The six-week war in the South Caucasus, lasting from 27 September until 10 November, has challenged the universal norms of human rights protection and the EU’s role in the region.
A Comment by Mane Torosyan and Karen Ayvazyan
A conflict started a century ago
The Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) conflict began in 1917, during the formation of three ethnic republics of Transcaucasia – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – as a result of the collapse of the Russian Empire (1721–1917). The population of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), 95 percent of which were Armenians, convened its first congress which proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh an independent political unit and elected the National Council and the Government. In 1918 to 1920, Nagorno-Karabakh had all the trappings of statehood, including an army and legitimate authority.
The establishment of Soviet rule in Transcaucasia was accompanied by the creation of a new political system. Nagorno-Karabakh had been recognised as a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including by Soviet Russia. On 5 July 1921, based on the decision of the Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party of Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh was incorporated into the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) as an autonomous oblast. During Soviet times the conflict was inactive as both countries were a part of the USSR, and there have not been any disputes in this regard until the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse in the late 1980s.
The actual conflict escalated in 1988 in the aftermath of pogroms of ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan, namely in Sumgait (February 1988) and Baku (January-February 1990). Ethnic Armenians exercised their right of self-determination and independence (UN Charter Article 1), and on 2 September 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence which was confirmed with a referendum on 10 December 1991. That led to a war until 1994, followed by an internationally brokered ceasefire. Since then, peace talks have been part of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the US, France and Russia. The negotiations have not resulted in a final resolution of the conflict due to the lack of willingness to compromise from both sides. The latest document which had been prepared for the peace settlement process within the Minsk Group is known as the Madrid Principles, which among other important points also includes ”future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will.’’
There has been a consensus around most of the points in the Principles; however, Azerbaijan remains completely against the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh and would only agree granting it a high level of autonomy. On the other hand, Armenia argued that conflict resolution is possible only with recognition of the right of self-determination for ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, both sides could not come to a consensus around the principles and ensure a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Consequently, Azerbaijan (with support from Turkey) has chosen to resolve the conflict militarily and launched a large-scale war against the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh on 27 September 2020.
The war ended on 10 November with a ceasefire brokered by Russia, defining the territories controlled by both parties as well as introducing Russian peacekeepers in the disputed area.
EU partners: Armenia and Azerbaijan
The EU cooperates with both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy and its eastern regional dimension, the Eastern Partnership initiative with bilateral agreements. It is important to mention that the EU is a top trading partner in the South Caucasus (along with Georgia).
Recent progress in EU-Armenia relations resulted in the signing of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2017 for strengthening cooperation between the Union and the former Soviet republic. Among all the other commitments in the bilateral agreement, a special priority has been given to creating a safer living environment where the EU and Armenia agreed to increase their cooperation in preventing and fighting crime, including terrorism as well as “pay increased attention to the cornerstones of democracy and to the respect of human rights.”
A new reality was shaped in Armenia-EU relations after the 2018 Velvet Revolution, with the commitment of the new leadership of Armenia to develop a new comprehensive reform agenda based on the rule of law, protection of rights, fight against corruption and good governance. Through its official statements, the EU highly welcomed the democratic transformation of the country and expressed its commitment to cooperate on further consolidation of democracy, promotion of human rights and rule of law in the region.
Bilateral relations with Azerbaijan are based on the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, in force since 1999. With the need of furtherment of the partnership in 2017, Azerbaijan and the EU started negotiations on a new framework agreement aiming to give a new boost to political dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation. Joint priorities have been endorsed by the Cooperation Council in 2018 aiming to enhance partnership in the coming years.
Among the priorities, economic cooperation is one of the core aspects for the partnership as Azerbaijan is an important energy partner for the EU and has a crucial role in transferring Caspian energy resources to the EU market. As a result of the partnership, it has been anticipated that an offshore gas field in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea will provide 10 billion cubic metres of gas per year to the EU by the end of 2020. In fact, the EU is Azerbaijan’s first trading partner making up 41.7 percent of Azerbaijan’s total trade in 2018.
The EU’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution
The EU’s joint foreign and security policy is designed to preserve peace, strengthen international security, promote international cooperation, develop and consolidate democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Trade, humanitarian aid and development cooperation also play an important role for the EU. Over the years, the EU has remained marginalised in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process, and the main efforts of mediation between Azerbaijan and Armenia have been conducted through the OSCE Minsk Group.
