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What Happened to the Promise of Leaving No One Behind?

The Need for UN Involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh


Artsakh is in a state of collapse. Almost the entire territory is now under Azerbaijani control, the mass exodus of the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) is underway and despite Baku’s promises of granting amnesty, fears of state officials and others becoming targets of persecution are palpable after the detention and arrest of former Minister of State Ruben Vardanyan. At the time of writing this article, 70,500 refugees have already crossed into Armenia proper through the Lachin Corridor with thousands more still on that journey.

On September 19, Azerbaijani Armed Forces launched a massive assault on Nagorno-Karabakh that lasted 24 hours. The fighting ended when a ceasefire was announced that stipulated the disarmament of the Artsakh Defense Army, leaving the Armenians defenseless. The attack followed over nine months of blockade, warnings by the founding Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court of genocide being committed against Armenians and reports about an accumulation of Azerbaijani troops along the Line of Contact. It seems unlikely that any Armenian will be left in Artsakh in the coming days.

Amid fears of ethnic persecution and credible fears of ethnic cleansing, tens of thousands of Armenians fled Artsakh using the Stepanakert-Goris road, a drive that usually takes two hours. However, it took over a day and in some cases two days to travel the same road. Satellite imagery shows an endless stream of cars headed toward Armenia. The people of Artsakh had been living in a state of terror since December 2022 when so-called “eco-activists” blocked the Lachin Corridor, cutting NK off from the rest of the world. The besieged population was deprived of adequate access to food, medicine, electricity and natural gas for more than nine months. Following the latest military offensive, once Azerbaijani authorities opened the Corridor, many were forced to flee their ancestral homes in a matter of hours with only the clothes on their backs. They arrived in Armenia, traumatized, exhausted, homeless. Stories of elderly people dying on the road, people jammed in small cars without food and water are numerous. To say that the humanitarian situation is catastrophic is an understatement. The time for being “concerned,” “seriously concerned” and “deeply concerned” is long past.

During the UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting that was convened following Azerbaijan’s September 19 attack, Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan very clearly laid out Armenia’s expectations from the UN with regard to the evolving situation in NK. From condemning the resumption of hostilities to creating a possibility for the deployment of a UN-mandated peacekeeping force to NK, Mirzoyan’s address was very targeted both in terms of providing concrete action points as well as calling out the UN Security Council for “failing to react adequately” on numerous occasions since the blockade. Over the past nine months, the Armenian Government has twice strategically utilized UN bodies in an effort to internationalize the situation in Artsakh and bring the attention of the world to the fate of ethnic Armenians there. The Armenian government should continue aggressively pushing for UN involvement in the situation in two concrete ways: by calling for an urgent needs assessment mission and a thorough investigation of human rights violations.

At the moment, any action that would require intervention by the Security Council does not seem feasible, because of the lack of consensus among the five permanent member states. The address of the Russian representative during the Security Council meeting (September 21) was a clear demonstration of that. He failed to adequately condemn Azerbaijan for attacking Artsakh and focused primarily on the important role Russian peacekeepers play on the ground. The Armenian side has been quite outspoken about the state of Armenia-Russia relations and Armenia’s discontent regarding the unwillingness and inability of its “strategic partner”  to counter Azerbaijani provocations in NK. In yet another sign of estrangement from Moscow, PM Nikol Pashinyan in his latest address said that the Russian peacekeeping contingent is responsible for enabling Azerbaijan’s policy of ethnic cleansing currently underway in Artsakh. The response of the Russian Foreign Ministry was one completely free of diplomatic niceties and directly blamed the Armenian leadership for adopting a “reckless approach,” having a “poor judgment” and “inconsistent stance.”

Comprehensive Assessment of Needs

Since the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been the only international humanitarian organization that had intermittent access to NK and was allowed to deliver humanitarian aid and transfer critically ill patients to Armenia. ICRC, however, heavily relies on its status as “an impartial, neutral and independent organization” with a strictly humanitarian mandate, to have access to areas that are sealed off from the outside world. Thus, the information the ICRC shared publicly throughout the blockade has been limited in scope and detail. The statement it issued on July 25, however, has been quite unprecedented in terms of the language used. It not only explicitly stated that the Committee is unable to bring humanitarian assistance to the civilian population through the Lachin Corridor but also mentioned specific food items that are either “increasingly scarce and costly,” or “not available” at all.  

