Caroline Cox. Contemporary Review. Volume 270, Issue 1572, January 1997.
Man and nature appear to conspire to inflict suffering on some people. The history of the Armenian people is beset by tragedy. They have been subjected to repeated massacres, including the genocide of over one-and-a-half million by the Turks in 1915. In 1988, they have also suffered from one of the world’s most devastating earthquakes, which left 25,000 Armenians dead, and half a million homeless. Add to this toll of suffering the legacy of Stalin’s cruel policies of enforced dislocation of people, when he cut off part of historic Armenia and relocated it as an isolated enclave in Azerbaijan and the brutal, bitter war which has raged in and around Nagorno Karabakh in the early years of this decade. This war has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Armenians and Azeris, and left a trail of destruction of towns and villages, with tens of thousands more people displaced from their homes.
Many people have never heard of Nagorno Karabakh; six years ago, I could not have found it on a map. But it has significance for us all. Not only is it a crucible of suffering for the Armenians and Azeris who live in and around it; it is also a territory which epitomises the type of conflict being waged in many parts of the world today: conflict stemming from a clash between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity. This conflict is still not resolved.
A fragile cease-fire has held since April 1994, but there is a constant possibility that Azerbaijan may use the massive investment of millions of petro-dollars by international oil companies to purchase new weapons to try once again to achieve a military ‘final solution’ to the political problem of Karabakh. If war does break out again, the Armenians of Karabakh would defend themselves again; if it appeared likely that they might become subjects of another Armenian genocide, Armenia itself could not stand passively by. If Armenia were to engage to defend fellow-Armenians in Karabakh, the conflict could broaden to involve other neighbouring powers and a regional war could develop, with repercussions spreading far beyond the countries immediately involved. For Armenia lies not only on a geological fault-line, prone to earthquakes; it also lies on a geo-political fault-line, where West meets East and where oil interests run deep. It is also one of the places where Christianity meets Islam, although it must be emphasised that the war which has been raging is not a religious conflict, but, as Andrei Sakharov put it, in 1989: ‘For Azerbaijan the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death’.
To understand the significance of the present, it is essential to know a little of the past. As the history of the region is permeated with conflict, any account will inevitably be partial and I must therefore put my own credentials in context. I first heard of Karabakh during the Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress in Moscow in May, 1991. Chairing a group of experts on human rights, I met, as a member of this group, one of Karabakh’s elected deputies to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. He spoke in great detail of major violations of human rights being inflicted on the Armenians living in and around Karabakh, including systematic deportations of villages’ in which entire communities were driven off their land, in brutal operations accompanied by murder, torture and pillage. These operations were part of a policy designated ‘Operation Ring, comprising the proposed ethnic cleansing (a word used in relation to Azerbaijan’s policy before it became familiar to the world in the context of the former Yugoslavia) of all Armenians from their ancient homeland of Karabakh.
As Chairman of this group, I was asked by the Congress to lead an independent, international delegation to the region to ascertain the facts. We were truly independent, with no preconceptions or prejudices. We met many of those who had suffered deportation. We also walked across the border to meet Azeris in one of the areas where fighting had already begun, to hear the Azeri viewpoint. We were deeply concerned by our findings and decided to return as soon as possible, via Azerbaijan, to obtain more evidence of Azeri policies being pursued in Karabakh and to obtain a more systematic representation of Azerbaijan’s position.
We wrote reports detailing all our findings. These, together with a fuller analysis of the history of the conflict and details of evidence obtained during many subsequent visits, are available in the publication ‘Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh’ by Caroline Cox and John Eibner, with a foreword by Elena Bonner Sakharov. This report is available from Christian Solidarity International (CSI), a human rights organisation, working for victims of repression, regardless of their colour, creed or nationality.
After those two initial visits, the members of the international independent delegation came to the conclusion that Azerbaijan was the primary aggressor and that its policy of attempted ethnic cleansing of the Armenians was a gross violation of human rights. Subsequently, CSI became involved, initially as a human rights organisation; later, in 1992, with a commitment to try to meet some of the urgent needs for humanitarian aid required by the Armenians in Karabakh.
CSI, in its work as a human rights organisation, tries to obtain evidence on the basis of first-hand experience, especially in those areas where sovereign governments are perpetrating violations of human rights against minorities within their own borders. In such places, the sovereign government may cut these minorities off from access by major aid organisations. Most of the large humanitarian agencies, such as UNHCR, UNICEF or the ICRC can only go to places with the permission of the government. If a government refuses to give invitations to visit the minorities they are victimising, these people will be cut off from such organisations and be bereft both of aid and of advocacy.
CSI, being small and independent, is free to try to reach such people, even though this may entail crossing borders illegally. We are currently working in areas such as those parts of Sudan designated ‘No Go’ areas by the Government; with ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Karenni people suffering at the hands of the regime in Burma—and with the Armenians of Karabakh.
