Azerbaijan’s cultural heritage has been destroyed in the once occupied territories, said Hikmat Hajiyev, Assistant to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Head of Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the Presidential Administration at Partnership Forum of the global campaign ‘Peace for Culture’ held in Baku.

“We have systematically faced the destruction of the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan. We would like to involve international organizations in this issue. We expect that UNESCO will send a fact-finding mission to these territories. Azerbaijan has been elected a member of the UNESCO Executive Board,” he said.

Faktyoxla Lab. has tried to figure out why until now UNESCO has not sent a mission to investigate the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan to the territories previously occupied by Armenia.

Indeed, in early December this year, Azerbaijan was included in the UNESCO Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. According to the press service of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, with the support of the absolute majority of the states participating in the voting, Azerbaijan was elected a member of the UNESCO Committee for the next four years. The ministry stressed that earlier Azerbaijan was included in the UNESCO Executive Board for the period from 2021 to 2025. The Foreign Ministry believes that this confirms the world community’s recognition of Azerbaijan’s adherence to the values ​​of UNESCO.

Following the Second Karabakh War, which Azerbaijan waged for the liberation of its territories occupied by a neighboring state, it had to face an extremely unpleasant phenomenon, namely, an overly biased attitude on the part of UNESCO.

Azerbaijan believes that the victory in the war led to the creation of new realities in the region, which causes concern in some political circles and these circles cannot come to terms with the new situation. In this context, UNESCO, as an intergovernmental organization that must act objectively and impartially within its mandate, has become involved in this unseemly process and has become a tool of political pressure.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly raised the issue of the state and fate of the cultural heritage destroyed and plundered by Armenia in the occupied territories, and has officially repeatedly appealed to UNESCO with a request to take measures to protect it and send a mission to these territories. Unfortunately, none of these appeals received an adequate answer.

Since 1996, Baku has informed UNESCO about the plundering of cultural heritage in the Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenia, and asked to take measures to ensure the return of this cultural heritage to Azerbaijan.

The context of the organization’s responses boiled down to one thing: the Armenians don’t allow sending a UNESCO technical mission to the occupied Azerbaijani territories.

Meanwhile, in 2005, the UNESCO report on activities towards the implementation of the Hague 1954 “Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” for 1995-2004, clearly indicated that Azerbaijan had informed the UNESCO Secretariat about the situation in the occupied territories and asked to send a mission there to establish the facts of the destruction of 927 libraries, more than 60 mosques, 44 churches, 473 historical monuments, palaces and museums by Armenia in these territories, as well as the illegal export and sale abroad of 40,000 museum exhibits, unique pearls of art, manuscripts, miniatures, valuable Karabakh carpets, memorable exhibits, historical decorations, archaeological samples. These actions openly contradict and violate the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The organization proclaimed November 14 as the International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property since 2020. But despite this, Azerbaijan hasn’t seen the results of the work of this organization.

A book entitled “War against Azerbaijan – an attack on cultural heritage” was published and submitted to UNESCO in 2007. It contains a list of cultural and religious monuments destroyed by Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, detailed information about their deliberate Armenianization, and the presentation of Albanian churches as Armenian ones.

Back in 2008, during a visit of the then Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, to Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani side proposed to organize such a mission. At the time, the director-general said they were looking into the matter and could not comment on the timing of the mission.

There are many such examples.

A few days after the end of the war, organizations of Russian Armenians drew up a petition letter to UNESCO with a request to include the ‘Karabakh monuments’ of architecture and history in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

“Armenian shrines have been systematically plundered and destroyed, partially or completely. We greatly fear that this might repeat, and the world would lose a significant part of its history,” wrote the authors of the petition, which was signed by many Russian cultural figures, including Alexander Sokurov, Boris Grebenshchikov and Vladimir Spivakov.

A few days later, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay met with representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan and proposed sending a special UNESCO commission to the region ‘in order to draw up an inventory of the most significant cultural assets, as a prerequisite for effective protection of the region’s heritage.’

