The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Contradictory Approaches by UNESCO and ICESCO

By Vasif Huseynov

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is “a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture”. The institution, as a universal body, has a duty to approach to all the challenges from a completely neutral and objective perspective without partially siding with one side of an interstate conflict against the other side. It is supposed to work for the protection of all the cultural heritage of its member states irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, or any other characteristics. This expectation was the very reason why Azerbaijan applied to the UNESCO for assistance with the protection of the country’s cultural heritage in the territories occupied by Armenia in the course of 1988-1994 war. The involvement of the institution was extremely important to stop the destruction of cultural monuments, museums, mosques, and schools, misappropriation of the cultural heritage as well as illegal transportation of the country’s cultural items. The reaction of the UNESCO to the appeals of Azerbaijan’s people and its government for the investigation of Armenia’s war crimes was horrendous: The organization disregarded Azerbaijan’s calls by declaring that it was supposed to refrain from political engagements and politicized issues. This reaction was made in the face of a raft of evidence presented by the Azerbaijani side confirming the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage in the occupied territories.

Following the liberation of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020, the sudden volte-face in the attitude of the UNESCO to the conflict, therefore, shocked the Azerbaijani society. All of a sudden, the organization became “concerned” about the fate of the cultural heritage in these territories and sought to send fact-finding mission to the region. This came on the heels of the Armenian propaganda that Azerbaijan’s regaining control over the region endangered the Christian cultural properties in the region. Completely ignoring the fact that Azerbaijan, as a multicultural and multiethnic country unlike the monoethnic Armenia, has consistently protected and fostered the cultural heritage belonging to different religions in its territories. This includes not only synagogues and other religious monuments belonging to the country’s Jews citizens, but also those belonging to the Christianity and other religions. The protection of an Armenian church in the center of the capital city Baku, is a well-known testimony to the multiculturalism and tolerance of the Azerbaijani society.  Thus, being disinformed or manipulated by the Armenian side, the reaction of the UNESCO was fallacious, to say the least. It also poses a rightful question why the institution that turned a blind eye to the destruction of Azerbaijan’s cultural heritage in the previously occupied territories for around three decades and refused to send missions to investigate those crimes had abruptly become concerned about the region’s cultural properties after the liberation of these territories.

The Azerbaijani people have therefore highly appreciated the approaches of the Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ICESCO), a specialized organization that operates under the aegis of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The institution has always demonstrated a principled position with respect to the destruction and misappropriation of the Azerbaijani cultural heritage in the formerly occupied territories. The fact that the Islamic monuments in those regions have been razed to the ground or desecrated by the Armenians and the Christian cultural properties belonged to Alban community of Azerbaijan have been misappropriated has particularly outraged the institution.

The ICESCO made a statement in the beginning of the Second Karabakh War, expressed its concerns about “the acts of destruction targeting archaeological and heritage sites and historical landmarks with significant civilizational value, including several mosques and historical sacred places”, and called for the resolution of the conflict in accordance with the international law and the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council. Its call for the respect to the international law and the UNSC resolutions constituted a contrast to many other institutions that sought to undertone the international law and promote the unlawful attempts of the Armenians to redraw the internationally-recognized borders in the region.

The visit of the Director-General Salim bin Mohammed AlMalik of the ICESCO to Azerbaijan and its liberated territories in January 2021 was likewise an initiative that was welcomed by Azerbaijan. Following his visit to Aghdam city which had turned into the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus” by Armenian occupants, Mr. AlMalik was appalled by what he saw there. “We visited the liberated area, and we have seen the tragedy and we have seen something that we have never seen before. The city that has been totally destroyed and razed to the ground. That is totally inhumane and cannot be accepted by any measures”, he said after the visit.

The ICESCO made also some initiatives to evaluate the damage incurred to the region’s cultural heritage and help the efforts of Azerbaijan to re-build and prosper the liberated territories. The proposal to name Shusha city of Azerbaijan the “Cultural capital of Islamic world” and the plans to include the cultural properties of the region into the list of Cultural Heritage of Islamic World were some of the initiatives announced by Mr. AlMalik during his visit to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan expects the UNESCO to demonstrate similar sensitivity and impartiality with respect to the cultural heritage of the liberated territories and fulfil its commitments and duties to safeguard heritage and contribute to the establishment of lasting peace between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. 

Vasif Huseynov, a senior adviser at the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations (Air Center), special for News.Az

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