On the International Recognition of Artsakh and Ending Civilian Suffering: A Conversation with Permanent Representative Robert Avetisyan
Anoush Baghdassarian (JD ‘22) and Harout Ekmanian (LLM ‘18)
*Note: Earlier today, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia announced that an agreement has been reached to end 43 days of bloodshed in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Artsakh, the longest bout of hostilities over the territory in the past 26 years. Yet while active fighting may have ceased, the need for attention to the significant human rights violations persists. Please read below to hear about the conflict from one of Artsakh’s own representatives, who was interviewed by two members of the Harvard Law School community less than two weeks ago.
On the morning of September 27, 2020, the civilian population of the ethnically Armenian and functionally independent region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also known as the Republic of Artsakh, woke up to the sounds of rockets and explosions. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory, which has been frozen since the 1994 Bishkek Truce, erupted once again after recent aggression from Azerbaijan, which has already violated three prior ceasefire attempts brokered by Russia, France, and the United States, respectively. These three nations also co-chair the Minsk Group, tasked with overseeing the negotiation for the peaceful settlement of the conflict since 1992. On October 29, 2020, Anoush Baghdassarian (HLS JD’22) and Harout Ekmanian (HLS LLM’18) interviewed the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Artsakh to the United States, Mr. Robert Avetisyan, about the pressing situation.
As the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) to the United States, you are usually based in Washington, D.C. Since the current war started, you have returned to Artsakh. Can you tell us about your office, and the ongoing situation?
The NKR Office in the United States is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MFA”) of the Republic of Artsakh. In Washington, D.C., in Stepanakert, or in any capital around the globe, the MFA team is called to do whatever possible to promote the interests of the Republic.
The ongoing aggression by the triple unity of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and international terrorist groups has become a tragic reminder that the world is, unfortunately, far from being a place that does not tolerate crimes against humanity. The war unleashed by dictators in Baku and Ankara against Artsakh’s fledgling democracy requires the civilized world’s involvement and protection of our shared vision of human rights and liberties.
As an Armenian, seeing what’s happening to my Homeland also is a reminder that genocidal threats are still looming over our people, and that selfless patriotism and unity continues to be required from every Armenian to ensure our common victory.
On the ground, can you explain how the civilian population is being affected?
The attacks, which started on Sunday morning of September 27, have affected life across the entire Republic. Not only positions of the Artsakh Defense Army along the line of contact, but also all communities and civilian infrastructure in Artsakh have become targets of missile strikes, artillery fire, drone attacks, air bombardment etc. In these conditions, the normal pace of life has been disrupted. Many Artsakhtsis [Artsakh Armenians] had to move from their homes to safer areas in the Republic and in Armenia. At the same time, a significant portion of the population remained in their towns and villages, and they are trying to help make sure that life in Artsakh is not paralyzed, and that the army has all the support it might need.
It is important to note though that compared to the conditions we were in during the 1991-1994 aggression by Azerbaijan, this time our civil services are much more effective in ensuring that the basic needs of civilians in shelters are covered, that they have food, electricity, medicines, communication, etc. It is a heroic day-to-day struggle by our State Service on Emergency Situations, Artsakh Energy, Karabakh Telecom, Health Ministry and many other state and private agencies and institutions, which facilitate the daily burden of our people who find themselves in such challenging conditions.
Can you tell us about some examples of destruction of cultural heritage, indiscriminate shelling, targeting of civilian infrastructure, and any other human rights violations that you’re seeing?
Every day we see examples of targeting Artsakh civilian and cultural infrastructure. Among the most egregious cases were two artillery strikes on the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shushi, during which civilians and foreign journalists were wounded. The October 28 bombardment of the Maternity Hospital in Stepanakert has become another tragic reminder that we are dealing with an adversary ready to use everything in its power to try to occupy Artsakh. The aggressors have recently begun using incendiary weapons, causing significant damage to Artsakh’s unique nature and to the environment of the entire region.
As to human rights violations, in addition to threatening on a daily basis to deprive every Artsakhtsi of their right to life, we’ve seen numerous cases of deliberate strikes on residential areas and other civilian infrastructure across most of communities in Artsakh, use of internationally banned cluster munition (a fact confirmed and condemned by Human Rights Watch), attacks against journalists and so on.
