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Azerbaijan: Armenian Monuments

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will make representations to the Government of Azerbaijan about the reported destruction of ancient Armenian monuments of cultural importance by Azeri troops in Nakhichevan.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are aware of and concerned by Armenian reports of the destruction and desecration of certain monuments and artefacts in Azerbaijan. We are also aware of and concerned by reports of the destruction of Azerbaijani cultural artefacts in territories under Armenian control.

We deplore such actions, no matter where or by whom they are committed, but the primary concern at this stage should be not the apportionment of blame but effective action to ensure the preservation of cultural and historical monuments on both sides of the current dispute. We consider this an issue for UNESCO to resolve and we are supporting its efforts to find a solution. We look to the Governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the active engagement of UNESCO, to comply with their international commitments with regard to the safeguarding of cultural heritage.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. I assure her that, if there were comparable evidence of widespread systematic destruction of Azeri cultural heritage by Armenians, I should be the first to join her in condemning that, but, to my knowledge, there is no such evidence. Is the noble Baroness aware that I was in Nakhichevan when Azerbaijan was using tanks to shell Armenian villages, forcing Armenians to flee their homeland and their precious cultural heritage of thousands of ancient, exquisite stone crosses and dozens of churches, which have now been destroyed? Will the Government urge Azerbaijan to allow uninhibited access by international organisations to assess the extent of that destruction?

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s long-standing close interest in Armenia. We would urge both the Azerbaijani and Armenian authorities to co-operate with UNESCO and the Council of Europe in their investigations into allegations of destruction of cultural sites in Nakhichevan and/or Nagorno-Karabakh. That includes allowing uninhibited access to missions from those organisations.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the destruction of the monuments is not merely a heartless act of spite against the Armenian community but that it diminishes the world’s cultural heritage and is the legitimate concern of the international community? Do the Government support the call by the Council of Europe to permit a delegation of scientists, working with the International Councilon Monuments and Sites, to visit the area and report on its findings?

My Lords, I entirely agree that it is not merely an act of spite—it is much more important—and that it is an issue for international organisations, which is precisely why we support the actions of UNESCO. The Government support the call by the Council of Europe.

My Lords, has there been any response from the Government of Azerbaijan to the proposal by the European Parliament of 16 February concerning the deliberate and systematic destruction of the Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhichevan? What is the Government’s view of the proposals, which are being discussed in the European neighbourhood policy context, that the European Commission and Council should facilitate the return of the people who were ethnically cleansed from the area of Nakhichevan from 1991 onwards and that they should incorporate in the action plan a clause protecting the few remaining sites from destruction?

My Lords, I am aware of the resolution of the European Parliament of 16 February. We actively support the growing relationship that Azerbaijan has with the European Union through the European neighbourhood policy. The EU and Azerbaijan are currently negotiating the content of an action plan. Whether or not the clause to which the noble Lord referred is being actively discussed, I do not know, but I shall certainly find out. I undertake to inform the noble Lord.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government support the actions of UNESCO. What are the actions of UNESCO?

My Lords, UNESCO is working with both sides to try to ensure that damage is not inflicted on this wonderful cultural heritage. UNESCO is trying to ensure that a mission goes into Azerbaijan to discuss these things. It is working at an international level, trying to bring people together and trying to stop the destruction of the monuments.

My Lords, my noble friend has obviously given some comfort to the House by saying that the Government are aware of what has been happening with regard to the destruction of these very valuable and unique pieces of art. Whether talks take place with UNESCO or anyone else, will my noble friend find out what has happened to the thousands of stone crosses that are missing or have been destroyed since the takeover of that area? Will she please go further and ask the Government of Azerbaijan to allow Armenians to return to Nakhichevan to rebuild their cultural monuments and restore their cultural heritage?

My Lords, I shall certainly make the point to the appropriate people and try to find out what has happened to the thousands of stone crosses mentioned by my noble friend. Cultural heritage is being destroyed in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. We call on both those countries to take appropriate action and stop inflicting damage on these things. We call on both sides to act.

My Lords, there seems little doubt that Azeri troops have inflicted deliberate—and apparently officially sanctioned—cultural damage on these grave sites, concreting them over and deliberately setting out to destroy them. Not only is that bad in every cultural sense, but it obviously does not help to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Might we not go a little further than looking to the Azeris to halt their actions or hoping that UNESCO will do something? Could we not use very much stronger words to the Azeri Government and say that this is not helping the peace we all want to see in that part of the world and that it is putting an ugly stain on the reputation of Azerbaijan?

My Lords, I entirely agree that this is not helping in either Azerbaijan or Armenia. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that this has a direct impact on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. It is important that discussions are taking place to try to resolve that conflict. We are working to do so with people like the Minsk group. In doing that, we must take account of the damage inflicted on the cultural sites, because it is part of a much wider problem.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend about the state of the memorial in Baku to the British and Commonwealth soldiers of Dunster Force, who died towards the end of the First World War while attempting to cut off the supply of oil to the Central Powers? Is she aware that the memorial was due to be opened by His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent in September 2003, but the ceremony was abandoned at the last moment and the site is now terribly neglected and vandalised? I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Group on War Graves and Battlefield Heritage.

My Lords, I am aware of the site and that His Royal Highness was invited to open it but was unable to do so because it was vandalised. We have been assured by the Azerbaijanis that they will give it the protection it deserves, and we are not aware of any further damage since 2003.