On December 21, Assistant Director-General for Culture at UNESCO Ernesto Ottone called on the Azerbaijani authorities to organize the arrival of this commission as soon as possible. Azerbaijan was surprised that UNESCO suddenly remembered its mission to protect cultural heritage in accordance with the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Answering to the organization’s proposal to conduct an independent expert mission in the field to draw up a preliminary inventory of the most significant cultural values ​​in response to the calls of Armenia, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry called on UNESCO not to politicize the issue of protecting ‘cultural heritage in Karabakh,’ calling for objectivity.

UNESCO’s statement doesn’t comply with the spirit of cooperation between Azerbaijan and this organization, according to a statement published on the official website of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. The ministry reminded that the Azerbaijani side has always been committed to cooperation with UNESCO, to fulfill its obligations under conventions to which it is adhered to, and in particular its commitments to protect cultural heritage. The ministry brought to the attention that the protection of cultural heritage is one of the important directions of state policy in Azerbaijan.

“However, it has to be regretfully noted that during the 30 years of Armenia's military aggression against Azerbaijan and the occupation of our lands, our appeals to UNESCO to investigate war crimes such as the deliberate destruction, misappropriation, alteration of our cultural heritage, as well as illicit removal of our cultural properties by Armenia have been ignored and the UNESCO Secretariat has not demonstrated determination in this regard,” the message says.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry brought to the attention that the Ministry of Culture began preliminary monitoring of the cultural heritage on the Azerbaijani lands liberated from the occupation, the results of which were officially presented to UNESCO. In particular, the report contains photos reflecting the destruction of all Azerbaijani religious and cultural monuments in the territories occupied by Armenia, including the desecration of mosques.

“We hope that UNESCO will not remain silent about the war crimes indicated in the abovementioned monitoring report. We believe that UNESCO must fulfill its mandate in an independent and objective manner and not allow the issue of protection of cultural heritage to be politicized. Such statements by UNESCO do not comply with the spirit of cooperation between Azerbaijan and UNESCO,” the ministry concluded.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani scientists and officials have assured that no one will destroy ancient monuments in the territories that have come under the control of Baku. According to Azerbaijani analyst, expert of the independent International Crisis Group Zaur Shiriyev, the Armenians are pressing the issue of preserving Christian monuments in Karabakh, because they hope in this way to mobilize world public opinion against Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis are offended, considering this discourse too one-sided.

“Here (in Azerbaijan) they ask why no one talks about destroyed mosques, about the Azerbaijani heritage in this region,” Shiriyev said.

A lot of photos of destroyed or badly damaged mosques and other ancient buildings in the territories that were seized by the Armenians in 1992-1994 and recaptured by Azerbaijan in the last war are spread in Azerbaijani media sources.

One of the main tasks of Azerbaijan is the restoration of historical and religious monuments in the destroyed territories of Karabakh, and the city of Shusha should become the cultural capital of the country, President Ilham Aliyev said at the beginning of the year during video talks with the new Minister of Culture Anar Kerimov. Ilham Aliyev expressed hope that the newly appointed minister will live up to this high confidence, and reminded that the rich and unique culture of Azerbaijan is a source of pride.

Referring to Azerbaijan’s relations with UNESCO, Ilham Aliyev stressed that the country has productive and sincere relations with the international organization:

“Therefore, UNESCO has a lot of information about Azerbaijan's contribution to the world cultural heritage. We have implemented various projects not only in Azerbaijan, but also in some countries. In particular, we have played an active role in the restoration of both Muslim and Christian religious sites. The multicultural society in Azerbaijan should be an example for many countries. It is not me saying that, it is what the world's religious leaders are saying,” Ilham Aliyev noted.

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with UNESCO but only if UNESCO maintains its international status. UNESCO is not a branch of any country. If this approach prevails in our relations, there will be cooperation. If not, this cooperation can be reconsidered. In any case, our intentions are pure. There must be a relationship free from double standards, Islamophobia and discrimination,” he added.

Since the adoption of the 1954 Convention, there have been no UNESCO missions to any part of the world, despite numerous reports of destruction and vandalism.

Therefore, people in Azerbaijan didn’t understand why UNESCO sided with the occupiers regarding the protection of cultural heritage and applied the practice of double standards. Does the organization prioritize one cultural and religious heritage over another? Is it influenced by this or that diaspora? Is UNESCO an impartial and independent player on the world stage? Similar questions are often voiced in Azerbaijan.