How unbiased are “Western democracies” in mediating conflicts?
Western democracies are increasingly accused of “double standards” in their foreign policies.
As Amyn Sajoo, international policy and human rights expert and currently scholar-in-residence and lecturer at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, elaborates in one of his articles, while Western leaders and institutions quote the international law when protesting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they can ignore the law in other conflict areas.
When the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out in September 2020, “some Western media outlets demonstrated an openly partisan attitude in reporting the conflict”, writes Brussels-based independent media outlet EU Reporter. As the article points out, both independent experts and renowned media organisations (such as the UK-based BBC and France-based The Observers) shared non-verifiable “fake news” against Azerbaijan.
In addition, “Nagorno-Karabakh” was called “a disputed region”, thus rejecting the international law that considers the region part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Some western news sites would try to describe this regional conflict as a religious one. For example, in one of their articles BBC specifically pointed out that “Armenia is majority Christian while Azerbaijan is majority Muslim”.
Is the art sector far from politics?
Contemporary Azerbaijani artists say to the contrary that politics often interfere with the arts. Artists interviewed for this article reported facing discrimination during and in the aftermath of the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
What remained from a 455-word interview and why?
When Artnet News journal emailed several Azerbaijani artists on November 3, 2020 they were hopeful in thinking that this would be a good opportunity to build a dialogue through art amidst the war and mutual hostilities. The journal’s Europe editor Kate Brown had pointed out that the journal “would like to run a story that hears directly from artists working in the region about their concerns, experiences, and hopes with regards to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”. However, Azerbaijani artists interviewed for the article were “shocked” when the piece was published. Olga Seleznyova, manager to the renowned Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed, says both herself and Faig thought, like all other Azerbaijani artists, that this article was going to be about ways to heal post-war wounds and help build a relationship and a dialogue after the 30 year conflict. But this was not the case. According to Faig Ahmed, his 455-word interview was cut completely leaving only 2 sentences and one of those was purposefully taken out of context. From part of his interview where he talked about his wish for all ethnic groups to live in peace within the legal borders of Azerbaijan and his hope for art to heal wounds and unite people, Artnet News used only one sentence: “He says he has already begun planning an art exhibition in Shusha”. The original of the interview read as following: “Azerbaijan has always been a multicultural, multi-ethnic and all religions friendly land. I want all the peoples of Azerbaijan … to live peacefully within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. And I know that the day of de-occupation is close. Therefore I’ve already started planning an art exhibition in Shusha. Art is the language all of us can speak, it ignores borders, heals wounds and unites people of any background”.
What are the requirements of an unbiased news photo?
The article violates the international law and calls “Nagorno-Karabakh” “the disputed region” twice. Baku-based photo journalist Ahmed Mukhtar says that the abovementioned article “also violates journalism’s fairness and impartiality principles”. According to him, to ensure impartiality with such sensitive topics, the photo must be chosen carefully. This photo must either be entirely impartial, or depict the reality of both sides (for this two photos can be published side by side), or a photo building a bridge between the two sides should be selected. In this article, however, the first photo is a Christian “destroyed religious painting among the destruction in the cathedral”, the remaining two photos are of a Christian icon and a monastery. Ahmed Mukhtar is an internally displaced person from Azerbaijan’s Aghdam region. Ahmed and his family had to flee Aghdam in 1993 when the Armenian army attacked and occupied the region. Suffering from the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan from childhood, growing up he made a decision to advocate for peace between the two countries and he has been actively participating in peacebuilding projects for more than 10 years now. As a photo journalist experienced in conflictology and peacebuilding, Ahmed Mukhtar raises serious concerns regarding the article by Artnet News: “One must always refrain from writing such biased articles. Because writings as such usually worsen the conflict and increase hostilities between the sides, especially if there is an active war”.
But the article was still published
The article either leaves the losses of Azerbaijani side out completely (for example, Armenian army’s missile attacks on the cities of Ganja and Barda away from the war zone killing and injuring civilian population and destroying civilian houses is not mentioned) or the losses are described in a generic, non-specific language (for example, the articles says that “the destruction of several historic Azeri sites has also taken place” but does not mention the names of the destroyed places or structures, when and by whom they were destroyed). Losses of the Armenian side, to the contrary, are described in details. Despite the objections of all Azerbaijani artists interviewed for the article, the authors simply removed the interviewees’ photos from the article and made two edits to the article (these are given at the end of the article). Regardless of the objections the article was published and the authors refused to make any further amends.
Is “deep-rooted” a nationalistic term?
A few months after this incident, in February 2021 Baku-based photographer Malak Bayramli was taken out during the voting stage of DokuBaku LAB laboratory conducted within the international film festival “DokuBaku” due to her project on Karabakh. Foreign members of jury called her project “very nationalistic” and based their opinion on Malak calling mugham Karabakh’s deep-rooted music genre in her project synopsis. According to foreign members of jury, “deep-rooted” was a very nationalistic term and was against the competition’s impartiality rules. Malak says she was very disappointed to not be allowed to talk about Karabakh as an Azerbaijani and felt censored by the selection committee. Despite receiving no constructive feedback on her project’s content and style, it was excluded due to foreign jury’s biased opinion on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. “DokuBaku” is an independent International Documentary Film Festival held in Azerbaijan. Films presented at the festival are selected by a committee comprising of independent Azerbaijani and foreign experts. DokuBaku LAB is a training programme held as part of the festival for local filmmakers.