As part of its outreach to the South Caucasus and development of the European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU signed action plans with Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2005 outlining areas of cooperation. These plans were intended to encourage the South Caucasus governments to establish neighbourly relations with each other and regional development cooperation for peace between both parties. Since then, the EU has been looking for ways to enlarge its role in conflict settlement through different means, i.e. mediating as a OSCE Minsk group co-chair or offering peacekeeping missions, but actually limited its engagement to implementing assistance and confidence building projects in South Caucasus warzones.
This approach somewhat worked in the disputed territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia (with Georgian acquiescence), but hit a wall in NK. Azerbaijan was unwilling to let the international community engage in any kind of activity with NK de facto authorities. While the UDHR Article 2 reads: “No distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs”, the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh has made it impossible for the people to fully exercise their universal and internationally protected human rights.
This fact has also greatly hindered the EU and the international community to adequately address war crimes during the recent war. The EU’s reaction was limited to making official statements on the necessity to end hostilities and restore the peaceful process of conflict resolution. The Union indeed has expressed concerns over the breaches of international humanitarian law. However, those statements have not been based on the fact-finding missions at war sites, thus fail to have concrete addressants and presume sanctions in case of further violations.
‘’Bothsideism’’ has abetted war crimes and prevented peace
During the second Nagorno-Karabakh war (27 September-10 November 2020), severe breaches of international humanitarian law were revealed by international media and human rights organisations. Thousands of civilian objects in Stepanakert and other densely populated areas of NK including houses, infrastructure, schools, hospitals and cultural buildings have been shelled. In many cases, intensive cluster munitions and weapons containing white phosphorus have been applied, the use of which are forbidden by the Geneva Convention as they have indiscriminate effects, and may severely endanger the lives and health of the civilian population causing additional damage and suffering.
Another serious breach of international humanitarian law lies in Turkey’s deployment of mercenaries from the Northern part of Syria to Azerbaijan, to use them against Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) and Armenia. Several thousands mercenaries were hired to participate in the war activities against Artsakh and Armenia. Turkey’s military personnel has also provided direct military support to Azerbaijan (mainly high level officials and special forces). Turkey and Azerbaijan deny these accusations despite various testimonials by Syrian fighters including ones captured during the war.
The EU’s response to the direct engagement of Turkey and its Syrian mercenaries has not adequately reflected the values and principles underlining in its foreign policy. There might have been several reasons that hinder the EU to provide an adequate response not only in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh war, but also in terms of Turkish activities in the Eastern Mediterranean region and threats against two EU members (Greece and Cyprus). EU-Turkey relations are tightened with strong economic links, and an adequate and strict response towards Turkey’s foreign policy might have caused some more economic hurdles for most EU countries.
Moreover, the rhetoric and ‘blackmailing’ of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in regard to possible refugee waves to Europe has prevented some EU countries from speaking up against the foreign policy of the Turkish government and imposing sanctions against Turkey. Finally, the timing of the military offensive in NK coincided with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting Europe with new and unforeseen economic and public health management challenges. Turkey’s position as a candidate country of the EU further complicates the relations.
After the end of the war, the EU has announced its intention to increase humanitarian aid to those who suffered from the NK war. The humanitarian crisis has reached its peak in Armenia due to the displacement of thousands of ethnic Armenians (IDPs) from the conflict area, severe injuries and losses of thousands of civilians and military personnel, and the situation of prisoners of war in Azerbaijan facing inhuman and abusing treatment.
The role of the EU in the war: missed opportunity, squandered trust
The second Nagorno-Karabakh war caused not only a political, socio-economic and humanitarian crisis, but also changed the perception of most of the people in Armenia about the international community, democracy and human rights. As part of the international community and one of regional players, there is also frustration among people in regard to the EU’s reaction, since many expected that the EU would stand up for its values and commitments of fostering peace and security, developing and consolidating democracy in the South Caucasus region and protecting human rights. In the end, political and economic interests seem to have been prioritised, undermining the EU’s core values and the role in the region.
Considering the EU’s role and commitments in fostering peace and security, protecting human rights and furthering democratisation in the region, it is crucial for the EU to come up with measures and mechanisms that will enable a successful implementation of the EU’s foreign policy in the South Caucasus. The Union needs to not only further its humanitarian actions supporting internally displaced people, but also push forward an agenda of respecting the right to self-determination of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Because the EU’s role will be vital in preventing war crimes through holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.
