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Procedure : 2006/2527(RSP)
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PV 16/02/2006 - 14.1
CRE 16/02/2006 - 14.1

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PV 16/02/2006 - 15.1

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Thursday, 16 February 2006 - Strasbourg OJ edition

14.1. Cultural heritage in Azerbaijan

  President. The next item is the debate on six motions for resolutions on cultural heritage in Azerbaijan.


  Justas Vincas Paleckis (PSE), author. (LT) Sadly, in various parts of the globe, as a rule, the destruction of cultural monuments is a consequence of or prelude to the extermination of people. Therefore, I support the resolution and the opinion that we must declare our position on the destruction of cultural heritage in Azerbaijan. In conflicts such as the one between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it is difficult to blame only one side. Cultural monuments there are being destroyed as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which in 18 years has claimed the lives of 25 000 people and made a million inhabitants refugees. Neither aggression, provocation from one side or the other nor the desecration of cultural heritage will help to unravel this entrenched conflict. Only if the sides seek negotiations, find a common political language and show good will, with the aim of drawing closer to the European Union, can the flames be put out. According to recent surveys, a large proportion of the populations in both states want to bring the conflict under control as soon as possible. Those states, which want to play an active role in the European Union's Neighbourhood Policy, simply must protect the cultural heritage of minorities appropriately.


  Marios Matsakis (ALDE), author. – Mr President, the destruction and desecration of a cemetery by anyone, anywhere, is a barbarous act. If such a cemetery is also a monument of special archaeological significance, then it is part of our common international heritage and its destruction constitutes, in addition, a crime against humanity.

The Armenian cemetery at Julfa is a Christian cemetery of exceptional historical and cultural importance. Disregarding an international outcry, Azerbaijani governments, whether by omission or – more likely – by commission, have been responsible for the systematic destruction of this monument over the last few years. The actual perpetrators of that atrocious act are thought to be Azerbaijani forces and Islamic fanatic civilians.

It is totally unacceptable for the Azerbaijani Ambassador in Brussels to have recently sent e-mails to MEPs in which he embarks on a viscous personal attack against one of the authors of this resolution and attempts to denigrate and insult the integrity and wisdom of this Parliament.

I strongly urge you to vote in favour of this resolution and thus send a very clear message of our feelings of concern and disgrace to the Government of Azerbaijan for the destruction of the Julfa cemetery.


  Charles Tannock (PPE-DE), author. Mr President, the alleged demolition in December 2005 of the mediaeval Julfa – also known historically as Jugha – Armenian burial grounds, with the breaking-up of the khachkars, or beautifully engraved headstones, is a serious desecration of European Christian heritage.

The Azerbaijani Government claimed the video footage documenting this is fraudulent Armenian propaganda. But I have received independent verification that the footage is genuine from a British architect, Steven Sim, an expert in the region. Furthermore, if there has been no destruction, why are on-site visits refused by the Azerbaijanis, who also, rather bizarrely, state that this could have been done by looters needing the stone for local building work?

Once more Mr Sim has stated that passage into the cemetery requires passing through Azerbaijani army-controlled territory, making such a thing almost impossible without official support and in clear breach of their duty of care to protect the site.

I have also been informed by the Azerbaijani Embassy that this destruction is nothing compared to the destruction of Azerbaijani mosques. I was indeed sent photos of destroyed mosques. That mosques in the war zone were destroyed in 1991 is undeniable and to be condemned without reservation, but the photos I was sent I believe represent destruction that took place 15 years ago, not 3 months ago. Furthermore, the Julfa site in Nakhichevan was never part of the war zone. Also, it is worth pointing out that I have been informed that the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have recently agreed to a project for the reconstruction of mosques destroyed on their territory.

We are now at a critical juncture in the talks between the two Presidents, Kocharyan and Aliyev, in Rambouillet, France, on finding a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. I therefore believe that any further planned destruction of Armenian heritage will not be conducive to lasting peace in the region.


