UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed her alarm at the continuing indiscriminate attacks on populated areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Monday, warning that the attacks may amount to war crimes.
“Since the conflict reignited in September with the terrible consequences we are now seeing, there have been repeated calls, including by myself, for the parties to take all feasible steps to avoid, or at the very least to minimise, the loss of civilian life and damage to civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, as well as to distinguish civilians from combatants, and civilian objects from military objectives,” Bachelet said in a statement.
“International humanitarian law cannot be clearer. Attacks carried out in violation of the principle of distinction or the principle of proportionality may amount to war crimes, and the parties to the conflict are obliged to effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate such violations and to prosecute those alleged to have committed them,” she added.
Like the statements of others, from heads of international organisations to heads of state, Bachelet’s statement was neutral, calling on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to abide by international law. This policy has not helped in finding a solution to the conflict that has now been ongoing for 40 days, however.
Over the past month, three ceasefire agreements have been brokered by Russia, France and the US, and all three have been broken by the Azerbaijani side, which has accused Armenia of breaking them.
On the same day that Bachelet made her statement, the Armenian village of Davit Bek in the Syunik region, an area that lies inside the Republic of Armenia and a long way from Karabakh, was attacked by Azerbaijani artillery fire. One civilian was killed, two were injured, and properties were damaged.
In the fifth week of the war, videos have started to come into light and have been circulated on social media, among them showing Azeri-Turkish troops executing two captured Armenians in military uniform. “In-depth investigations by media organisations have uncovered compelling and deeply disturbing information,” Bachelet said in her statement, adding that this “could” also be a war crime under the Geneva Convention.
In her statement, Bachelet mentioned that “the biggest single loss of life was on 28 October, when 21 people were reported killed and 70 others injured in a rocket attack on the Azerbaijani town of Barda.” But she failed to mention other videos that have gone viral showing the forests of Nagorno-Karabakh on fire as a result of the use of white phosphorous munitions in an Azeri-Turkish military attack that took place in an area where Karabakh residents had been hiding.
Calling on both sides in the conflict, Bachelet said that “amid deeply troubling reports that cluster munitions have been used by both parties, I call once again on Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop using them, and to join the more than 100 states that have ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions which comprehensively bans their use.”
According to Galal Nassar, head of the Arab and Regional Studies Department at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS), a think tank, an armed conflict between two states should be the object of peace efforts by international organisations led by the UN Security Council.
“Its intervention should be mandatory to ensure that there are no violations by the states in the conflict, such as the use of internationally banned weapons,” Nassar told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He added that if there are signs of either side using banned weapons, such as the Azeris using phosphorous weapons in the Karabakh forests, “that too should be investigated by the Security Council, which should send a team to the area and take samples in order to decide the kinds of weapons used.”
“Based on the results of such investigations, charges should be laid at the door of the state using the weapons and sanctions implemented accordingly.”
“In my opinion, failing to do so would be to refuse to end the crisis, and such behaviour would be simply sending the message that such international organisations are party to war crimes by not taking action to end the crisis,” Nassar, who believes in decisions and not just statements, told the Weekly.
In Geneva on Friday, in the presence of OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and after seven hours of meetings with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, an agreement was reached by Armenia and Azerbaijan to refrain from deliberately targeting civilian populations.
However, shortly afterwards the Nagorno-Karabakh capital Stepanakert was heavily shelled by Azeri-Turkish forces. This time the target was the downtown market, and in response Armenia attacked the Azerbaijani city of Tartar.
Since the start of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish and Azerbaijan leaders have denied the presence of mercenaries in the Azeri forces. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear in public speeches and during visits by officials of the two countries that Turkey supports Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus. However, he has always denied the presence of mercenaries among the Azeri forces.
Some days ago, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said his country did not wish to involve any third country in the Karabakh conflict “because the countries that surround us [Azerbaijan] are our partners and friends. This is a fight between us and Armenia, and everyone else must stay away from it.”
But Erdogan, Aliyev’s “partner and friend,” still made a speech at the Samsun-Sivas Railway completion ceremony in Turkey recently in which he stated that “we [the Turks] are in Syria, we are in Libya, we are next to our brothers in Azerbaijan. Turkey is showing the same honourable behaviour from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, from Syria to Libya, from Cyprus to Karabakh.”
Armenia has now released videos of investigations its forces have carried out with Syrian mercenaries caught and brought to Azerbaijan by Turkey, in which they speak about their experience in the war.
“International news agencies have reported on Turkey’s deployment of jihadists from Syria and elsewhere to Azerbaijan to fight against Armenians. Parts of the interrogations made by the Armenian forces were filmed and shared on social media. Obviously, this is an international terrorist attack organised by both Turkey and Azerbaijan against Armenians,” Turkish political analyst Uzay Bulut, formerly based in Ankara, told the Weekly.
She said that Armenian self-defence in the face of jihadist terrorists could not be seen as separate from similar European self-defence against same terrorists.
“An Armenian victory and official international recognition of Artsakh would help the international community in the fight against murderous terrorists. If this happens, Europeans and Armenians will have conveyed a strong message to jihadists and the regimes who support them that those engaging in unprovoked aggression against civilians will always be punished and brought to account,” Bulut said.
On Tuesday, Nagorno-Karabakh ombudsman Artak Beglaryan received the president of the One Free World human-rights organisation Maged Al-Shafei and Iceland MP Birgir Thorarinsson, who inspected the damage the region had suffered and stressed that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh must be placed under international protection.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an interview with the leading daily Russian newspaper Kommersant said that the number of mercenaries from the Middle East in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone is approaching 2,000.
“I would like to assure Mr Lavrov that we have managed to eliminate more than half of those terrorists, and in the near future we will fight more decisively to eliminate the rest,” was Nagorno-Karabakh President Arayik Harutyunyan’s answer to Lavrov, through his Facebook page.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly