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Human rights in the two Karabakh Wars

Ethnic cleansing, the abuse of civilians and prisoners of war, and cultural vandalism are well documented features of the wars over Nagorno-Karabakh.

February 16, 2021 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh during the first war in 1992. Photo: Ilgar Jafarov wikimedia.org

The United States has been absent from Eurasia for a long period of time. Both the Obama and Trump administrations largely ‘sub-contracted’ the region to Western Europe and Russia. This was clearly seen during last year’s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, this is now likely to change as President Joe Biden is set to take a more robust stance on Russian activities in Eurasia and elsewhere.

There are three components to the human rights abuses that have occurred in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh. These include ethnic cleansing, the abuse of civilians and prisoners of war, and cultural vandalism. Ethnic cleansing has been largely ignored in reports about conflict in the former USSR. An online search will return many articles about human rights abuses committed by Azerbaijan against Armenian prisoners of war. At the same time, it is difficult to find a single article about the human rights violations inflicted on Azerbaijani prisoners by their Armenian captors. Similarly, every article on the internet on cultural destruction is concerned with threats to Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This focus on abuses committed against Armenians and their cultural heritage is the product of a Western Orientalist understanding of the South Caucasus. This sees the region cast as part of an ‘age-old conflict’ between Christians and the Islamic world. In reality, the two Karabakkh wars have nothing to do with religious conflict or clashes of civilisations.

Current human rights abuses are taking place not in a vacuum but within the context of nearly four decade territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. This dispute began in the late 1980s with the start of the first Karabakh war. Human rights abuses and ethnic violence took place on both sides. At times, these were instigated by the Soviet secret police KGB (as in other republics, such as Georgia and Lithuania) and supported on the Armenian side by former Soviet/Russian security forces. These groups aimed to continue a policy of ‘divide and rule’ in the South Caucasus.

Ethnic cleansing as a consequence of inter-ethnic conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and other regions of the former USSR has traditionally been ignored in Western writing about Eurasia. Despite this, the issue remains a serious problem in the region. Around one million Azeris fled from Armenia and Armenian-occupied territories inside Azerbaijan as refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Far fewer Armenians, around 200,000, fled from Azerbaijan and became refugees. In other Soviet republics, 300,000 Georgians became IDPs after they were forced to flee from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Meanwhile, 1.7 million IDPs within Ukraine, as well as 400,000 refugees in Russia, were forced to flee from the Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimean regions.

Armenians and pro-Russian separatists in the region have deliberately attempted to alter the demographic makeup of the ethnically cleansed territories under their control. This has mainly been accomplished by bringing in new settlers. Approximately 150,000 Armenians came to live in the seven occupied districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and in Nagorno-Karabakh itself. In Crimea, Russians have been brought in to replace many Tatars who have been forced to flee. This has thereby increased the ethnic Russian population of occupied Crimea.

After the seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh were occupied in 1994, the three quarters of a million Azeris that fled were never allowed to return. Those who fled or were expelled did not pursue a scorched earth policy before leaving their homes, villages and towns. However, Armenian settlers who were recently forced to leave these districts under the November 2020 peace agreement quickly adopted this tactic and destroyed everything they could. Although many Azeris plan to return to their hometowns, many of them are currently uninhabitable. The Economist has estimated that the cost of rebuilding these seven regions will amount to 15 billion dollars.

There is little to no chance that any of the Armenians who fled after the November 2020 peace agreement will ever return to the region. American reporter Simon Ostrovsky, a well-known and respected investigative journalist who covered Nagorno-Karabakh for PBS Newshour and the Pulitzer Center, believes that Armenian settlers who have fled should be allowed to return. Despite this, he failed to mention that their scorched earth policy has made this impossible. A report submitted by Azerbaijan to the UN documented how Armenian settlers “were disassembling and then burning houses, schools and other civilian infrastructure; removing cultural property, including archaeological artefacts; severing electric cables and poles; destroying gas stations; chopping down trees; and setting forests on fire in an attempt to leave nothing behind”.

Human rights abuses inflicted on Armenian and Azerbaijani POWs that have been documented by human rights organisations should be investigated by both governments and international organisations, such as the ECHR (European Council on Human Rights) and Council of Europe. Ostrovsky called upon Azerbaijan to hold its soldiers accountable for human rights abuses. This is something that President Ilham Aliyev has promised to do. At the same time, Ostrovsky claimed it is not possible for Armenia to hold its own offenders accountable because of political unrest in the country.

