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Military Action Raises New Risks to Civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh

By Denise-Nicole Stone

Vehicles carrying refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, a region inhabited by ethnic Armenians, queue on the road leading towards the Armenian border, in Nagorno-Karabakh, September 25, 2023. REUTERS/David Ghahramanyan

At the beginning of September, 120,000 ethnic Armenians lived in the Nagorno-Karabakh region where they had experienced several months of a humanitarian crisis, deprived of food and other essential resources. In mid-September, Azerbaijan led a military offensive in the region and quickly gained control over the territory. The Nagorno-Karabakh government agreed to dissolve itself, and over 100,000 people from the region fled to Armenia. Those who left feared what could happen if they were to stay. The events of the past several weeks have brought to the world’s attention the trauma that has been repeatedly inflicted on civilians in the region. The international community should focus on efforts that increase transparency, challenge longstanding impunity, and build a climate of mutual trust.

Azerbaijan’s offensive appears to have been decisive and may have brought a formal end to a long-simmering conflict. But what will these recent developments mean for the ethnic Armenians who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh, and for those who may seek to return to the region?

This piece aims to highlight potential new risks to the region’s civilian population drawing on existing information and developments that should be monitored closely to help assess risks of mass atrocities. 

Azerbaijani Offensive Triggers Mass Exodus

Since late 2022, the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan has been the site of an intensifying humanitarian crisis and rising tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In 2023, civilians in the region faced an Azerbaijani government blockade from April to September that prevented food, medicine, and other essential resources from reaching the region. The blockade was immediately followed by an Azerbaijani military campaign that targeted military installations and infrastructure and quickly gained strategic ground before a ceasefire was signed September 20. Nagorno-Karabakh leadership reported that 200 people were killed in the offensive, including ten civilians, and 400 were wounded. In the days that followed almost all ethnic Armenians fled the region, fearing their fate as Azerbaijan took official control of the territory. Many questions remain about the rights and security of those who remain and those who may return. 

A potential monitoring mission, as well as individual government efforts in the meantime, should keep a close eye on how ethnic Armenians who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh are being treated. International actors should pay special attention to the treatment of fighting age males, whether those fleeing are able to do so safely, and whether they are able to safely return home in the near future.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is changing rapidly and little reliable information from within the enclave is currently available about the latest conditions. Most information on conditions within Nagorno-Karabakh has come from outside, as until September 23, Azerbaijan did not allow journalists to report from within the region. A United Nations mission entered the region to assess the situation and address humanitarian needs for the first time in 30 years on October 1.

 The lack of transparency has isolated Nagorno-Karabakh and has created conditions in which atrocity crimes could be carried out with little accountability. 

Concerns About Future Risks to Ethnic Armenian Civilians 

In recent months, Azerbaijan has demonstrated a willingness to resort to brutal measures to achieve its territorial goal, including by preventing resources essential for survival from reaching the civilian population in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has previously asserted that citizens in the region must either integrate or leave. Over 100,000 people have fled to Armenia since the ceasefire agreement. The United Nations reported that as few as 1,000 ethnic Armenians may remain in the region. Many of those who have fled the region were hungry and sick from the effects of restrictions on essential resources. Refugees from the region require significant humanitarian assistance and the United Nations has issued an urgent appeal to aid in the protection and assistance of those arriving in Armenia. Many ethnic Armenians left because they feared the worst, given the longstanding history of violence in the region and rampant impunity for crimes against civilians. Those who remain and those who wish to return face an uncertain future, in the near-term they will face threats including: 

  • Severe Restriction of Essential Resources: The humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh is ongoing. A member of the ICRC’s Rapid Deployment Team listed the most urgent needs in the region as electricity, water and gas. The blockade has had long term implications on people’s health that will require consistent and continued assistance for those who leave and those who remain. 

  • Fear of Renewed Attack: Ethnic Armenians who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh may face renewed attack. On August 4, 2022 an Azerbajaini MP was quoted as saying “Azerbaijan considers the issue [the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict] to be an internal one. This is our territory. If the Armenians want to live here, they must accept our terms. If they want to resist, we will crush their heads.”  Similar rhetoric raises a concern that reemergence of resistance efforts or a rebuke of reintegration may trigger systematic violence against ethnic Armenian civilians who remain in and return to the region. Those who simply refuse Azerbaijani citizenship may be at risk, given the Azerbaijani government’s firm insistence on reintegration.

  • Threat to Military Aged Men and Detainees: In recent days, Azerbaijan has arrested and issued warrants for several Nagorno-Karabakh officials and witnesses have reported that Armenian men have been detained as they attempted to cross the border. Military aged men are at risk as they may be perceived to be responsible for the enclave’s resistance, and may be targeted by the Azerbaijani government. 