  Marcin Libicki (UEN), author. (PL) Mr President, there is no doubt that all cultural monuments around the world are part of our common heritage and that they should not become victims of political events or, in particular, of war.

I would appreciate it if you would allow me to relate a personal anecdote. When I went to Armenia a few years ago and saw all those monuments and churches which have survived to this day since the early Middle Ages, I was reminded of my earlier visit to Spain, at the other end of the Christian world, a thousand kilometres to the west. I was impressed by how similar the monuments in these two regions were.

They were all monuments of early medieval culture. We are responsible for all the monuments in the world. Nonetheless those European monuments which bear witness to the cultural past and unity of Europe ought to be particularly dear to us, be they located in the remote eastern part of Armenia, the western borders of Spain or anywhere in between.

It seems to me that the events we are witnessing now are particularly distressing because the monuments being destroyed are more than just part of Europe’s heritage. They belong to the whole world. Azerbaijan’s responsibility is particularly clear. As Mr Tannock mentioned earlier, why does Azerbaijan not allow anyone to visit these places and assess the extent of the damage on site? Fortunately, we do know what happened as a result of barbaric decisions made by those in power in the region, and we have evidence of the damage on film.

This resolution must be passed and then we must monitor what happens next. The steps to be taken cannot be limited to words, however noble they may be. Words must be followed by actions and we expect Azerbaijan to take action.


  Marie Anne Isler Béguin (Verts/ALE), author. (FR) Mr President, it is vital to remember the importance of the EU's commitment in the southern Caucasus, which is still wracked by frozen conflicts, but is highly strategic and resolutely European. We are aware that Mrs Ferrero-Waldner is currently on an official visit to the region, but I would particularly like to launch an appeal to parliamentarians and an appeal to responsibility.

At a time when the European Union is negotiating action plans with each of the countries to promote the stability of the region, Armenia and Azerbaijan have entered a delicate, but hopeful, phase of peace negotiations regarding the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Presidents Aliev and Kocharian met last Sunday at Rambouillet, under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk group. The success of the process is the top priority, because it could indirectly lead to a resolution to the other conflicts in the region. It is thus a vital precondition to the general stabilisation of the region.

In this context, ladies and gentlemen, do you really think, in your heart of hearts, that now is the time to throw oil on the fire by deleting, as the amendments propose, the sections that quite rightly allow a balanced approach to the joint resolution that we all negotiated together the day before yesterday? We have already condemned the destruction of the cemetery in Julfa, in Mr Tannock's report from January, and we continue to condemn it. However, ladies and gentlemen, we cannot leave out the global context of the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has been responsible for thousands of deaths and refugees; the wounds are still raw. Can we also ignore the fact that 20% of Azerbaijan's territory is considered by Armenia to be a buffer zone for Nagorno-Karabakh and that various elements of the cultural and religious heritage of these occupied territories have also been destroyed? It is high time to stop this dangerous escalation. It would be irresponsible to deny the shared responsibility of the parties to a conflict and to refer only to the destruction caused by one side, and it would also be contrary to our commitment to support our Armenian and Azerbaijani friends in the desire to resolve their differences.

Finally, this resolution comes at a time of increased tensions between the Muslim world and the western world. A weak text could reduce these events to a simple clash between the Christian and Muslim worlds. I therefore ask you not to give arguments to the extremists of all sides by voting for a resolution which, if it were amended in line with certain proposals, would be unfairly partisan. It is a question of personal conscience, but it is also the credibility of the European Parliament and, more broadly, the activities of the European Union in the region that are at stake.


  Erik Meijer (GUE/NGL), author. (NL) Mr President, in the days when the Russian Tsars ruled, the Transcaucasus was one of the conquered areas on the edge of the Empire, where the territories of Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were not clearly defined, and where the peoples did not live in peace with one another, but were subjected to the undemocratic rule of the Russian state.