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Image: South Caucasus
Demokratie und Menschenrechte untergraben: Der 2. Bergkarabach-Krieg
Die militärischen Auseinandersetzungen in Bergkarabach im Südkaukasus begannen am 27. September und endeten am 10. November, nachdem Russland zwischen den beiden Konfliktparteien Armenien und Aserbaidschan vermittelt hatte. Große Teile des von ethnischen ArmenierInnen bewohnten Gebietes wurden an Aserbaidschan übergeben, Tausende Menschen flohen. Nur Wenige konnten zurückkehren. Hunderte Menschen sind gestorben, darunter SoldatInnen und ZivilistInnen. Das Ergebnis eines wiederaufgeflammten, alten Konfliktes am Rande Europas.
Historisch gesehen begann der Streit um Bergkarabach, einer mehrheitlich von ethnischen ArmenierInnen bewohnten Region in Aserbaidschan, 1917 nach dem Sturz der russischen Zarenfamilie. Während der Gründung der Sowjetunion legte sich der Streit bis in die späten 1980er Jahre. Der eigentliche Konflikt eskalierte dann mit einem anti-armenischen Pogrom 1988. Die regionale armenische Bevölkerung in Bergkarabach erklärte 1991 ihre Unabhängigkeit. Daraufhin brach ein Krieg aus, der bis 1994 dauerte und erst mit einem Waffenstillstand beendet wurde. Seither vermittelt die OSZE zwischen den Konfliktparteien (geführt von Russland, Frankreich und den USA). Doch die Uneinigkeit zwischen Armenien und Aserbaidschan über Bergkarabach als autonomes Gebiet oder die vollständige Unabhängigkeit für die überwiegend armenische Bevölkerung hielt an, bis am vergangenen 27. September Aserbaidschan eine militärische Offensive startete (unterstützt durch die Türkei).
Im Rahmen der Östlichen Partnerschaft Initiative (ÖP) als Teil der Europäischen Nachbarschaftspolitik (ENP) arbeitet die EU seit einigen Jahren eng mit den Ländern im Südkaukasus zusammen (inklusive Georgien) und gilt als wichtigster Handelspartner. Nach der Samtenen Revolution 2018 vertiefte sich die EU-Armenien-Partnerschaft durch weitere Demokratisierungsprozesse, aufgrund der Bemühungen der neuen armenischen Regierung, Menschenrechte, Rechtsstaatlichkeit und demokratische Prinzipien in der Region zu fördern. Bilaterale Beziehungen mit Aserbaidschan beziehen sich weitestgehend auf die politische Assoziierung und wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit. Für die EU ist das Land am Kaspischen Meer mit seinem Erdgasvorkommen ein bedeutender Energiepartner.
Die Rolle der EU in jenem Friedensprozess wurde durch Mediation der Minsker OSZE-Gruppe eingenommen. 2005 wurde die strategische Zusammenarbeit im Südkaukasus verfestigt, mit dem Ziel einer intensiven Partnerschaft im Rahmen der ENP und der Annäherung beider Konfliktparteien. Seither versucht die EU ihren Einfluss in der Region zu vergrößern, u.a. durch die Verhandlungen der Minsker Gruppe oder UN-Friedensmissionen. Doch im Grunde reduzierte sich der Einfluss auf sicherheits- und vertrauensbildende Maßnahmen. Dieser Ansatz schien in den umstrittenen Gebieten Abchasien und Südossetien zu gelingen, nicht aber in Bergkarabach. Da das Gebiet nicht international anerkannt wurde, können weiterhin Kriegsverbrechen schwer adressiert werden.
Unsere beiden armenischen Autoren, Mane und Karen, fordern die EU daher auf, sich vor Ort um demokratische Werte, Menschenrechte, Rechtsstaatlichkeit und humanitäres Engagement zu bemühen – wie proklamiert in den vielen bilateralen Verträgen. Sie berichten von einer gewissen Frustration unter ArmenierInnen gegenüber der zaghaften Reaktion der EU auf den Krieg in Bergkarabach und die Menschenrechtsverletzungen. Wirtschaftliche Verbindungen, das EU-Türkei-Abkommen, die Corona-Pandemie: Komplexe Abhängigkeiten und Einschränkungen verkomplizieren die Handlungsmöglichkeiten, doch was ist eine Assoziierung wert, wenn europäische Prinzipien in der unmittelbaren Nachbarschaft nicht gewahrt werden können?
Mane is a public policy researcher actively engaged in efforts to enhance evidence-based policy making in Armenia. The main areas of interest include public health and social policy reforms, and human rights protection. She holds a BA in Public Administration and MA in Human Rights and Democratisation from Yerevan State University.
Karen is an independent researcher in the field of politics, civil society, and human rights. He holds a BA degree in political science and MA degree in European Studies with a specialty in Human Rights and Democratisation from Yerevan State University.