At the time of writing, CSI is preparing to undertake the 29th mission to Karabakh. This article reflects the conclusions we have reached during all our visits since 1991. It will be clear that our position has changed from impartiality to advocacy. This shift is based on first-hand evidence and our analysis of the situation which has led us to conclude that Azerbaijan has been the primary aggressor in this tragic conflict. We recognise, and deeply regret, the sufferings experienced by many Azeris and we have been involved in some humanitarian aid work for them. But we place overwhelming responsibility for the suffering of both Armenians and Azeris on the successive governments ruling Azerbaijan, which have repeatedly committed themselves to explicit policies of attempted ethnic cleansing of all the Armenians from their ancient homeland of Karabakh and to attempts to impose military solutions on the political problems of the status of Karabakh.
A brief review of events will demonstrate the grounds on which we base our conclusions and recommendations. After the historic Armenian land of Karabakh was relocated by Stalin, in the 1920s, as an enclave (oblast) within Azerbaijan, the Armenians who lived there (then approximately 94.5 per cent of the population) suffered not only from Soviet but also from Azeri repression. For example, also in the 1920s, Azeris brutally massacred and evicted Armenians from the town of Shushi, which had been a famous and historic centre of Armenian culture. It subsequently became colonised by Azeris and is known as ‘an Azeri town’. A long catalogue of violations of the human rights of the Karabakhi Armenians by Azerbaijan was accompanied by systematic economic exploitation and political repression.
Consequently, when the era of Glasnost appeared to offer a propitious opportunity, many Armenians thought the time was appropriate to seek constitutional means to free Karabakh from Azeri rule. This created tensions in Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although some Azeris suffered in those tensions, they were not subjected to brutality of the scale inflicted on Armenians, such as the horrors of the massacres in Sumgait in 1988 and in Baku in 1990. The Azeris, supported as always by their Turkish allies, also initiated a tight blockade of Armenia, which they maintained even during the earthquake, inhibiting the flow of desperately needed humanitarian supplies to earthquake victims.
In 1991, Operation Ring began, with systematic deportations of Armenians from villages in the Shaumyan region of Azerbaijan as well as from Karabakh itself. Later in 1991, in October, Azerbaijan announced that it would end the status of autonomy conferred upon Karabakh when it was made an oblast, and would rename Karabakh’s capital city Stepanakert with a Turkish name. The Armenians of Karabakh saw this as the beginning of the end for them, and tried to adopt the legal means available under the Soviet Constitution to obtain independence: they held a referendum and obtained an overwhelming mandate for self-determination and independence. In December, they held democratic elections and opened their first parliament in January 1992.
In response, Azerbaijan unleashed a military onslaught which escalated into full-scale war. In the early days, Karabakhi Armenians were defending their homes with hunting rifles against Azeri tanks; by the end of January, 1992, Azerbaijan had begun to use Grad multiple-missile rocket launchers against Armenian civilian targets in and around Karabakh; by February, they were raining down 400 Grad missiles every day on the capital city Stepanakert, as well as pounding towns and villages elsewhere with Grad and other forms of bombardment. During those early months of 1992, Karabakh was also blockaded and the Armenians often had no medical supplies to treat the rapidly mounting numbers of wounded. By contrast, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other major aid organisations had free and full access to Azerbaijan.
In January 1992, CSI therefore began its frequent humanitarian aid missions, flying repeatedly through the blockade to take essential medical supplies.
The war raged from January 1992 to April 1994, bringing death to tens of thousands of Azeris and Armenians. Massively outnumbered, the 150,000 Armenians who inhabited Karabakh had to defend themselves against 7-million strong Azerbaijan, assisted by Turkey. At one stage in the hostilities, the Azeri government also hired several thousand mujahadeen mercenaries.
The fortunes of war vacillated. In May 1992, the Armenians of Karabakh won two significant military victories: they opened a corridor through Lachin to Armenia, allowing supplies to come overland from Armenia to Karabakh. This corridor was essential for their survival, as the aircraft and helicopters flying though the blockade with vital supplies were always at risk of being shot down by Azeri missiles. The international community criticised the Armenians for this violation of the integrity of Azeri territory. But the blockades of both Armenia and Karabakh were themselves violations of human rights, yet the international community was largely passive and silent about these. If there had been no blockades, it would not have been necessary to create a corridor.
Secondly, the Armenians of Karabakh successfully regained control of Shushi: an essential military operation, as Shushi is situated on a mountainous promontory directly above the capital Stepanakert and was being used by the Azeris for launching up to 400 Grad missiles every day on the civilians in Stepanakert. The Karabakhi Armenians were also criticised by the international community for taking this ‘Azeri’ town. But they had no option: Shushi was their equivalent of the Golan Heights.
After these two military successes in May 1992, the Azeris retaliated, assisted by recently retired Turkish Army officers. In June, massive Azeri forces over-ran Armenian villages in Shaumyan to the north of Karabakh and occupied 40 per cent of Karabakh itself, coming to within a few miles of Stepanakert. Armenians who did not escape from their homes in time were murdered: I have seen the headless corpses of decapitated Armenians. The majority of women and children fled through forests and mountains, often being shelled as they ran, to Stepanakert. 80,000 refugees arrived in a city which had been pulverised by constant bombardment and whose people were already starving. With organisations such as UNHCR not being granted access, their suffering went largely unrelieved and unreported.
