oDR: Opinion

The silence of our friends: what has been the global civil society response to the war in Nagorno Karabakh?

As a brutal war rages over Nagorno Karabakh, for many Armenians the lack of international response is deafening.

Arpy Manusyan Mariam Khalatyan Nvard Margaryan Armine Ishkanian
12 October 2020
An unexploded rocket in Martuni village, Nagorno Karabakh
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(c) Celestino Arce Lavin/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Since Azerbaijan launched a military strike along the entire line of contact with Nagorno Karabakh on 27 September, a war has been raging. Parties to the conflict include Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Moreover, there are growing reports from international news sources that Syrian mercenaries have also been recruited to fight against the Armenian side. A week on, hundreds have lost their lives and the once thriving capital of Nagorno Karabakh, Stepanakert, along with other cities and villages have been heavily bombarded. And yet, for much of the international community, this war seems to barely register as a blip on their radar.

This lack of attention, coverage, and response is not limited to the international media. It has also been a feature of many international NGOs, including human rights and humanitarian organisations - many of whom have worked or are working with Armenian civil society groups.

In this article, we consider the responses, or lack thereof, of international civil society and Armenians’ reactions to it. Our title references Martin Luther King’s famous words, which many Armenians in recent days have quoted: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends…”

The problematic rhetoric of both-sidism

On 27 September, scores of Armenian civil society organisations penned a public appeal to the international community condemning the “aggression by the Azerbaijani regime” and asking international bodies and human rights organisations to react in a timely and appropriate manner. Writing again on 30 September, they expressed their anger with the silence, challenging the neutrality of international actors, maintaining that such a stance fails to appreciate the overall political context and instead appears to be asking the targeted population to “stop defending itself”.

When there have been responses, these have either been limited to expressing “concern” or focusing on an artificially neutral rhetoric of “both sides”. Moreover, one can note that the statements of international organisations, especially those dealing with human rights violations, are lacking the overall human rights language. These statements tend to be more political and/or politically correct, seemingly not to lose the balance of “neutrality”. They tend not to record, state, and condemn the human rights violations, the violations of international humanitarian law, and the violations of the human rights of the people affected by these bombardments, as if people living in non-recognised states are not entitled to human rights.

Apart from writing appeals to international partners, Armenian civil society is engaged in solidarity and mutual support, by collecting food, clothing and medical supplies and finding temporary shelter for the women, children, and elderly fleeing from the bombing in Nagorno Karabakh.

In Azerbaijan, despite years of persecution and crackdowns against civil society organisations, a group of Azerbaijani peace activists released a public statement on 30 September expressing their anti-war stance, stating: “Our enemy though is not a random Armenian, whom we have never met in our lives and possibly never will. Our enemy are the very people in power, those with specific names, who have been impoverishing and exploiting the ordinary people as well as our country’s resources for their benefit for more than two decades.” On 6 October, the Caucasus Talks portal published a “Peace Statement” that advocated for an immediate ceasefire and inclusive negotiations encompassing all of the Armenian and Azerbaijani parties to the conflict. The statement was signed by more than 1,000 people from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and elsewhere.

These are of course important efforts, but voices for peace are in the minority, not just in Azerbaijan but also in Armenia.

The absence of solidarity

Armenians in Armenia and the diaspora have taken to social media to directly reach out to friends and colleagues to raise awareness and ask for support – both moral and humanitarian.

In these impassioned videos, they ask their friends to speak up, to educate themselves about the war that is raging, and to understand the dangers of this war not only to the immediately affected populations, but more generally. Young American-Armenians have taken to blocking freeways in Los Angeles and also protesting in front of the CNN offices to draw media attention and to criticise the “false equivalence” in the reporting. Some have angrily posted the hashtag #ArmenianLivesMatter, expressing their dismay with the lack of concern, let alone solidarity, expressed by international colleagues. The greatest disappointment is with so-called progressive allies who don’t miss opportunities to speak out against injustices elsewhere, including the neo-imperialism and neo-colonial policies of European countries, the US or Russia, yet seem strangely silent on this issue in which Turkey, as an ally of Azerbaijan and direct party in this war, is pursuing neo-imperialist, neo-Ottomanist expansionism in the South Caucasus. The lack of concern and solidarity demonstrated by international colleagues and partners has led many Armenians to feel isolated, that they are alone in this and so, must solely rely on themselves.

The lack of response is in part due to fear of reprisals from Azerbaijan or Turkey. Rapper Cardi B took down a social media post after getting targeted by Azerbaijani nationalists. When Armenian intellectuals in London wrote an open letter this past week, they found it difficult to get non-Armenian signatories. Several people who refused to sign the letter explained that they were not refraining because they did not agree with the text of the letter, but because they felt that signing it might jeopardise their future research in Turkey.

The failure of track two diplomacy

Since the 1990s, there have been efforts at peace-building and reconciliation. It is now plainly obvious that these efforts have been a failure. While domestic, regional, and international NGOs have received millions in grant funding over the past three decades to pursue these objectives, through dialogue, art and cultural events, and scores of reports and films, their efforts have not borne fruit.

There is now less trust among the populations towards one another than there was in the 1990s and the mistrust deepened after the escalation in 2016. It would appear that the impact of these peace-building exercises were limited solely to the participants and never permeated more widely to the respective societies in Armenia or Azerbaijan, where nationalist sentiments continue to dominate. Furthermore, peace-building projects initiated by international NGOs, which were aimed at reconciling Armenian and Azerbaijani societies, remained at the margins, as the same circle of people (mostly English speaking, progressive young people, some of them living abroad) were taking part in those activities and were far removed from the general populations, especially those directly affected by conflict. The normative assumptions that global civil society is the answer to war or the hopeful sentiments that such efforts are a promising start seem overly optimistic in the current context. It will be important for future researchers to ask why such civil society based efforts have had so little success and to critically examine the premises, assumptions, and approaches of track two diplomacy.

Today, the war continues to rage and peace seems very distant. Following almost 11 hours of negotiations in Moscow, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a humanitarian ceasefire on 10 October for the exchange of prisoners of war and bodies of the dead. This ceasefire was stillborn, as despite this agreement, Azerbaijani forces intensified drone strikes along the southern direction of the frontline. The drone strikes targeted the Syunik region of Armenia.

A durable and lasting peace is of utmost importance. What remains clear for Armenian civil society is that there can be no peace without democracy, human rights, and justice.

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