Paris-based Azerbaijani artist Babi Badalov says western organisations rarely demand impartiality when Karabakh conflict is presented from the Armenian perspective: “Film “Black Bach Artsakh” shot in 2021 peacefully toured Europe’s cities and European organisations that funded the screenings neither protested, nor demanded impartiality”. “Black Bach Artsakh” is a film by Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri based on interviews with the Armenian population of Karabakh in 2007 and is shot in Karabakh, a region that legally belongs to Azerbaijan in international law. Sovereignty of “self-proclaimed state” “Artsakh” is not recognised by any UN member state, including Armenia. Yet, the title of the film includes the name of an unrecognised state and the content covers only opinions of Karabakh’s Armenian population. Karabakh’s Azerbaijani population is not part of the film and nowhere is it mentioned that 13 years before the interviews were conducted about 800,000 Azerbaijanis had to flee Karabakh. The reason is that as a result of the attack of the Armenian army, Karabakh was occupied over the course of 3 years from 1991 to 1993 and no Azerbaijani resident remained there.
Is there a middle point between 13 years after and 13 years before?
The film was screened at Berlin International Film Festival and later in other European cities, including Paris and London by European Cooperation Project ‘4Cs: from Conflict to Conviviality Through Creativity and Culture’. After the official objection of the Azerbaijani government, Berlin International Film Festival removed part of the film description from its website; however, it refused to take the film out of its programme. The film’s description is left empty on the IMDB film website. During screenings in Paris and London, though, the film’s description was kept in its initial form – non-factual, speculative and consisting of false information. The description says: “This film remembers events from a place called Artsakh in the year 2007 — a middle point — exactly 13 years after the 1994 cessation of hostilities in the struggle for liberation and self-determination by Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian inhabitants, and 13 years before the 2020 invasion by the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan, which enlisted Turkey’s military and several thousand mercenaries from Syria to conquer those same lands as its country’s sovereign domain.”.
In all cases the film was screened as part of the programme “Sensible Grounds” curated by Azar Mahmoudian.
When should the international law be recognised?
Berlin International Film Festival receives funding from the German Federal Government. In Paris, the screening of the film was financed by Ensad and Creative Europe, and in London by Royal College of Art and Creative Europe. Ensad and Royal College of Art are public educational institutions receiving funding from French and UK governments, respectively. Creative Europe is “the European Commission’s flagship programme to support the culture and audiovisual sectors” and is funded by the European Union.
Recently Berlin International Film Festival has placed a banner on its website condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine “which violates the international law”. But in 2021 when “Black Bach Artsakh” was included in the festival’s programme the international law was forgotten.
Does an apology solve the problem?
This year on March 9, Weltkunstzimmer Art Center located in the city of Dusseldorf, Germany announced a residency for artists from South Caucasus. The center belongs to the Hans Peter Zimmer Foundation. One issue in the announcement draws attention. It says that the project is open to artists from Armenia and Georgia. Zuzu Zakaria – Norwegian-Azerbaijani electronic music producer and singer based in Finland says she was extremely surprised to see this announcement, as all international projects on South Caucasus always cover all three countries – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Zuzu was among several Azerbaijan artists who publicly objected to the Weltkunstzimmer Center’s Facebook post. On March 27, the Center responded to objections by apologising “for this honest mistake” and replaced the term “South Caucasus” on the post with “Armenia and Georgia”. After the changes to the post, the authors closed the comments section. Zuzu believes excluding Azerbaijan from the project is discrimination and “taking into account the fact that the project is funded by the government”, this should have been avoided. The residency, conducted from May 9 to July 3, was funded by the Ministry of Culture and Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia and by the Cultural Office of the City of Düsseldorf.
The latest discrimination against Azerbaijani artists happened within the “Documentary Photography in the South Caucasus” project. The event funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation was held in Tbilisi, Georgia in July 2022. This was the first year of a five-year project aimed at supporting the development of documentary photography and film in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Unexpectedly, Armenian artists refused to be exhibited alongside Azerbaijani artists. Exhibition organisers – the Georgian Association of Documentary Photographers and Adjara Group – decided, without consulting Azerbaijani participants, that Armenian artists will be exhibited in the first two weeks of the exhibition, while Azerbaijani ones will be shown in the last 2 weeks.
“Make your voices heard and demand justice”
In addition, the exhibition opening was decided to be held with Georgian and Armenian artists but without Azerbaijani ones. One of the participants, Sitara Ibrahimbayli, Azerbaijani photographer selected for the exhibition, says “We were very disappointed. We were not even part of this discussion. We were told as a matter of fact that this was how the exhibition was going to be held”. Azerbaijani artists were offered to participate in the closing ceremony, as they were not going to be part of the opening. However, during the opening it turned out that part of the works by Armenian artists were about the Karabakh conflict accompanied by texts violating international law. After the objection by Azerbaijani artists and the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgian organisers decided to remove not only these texts, but also texts of all photographs in the exhibition. As a result, 6 out of 10 Azerbaijani photographers selected for the exhibition left the project citing discrimination and disrespect as their reasons. At the end, organisers apologised to Azerbaijani participants for the problem caused and promised to be more careful and detailed in conducting the project, choosing the works and organising the exhibition next year.
“We take part in many international projects and receive support from many organisations. But this does not mean that we should stay silent when there are issues. Discrimination that we face affects us negatively both professionally and emotionally. This must stop. We are addressing all international organisations and funding agencies and demand that they follow international law and remain impartial. Do not deepen the conflict by supporting biased attitudes. I believe art can heal wounds and culture can unite people. To my colleagues, I would like to say that when you are faced with discrimination do not feel helpless, make your voices heard and demand justice”, says Sitara Ibrahimbayli.