 Although ICRC’s presence has been instrumental as an objective and neutral source of information from NK for the outside world, it has not been enough in terms of providing a comprehensive picture of the local needs. This was further complicated by Azerbaijan’s multiple attempts aimed at discrediting the legitimacy of the organization by abducting NK residents under the protection of international humanitarian law based on unsubstantiated accusations. Besides the limited capacity of the ICRC, no independent media or human rights organization has been able to gain access to NK or the immediate vicinity of the Lachin Corridor while it was blocked.

Almost 60% of the population of NK are already in Armenia and a comprehensive assessment of their needs remains essential. During the UN Security Council session on September 21, Miroslav Jenča, Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas, clearly stated in his address that the UN Secretariat “stands ready and prepared to conduct humanitarian needs assessment if given access.” Over the past nine months, there have been at least two attempts by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to gain access to NK to conduct an assessment, both of which have been blocked by the Azerbaijani side with different justifications. Jenča also underscored the fact that the UN does not have a presence in NK and “is not in a position to verify or confirm” anything that happens on the ground. Similarly, during the August 16 emergency UN Security Council session that was convened on Armenia’s request, the Director of OCHA’s Operations and Advocacy Division said that they are not “in a position to independently verify information regarding the movement of people or goods […], or on the well-being of civilians.”

Lack of presence can no longer be invoked as a justification for not taking a stronger stance that is rightly expected from the UN. The most recent statement issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that its “teams are on the ground, trying to provide immediate assistance” and continue providing “technical support” to the Government of Armenia. Unfortunately, providing “immediate assistance” will not be enough. The people of Artsakh have been unrooted; some of them have left with nothing but their clothes; most had no proper access to medical services for months. A comprehensive needs assessment mission by OCHA or by other UN agencies with a humanitarian mandate, including the World Food Programme, UN Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization is needed more than ever. Besides allowing the UN to have a holistic understanding of the impact of the blockade as well as the Azerbaijani aggression disguised as an “anti-terror operation” on the civilian population, it will also demonstrate UN’s commitment to its ideals.

Protection of Human Rights

Rights and security guarantees for the Armenians of NK were one of the stumbling blocks of the “peace treaty” that Armenia and Azerbaijan were actively negotiating through the mediation of American, European and Russian partners since May of this year. In light of the mass exodus currently underway, Azerbaijan’s promises to protect the rights and security of ethnic Armenians have little credibility and hardly matter now. During last week’s UN Security Council session, almost every country representative that addressed the council stressed that the protection and essential needs of the civilian population, including their human rights, must be the overriding priority. It most certainly has not been the overriding priority over the past nine months. The Azerbaijani government has over the years clearly demonstrated that it has no intention or willingness to ensure a dignified life for Armenians under its control. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has thoroughly documented in its five reports published between 2002 and 2023 the “persistence of negative climate against Armenians” over the years. The most recent oneconfirms that “the public discourse [against Armenians] has been marked by the use of inflammatory rhetoric in public statements by politicians, including at the highest political level, and other public figures, as well as by the wide dissemination of hateful content, in traditional and social media.”

After a comprehensive needs assessment is conducted, thorough investigation and reporting of human rights violations should be the next logical step. Local fact-finding missions conducted over the past week have already unveiled violations of international humanitarian law, with registered incidents of indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructures by Azerbaijani Armed Forces in its most recent attack. The scope of human rights violations throughout the blockade, from creating conditions incompatible with adequate livelihood to arbitrary detentions are also very well documented and corroborated by reputable human rights organizations. Described as the “crown jewel” of the UN human rights system, the institution of UN special rapporteurs has been established for exactly such situations, to ensure thorough examination into countries or territories with particularly serious violations of human rights. They have also been established “to pierce the veil of national sovereignty” of states in order to protect and promote human rights worldwide. In other words, the appointment of special rapporteurs is an attempt to limit states’ ability to invoke sovereignty over a territory as justification for the commission of human rights violations. Although special rapporteurs lack enforcement mechanisms and the recommendations they make are not binding, their appointment usually functions as a way of putting the international spotlight on the human rights practices of the government concerned. Country specific special rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council for one year and their appointment does not require confirmation of the UN Security Council. Their mandate is quite broad, with the ability “to examine, monitor, advise, and publicly report on human rights situations.” Appointment of a special rapporteur was also among the recommendations that Freedom House listed in one itsstatements, issued days before Azerbaijan’s large-scale attack.

For months, the Armenian Government has been calling for an international presence in Nagorno-Karabakh. The UN, among other international actors, failed to take the situation with the seriousness that it demands. After months of inhumane and degrading treatment, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh who have experienced trauma enough for a few lifetimes, have been uprooted again and forcibly displaced. It is time for the UN to live up to its ideals if it wants to remain relevant.



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