In August 1992, the Azeris started aerial bombardment of civilians in Karabakh. In January 1993, they even resorted to the use of ground-to-air missiles against civilians. A CSI group was in Stepanakert on the Orthodox Christmas Day, January 1993, and witnessed one of these missiles, detonated to explode over Stepanakert. This is a particularly deadly weapon, as there is no advance warning. It explodes in mid-air, the massive tail-piece falls on people unable to take shelter and the rest of the missile falls as razor-sharp shrapnel, shredding people exposed to its fall-out.
The Armenians of Karabakh fought back, using mainly captured weapons. They eventually regained much of their own territory, but were still vulnerable to continuing bombardment from Azeri towns around the perimeter. With a territory measuring only approximately 100 miles north-south and 50 miles east-west, much of Karabakh is vulnerable to shelling from outside its own borders.
Eventually, efforts were made to broker cease-fires. But these were repeatedly broken by the Azeris. One such violation was witnessed at first hand by another CSI delegation in June 1993, when shelling of Stepanakert by Azeris recommenced within days of the signing of a cease-fire agreement.
In a continuing need to protect their people, the Armenians of Karabakh were forced to move outside the borders of Karabakh to take the bases from which their civilians were being shelled. They consequently took Kelbadjar, between Karabakh and Armenia, which had been used as a base for shelling areas in the west of Karabakh and for attacking convoys taking supplies through the Lachin corridor. Later, they took Azeri towns to the east of Karabakh, such as Aghdarn, Fizouli and Jebrial, which had been bases for bombarding civilians living in the east and south of Karabakh.
Such operations had the inevitably tragic consequences of displacing tens of thousands of Azeris from their homes. But the responsibility for the suffering of their own people must lie with the Azeri government. If they had not continued to pursue military offensives, even after cease-fires had been agreed; and if they had not continued to kill and to wound civilians in Karabakh by bombardment from outside Karabakh, it would not have been necessary for the Armenians of Karabakh to respond by taking these bases.
Although Karabakhi forces are now occupying this buffer zone as a cordon sanitaire, they have never made any territorial claims; instead, they have indicated a willingness to return them to Azeri possession when adequate security guarantees can be ensured.
A precarious cease-fire has now held, since April 1994. But the political solution which can turn that cease-fire into peace has yet to be found. Until and unless that is achieved, Karabakh remains a powder keg which could ignite into a major conflagration, consuming many more lives, both Azeri and Armenian, and destabilising the whole region.
Both sides have had the opportunity during the cease-fire to strengthen their military position. Azerbaijan has had the benefit of massive investment by oil companies providing billions of dollars, with which they are reported to have been buying more long-range missiles such as Uregan and Smerch, as well as more fighter aircraft. There is concern that the Azeris will be tempted to use these weapons to resume their war against the Armenians of Karabakh.
It is to be hoped that the international community will prevail on Azerbaijan to desist from any such military offensive. The Armenians of Karabakh can never again submit to Azeri sovereignty, given all they have suffered at the hands of Azerbaijan. They will fight to the death to preserve their freedom and their historic land. As the Earl of Shannon emphasised in the House of Lords:
‘One option is quite definitely not open; namely, any attempt to declare Nagorno Karabakh to be part of Azerbaijan. That would be to reward those who indulged in aggression and invasion of a neighbouring independent state, as well as to cause gross violations of human rights in total defiance of treaty obligations … We should remember the statement made by President Elchibey in June 1992, when, after opening full hostilities against Karabakh, he said that if there were any Armenians left in Karabakh by October they could hang him in the central square of Baku. It is a pity they did not! No amount of oil-lubricated waffle or diplomatic flannel in the West can excuse this clear statement of intent by a head of state. It has the underlying unequivocal ring of statements made by Genghis Khan, and we all know what his intentions were.’ (House of Lords Hansard, 28 October 1993, cols. 966-967).
The urgent need is for a political solution to the political impasse which is the root cause of the conflict: the conflict between the clashing principles of territorial integrity and self-determination. If such a solution can be found for Karabakh, it could be a valuable precedent for helping to solve many other conflicts in the world today, not only in the former USSR, but further afield, where other minorities are fighting for survival. Eritrea fought for 30 years to achieve its solution to this conflict of principles. Unless the international community can creatively devise some political solution to this impasse, the world is going to be riddled with such conflicts causing immeasurable suffering, a bottomless pit of need for humanitarian aid, and political instability with far-reaching economic consequences.
Such a diplomatic solution may be hard to achieve, but the cost of failure could be incalculable. As Elena Bonner argues in her preface to the CSI report: ‘Karabakh and its people need diplomatic recognition of its right to exist, which is entirely legitimate following the referendum … What Armenia needs are diplomatic and political efforts on the part of Western countries to end the blockade … if Western countries, and first and foremost the USA, do not achieve this now and instead retreat into isolationism, mankind will soon not only witness yet another shameful capitulation of democracy to force but will face war, destruction and atrocities on the same scale as in former Yugoslavia. Today, it is still possible to find a solution for the Karabakh conflict and to save Armenia on the basis of the principles of defending human rights.’