Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities should ensure focus on human rights protection in their peace talks and establish strong human rights safeguards for all persons affected by the conflict, said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, as she published her Observations following her visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the Karabakh region, from 16 to 23 October 2023. It was the first time in decades that a human rights mission of this kind was able to visit the Karabakh region.
The visit was prompted by the forced displacement of over 101,000 Karabakh Armenians who fled to Armenia in the space of only a few days at the end of September. It followed Azerbaijan’s military action on 19 and 20 September, its subsequent full control over the region and the prolonged disruption in the movement of people and access to essential goods, services and energy supplies experienced by Karabakh Armenians as a result of a nine-month blocking of the road along the Lachin corridor by Azerbaijan. In Armenia, the Commissioner spoke with Karabakh Armenians who had left and were staying in shelters provided by the authorities. In Stepanakert Karabakh capital, following the departure of its population, the Commissioner witnessed empty streets, abandoned premises and almost no sign of the presence of civilians. On the basis of what she could hear and see, the Commissioner concluded that at the end of September 2023, Karabakh Armenians found themselves abandoned without any reliable security or protection guarantees by any party, and that, for them, leaving home was the only reasonable option available.
While welcoming the efforts made by the Armenian authorities to provide all those in need who arrived from the Karabakh region with the first basic assistance, the Commissioner stressed that Karabakh Armenians who fled to Armenia, and in particular those belonging to vulnerable groups, should be guaranteed access to all necessary support in the immediate, medium and long term. “Council of Europe member states should maintain a focus on providing financial support to ensure that the humanitarian needs of displaced persons and their host populations can be fully met”, added the Commissioner.
The Commissioner stressed that recently-displaced Karabakh Armenians in Armenia should be given the possibility of returning in safety and dignity – even if it seems hypothetical for most at the moment – including by finding flexible solutions, in particular as concerns their citizenship and legal status. Pending a possible return, ways should be promptly found, including by establishing security guarantees, for Karabakh Armenians to temporarily access their homes or places of habitual residence, and visit graveyards where loved ones are buried. It is incumbent on the Azerbaijani authorities to ensure that property left behind by Karabakh Armenians is protected from looting, theft or being taken over. The few ethnic Armenians who have stayed in the Karabakh region should also benefit from all human rights protection, including by having their freedom of movement secured.
The Commissioner expressed the hope that all internally displaced persons who so wish will be able to return as soon as possible in safety and dignity. More generally, the Commissioner stressed that all persons displaced by the long-lasting conflict have the right to return to their homes or places of habitual residence voluntarily and under conditions of safety and dignity, regardless of whether they have been displaced internally or across borders.
“All allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law and serious human rights violations reported in relation to the conflict need to be effectively and promptly investigated, the perpetrators brought to justice and if found guilty after a fair, independent and impartial trial, sentenced and punished. This includes allegations relating to the circumstances of the blocking of the Lachin corridor, the mass displacement of Karabakh Armenians and the military operation of 19 to 20 September”, said the Commissioner. She added that this must be done through a victim-centered approach that treats the victims and their families with sensitivity and compassion. A comprehensive approach to dealing with the past and addressing the serious human rights violations committed in the context of the conflict over the Karabakh region should also be put in place.
Other human rights issues addressed in the Commissioner’s Observations include the need to protect people from mines and explosive remnants of war; the situation of persons detained in connection with the conflict, including the conditions of their detention and level of contact with their families; and the importance of clarifying the fate of missing persons throughout the region and to provide answers to their families. Lastly, the Commissioner called on the authorities in both countries to combat hate speech and promote mutual understanding and trust, including by involving civil society in establishing human rights-compliant memorialization and reconciliation processes.