Timeline of Conflict

The Armenian genocide of 1915–1916 remains ever present in the minds of Armenians today. At that time, at least 664,000 and possibly as many as 1.2 million died during the genocide, which was perpetrated by Ottoman authorities and their collaborators. They arrested, deported, conducted mass killings, and created conditions intended to cause widespread death. Many Armenians view Nagorno-Karabakh as part of their historic homeland. The territory has been contested since 1988.

The current situation is rooted in longstanding tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory. Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan’s territory. In a 1993-1994 ceasefire, Armenia gained control of the area and Nagorno-Karabakh was given de facto independence. The ceasefire held until 2020 when fighting broke out again. In November 2020, Azerbaijan regained control of the region. A trilateral agreement between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia ended this war and maintained the region’s connection to Armenia via only one road, the Lachin Corridor. Russian peacekeepers were deployed to ensure the unimpeded passage of goods and people along the road. 

In December 2022, Azerbaijani activists blocked the corridor, seemingly protesting environmental conditions. In April 2023, Azerbaijan opened a checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor citing the need to disperse the protests, which ended within days, and control the flow of weapons into the region. Until July 2023, Russian troops and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were able to deliver aid to the region. As a result, civilians in the region faced shortages of food, medical supplies, fuel, and other necessities. 

On September 10, the parties agreed that the Lachin Corridor and the Aghdam road (a road connecting the region to Azerbaijan) would be opened simultaneously. After some delays, Russian aid was delivered to the region via Azerbaijan on September 12, 2023. On September 18, 2023 the ICRC simultaneously sent aid via the Lachin Corridor, for the first time since July, and the Aghdam road, in accordance with the agreement. 

On September 19, Azerbaijan mounted what it described as an anti-terrorist military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Authorities in Baku said that they would continue their operation until the separatist government surrendered and disbanded. Civilians were evacuated by Russian peacekeepers, however fuel shortages in the region caused by the blockade complicated the process. The following day, authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Russia. The ceasefire stipulates the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the region and that Nagorno-Karabakh disband and disarm its forces and engage in talks on reintegration into Azerbaijan. On September 28, the self-declared government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced it would dissolve in the new year. 

Responses to the Crisis

Prior to September 18, the ICRC repeatedly raised alarm about the deteriorating situation in the region and their inability to deliver life saving aid. In a February 2023 ruling, the International Court of Justice ruled that “Azerbaijan shall ensure uninterrupted free movement of all persons, vehicles, and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.” United Nations experts also urged that the corridor be reopened. On August 16, 2023, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the crisis. 

The US Congress has held hearings on the crisis in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Secretary of State Blinken has expressed concern over the situation and the State Department was reportedly in conversations with actors that ultimately led to the agreement to simultaneously open the Lachin Corridor and the Aghdam road. The United States has historically issued a waiver (to Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992) in order to provide military aid to Azerbaijan despite the Act’s prohibition. This year’s waiver remains under review. On September 21, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced a bill that would revoke the possibility of a waiver, blocking military aid to Azerbaijan, and would authorize foreign military financing for Armenia. USAID Administrator Samantha Power delivered a letter of support from President Biden to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and called on Azerbaijan to “take concrete steps to protect the rights of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh” and on September 26 announced $11.5 million in US assistance to the region. In remarks at a UN Security Council briefing, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called for an international mission in Nagorno-Karabakh that could increase visibility in the region, assist in documentation, and ensure that agreements are being enforced. 

Policy Options

The international community must keep Nagorno-Karabakh on the agenda moving forward.The United States government and other leaders in the international community should advance urgent efforts to protect civilians at risk of mass atrocities, promote accountability for crimes against civilians, and build the foundation for a peaceful future in the region.

Better understanding the experiences of those who have fled Nagorno-Karabakh is essential. Documentation, including of the alleged commission of crimes, must be conducted in line with international best practices. It should employ survivor-centered and trauma-informed approaches and ensure that interviewees provide informed consent as to how their information may be used and with whom it may be shared. Promoting ethical, survivor-centered documentation efforts and ensuring accountability for crimes against civilians may break cycles of impunity and dissuade future crimes. Documenting potential crimes to date may also advance the understanding of current and future risks facing civilians in the region. 

In order to protect civilians both in the near and long terms, the international community should monitor the following: 

  • Are people (especially men of fighting age) who want to flee the region able to do so safely?

  • Are people who remain subject to violence or harassment?

  • Are those who have left able to safely return to their homes?

  • Are food and resources able to enter the region unimpeded? Will there be continued or new restrictions on the flow of resources essential for survival? 

  • Do any negotiated agreements guarantee full rights for all people in the region?

  • What is the nature and reach of dangerous speech? 

  • Can independent researchers, monitors, and journalists access the region? 

As the international community responds to the ongoing crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, it should monitor these developments to assess the risk of mass atrocity and ensure the protection of civilians who remain and the rights of those who wish to return.

Denise-Nicole Stone is a policy assistant with the Simon-Skjodt Center.