Having no significant achievement on the battlefield, and suffering significant losses in manpower and military equipment, Azerbaijan uses indiscriminate weapons to strike peaceful communities across Artsakh, including the capital of Stepanakert, causing civilian casualties. Such actions by Azerbaijan constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian law, in particular Geneva Convention relative to Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, and amount to war crimes.
Genocide Watch has issued a severe alert for ethnic cleansing in the region by Azerbaijan against the Armenians of Artsakh. How is this manifested on the ground? Have there been any such incidents? Have there been ethnic cleansing attempts in the past? If so, why is this different?
It’s been several decades that the political leadership in Baku has been openly instigating anti-Armenian hatred. Since the beginning of the current stage of the Artsakh liberation movement in 1988, Armenians across Azerbaijan have become victims of pogroms, mass killings and persecutions. One week after the legislature of Nagorno Karabakh legally appealed for Karabakh’s reunification with Armenia, mass killings of Armenians took place in Sumgayit, the third-largest city in Azerbaijan located hundreds of miles away from Karabakh proper. Seeing no proper condemnation of its actions, Azerbaijan continued pogroms and killings of Armenians in Baku, Kirovabad and many other communities across the republic, eventually unleashing a full-scale war against Artsakh.
The ongoing aggression, however, is further complicated by the active hands-on involvement of Turkey. Turkish leader Erdogan has even gone as far as proclaiming the aim of the current genocidal aggression as to “finish the mission of their forefathers, and retake Turkey’s place in the South Caucasus.” Aggressive expansionism coupled with open anti-Armenian stance leave no illusion for the real intent of the Azeri-Turkish forces towards Artsakh, and Armenians as a people.
There is no question about the dire need of immediate humanitarian relief aid. But what kinds of political action would be most helpful to the safety of the people and the humanitarian situation on the ground in Artsakh? What can guarantee the protection of the civilians?
Indeed, the intensity and scope of the ongoing war against Artsakh has already caused a significant humanitarian crisis, which requires immediate involvement of the relevant international institutions. Although, most effective humanitarian efforts require full cessation of hostilities – something Azeris and Turks are not willing to do.
Turkey and Azerbaijan continue to reject demands of the international community to restore peace in the region, increasingly positioning themselves as rogue states. In a situation when Azerbaijan and Turkey enter into an open military alliance with terrorist organizations, which are outlawed by the civilized world, collective measures of the entire international community urgently needed in order to end the aggression by Ankara and Baku, which poses a threat to the entire world community.
Under these circumstances, the international recognition of the independence of the Republic of Artsakh remains the most effective way to end the ongoing crimes against the peaceful population of Artsakh, and to protect their rights. A recognized Republic of Artsakh will have a larger set of political tools for protecting its people and promoting their interests. It would become a logical and effective step towards a long-standing settlement of the Azerbaijan-Karabakh conflict.
The independence of Artsakh is legally strong, legitimate and fair. Recognition of the Artsakh’s independence will not only allow ending the aggression, but also help exclude the possibility of its recurrence. This political step would boost the negotiations under the OSCE Minsk Group by creating a necessary positive impetus and environment for the political settlement of the Azerbaijan-Karabakh conflict.
For more background on the history of the region and the chronological development of the conflict, as well as the aspects of international law related to it, please see Anoush Baghdassarian’s note in Lawfare.
ANOUSH BAGHDASSARIAN (JD ‘22)
Anoush Baghdassarian is a J.D. Candidate at Harvard Law School. She has a Master’s in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, and a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Genocide Studies from Claremont McKenna College. She is co-founder of the Rerooted Archive, documenting over 200 testimonies from Syrian-Armenian refugees who have fled Syria in the last ten years. She has a career focus on transitional justice and international criminal law, and some of her work experiences include interning as an advisor to the Armenian Permanent Mission to the U.N. and serving as an upcoming visiting professional at the International Criminal Court.
HAROUT EKMANIAN (LLM ‘18)
Harout Ekmanian is a New York attorney working in public international law at Alston & Bird. He graduated from Harvard Law School, LL.M. class of ‘18, where he was also a research associate at the Program on International Law and Armed Conflict and an editor of the Harvard International Law Journal. He previously worked as an associate at Human Rights Watch. He was also a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights of Columbia University and an O’Donnell Global Studies Fellow at Whitman College.