The EU must prevent a human rights emergency in Nagorno-Karabakh
New checkpoint installed by Azerbaijan on the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia shows the EU must act
Around 120,000 ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have been under blockade for the past four months.
The Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the world, has been blocked by self-proclaimed and Baku-supported activists. This is despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice this year ordering Azerbaijan to “ensure unimpeded movement”. Similar calls have been made by states and international institutions, including the latest resolution by the EU Parliament.
Currently, only a very limited amount of food and medication is arriving in Nagorno-Karabakh through Russian peacekeepers, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross – the only international organisation in the region. Food rationing has been introduced, with prices for basic supplies and food skyrocketing. Troubling reports also indicate children are having to take adult medication due to a lack of supplies. More than 860 businesses have suspended their activities and more than 50% of private sector employees have lost their jobs. Educational institutions are working with interruptions or have had to close. There are electricity blackouts as Azerbaijan disrupts the supply of natural gas and electricity.
The situation leaves little doubt that Baku is determined to create impossible living conditions for the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians.
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And now Baku has effectively taken control of the road from Russian peacekeepers by installing a checkpoint on the corridor earlier this week. Baku has been calling for it for months, alleging – among other things – that Armenia is using the road to illegally transfer military forces to Nagorno-Karabakh. In contrast, a recent report by the International Crisis Group found Armenia withdrew all its forces after the 2020 war. This latest development once again demonstrates Russia's inability to fulfill its peacekeeping mandate under the 9 November 2020 trilateral statement.
Lack of international response
“There is one condition for them to live comfortably on an area of 29,000 square kilometers – they must accept our conditions,” Azerbaijan’s president Aliyev stated in his recent speech talking about Armenia.
In November, Aliyev made explicit threats to use force against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, stating if they did not meet his country’s demands “they will see our fist again”. As stated in a March 2022 European Parliament resolution, Azerbaijani officials are continuing their “systematic, state-level policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians.” This creates risks for ethnic Armenians residing in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Encouraged by impunity, Azerbaijan has also resorted to provocations against Armenia itself. Azerbaijan’s tactics of gradually pushing into Armenian territory have already resulted in the occupation of 215 square kilometres near the border, threatening local populations’ security. At the inauguration of the “Great Return to Western Azerbaijan” initiative, which is an irredentist concept mostly to refer to the territory of Armenia, president Aliyev declared: “Present-day Armenia is our land.”
Azerbaijan uses these attacks to pressure Armenia to provide a land connection to Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave west of Armenia, at the expense of Armenia’s sovereign territory. Meanwhile, Armenia has agreed on many occasions to provide overland safe connection between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan across its territory.
In a welcome development and to help stabilise the situation on the border, in January 2023 the European Union deployed the EU Mission in Armenia (EUMA), a monitoring mission tasked with observing the situation at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The mission operates on the Armenian side of the border, given that Baku refuses to collaborate. EUMA was welcomed by Armenians, however its mere presence does not prevent a new large-scale military attack by Azerbaijan.
Human tragedy can be prevented
Experts warn of a growing risk of a significant military escalation, leading to possible crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. The power vacuum associated with Russia’s war in Ukraine creates an additional layer of vulnerability risking Armenia’s fragile democracy, while sending a message that the use of force can go unpunished. This would certainly benefit Russia, which is trying to undermine Armenia’s democracy.
In the light of considerable power imbalance between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the EU must use its leverage against both and step into more active mediation. The crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh requires direct talks between Baku and Stepanakert under an international mechanism to ensure Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians’ rights and security. In the face of ongoing threats, it is obvious the population there cannot live under the rule of Azerbaijan’s regime. It is critical the newly set-up checkpoint is withdrawn.
The UN has done little to date. In a recent letter to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a group of Armenian NGOs have requested an urgent mission to Nagorno-Karabakh – to the Lachin corridor as well as to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. In contrast to the EUMA, such a mission would have an explicit human rights mandate and provide independent reporting.
Without proper and urgent international attention and intervention, we will be witnessing a major human rights emergency that can be prevented.
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