Humanitarian Crisis Unfolds In and Around Nagorny Karabakh

Geopolitics dominates perspectives on the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, but a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding, aggravated by COVID-19 and the onset of winter.

Expert comment Published 16 October 2020 3 minute READ

Expectations that the renewed Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict might end as a brief and controlled escalation are being proved wrong, as the war demonstrates a scope and scale of destructiveness which reflects the huge sums spent on high-tech weaponry over the last decade. A conservative estimate is that more than 1,500 people have been killed so far overall. More than 70 Armenian and Azerbaijani civilians have been killed, and hundreds wounded.

Modern capabilities have enabled a long-range war with devastating impacts. Large-calibre artillery, missiles and drone strikes have inflicted massive damage to the towns of Nagorny Karabakh, Stepanakert, Hadrut, Martuni and Mardakert, while more than 60% of the territory’s population - tens of thousands of people - are displaced from their homes, either to Armenia or within Nagorny Karabakh.

Extensive civilian infrastructure in Nagorny Karabakh, including schools, electricity stations and communications networks have been hit, and there are regular power cuts. Thousands of homes are damaged or destroyed and the remaining population is sheltering in bunkers. Humanitarian access to Nagorny Karabakh is now an urgent priority.

Amnesty International has identified banned cluster munitions, manufactured by Israel, used in strikes on Stepanakert. Cluster munitions disperse hard-to-find and expensive-to-disarm bomblets that remain dangerous long after use as unexploded ordnance that can maim or kill.

The Azerbaijan cities close to the Line of Contact - Terter, Barda and Beylagan - have also suffered significant damage from Armenian bombardment, with Terter in particular being repeatedly hit, including a strike reported on 15 October which killed four civilians attending a funeral. Civilians in Ganja also suffered when an Armenian missile strike hit a neighbourhood during the night of 10 October, killing ten and wounding dozens.

Vulnerable communities live along the Azerbaijani side of the Line of Contact. Projections after the April 2016 escalation suggested as many as 300,000 Azerbaijanis could be displaced from these areas in the event of a wider war. Many of the communities along the Line of Contact were previously forcibly displaced from occupied areas in 1992-4, now part of the active combat zone.

The Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) claims cluster munitions were used during Armenian strikes, although Amnesty International has indicated that - on the evidence available so far - definitive conclusions cannot yet be drawn. But neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Risks of renewed ethnic cleansing

The recent fighting reached population points within Nagorny Karabakh itself, as opposed to the territories around it occupied by Armenian forces in 1992-4. There is a real risk of renewed ethnic cleansing – something both nationalities suffered grievously from in the early 1990s.

The expulsion of around 600,000 internally displaced Azerbaijanis from the occupied territories around Nagorny Karabakh lies at the core of the deep sense of injustice in Azerbaijan, and a right of voluntary return, or restitution, for all those displaced in the early 1990s is a core principle for the resolution of the conflict.

Military advances in the 1992-4 war by either side were always associated with the complete ethnic cleansing of the other’s nationality from captured territory. Massacres of civilians took place on both sides, with the largest and most notorious being the deaths of hundreds of Azerbaijanis just outside the small town of Khojaly on the night of 25 February 1992.

Some civilian deaths in the new war appear to show this practice continues. As fighting converged on Hadrut on 10 October this year, four civilians in Hadrut were reported as discovered and killed by Azerbaijani units. Five days later, footage appeared of two prisoners of war, whose identities were confirmed by the Armenian Ombudsman, apparently executed by Azerbaijani soldiers. These events recall an atrocity from the last major escalation, when on 3 April 2016 three elderly Armenians not evacuated from the village of Talish were murdered by Azerbaijani special forces.

The prospect of renewed ethnic cleansing substantiates Armenian perceptions of an existential struggle and destroys Azerbaijani claims that the Karabakh Armenian population has nothing to fear. It could also strengthen arguments for remedial secession as the only route to the avoidance of severe human rights violations. Any discussion of reconciliation has been thrown back years, if not decades.

COVID-19 and the onset of winter

War-related humanitarian concerns aggravate an already serious situation with the pandemic, as Armenia was the worst hit among the South Caucasus states in the first wave, on a scale comparable to Italy’s. Azerbaijan has managed with fewer cases, despite a population more than three times of the size of Armenia’s, due to more stringent measures.

But after two weeks of war, Armenia’s new cases doubled, while new infections in Azerbaijan reportedly rose by 80%. In Nagorny Karabakh, approximately 400 cases had been reported by late September. With health infrastructure already stretched, and social distancing out of the question for populations in bunkers or forced displacement, this war will worsen the pandemic, especially with the onset of winter which, in the Caucasus, brings hardship at the best of times.

In many conflict-affected areas there are already problems with basic food supplies and no heating or hot water, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has appealed for an additional $10 million to assist its relief effort. Geopolitical intrigues will doubtless continue to dominate the framing of this crisis. But the humanitarian tragedy unfolding across the divide urgently demands not just international attention, but genuine action.