It was not until the 1920s that the three peoples were separated from one another administratively, each with their own territory. While this was necessary to secure peace, development and stability, it did mean that mixed areas had to be allocated to one of the groups that were involved in the conflicts. We can now see the effects this has had in minority areas South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and, above all, in Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhchivan, which are subject to both Armenian and Azerbaijani influences.

The temptation is considerable not only to drive out from those areas the people who belong to the neighbouring peoples, but also to destroy their historical buildings, places of prayer and burial and wipe out their memories for ever. Now that there is no longer an overarching Soviet Union that could deal with such excrescences, it has become even more critical that the rest of Europe should help to ensure that the neighbouring peoples coexist in peace and mutual respect in what are now independent states.


  Ioannis Kasoulides, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. Mr President, for the Armenian people – the victims of genocide and massive expulsion from their homelands – to witness the destruction of their cultural heritage is perhaps the last chapter in their total deracination. ‘Nothing is happening’, say the Azerbaijani authorities. I know that where there is smoke there is fire. This total denial reminds me of the total denial that the genocide ever existed, the claim that it is a figment of the Armenian imagination.

In an exchange of e-mails with me, the political affairs advisor of the Azerbaijani embassy wrote, and I quote ‘we cannot exclude that some poor peasants of relevant cultural level might secretly use the stones from the cemetery for building construction or other related works’.

I cannot be sure who the perpetrators are, but I am sure that the responsibility for safeguarding the integrity of these monuments is 100% Azerbaijani.


  Martine Roure, on behalf of the PSE Group. (FR) The town of Julfa in Azerbaijan is the site of an important Armenian cemetery that is unique in architectural terms. This cemetery bears witness to the history of a region where, until the first quarter of the 20th century, more than 80% of the inhabitants were Armenian. This site was abandoned in the Soviet era and, in 1998, the local authorities started to destroy it. At that time, UNESCO was very disturbed by this, which resulted in a temporary halt to the work of the bulldozers. UNESCO also contacted the competent authorities to protect this heritage, because the damage caused to this memorial site was very serious.

Corroborating elements and recent eyewitnesses tend to confirm the suspicion that this destruction restarted in December 2005. We should therefore call on Azerbaijan, as soon as possible, to allow a mission to go to the site in order to assess the measures needed, now and in the medium term, to preserve this site, so full of history and, what is more, memories and culture, which constitutes the heritage of a people.


  Urszula Krupa, on behalf of the IND/DEM Group. (PL) Mr President, today’s debate on human rights and democracy concerns the protection of the cultural heritage of the Armenian people, which is threatened with total destruction. Armenia, which has a population of 4 million, has been Christian since 301 AD, making it the first Christian country in the world. This fact is supported not only by historical documents but also by the thousands of crosses carved onto stone tablets, called khatchkars, which have been destroyed, just as other Armenian cultural treasures have been destroyed in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

The khatchkars, which are literally stone crosses between 0.5 and 3.5 metres high, were made of basalt. They were placed on a cuboidal base and the front of the stone, which bore the image of the cross, was positioned to point west. The Armenians saw the khatchkars as a protective power that would shield them from natural disasters. These structures were erected to commemorate important events they featured as compositional elements in sacred buildings and were also used as tombstones, always placed at the feet of the deceased.

A cemetery in Djulfa was destroyed recently. The cemetery dated back to the Middle Ages and was located in the region controlled by Azerbaijan. The scandalous process of devastation and destruction of Armenian cultural monuments began in 1998, when 800 of the stone crosses I described were destroyed. Although this process of destruction was temporarily halted following protests by UNESCO, it resumed in 2002. It is probable that the reprehensible destruction of Armenian cultural heritage is being carried out with the consent of the government of Azerbaijan, which sent special army units to destroy the stones bearing Armenian crosses.

Armenians have been persecuted for centuries. They have suffered as a result of war, aggression and occupation. They are a nation with a wealth of experience, both as a nation and as a Christian people. The Azeris have experienced destruction and suffering too, but it must be emphasised that no conflict can justify the destruction of cultural heritage, which is a common legacy for the whole of humanity.

