Nagorno-Karabakh, a remote region within Azerbaijan populated mainly by Armenians, is experiencing the same deadly pattern of “ethnic cleansing” that we have seen in Bosnia. The United Nations and its member states, which failed utterly in the case of Bosnia, have an opportunity to do better in dealing with ethnic conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and to show that something has been learned from the tragedy in the former Yugoslavia. In particular, the Clinton Administration should take the lead in mobilizing international action to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has escalated sharply in the last month.
The conflict for control of Nagorno-Karabakh has led to serious breaches of humanitarian law and gross human-rights abuses. Nagorno-Karabakh has been fighting for independence from Azerbaijan since 1988; in that year, 75% of its 190,000 inhabitants were ethnic Armenians. Armenia, while not officially at war with Azerbaijan, has openly financed the rebellion in this mountainous region, separated from Armenia by a narrow six-mile strip of Azerbaijan land. This assistance has enabled the Karabakh Armenians to gain control of more than 10% of Azerbaijan.
Here are the grim statistics since 1988: 15,000 have been killed, virtually all 45,000 Azerbaijanis have been expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh, 170,000 Azerbaijanis have fled from Armenia and 350,000 Armenians have been forced out of Azerbaijan.
Both Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have violated the 1949 Geneva Conventions by taking civilian hostages and by the indiscriminate bombing and attacks on civilians. Whole villages have been blockaded, depriving civilians of the necessities of life, with the purpose of “cleansing” the area of the opposing nationality.
Azerbaijan has also effectively blockaded Armenia, reducing the population of its capital city of Yerevan to short rations of food and fuel. The absence of fuel has curtailed public and private transportation and virtually shut down industrial production. Even in the summer, residents of Yerevan can look forward to only two hours of electricity a day. The sense of isolation is growing as air traffic is reduced to one weekly charter flight from Paris and an unreliable daily flight to Moscow and Kiev. Travel through neighboring Georgia is dangerous since the section of Georgia bordering Armenia is populated by Azerbaijanis and hostage-taking is widespread. The main gas pipeline, which comes through this section of Georgia, is frequently blown up, interrupting the principal source of energy.
A recent survey revealed that 70% of the Armenia population wants to emigrate before this winter, expected to be even worse than the winter of 1993, which witnessed a rise in deaths among the newborn and the elderly, a higher suicide rate and growing incidence of mental illness.
The blockade itself is a violation of international law and should be ended. Azerbaijan feels justified in imposing the blockade because Armenia is supplying the rebel Nagorno-Karabakh forces with military material, fuel, food and money. Without Armenia’s help, the rebellion would collapse. Azerbaijan claims that Armenia is really a party to the war even though it has not declared war or publicly recognized Nagorno-Karabakh’s declaration of independence. While Armenia’s support of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its failure to compel Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to comply with international law is wrong, it is not justification for the Azerbaijan blockade that imposes hardship on innocent civilians.
We visited leaders in both Yerevan and Baku in June, including Armenia’s minister of defense, its deputy foreign minister and Azerbaijan’s acting president, Geidar Aliyev. We came away with three impressions:
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan understand the toll of the conflict and want to find an end to it, but see no way of reaching a settlement without outside mediation.
The asymmetry of American policy, which denies aid to Azerbaijan under the Freedom Support Act but imposes no sanctions on Armenia, is not helpful. It encourages Armenia to continue supporting Nagorno-Karabakh (support that aided last month’s incursions into Azerbaijani territory and resulted in 150,000 new refugees) and it heightens anti-West paranoia in Azerbaijan.
The starting point for a resolution of the conflict should be a cease-fire enforced by an international body, but Western inaction and ineffectiveness in Bosnia makes all sides skeptical that mediation would be backed up by the requisite force to keep a cease-fire.
Outside mediation is necessary to end “ethnic cleansing” in Nagorno-Karabakh. The United States should end the asymmetry of its policy in the region and take the lead in mobilizing a credible international coalition to do what is necessary to back up a mediated cease-fire. The international community has a new opportunity to play a role in ending gross human rights abuses. Let us hope a lesson has been learned from the consequences of inaction in Bosnia.