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Cultural Desecration Is Racial Discrimination

A recent International Court of Justice decision regarding Azerbaijan’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh could offer protection to threatened cultural heritage sites around the world.

By , a Ph.D. student in heritage crime at Cranfield University and executive director of Save Armenian Monuments.
A man in military clothing stands inside the damaged Holy Savior Cathedral in the Nagorno-Karabakh city of Shusha, known as Shushi to Armenians.
A man in military clothing stands inside the damaged Holy Savior Cathedral in the Nagorno-Karabakh city of Shusha, known as Shushi to Armenians.
A man in military clothing stands inside the damaged Holy Savior Cathedral in the Nagorno-Karabakh city known as Shushi to Armenians and Shusha to Azerbaijanis, on Oct. 8, 2020. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

“Non-existing sites or cemeteries cannot be destroyed.” This is how an ambassador of Azerbaijan responded in June 2021 to an exposé of cultural destruction that employed declassified U.S. intelligence files to geolocate ancient monuments in Cold War-era satellite imagery that were flattened following the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Last year, the ambassador’s denial of the targeted monuments’ very existence was exhibited by Armenia as evidence of racial discrimination at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which subsequently ordered Azerbaijan, in a decision announced last month, to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration,” while rejecting Azerbaijan’s mirror request against Armenia.

The ICJ’s precedent-setting Dec. 7, 2021, order, which was part of emergency measures in Armenia’s case against neighboring Azerbaijan, to effectively protect Armenian cultural heritage in territories Azerbaijan captured in the 2020 war in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is good news for all defenders of cultural heritage sites across the world. Until now, as others have pointed out, there has been no effective international mechanism against state actors that threaten the very cultural heritage they are obliged to protect.

“Non-existing sites or cemeteries cannot be destroyed.” This is how an ambassador of Azerbaijan responded in June 2021 to an exposé of cultural destruction that employed declassified U.S. intelligence files to geolocate ancient monuments in Cold War-era satellite imagery that were flattened following the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Last year, the ambassador’s denial of the targeted monuments’ very existence was exhibited by Armenia as evidence of racial discrimination at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which subsequently ordered Azerbaijan, in a decision announced last month, to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration,” while rejecting Azerbaijan’s mirror request against Armenia.

The ICJ’s precedent-setting Dec. 7, 2021, order, which was part of emergency measures in Armenia’s case against neighboring Azerbaijan, to effectively protect Armenian cultural heritage in territories Azerbaijan captured in the 2020 war in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is good news for all defenders of cultural heritage sites across the world. Until now, as others have pointed out, there has been no effective international mechanism against state actors that threaten the very cultural heritage they are obliged to protect.


A photo from circa 1905 shows the Holy Savior Cathedral in the Nagorno-Karabakh city of Shusha.
A photo from circa 1905 shows the Holy Savior Cathedral in the Nagorno-Karabakh city of Shusha.

A photo from circa 1905, which recently surfaced from a family album of a tsarist Russian military serviceman, shows the Holy Savior Cathedral in the Nagorno-Karabakh city known as Shushi to Armenians and Shusha to Azerbaijanis, 15 years before the initial destruction of its conical dome. On Dec. 7, 2021, the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan, which bombed Holy Savior in 2020 then dismantled its reconstructed dome, to “prevent and punish” destruction of Armenian monuments.Courtesy of Levon Chidilyan

When it comes to state-sponsored erasure of politically undesirable cultural heritage, Azerbaijan’s record is alarming. Starting in 1997, three years after the first post-Soviet war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan’s successive father and son presidents decided that the entire Armenian cultural heritage of another region, Nakhichevan, was unfit for existence. By late 2006, Azerbaijan’s government had destroyed all 28,000 medieval Armenian religious monuments of Nakhichevan. The final toll included an estimated 89 medieval churches, 5,840 cross-stones, and 22,000 tombstones.

Today, as a result of the 2020 war, hundreds of Armenian holy places, among them historically and architecturally significant cathedrals, are under Azerbaijan’s control. The destruction of Nakhichevan’s entire Armenian past is not the sole reason why Armenia appealed to the ICJ.

Since the Russian-brokered November 2020 cease-fire between the two countries, as documented by Caucasus Heritage Watch, Azerbaijan has demolished several Armenian cemeteries, including in the town known in Armenian as Mets Tagher and as Boyuk Taglar in Azerbaijani, as well as in the town known as Sghnakh in Armenian and Signaq in Azerbaijani, and pronounced nearly all Armenian churches of the region non-Armenian.

Since the Russian-brokered November 2020 cease-fire between the two countries, Azerbaijan has demolished several Armenian cemeteries.

On Oct. 8, 2020, during the war, Azerbaijan bombed the Holy Savior Cathedral, popularly known as Ghazanchetsots, twice, creating a hole in the roof and injuring foreign journalists. A month later, the cathedral, along with the entire city known as Shushi to Armenians and Shusha to Azerbaijanis, was captured by Azerbaijan, which then launched a predictable renovation of the mid-19th-century building.

Baku decapitated Holy Savior by dismantling its iconic dome under the pretext of renovation in 2021, in a move that reminded Armenians of the pogrom in 1920 that massacred the city’s Armenian population, turning them into a minority there.

