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Cultural rights are human rights

We need positive examples in the South Caucasus and effective accountability mechanisms

Placido Domingo addressing the UN Seminar on Cultural Rights (Geneva, July 2017)

Hyestart participated in the seminar on cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This participatory seminar gave rise to interesting exchanges, presented positive examples and resulted in a number of concrete commitments (we will come back to them later on Hyestart), thanks in particular to the commitment of the special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune. The latter did not hesitate to use expressions like "Front line cultural heritage defenders". It is necessary to recall here that many people gave their lives to defend the cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan for example.

Many NGOs took the floor. We must welcome the participatory and open nature of this UN seminar. States also took the floor. We can deplore the weak state participation. There were at most thirty participating States on a theme that is so important. The Special Rapporteur stressed the need for a holistic approach (addressing all regions of the world in conflict and non-conflict zones, both educational and repressive, etc.). In the end, she said, accountability must be strengthened. We can only agree with her.

Turkey was not attending the seminar. While 50 Assyrian church properties have just been seized in this country, Turkey is an example of the destruction of cultural property outside of an area of conflict. For example, as recently recalled by Professor Khatchig Mouradian, near the village of Digor, 25 kilometers south of Ani, there were still a few decades ago five Armenian monasteries built between the 10th and 13th centuries. Today, after a state campaign of destruction, there remains only one monastery out of the five in question[1]. Would accountability mechanisms, if they were to be strengthened, be applied retroactively?

In the meantime, Turkey should develop a comprehensive inventory of Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and other cultural heritages, destroyed or damaged in recent decades, and Turkey should ratify the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions.

Many experts also took the floor. Some of them had unfortunately not obtained a visa and had therefore to intervene by video, remotely. This was the case in particular of Omara Khan Masoudi, former director of the National Museum of Afghanistan. He concluded with the following words: "A nation remains alive when its culture and history is alive."

Among the states, one should take a positive example and one that is less so in the region of intervention of Hyestart unfortunately. The positive example is that of Cyprus. Despite the failure of the reunification negotiations in Crans-Montana under the aegis of the UN, the two co-chairs of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (TCCH, under the auspices of the UN), a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot spoke one after the other to emphasize how the preservation of the Island's cultural heritage was conducted in good faith by the two communities on both sides of the Green Line.

Azerbaijan and Armenia, on the other hand, went through a gun battle. While Azerbaijan called for a stronger condemnation of cultural destruction in "occupied areas", asking for the creation of a mechanism for people to be able to voice complaints, Armenia urged the international community not to let conflict be used as an excuse to destroy cultural heritage that is not in a conflict zone, giving the example of the destruction of the cemetery of Julfa by the "neighboring State" between 1998 and 2005[2],[3].

Shushi Mosque

Armenia might, following the example set by Cyprus and despite the problems this island faced in this field, have also been able to give the positive example of the renovation under way - until the autumn of 2018 - of the Gohar Agha mosque in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh, thanks to the support of the IDEA foundation[4]. In this region, which is beset by a war that threatens to resume at every moment, the positive example that this can and must represent for the region in terms of trust and reconciliation cannot be emphasized enough.

In the face of conflict, we need more examples of this sort in the region (e.g., Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008).

[1] For more information, see

[2] Julfa was the largest cemetery of Armenian khatchars (more than 10000 dating from the 16th and 17th centuries) located in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan (actually located far away from Nagorno-Karabakh).

[3] See the report of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

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