Culture is an expression of communication between people, of shared thoughts and actions. It is a confirmation of humanity and a fundamental common legacy for communities. We therefore call for respect for our global common legacy, irrespective of religion and origin.


  Ryszard Czarnecki (NI). – (PL) Mr President, I remember my own impressions of Azerbaijan, of Baku, and of that enormous building in the centre of town, namely the hotel where the Azeris who had escaped from Nagorno Karabakh were camping out. It was a frightening sight. Those people had been squatting there for many years. Obviously, I have them in my thoughts today too, not just the monuments that we are quite rightly discussing.

I agree with Mr Libicki that as a matter of course, monuments should be protected in all parts of the world, and that their geographical location should be irrelevant. I also think that this issue is a sort of evasive tactic used by the government of Azerbaijan, however. It is an attempt to avoid addressing the lack of democracy, the recent and not very democratic elections, and also the ban on democratic freedom and free speech in that country.

It is worth fighting to preserve monuments. It is something that we should, quite rightly, do. At the same time though, we should also promote democracy in Azerbaijan.


  Eija-Riitta Korhola (PPE-DE). – (FI) Mr President, we wish today to condemn Azerbaijan’s continuing indifference towards the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Furthermore, the destruction caused to the cemetery at Djulfa casts a shadow on the country’s commitments as a member of the Council of Europe. Twelve years after the main conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the position of the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan is still very unstable, especially as far as respect for its cultural heritage is concerned. The destruction of the cemetery at Djulfa can be compared, for example, to the Taleban’s destruction of the pillars depicting the Buddha in Afghanistan. It is a matter of respect for the past and for the history of the human race.

What can condemnation of the events lead to? We still hope that an impartial agency can inspect the destruction at the cemetery in Djulfa and that the gravestones that remain can be repaired. We also hope that protest will help prevent the future destruction of cultural heritage. The devastation caused to the cemetery at Djulfa is a crime against people’s heritage and, as such, is to be condemned. The destruction of these unique Christian artefacts constitutes an irreplaceable loss for mankind.



  Joe Borg, Member of the Commission. Mr President, firstly I would like to thank the honourable Members for all their speeches. The Commission has been informed about the alleged destruction of artefacts in the Julfa Cemetery, in the Azerbaijani Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan delivered a statement at the 586th Meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council of 22 December 2005 and the issue was also discussed in the Council of Europe on 1 February 2006.

The protection of World Cultural Heritage sites in third countries is not within the Commission’s competences. We understand, however, that Armenia appealed to UNESCO, asking for a mission to be sent to Nakhichevan as rapidly as possible.

The Commission is well aware of the fact that episodes like the destruction in the Julfa Cemetery, if confirmed by independent sources, have a direct link with and are symptomatic of the long-standing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which has caused mistrust and destruction and claimed victims on both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani sides since the early 1990s.

The Commission will continue to use all the means at its disposal to persuade the parties to find a quick settlement to the conflict and, once a peace deal is hopefully reached, assist in the reconstruction and the rehabilitation of the region.

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh particularly unacceptable today in that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are part of the European Neighbourhood Policy, which aims, as a priority, to build confidence in the South Caucasus region, encouraging regional cooperation in as many sectors as possible and contributing to peace, stability and prosperity at the borders of an enlarged European Union.

It is an ambitious objective that we will try to achieve, including through the implementation of the action plans that the Commission is currently discussing with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In these documents we ask the three South Caucasus countries to undertake a number of steps in order to come closer to Europe. The documents cover a very wide range of subjects, including cooperation on education and culture and the protection of cultural heritage.

Implementation of the ENP action plans will be monitored closely by the Commission and the benefits which flow from these will of course be conditional on their achievements.


  President. The debate is closed.

The vote will take place at the end of the debate.

Last updated: 18 April 2006Legal notice