This Thursday, along with Tufts, Oxford, and Fresno State Universities, our Center will co-sponsor a webinar on cultural heritage in law and diplomacy. In advance of that event, we are publishing here short posts by the participants, which will serve as the basis for discussion at the webinar.

In this contribution, Narine Ghazaryan (University of Nottingham) discusses the destruction of Armenian cultural sites following the Second Karabakh War last year.

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Destruction of cultural heritage is as old as the world itself. Even though it can happen without malice in some cases, more often it is a means of asserting control over a territory by erasing its history with its past civilisations or challenging the identity of its contemporary inhabitants.

The destruction of the cultural heritage of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh was a distinguishing feature of the so-called Second Karabakh war fought over the course of 44 days in autumn 2020. Once again, it brought attention to the matter of preservation of religious and cultural artefacts not only during an armed conflict, but also after the cessation of military hostilities. Armenians around the world watched in real time the destruction of their holy sites and cultural and historic monuments as part of a broader campaign of ridding the territories captured by Azerbaijan of its Armenian population, as well any traces of their existence, past or present. Numerous Armenian national and religious sites and monuments have been destroyed or are in danger of destruction not only through physical obliteration, but also through the material damage caused by the alteration of these sites with the aim of “de-Armenising” them. To fit the Azeri narrative, Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh has been re-attributed to the “Caucasian Albanians” from whom the Azeri people allegedly descend, despite the fact that the Caucasian Albanians were a non-Turkic people who were culturally related to the Armenians. 

During the course of last year’s war, it became evident that the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage bore a systematic and orchestrated character. These events could not have been separated from the larger context of decades-long state-sponsored denial of the history of Armenian existence and Armenian cultural heritage in the territory of Artsakh. Numerous footages demonstrating the intentional destruction of Armenian monuments, symbols and sites of worship by Azeri soldiers were circulated widely during the armed hostilities. Among the most prominent targets were Armenian Christian sites of worship and monuments of national significance. Christian religious sites, viewed as sacred by the local population, have a particular meaning and significance for the Armenians in the context of post-Soviet national reawakening.

The targeting of the Holy Saviour Ghazanchetsos Cathedral in Shushi on 8 October 2020, a major Armenian national and religious landmark and one of the biggest Armenian churches in the world, sent a clear message to the Armenians: nothing was off-limits. The precise shelling of the Cathedral in two rounds within a course of a few hours left no doubt in the eyes of the international community that the attack was deliberate. It was a clear breach of Azerbaijan’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Following the capture of Shushi by Azerbaijan, prompt efforts were taken to erase the Cathedral’s Armenian origins through so-called “restoration” works.

The systematic destruction of Armenian cultural and religious sights did not go unnoticed by UNESCO, whose Director General proposed sending an expert mission to Nagorno-Karabakh with the purpose of establishing an “inventory of the most significant cultural assets” as a necessary step in guaranteeing the protection of the region’s heritage. To date, these calls have remained unanswered by Azerbaijan, demonstrating the limitations of international mechanisms tasked with the protection of cultural heritage.

In the absence of a peaceful resolution to the conflict and the persistent anti-Armenian rhetoric at the highest level in Azerbaijan, there is no doubt that the cultural rights of the Armenians of Artsakh cannot be guaranteed. Equally, they cannot be separated from the right of the Armenians to live in their ancestral homeland. Despite the end of last year’s military hostilities, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh remains unresolved. Although Azerbaijan claims that there is no longer a “Nagorno-Karabakh” issue, the status of the Armenian population remaining on the territories under the control of the Republic of Artsakh is yet to be determined. The physical safety of the Armenian population and their remaining cultural heritage is only guaranteed by the Russian army deployed along the periphery of the territory of Artsakh not captured by Azerbaijan as part of the tripartite agreement between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan concluded on 9 November 2020.

Despite a significant mistrust of the Russians among the Armenians of Artsakh, the latter have come to rely on Russian peacekeeping forces to ensure their right of access for purposes of worship to a number of holy sites close to the line of contact, such as the Amaras Monastery. Moreover, a Russian armed unit guarantees the physical safety of one of the most significant holy sites in the region, the ancient Dadivank monastery complex together with its monastic community. The Russian post stationed by the monastery was the result of Russian post-war  intervention, despite the silence of the tripartite agreement on the issue of the preservation of Armenian cultural heritage in the region. In view of the possibility of Azerbaijani objection to the Russian military presence five years after the deployment of the peacekeepers in accordance with the agreement, this and other religious sites are still in danger.

In fact, the destruction of Armenian religious and national symbols and sites has become another outstanding issue as far as the resolution of the conflict is concerned under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group, the main negotiating framework established in the 1990s. Azerbaijan’s open and systematic eradication of Armenian heritage remains an obstacle to achieving a peaceful solution to the conflict, as no peaceful solution is attainable as long as the Armenians of Artsakh are denied their identity and the history of their centuries-long existence in this region.

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