The Failure to Protect Civilians in Artsakh

By David L. Phillips and Salpi S. Kevorkian
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Azerbaijan armed forces combined with Turkish-backed jihadists from Syria and Libya attacked Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) on September 27,2020. To date, more than 2,300 Armenians including civilians have died as a result of Azerbaijan’s aggression. The failure of diplomacy and the international community’s unwillingness to protect civilians opened space for Russia and Azerbaijan to impose an agreement that authorizes Russian “peacekeepers.” The events in Artsakh are another example of the international community’s failure to protect humanity.  

The failure of the international community to respond to genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, particularly in the cases of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, precipitated the development of criteria for intervention. Promulgated in 2001, “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) was developed by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), and subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. Despite noble intentions, R2P only works when UN Member States, especially permanent members of the UN Security Council, are prepared to enforce it. 

R2P highlights a conundrum for the international community. The UN charter enshrines the principle of non-intervention and state sovereignty. At the same time, the Charter mandates the world body to prevent the scourge of war. Harmonizing these competing goals is at the heart of the R2P dilemma.
Since R2P was adopted, the international community has repeatedly failed to protect civilians in Syria, Libya and Sudan. Political considerations get in the way. Intervention requires moral clarity. It should be based on best practices for addressing deadly conflict and aggression. 
The R2P doctrine is based on three pillars:
- Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from mass atrocity such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. 
- The international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states to meet that responsibility.
- If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the UN Charter.
Artsakh is a classic case of conflicting principles between the right to self-determination and the principle of state sovereignty. Despite the 1992 referendum on independence, which passed overwhelmingly, the 1994 ceasefire agreement affirmed Artsakh as a territory of Azerbaijan. Baku justified its recent attack, insisting it was protecting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Artsakh was recognized as part of Azerbaijan in 1993 UN Security Council resolutions.
Just like Slobodan Milosevic lost the right to govern Kosovo by committing egregious human rights abuses, Armenians believe they are entitled to “remedial secession” in response to crimes committed by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijani forces launched unprovoked attacks in 2016 and 2020. Many Armenians no longer recognize Azerbaijan’s claim of sovereignty.
The international system usually upholds the rights of its Member States, but not always. It occasionally supports the right of self-determination in response to human rights violations, as was the case in Kosovo, East Timor, and South Sudan. Nagorno-Karabakh deserves the same support.
A legacy of human rights abuses exists in Azerbaijan. In 1988, anti-Armenian pogroms were launched in Sumgait, Kirovabad, and Baku. These pogroms included acts of violence targeting Armenian civilians -- widespread massacres, sexual violence, torture, and mutilation. An open letter by prominent academics was published in the New York Times in 1990. The Minsk Group, consisting of US, Russia and France, was established by the UN in response to these moral claims.
Recent events are part of a pattern. Azerbaijan has committed campaigns of ethnic and cultural cleansing in Nakhichevan, a landlocked exclave of the Republic of Azerbaijan bordering Armenia to the east and north. Turkey, Azerbaijan’s supporter and driving force behind this campaign of violence, is an accomplice to Aliyev’s crimes. President Tayyip Erdogan has recently used incendiary language to justify the killing of Armenians. He calls them “leftovers of the sword” and describes Armenians as “infidels” to justify mass killings at the turn of the 20th Century, which are known as the Armenian Genocide. Erdogan vows to fulfill the mission of the Ottoman forbearers in the Caucasus. His call to action prompted mobs of Turkish ultranationalists to take to the streets, chanting targeted threats towards Armenians.
The unprovoked and ongoing attack by the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments on civilian areas in Artsakh is the next phase in a campaign to expel and ethnically cleanse Armenians from their indigenous lands. The Human Rights Ombudsman of Artsakh confirms the displacement of over 100,000 Armenian civilians
Erdogan promises to finish what his Ottoman ancestors started. Turkish special forces and ISIS mercenaries from Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan engaged in hand-to-hand fighting and beheaded many victims. 
According to a captured Syrian mercenary: “Turkish and Azerbaijani servicemen were also coming and ordering us to kill and slaughter each and every Armenian.” 
Additional evidence of Azerbaijani and Turkish war crimes includes the indiscriminate use of cluster and chemical munitions, such as white phosphorus, as well as weapons prohibited by international humanitarian law. The aggressors mutilated Armenians, executing civilians, including children, the disabled, and elderly. They also targeted civilian infrastructure, cultural heritage and religious sites.   
Azerbaijani war crimes are detailed in a statement released by The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on November 2, 2020, Michelle Bachelet. She describes “videos that appeared to show Azerbaijani troops summarily executing two captured Armenians in military uniforms uncovered compelling and deeply disturbing information.” A recent statement issued on November 11, 2020 confirms that the UN was aware of mercenaries committing war crimes. These official statements have, however, proved ineffective to marshalling the international community to act under R2P.
Instead of intervention, the US and other international stakeholders stood by as deadly violence spiraled out of control. Armenian’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was forced to sign a trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on November 9, 2020. Pashinyan described the agreement as "unspeakably painful." 
The agreement conceded territory to Azerbaijan’s control. It established a transportation route between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhichevan, guaranteeing Azerbaijani access through Armenia. It also provided for the deployment of 2,000 Russian “peacekeepers” for five years. As noted by Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe: “This is a deal brokered by two big autocratic neighbors, Russia and Turkey, that can now use it to pursue their own self-aggrandizing agendas. For them this is about troops and transport corridors, not people.”  
Russia and Turkey filled the gap created by failures of the Minsk Group, which was derelict in its diplomatic duties. Russia and Turkey claim that the agreement of November 9 draws on R2P. However, the agreement ignores accountability, which is at the core of R2P. 
Short of military intervention, the US can still take strong action by:
  • Condemning the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan for their attacks targeting civilians.
  • Suspending arms sales to Azerbaijan under Section 501 of the Freedom Support Act.
  • Imposing targeted sanctions on Turkish and Azerbaijani officials for deploying jihadis.
  • Sending humanitarian monitors to bear witness and prevent further crimes against humanity.
  • Calling for the International Criminal Court to prosecute war crimes under Article 8 (2) of the Rome Statute.
The events in Artsakh reveal the limitations of R2P. They also reveal the indispensable role of the United States in providing moral and political leadership. The international system works best when the US takes a leading role. The victims of aggression by Azerbaijan and Turkey are paying a price for America’s failure. 
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Human Rights and Peacebuilding at Columbia University. He chaired the Turkey-Armenia Reconciliation Commission. Ms. Kevorkian is a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, specializing in trauma and psychopathy.