As known, during its 39th session in November 2017 the General Conference of UNESCO will elect, by secret ballot, the person proposed by the 58-member Executive Board as the next Director-General of UNESCO. There are nine candidates nominated from nine countries. Each candidate has submitted his/her background information along with the vision statement. The government of Azerbaijan has nominated Mr. Polad Bülbüloglu as a candidate for the post of Director General of UNESCO. From 1994-2006 he served as Deputy Chair of the National Commission of the Republic of Azerbaijan for UNESCO. In 2015, Polad Bülbüloğlu was granted “Through Art to Peace and Mutual Understanding” Special Award of the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko. On October 16, 2015 during the city festival Tbilisoba the Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Russia Polad Bulbuloglu was announced Honorary Citizen of Tbilisi for his contribution to the successful development of the relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Mayor of Tbilisi granted him an honorary diploma and a symbolic key from the city. It should be noted that this was the first time that the award was given to a non-Georgian citizen.
However, the candidate’s profile seems not to be complete, as these high achievements are overshadowed by a dark spot in the history. This very dark side obscures his greatness, for Mr. Bülbüloğlu’s name is associated with the vandalism of 21 century. Between 1988-2005 while Minister of Culture of Azerbaijan, he was a keen supporter of the policy of systematic destruction of Armenian cultural monuments, which intensified at the end of 1990s, stopped due to protests on behalf of few international organizations and then resumed in 2002. Old Jugha cemetery, the most significant Armenian cultural heritage in the region of Nakhichevan, once gifted to Azerbaijan by Stalin, was completely destroyed in 2005 and turned into a “military zone”.
Azerbaijan is a signatory to 1972 World Heritage Convention, which means, it pledges to conserve not only its national heritage but also to protect cultural heritage situated on its territory. Although Armenian cross-stones or Khachkars were inscribed only in 2010 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, UNESCO’s inactivity to protect historical sites poses a major threat to cultural heritage worldwide.
UNESCO, has neither assessed this destruction nor condemned or sanctioned it despite clear evidence and condemnation by international bodies such as the Council of Europe, International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the European Parliament, which on January 2009 adopted a resolution “calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to stop the ongoing destruction of medieval Armenian cemeteries and khachkars in southern Azerbaijan” after the parliamentarians were barred from inspecting the cemetery in 2006.
In 2003 Armenia sent a letter to UNESCO Director-General Kōichirō Matsuura asking to send a fact-finding mission of experts to Nakhichevan to see the destruction first-hand, however, it just resulted in delaying the vandalistic acts. Another sad fact is that in 2005-2009 the Director-General paid several visits to Azerbaijan, a country involved on the highest level in the destruction of hundreds of Christian monuments on its territory, and Azerbaijani president I. Aliyev awarded Mr. Matsuura “the highest distinction of the country, the Order of Glory”.
Another notorious example of UNESCO leadership is Director-General Irina Bokova who presumably owes her career entirely to her strong communist party connections and was implicated in corruption scandals. One of the vivid examples of this is that she manipulated recruitment procedures to appoint protégé with fake qualifications as her assistant. She has promoted Azerbaijan’s First Lady, M. Aliyeva, in the role of UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador despite a 2015 appeal by the European Centre of Press and Media Freedom for Aliyeva’s dismissal. According to their appeal, Aliyeva represents a country which failed in its commitment to UNESCO’s ideals and aims, which includes “protecting freedom of expression”.
In the light of this, Mr. Bülbüloğlu’s election would be another evidence of an over-politicized and corrupt administration of UNESCO, which will challenge the core values and aims of the organization. Moreover, the historical and architectural Shusha reserve is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Azerbaijan, which means, its inscription on World Heritage List may pose a serious threat to Nagorno-Karabakh international recognition efforts.
The critical challenges that UNESCO is facing today, namely the politicization of World Heritage Committee, which is the executive body of World Heritage regime and is vested with decision-making power to list and delist properties, while the selection process of sites on the World Heritage List is increasingly driven by countries’ political influence and national strategic interests, and UNESCOs financial crisis caused by US fiscal withdrawal (US contributed 22% of UNESCO’s total budget) after the agency voted to accept a Palestinian bid for full membership in 2011, has harmed the organization and its ability to operate properly.
UNESCO, charged with protecting our global heritage, must minimize the challenges impeding the implementation of its mandate. Due to the growing global challenges of world heritage conservation, UNESCO should review and renew its role in the field of cultural protection and preservation. The discussions on the reforms of UN system can create a unique opportunity to plan the future of the organization.
UNESCO’s already damaged reputation mustn’t be put at stake.
Anzhela Amirjanyan: Graduate in International Relations. Current stagiare at European Parliament.