Since 27 September, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been embroiled in an armed conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This conflict originated in the 1980s, as the USSR saw tensions arising in its constituent republics, and Nagorno-Karabakh (inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians) voted to become part of Armenia in 1991. This further aggravated the war which then continued until 1994 and saw about 30,000 deaths, the displacement of around one million people, and significant reports of ethnic cleansing carried out by both sides. Armenia argues that the province is a historic part of their homeland and cites the 1991 referendum to justify their claim; while Azerbaijan says that the province is internationally recognised as part of their territory. Since then, the dispute has remained unresolved, with Nagorno-Karabakh remaining part of Azerbaijan, but controlled by separatist ethnic Armenians.
Tensions were high for several months prior to September, and it remains unclear which side started the conflict. Since the fighting began, an estimated 532 military members have died and officials say that roads, electricity, gas and communication networks have taken significant damage across the region.
The impact on civilians has been severe – Azerbaijani authorities reported that 42 of their non-militants were killed over 2 weeks, and Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman, Artak Beglaryan, said that at least 31 civilian deaths have occurred in the region, with hundreds more wounded and tens of thousands displaced. However, it’s difficult to independently verify these reports – while Armenia releases its military toll, Azerbaijan does not, and the overall number of casualties is likely much higher than reported. Both sides also deny ever targeting civilians or their infrastructures, while simultaneously accusing the other of doing so.
Efforts to broker a ceasefire have been difficult, despite many attempts from the international community to negotiate a peace deal. An agreement mediated by Russia was reached on October 10, but it was breached shortly after – with each side accusing the other of breaking the pact and targeting civilians. Another understanding was reached for a mutual withdrawal from midnight, 17 October – but early on the 18th, both sides again accused each other of violating it. The peace announcement came mere hours after Azerbaijan said that Armenia carried out a missile attack on Ganja, leaving 13 civilians dead, which Armenia has denied. Conversely, Armenia reported rocket attacks carried out by Azerbaijan, wounding at least 3 civilians. The Azeri Embassy in Washington, D.C. accused Armenia of committing “war crimes against civilians in order to distract from its battlefield losses and the illegal occupation of Azerbaijan,” but the Armenian government countered that they aimed for “legitimate military targets”, such as an air force base and a military industrial complex.
In the international context, the key countries involved are Russia and Turkey. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan, Russia is allied with Armenia but has good relations with Azerbaijan, and has made repeated calls for a peace agreement. Both sides also insist that the other brought in foreign military forces on the ground – the Russian government complained to Turkey about militants allegedly being transferred from the Middle East to Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia (backed by French President Emmanuel Macron) accused Azerbaijan of recruiting foreign fighters from Syria.
Furthermore, international consensus overwhelmingly calls for a ceasefire between the two sides, owing to the ‘human cost’ of civilian casualties as a result of the fighting. The EU recently denounced the attacks on Ganja and said that the original peace deal “must be fully respected without delay.” UN Secretary Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate attacks on populated areas” that have occurred, including in Stepanakert and other localities around the Nagorno-Karabakh zone of conflict, and urges both sides to resume negotiations.
As of today (October 28th), the fighting has intensified after the collapse of a third attempt at a ceasefire (brokered by the US), and both Azerbaijan and Armenia have reported civilian casualties in urban areas. Recent days have seen clashes on multiple fronts, with Azerbaijani forces capturing territory in the southern area, along its border with Iran. Although information about civilian victims is yet to be clarified, Azerbaijan claims that 21 civilians were killed and 70 injured in the city of Barda (outside the Nagorno-Karabakh region), a claim which Armenia denies. The conflict is ongoing and shows no signs of stopping as of yet.
What’s behind the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-54324772
Both sides obliged to ‘spare and protect civilians over Nagorno-Karabakh fighting’: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/10/1075672
Armenia, Azerbaijan accuse each other of violating truce: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/17/new-armenia-azerbaijan-truce-comes-into-force-in-nagorno-karabakh
Russia seeks Nagorno-Karabakh truce return as deaths rise: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/12/nagorno-karabakh-live-news
‘600 killed’ in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/armenia-azerbaijan-conflict-death-toll-nagorno-karabakh-latest-b1031273.html
Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: Why are they fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh: https://www.wsj.com/articles/armenia-azerbaijan-conflict-11601325097?tesla=y
Ceasefire fails to hold as Armenia, Azerbaijan accuse each other of targeting civilians: https://www.rferl.org/a/armenia-azerbaijan-urged-to-seek-lasting-cease-fire-as-diplomatic-efforts-continue/30916763.html
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Author: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor: Kelsey Greeff
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik