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British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly loves to boast about British commitment to human rights. Indeed he does so at every opportunity. “We will always hold those who violate or abuse human rights systems to account” he thundered on Human Rights Day last year.
Yet Mr Cleverly has remained silent on the harrowing events taking place over recent weeks in Nagorno-Karabakh: the disputed region in the South Caucasus – internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, despite the fact that its population is 99.7% ethnically Armenian and that its independent government maintains extremely close ties with Armenia.
It is now almost eight months since Azerbaijani protestors – thought to be backed by the government – blockaded the Lachin corridor, the sole road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the outside world.
Recently, the situation has grown increasingly desperate: in mid-June, Azerbaijan closed the border completely after Armenian forces opened fire on the checkpoint. Since then, only patients being transported to Armenia for emergency medical care have been able to pass the blockade.
The closure of the Lachin corridor has had dire consequences. On 25 July, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned ‘The civilian population is now facing a lack of lifesaving medication and essentials like hygiene products.’
Azerbaijan has stopped Armenian shipments of food and fuel. Public transport has ceased to operate, while shelves in some stores have been left barren. Even basics like bread are increasingly scarce and costly. Miscarriages are said to have tripled – yet the people of Nagorno-Karabakh refuse Azerbaijani aid. They fear accepting such an offer would be tantamount to submitting to Azerbaijani rule, and ultimately lead to their forced displacement.
Meanwhile, their plight continues to worsen. On 29 July, 68-year-old Vagif Khaachatryan was part of an ICRC convoy being transported to Armenia for medical treatment. When he reached the checkpoint, Azerbaijani forces arrested him – announcing he was wanted for war crimes committed during the First Nagorno-Karabkah War, over three decades ago.
Armenia has denied such claims, stating there is no mention of Khachatryan in any international intelligence system. Furthermore, the Armenian Foreign Ministry publicly positioned Khachatryan’s arrest as a ‘war crime’. Medical evacuations have subsequently ceased: the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are seemingly trapped, without access to even the most basic human rights.
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Azerbaijani officials publicly voice their aggression towards Nagorno-Karabakh. In October 2020, President Ilham Aliyev addressed the nation, stating ‘if they do not leave our lands of their own free will, we will chase them away like dogs’.
The same month, Azerbaijani political activist Mete Turksoy tweeted ‘Not a single civilian should be left alive in Nagorno-Karabakh’. On 21 July, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan warned that another war was now ‘very likely’, describing the situation as ‘an ongoing process of genocide’.
Nonetheless, the international community has been slow to act, and it’s not hard to guess why. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has led to increased demand for Azerbaijani fossil fuels: in July 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen flew to Baku to sign an agreement doubling the supply of gas from Azerbaijan to the EU.
The EU seems reluctant to risk jeopardizing its relationship with a valued ally. Only on 26th July, EU High Representative Josep Borrell announced that the ‘European Union is deeply concerned about the serious humanitarian situation’ in Nagorno-Karabakh, but fell short of recommending any concrete action.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is the UK’s primary trade partner in the South Caucasus, while the UK has been a major source of foreign investment for Azerbaijan’s economy. Officials seem desperate to avoid offending their counterparts in Baku.
On 1 August, British MPs from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Armenia sent a desperate message to Cleverly, urging him to at least comment on the increasingly concerning events.
Yet nothing from Cleverly. Nor is this the first time that Britain and The West have betrayed Armenia. During the final throes of the Ottoman Empire, more than a million Armenians were massacred amidst a program of death marches and forced Islamization: the UK has still not formally recognised the atrocity.
Given the region’s fraught history, it should come as no surprise that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are unwilling to submit to Azerbaijani demands. “How can we accept humanitarian aid from the country that has led us to this disaster,” asked Karabakh’s president Arayik Harutyunian during a press conference on 24 July. “It is using one hand to strangle us and the other to feed us.”
One side effect of the understandable focus on the conflict in Ukraine is that the world has taken its eye away from less pressing causes. Another tragedy is in the making. If Britain is as keen on human rights as the foreign secretary says it is, it must rise to the occasion – but this is unlikely. When Azerbaijan first blocked the Lachin corridor France (then the rotating president of the United Nations Security Council) drafted a stern resolution condemning the action.
Azerbaijan diplomats set to work to block it. When they succeeded, the Azerbaijan ambassador to Brussels – as Byline Times revealed at the time – thanked Britain for its help.
Once again Britain remained silent as darkness descends on Nagorno-Karabakh.