The International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan on Tuesday to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage sites during ongoing conflict in the region.

Cornell University researchers Adam Smith and Lori Khatchadourian have used high-resolution satellite imagery to monitor and document endangered and damaged cultural heritage in the South Caucasus. Their reports were used as evidence in the case.

Khatchadourian says:

“Yesterday’s decision sets a new precedent for cultural heritage protection globally. The court decided that abuses to cultural heritage can plausibly constitute racial discrimination under the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

“We hope this ruling will deter the egregious acts of damage and destruction that we have documented over the past year, under the auspices of the Caucasus Heritage Watch research group.

“The significance of the ruling extends beyond this one region. As UNESCO has proven relatively powerless to protect cultural heritage at risk in conflict zones, the World Court now emerges as a body that may be better able to safeguard irreplaceable cultural treasures and protect minority rights from the abuses of racial discrimination.

“We are pleased that our satellite monitoring reports were used as evidence in the case that resulted in this significant decision. Our work will continue, so that any violations of the court order are duly documented and can be used as evidence in continuing litigation, until a decision is made on the merits of the case.”

Smith says:

“The ruling dramatically upends traditional approaches to heritage preservation. Existing institutions dedicated to preserving humanity’s cultural heritage, like UNESCO, have proven ineffective in cases where minorities and their monuments are threatened by the very governments that fund UN activities.

“By recognizing that attacks on minority cultural heritage can be both a product of, and incitement to, racial hatred, the court has opened the door for descendant communities to invoke the CERD treaty in defense of threatened sites. In so doing, the court has issued a clarion call for archaeologists to not simply act passively as stewards for sites and monuments, but to actively join the global fight against racism.

“The increasingly widespread availability of satellite imagery, together with the judgement from the ICJ, provides watchdog organizations with important new tools for holding states accountable for attacks on heritage sites.”