On December 20, 2022, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an emergency meeting at Armenia’s request to discuss Azerbaijan’s blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin corridor, in place since December 12. The meeting, which lasted about an hour, showed a remarkable shift in the international community’s reaction to the Armenia-Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts.
While the usual bothsidesing rhetoric was evident in the statements of all 15 UNSC member states seated around the iconic round-table, there was an overwhelmingly, nearly unanimous, explicit call for the corridor’s immediate and unconditional re-opening. Days prior, the UN Secretary-General had similarly urged “the sides […] to ensure freedom and security of movement along the corridor, in line with the previously reached agreements.” Some states, including the U.S., France, Norway and Ireland, specifically pointed to Azerbaijan as the responsible side in this respect. This is significant considering the fact that Azerbaijan presented the usual claim, in statements prior to and ending the meeting, that Armenia is lying:
“[A]s as it comes to the situation around the Lachin Road, Azerbaijan resolutely rejects all of Armenia’s claims as absolutely false, null and void. […] Neither the government of Azerbaijan, nor the protesting activists, have blocked the Lachin road. The regime for the movement of citizens, goods and vehicles along the road remains unchanged, with the peacekeepers continuing to perform their duties to protect the route. […] There is no impediment whatsoever as to the supply of goods for the use of local residents or in terms of delivery of essential medical services.”
In insisting that the corridor be promptly unblocked, the UNSC’s response to Azerbaijan’s position was clear: We don’t believe you.
The closure of the Lachin corridor is plainly unlawful. It not only contravenes paragraph 6 of the November 2020 Trilateral Statement, according to which “Azerbaijan shall guarantee the security of persons, vehicles and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions,” but it also violates international humanitarian law. Blockades during armed conflict may, in some instances, be permitted so long as they do not cause disproportionate civilian harm, but in all instances, parties to a conflict must always allow and facilitate the rapid passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in need and not arbitrarily interfere with it. Parties must also ensure the free movement of humanitarian workers, and the laws of war strictly prohibit using starvation as a method of warfare. Parties are prohibited from deliberately provoking starvation or causing the population to suffer hunger, particularly by depriving it of sources of food or supplies.
Individuals who willfully commit serious violations of international humanitarian law may be prosecuted for war crimes. This includes the deliberate use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of goods indispensable to their survival and by impeding humanitarian aid. These rules apply both in international and non-international armed conflicts, which, in the case of Armenia-Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, are still ongoing. An armistice or a cease-fire does not represent an end to hostilities, nor do they reflect a juridical end to the state of war. They must not be confused with peace agreements, which do reflect an end to a conflict.
In this light, and with Nagorno-Karabakh running short of food with the blockade now entering its third week, the so-called “eco-activists” blocking the Lachin corridor can be considered to be taking part in hostilities and committing a war crime. Azerbaijani military and civilian leaders may be held responsible if they knew or should have known about the commission of such crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.
It is also important to consider that the Lachin corridor remains under the control of the Russian peacekeepers within the terms of the November 9, 2020 Trilateral Statement, which Russia not only brokered but also co-signed. Russia therefore has a uniquely influential position, if not a legal duty to act, to remedy the situation. Accordingly, the Russians’ ongoing failure to move the so-called “eco-activists” and reinstate free circulation of all goods, persons and vehicles along the corridor may render them complicit in the Azerbaijani activists’ and their leaders’ war crimes, much like Dutch peacekeepers were found to have been complicit in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. In this respect, at the December 20 UNSC emergency meeting, U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood notably called on “Azerbaijan and others responsible for the Corridor’s security to restore free movement, including for humanitarian and commercial use, as soon as possible.” Human Rights Watch has also recently stated that “[t]hose in control of the road and the area around it –– that is Azerbaijan authorities and the Russian peacekeeping force –– should ensure that vehicles with humanitarian goods can pass and that freedom of movement is not stopped.”
There are a few other indications from the UNSC meeting to suggest that the international community’s patience with Azerbaijan’s lies and antics is running increasingly thin. Brazil, for instance, stated that “[a]ny obstructions, regardless of the pretext, jeopardize the wellbeing of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and threaten the reconciliation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a conflict that has already cost thousands of human lives.” The U.S. emphatically echoed the sentiment, stressing that “impediments to the use of the Lachin Corridor set back the peace process” and “undermine international confidence in this process.” These concerns are especially poignant when considering that any eventual peace treaty will be void and without legal force or validity if its conclusion has been coerced and procured by the threat or use of force in violation of international law (see Vienna Convention, Arts 52 and 69(1)).
At the UNSC meeting, France also called for “immediate, free and unhindered access for humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies, particularly the UNHCR, to those affected including through the Lachin corridor.” This statement was conceivably a nod to one of the most overlooked and unimplemented provisions of the November 2020 Trilateral Statement, namely paragraph 7: “Internally displaced persons and refugees shall return to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” Indeed, Azerbaijan has long refused and thwarted efforts to allow any international organization access to the region, including crucial humanitarian bodies such as UNHCR and UNESCO, with the sole exception of the ICRC. In August of this year, the UN CERD Committee noted that “Azerbaijan isolated Nagorno-Karabakh and its people from the rest of the world, not allowing the entry of international organizations to Nagorno-Karabakh to conduct humanitarian missions” before confirming, among other things, that Azerbaijan continues to incite racial hatred against Armenians (see here, para. 4). Mehriban Aliyeva’s sudden departure last month as goodwill ambassador of UNESCO, after 18 years in the post, further indicates that Azerbaijan is losing face with the UN and its agencies.
Even the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has changed its tune. On December 21, the ECHR ordered Azerbaijan “to take all measures that are within their jurisdiction to ensure safe passage through the ‘Lachin Corridor’ of seriously ill persons in need of medical treatment in Armenia and others who were stranded on the road without shelter or means of subsistence.” This was the first time in over two years that the ECHR indicated any new interim measures in the interstate cases between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The overall takeaway is this: blockades are hugely frowned upon by the international community and Azerbaijan has gone too far. Azerbaijan’s blockade of Armenians evokes the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, which currently remains the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world. Even when possessing large oil and gas reserves, there is only so much criminal aggression and dishonesty that the international community can turn a blind eye to. Norway put it best at the December 20, 2022 UNSC meeting when calling on Azerbaijan to guarantee safe movement along the Lachin corridor by adding that the international community can no longer just “weather the storm” in the hopes that it will just go away. The longer Azerbaijan ignores the UNSC’s clear instruction to immediately, unconditionally and fully re-open the Lachin corridor, the sooner a resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s actions could reasonably be expected. The tides in the world’s opinion appear to be changing in support of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor may be the game changer nobody expected.
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