Baku’s targeting of cultural heritage in Karabakh hinders peace prospects

St. John the Baptist church (a.k.a Kanach Zham), a 177 year old landmark in Shushi was destroyed by Azerbaijan between 2023 and 2024. (PHOTO: Monument Watch)

By Sonya Dymova

In a report released this week, Caucasus Heritage Watch said the number of Armenian heritage sites destroyed in Nagorno-Karabakh skyrocketed since October 2023, a month after the forcible displacement of nearly all of the region’s Armenians.

“We are deeply concerned that the total number of destroyed heritage sites rose by 75% between our Fall 2023 and Spring 2024 missions, along with a 29% increase in sites classified as threatened,” the report stated.

Caucasus Heritage Watch, a project headed by scholars at Purdue and Cornell Universities, uses satellite imagery to monitor the area, as Azerbaijan forbids access to outside researchers.

Among the destroyed cultural sites is the Kohak Sacred Place, the ruins of a Martuni district church dating back to the 9th and 13th centuries. Partially destroyed by October 2023, the site appears to have been fully demolished as of April.

Satellite images used to monitor the Kohak Sacred Place / Credit: Caucasus Heritage Watch

Azerbaijan aims to boost legitimacy, weaken Armenia

Feras Hammami, an Associate Professor at the University of Gothenburg who researches cultural heritage in conflicts and peacebuilding, says Armenian cultural sites are targeted to weaken the strength and unity of the Armenian people.

“All nation-states are aware about the value of cultural heritage because all of them used cultural heritage in the 19th century to build their nation-states, nationalize their ethnicity and diversity,” Hammami told CivilNet. “Cultural heritage is a source of strength for maintaining identity and also gaining some sort of energy for resilience.”

Simon Maghakyan, a researcher focusing on heritage crime and politics of cultural erasure, adds that targeting Armenia’s cultural heritage is also essential to building and upholding the legitimacy of Aliyev’s regime.

“Azerbaijan, or its elites, see Armenian monuments as existential threats,” Maghakyan told CivilNet. “Azerbaijan is proving to its people that it’s delivering permanent security to them by destroying a securitized threat. … (This is) how they gain legitimacy, by showing off that they can do anything and everything and get away with that.”

Azerbaijan’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh are not an isolated attempt at destroying Armenian cultural heritage. According to Caucasus Heritage Watch, 98% of Armenian cultural sites in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic were already destroyed between 1997 and 2011. Maghakyan said the percentage amounts to about 28,000 monuments, including individual tombstones and khachkars, Armenian cross-stones.

UNESCO fails to act, impunity hinders peace prospects

The conflict-driven targeting of cultural sites can be detrimental to the prospects of peacebuilding between the nations, according to Hammami. “That kind of destruction of culture, with the deep feelings of hate it creates, it might really hinder any diplomatic efforts to reconcile and move on,” he said.

Yet, the international community has taken little action to stop the mass destruction. In November 2020, following the Russia-brokered ceasefire declaration between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the United Nations’ cultural agency proposed to send a mission that would provide “technical support” in assessing and protecting cultural heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh. UNESCO’s visit has yet to happen due to Azerbaijan’s alleged resistance. Azerbaijan’s First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva quit her post as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2022 amid mounting pressure to allow the mission in.

Maghakyan attributes UNESCO’s failure to act to its structure, which he says is prone to “semi-corruption.”

“It’s a body made of member states, and usually member states that have more resources and more motivation to be engaged, like Azerbaijan and China, get to control a lot of its work,” he said. “And a lot of international law is enforced, or supposed to be enforced, by states voluntarily, so UNESCO can’t do things on its own.”

The end to hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh further limits UNESCO in its legal options to protect the Armenian cultural heritage there. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan ratified the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which UNESCO cited in its mission proposal. The treaty obligates parties to refrain from destroying cultural heritage and to sanction any breaches of the rules. However, according to Maghakyan, the convention cannot be applied now since Artsakh “is not a war zone anymore.”

“The presumption in international law is that countries abide by laws and they protect their own heritage,” he said. “[By destroying cultural heritage], Azerbaijan is violating its own constitution, but it’s a one-man dictatorship, and they do whatever they want.”

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