Nagorno Karabakh: Forgotten people in a forgotten war
By Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury
An official permission is given by Caroline Cox for the
publicaiton on Sumgait.Info
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
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
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
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 mujahideen 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 Aghdam,
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 Uragan 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 Lord.
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."
Cox of Queensbury is a defender of human rights in
the House of Lords, United Kingdom, as well as a prominent educationalist and
author. Baroness Cox was created a Life Peer in 1982 and has been Deputy Speaker
of the British Parliament's House of Lords since 1985 to the present. She is
Chancellor of Bournemouth University and Vice President of the Royal College
of Nursing and President of the Institute of Administrative Management. Baroness
Cox is heavily involved with international humanitarian and human rights endeavours,
serving as non-executive director of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation and as
a trustee of MERLIN (Medical Emergency Relief International) and is the President
of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (P.O. Box 99, New Malden, Surrey, KT3 3YF,