Vol. 1, No. 4 (March 15, 2008)

New book documents: Armenian eradication of Azerbaijani culture in the occupied territories

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

The fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh and adjoining areas has frequently been accompanied by charges made by one side always denied by the other that its opponents are engaging in acts of genocide.  But because the actions that support such charges typically have involved deaths and expulsions which took place during the course of combat operations, each side has generally if not always convincingly invoked military necessity to justify what it has done, claims that should never be allowed to minimize the human suffering involved but ones that sufficiently muddy the issue that many outsiders are inclined to dismiss both the charges of genocide and those who make them.

Now, however, a remarkable new book documents a consistent and continuing pattern of action by Armenian officials in the occupied territories since the cease fire went into effect more than a decade ago to deface or destroy Christian and Muslim monuments of Azerbaijani culture and thus make it impossible for the Azerbaijani community to survive there.

And that, in the view of most experts on international law, is an act of genocide, one of the most heinous crimes that any government anywhere can commit because, as commentaries on the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide routinely note, “genocidal acts need not kill or cause the death of members of a group.  Causing serious bodily or mental harm,” including the destruction of the cultural environment in which a group lives, “are acts of genocide when committed as part of a policy to destroy a group’s existence” either totally or on a particular territory. [1]

Prepared under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, the new book, “War Against Azerbaijan: Targeting Cultural Heritage,” [2] in remarkably restrained and thus doubly impressive language – the book itself never mentions the word “genocide” or the provisions of the 1948 convention – documents that the Armenian authorities have destroyed far more Azerbaijani cultural institutions – including churches, mosques, museums, monuments and houses – since the ceasefire began than they did during actual combat operations (p. 9). 

The book opens with a review of the complex history of the Azerbaijani nation generally and in the regions now occupied by the Armenians in particular.  In the course of it, Kamala Imranly of the Foreign Ministry’s Center for Strategic Studies and the book’s compiler points out that Azerbaijani culture has deep roots in Christianity as well as Islam and that the Armenian destruction of Christian churches linked to the Azerbaijani rather than the Armenian community across the occupied territories shows that this is a campaign against an ethnic group rather than a military effort or one, as some Armenians often seek to portray it, part of the clash of civilizations between the Christian West and Islam.

Moreover, this introduction reports and documents some truly disturbing actions, including the sale of irreplaceable Azerbaijani cultural artifacts through international art auction houses.  The Azerbaijani government has been able to recover some of them by purchasing in these auctions items that the Armenians were selling but that never ceased to belong to Azerbaijan.  How many other items of this kind may have been lost, however, remains unknown.

The remainder of the book is divided into chapters devoted to the various districts of Azerbaijan that are entirely or partially under Armenian occupation at the present time.  The one about Kalbajar district (pp. 76-99) is typical.  It includes a detailed map of that region, detailed information about the ethnic composition of its pre-war population, the date the occupation began, and the cultural resources within it, ground photographs of some of these institutions, and time series satellite photographs that show both which ones were destroyed and when at little more than a glance.

Those features, especially the photographs and maps, will be most impressive to the casual reader, but far more important to the expert community and to officials in various governments is the detailed list of historical and architectural monuments.  In the case of the Kalbajar district, the book lists 255 such institutions, giving the dates of origin, the address, and in many cases, the geographical coordinates for each.  Of these 217 have been destroyed, including many of the cemeteries, and all of the museums and memorial complexes in any way linked to Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani culture.
Impressively, the book acknowledges where the “current state” of this or that monument is “unknown,” even though it is likely given that many of these in fact have been destroyed as well, especially since they tend to be smaller art objects, such as Medieval stone figures or Bronze Age rock drawings.  The destruction of similar items by the Taliban in Afghanistan sparked international outrage; one can only hope that this book will do the same, either preventing the eradication of these cultural monuments or bringing to justice those responsible for defacing or destroying them. 

In any military conflict, terrible things happen, including much loss of life and the obliteration of the natural and cultural environment which makes life possible.  But when the shooting stops or even quiets down through an internationally arranged cease fire, then such actions represent not only a violation of one of the most important norms of contemporary international law but the kind of affront to the dignity not just of Azerbaijanis but of human beings everywhere. 

The book reviewed here thus represents not only a bill of indictment of a terrible crime but a call to action for all people, governments and the international community.


[1] For the text of the convention and especially the definitions contained in its Article II, see  HYPERLINK "http://www.preventgenocide.org/genocide/officialtext.htm" http://www.preventgenocide.org/genocide/officialtext.htm.

[2] (in English; Baku, 2007), 280 pp., photographs, maps,  and two CDs.  The text of the book, originally issued in print run of 5 000 copies, is available online at  HYPERLINK "http://www.war-cultre.az" http://www.war-cultre.az.