of the function of, or damage to other churches and cemeteries during and after the conflict, such as Zoravor Surb Astvatsatsin Church near the town of Mekhakavan and St Yeghishe in Mataghis village in Nagorno-Karabakh; whereas during his visit to the 12th century Armenian Church in Tsakuri, President Aliyev vowed to remove its Armenian inscriptions…”
The indictment does not apply only to the most recent war, but considers that “the long-running conflict has had a catastrophic impact on the cultural heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh and the region; … over the last 30 years, the irreversible destruction of religious and cultural heritage has been carried out by Azerbaijan, notably in Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, where 89 Armenian churches, 20 000 graves and more than 5 000 headstones have been destroyed; … this has also occurred in the former conflict areas returned by Armenia to Azerbaijan, in particular the almost total destruction and looting of Aghdam and Fuzuli…”.
iting the UNESCO Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage of 2003, the EP resolution stresses that “cultural heritage is an important component of the cultural identity of communities, groups and individuals, and of social cohesion, so that its intentional destruction may have adverse consequences on human dignity and human rights;” furthermore, “the destruction of cultural heritage sites, artefacts and objects contributes to the escalation of hostilities, mutual hatred and racial prejudice between and within societies.” Thus, preserving cultural heritage is crucial, in that it “has a key role in promoting lasting peace by fostering tolerance, intercultural and inter-faith dialogue and mutual understanding, as well as democracy and sustainable development…” The resolution underlines the special historical significance of Armenian monuments, whose “churches and monasteries are part of the oldest Christian heritage in the world and part of the common heritage of humanity…”
The European Parliament motion identifies the intent behind the elimination of physical monuments, which is to deny the existence of any Armenian historical and cultural existence: “the elimination of the traces of Armenian cultural heritage in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is being achieved not only by damaging and destroying it, but also through the falsification of history and attempts to present it as so-called Caucasian Albanian.” The EP cites the announcement on February 3, 2022, by Anar Karimov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Culture, of “the establishment of a working group responsible for removing ‘the fictitious traces written by Armenians on Albanian religious temples’;” and “Strongly condemns Azerbaijan’s continued policy of erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, in violation of international law” and a recent decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ordered Azerbaijan to prevent and punish any such vandalism.
The charges go further, clearly defining the underlying policy behind these actions. In strikingly blunt terms, the European Parliament “[a]cknowledges that the erasure of the Armenian cultural heritage is part of a wider pattern of a systematic, state-level policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians promoted by the Azerbaijani authorities, including dehumanisation, the glorification of violence and territorial claims against the Republic of Armenia which threaten peace and security in the South Caucasus…”
The intent is nothing less than to eradicate the very identity of a people. The European legislative body underlines “that cultural heritage has a universal dimension as a testimony of history inseparable from peoples’ identity … that cultural heritage constitutes a unique and important testimony of the culture and identities of peoples, and that the degradation and destruction of cultural heritage, whether tangible or intangible, constitutes a loss to the affected communities, as well as to the international community as a whole…” That is, cultural heritage is a component of a people’s identity, as well as a treasure for humanity as a whole.
Moving toward Action
The European Parliament, having established these acts of destruction and attempts at “historical revisionism,” urges action; it calls for an “independent expert mission” as proposed by UNESCO, to be dispatched “without delay,” and demands Azerbaijan cooperate, allowing unfettered access “to all cultural heritage sites … to draw up an inventory on the ground and to see what has happened to the sites…” and without any prior interference at these sites by Azerbaijan. The European Union is to play a role in implementation; one suggestion is that the EU Satellite Centre (SatCen) be deployed to make satellite images of the heritage sites, which can document their actual condition.
Although the emphasis is on protection of cultural heritage, the EP locates its initiative within a broader context, obviously acknowledging the fact that the fundamental issue is the need to resolve the conflict; this means ending all hostilities and finding a solution to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. In this regard, the EP “calls on Azerbaijan to discard its maximalist aims, militaristic approach and territorial claims on Armenia and engage in good faith in negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh.” It further demands implementation of the measures defined on December 7, 2021 by the ICJ, to prevent vandalism, destruction, racial hatred and all forms of violence. Furthermore, Azerbaijan must halt measures of Armenian cultural suppression, related to the language, cultural heritage sites or the historical record.
Finally, the EP appeals to the EU and all member states to contribute their support, including to humanitarian aid efforts.
The document will be delivered to officials and organs of the European Union, the governments and presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Director-General of UNESCO, the secretary generals of the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. Europa Nostra, the most representative heritage organization in Europe, which has members from 40 countries, endorsed the resolution on March 11.
The first reaction reported out of Baku came from the Committee for International and Interparliamentary Relations of the Azerbaijan Parliament, which issued an unusually lengthy statement, dismissing the resolution as “biased.” As reported on March 11 by Azer Tac, the committee declared it was “entirely based on the false information fed by Armenia and the Armenian Lobby in the European Parliament.” In its rebuttal, the Azerbaijani committee cites numerous instances of destruction of cultural heritage named by the European Parliament, and asserts that the perpetrator, however, was Armenia. Ironically, the committee’s response constitutes yet another example of the commitment in Nagorno-Karabakh to falsify history.