Ostrovsky discusses Azerbaijani human rights abuses over four paragraphs in his report. At the same time, there is only a token mention of the abuses committed by Armenia. All of his photographs also seem to focus on Azerbaijani rocket attacks. This is despite the fact that evidence linking Armenian forces to human rights abuses exists in the form of a 31-page document submitted to the UN over a month ago. It should be noted that Human Rights Watch has also focused on documenting Azerbaijan’s mistreatment of Armenian POWs. Human Rights Watch reported that it “is investigating videos alleging abuse of Azerbaijani POWs that have circulated on social media and will report on any findings”. As of writing it still has not published any reports.

Armenia comes out worse when it comes to indiscriminate rocket attacks. Amnesty International has estimated that eighteen long-range missile strikes were carried out during the war: eight by Armenia and ten by Azerbaijan. All eight of Armenia’s attacks were fired at population centres far from the war zone and these resulted in the deaths of 72 civilians. All ten of Baku’s strikes were fired into the active war zone in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, one missile went astray and hit the border village of David Bek. As a result, Azerbaijan’s strikes only killed 11 civilians.

Human Rights Watch claimed that Armenia “fired widely banned cluster munitions in attacks on populated areas in Azerbaijan during the six-week war over Nagorno-Karabakh”. The attack on the Azerbaijani city of Barda killed 21 civilians. Human Rights Watch added, “The use of cluster munitions violates the laws of war due to the weapons’ inherently indiscriminate nature” and that “the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions makes their use a violation of the laws of war, irrespective of whether there were legitimate military targets in the areas”. According to Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijan fired four cluster munitions into the active war zone in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Western reports of cultural vandalism have focused on the potential future threats to Armenian churches and other objects in areas now controlled by Azerbaijan. Armenia is asking Azerbaijan to protect its religious and cultural heritage despite its own very poor record of cultural vandalism in the seven districts it controlled before the war. Ostrovsky described the territories now controlled by Azerbaijan as “landscapes reminiscent of Hiroshima”. Thomas de Waal also writes of the “cultural devastation” that has taken place in the Armenian-occupied territories since the early 1990s, claiming that “The devastation inflicted on Azeri towns during the 28 years under Armenian control will be hard to undo”.

Armenia levelled many cities and towns and turned the surrounding lands into a vast minefield in order to separate them from Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action estimated that it would take between 10-13 years to remove all these mines and explosive munitions.

The subsequent destruction of cultural heritage following ethnic cleansing remains a key part of how occupying forces operate in post-Soviet space. In Crimea, Ukrainian and Tatar heritage is being vandalised and destroyed in order to promote the historical narrative that the region has always been Russian. Armenia supported cultural vandalism as part of a deliberate policy of eradicating Azerbaijan’s cultural and historical ties to the seven districts that it lost in the first Karabakh war.

In the Armenian-occupied seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, houses were destroyed, mosques were converted into sheds for pigs and cows, graveyards were vandalised, and historic and cultural buildings were altered and excavated without permission. Paul B. Osterlund has written about the town of Fuzuli and claims that the 27 years of Armenian occupation have “left it devastated”. Every structure apart from the central Juma Mosque was destroyed in the town of Aghdam. This building was subsequently used as a pigsty (attacking the sensitivities of Muslims) and as a military observation post. A former Azerbaijani museum in Aghdam was also used for livestock. Osterlund wrote, “Even long after the war ended, the destruction of the city continued as Armenians scavenged the ruins for anything usable”.

A report submitted on December 22nd 2020 by Azerbaijan to the UN stated, “Out of 67 mosques and Islamic religious shrines in those territories, 64 have been destroyed or significantly damaged and desecrated. Defiled by Armenian graffiti, the mosques in the Aghdam, Gubadly and Zangilan districts were used as pigsties and cowsheds. More than 900 graveyards were destroyed and vandalized in those territories”. Meanwhile, “cultural and religious sites, that existed there before the occupation were razed to the ground”.

In the first Karabakh war, Armenia was responsible for many more incidents of ethnic cleansing than Azerbaijan. Human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing took place on both sides, with Armenia firing more rockets into population centres outside the war zone. During Armenia’s 28-year occupation of seven Azerbaijani districts, it engaged in widespread cultural vandalism aimed at permanently changing the demographic makeup of the area.

Russia will no longer be able to do as it pleases should the US properly return to the region. President Biden will seek to confront Moscow and support pro-Western states in Eurasia. Meanwhile, American and wider Western reporting must drop this Orientalist ‘othering’ of Azerbaijan and discuss how ethnic cleansing, human rights abuses and cultural vandalism have been carried out by all sides involved in the conflicts of the former USSR.

Taras Kuzio is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Crisis in Russian Studies? Nationalism (Imperialism), Racism and War.

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