Even though the ICJ did not specifically order the rebuilding of Holy Savior’s dismantled dome, Azerbaijan may restore it in the near future to mitigate a harsher decision in the court’s final verdict. But it will likely keep banning Armenian visits to sacred sites, since the Dec. 7 provisional decision did not grant an urgent order for allowing Armenian pilgrimages.


The ICJ’s decision against Azerbaijan has global significance for several reasons. First, it is precedent-setting for sidestepping UNESCO, the United Nations’ ineffective cultural organization that is effectively governed by member states such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Azerbaijan, and instead technically delegating the world’s only body with enforcement power—the U.N. Security Council, which is principally tasked with maintaining international peace and security—with overseeing threatened cultural heritage.

Second, it links deliberate cultural destruction with racial discrimination under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Third, the decision sends a message to nation-states that sovereignty does not license a government to erase cultural heritage sites. The ICJ ruling, therefore, creates a new, yet narrow, pathway for fighting cultural destruction.

The most obvious beneficiaries of the ICJ decision are persecuted peoples with ethnic ties to a neighboring nation-state. Greece, for instance, could apply to the ICJ under the new ruling to challenge Turkey’s ongoing conversion of Greek cathedrals to mosques. Oppressed and stateless peoples like the Hazaras in Afghanistan, Rohingyas in Myanmar, and Uyghurs and Tibetans in China, whose cultures have been targeted by state actors, on the other hand, are unlikely to benefit directly from the decision given that the ICJ is a legal venue for U.N. member states.

Tying cultural destruction to racial discrimination expands opportunities for protecting threatened heritage.

The decision, nevertheless, could still be cited in non-ICJ legal pursuits. Notably, tying cultural destruction to racial discrimination expands opportunities for protecting threatened heritage, since discrimination does not have to be an intentional act. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and Niger Delta targeted primarily due to economic development, for instance, could cite the ICJ decision in seeking prevention of and punishment for the destruction of their heritage sites.

The decision would certainly not directly help with situations like the targeting of Assyrian and Yazidi heritage by the Islamic State or the desecration of shrines in Timbuktu, Mali, by Islamist militants, in which perpetrators of de facto sovereign violence are not internationally recognized state actors. But another global judicial body, the International Criminal Court (ICC), could fill this void. The ICC has only prosecuted one case of cultural destruction thus far, in part because its scope is confined to prosecuting individuals for crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.

Nevertheless, in June 2021 the ICC issued a broad policy on cultural heritage, underscoring that “The impact of an attack on cultural heritage may transcend the socio-geographical space it occupies, resulting in a global impact.” The ICJ’s decision will likely embolden the ICC’s new commitment to protecting cultural heritage. But as the new ICC policy notes, documentation and monitoring of cultural destruction can prove to be monumental tasks.

The latter may explain why the ICJ’s provisional decision against Azerbaijan does not specify mechanisms for protecting monuments, including when the erasure is more subtle. It remains unclear, for instance, if and how Azerbaijan will be reprimanded if it fulfills the presidential vow to polish over Nagorno-Karabakh’s countless Armenian inscriptions or if it continues state-sponsored pilgrimages to Armenian sacred sites to rebrand them “Caucasian Albanian.”

The latest such known visit took place one month before the ICJ decision, when a small group of people belonging to the tiny Udi minority, descended from Caucasian Albanians, visited the medieval Spitak Khach church in Hadrut, a region that until late 2020 had been continuously inhabited by Armenians for two millennia.

During their pilgrimage, the Baku-backed visitors, whom pro-government media described as the church’s “real owners,” proclaimed Spitak Khach’s Armenian inscriptions “modern” and “fake,” even though they have been long documented, including through a tsarist-era photograph of the site’s prominent 14th-century cross-stone.

The relabeling of Armenian monuments should not give false hope for their preservation; before their destruction, Nakhichevan’s Christian sites were likewise proclaimed non-Armenian. Commendably, the ICJ decision referenced an international concern regarding Azerbaijan’s rebranding of Armenian monuments as “Caucasian Albanian,” suggesting that less violent forms of cultural erasure, such as cultural misappropriation and historical negationism, can also be racial discrimination under international law.

Since only Azerbaijan-approved visitors are currently allowed to visit its newly gained territories, it might be impossible to monitor the fate of the region’s numerous indigenous inscriptions. It would be easier, on the other hand, to monitor if and how Azerbaijan applies the ICJ ruling to its ongoing so-called renovation of the Holy Savior cathedral visible from a distance both to satellites and to local Armenians, who are now largely concentrated in Russian peacekeeper-protected Stepanakert.

Azerbaijan may already be in violation of the ICJ order to punish cultural destruction: Instead of calling for an investigation, this week the country’s president denied demolishing cemeteries in Hadrut.

Last month’s ICJ ruling is not perfect, especially since it leaves heritage crime monitoring and accountability mechanisms unaddressed. But it is a long-term victory locally and globally, because it confronts the issue of cultural survival—while bringing to account state-sponsored attacks against religious and cultural monuments as forms of racial discrimination.

The author’s recent research for this article was supported by an Armenian General Benevolent Union grant.

Simon Maghakyan is a visiting scholar at Tufts University; lecturer in international relations at the University of Colorado Denver; Ph.D. student in heritage crime at Cranfield University, funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation; and executive director of Save Armenian Monuments. Twitter: @simonforco

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