The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not a recent phenomenon. The roots of the present-day humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh originated when Armenia decided to break away from the Shia-dominated Azerbaijan in the 1988 referendum. The referendum resulted in a conflict that lasted till 1994. However, deadly incidents using drones and heavy weaponry continued during combat.
Illustration by The Geostrata
The long-term tensions also resulted in intense firing at the line of separation in 2016. The conflict escalated in 2020, making Azerbaijan occupy seven districts located close to Nagorno-Karabakh. On November 10, Russia brokered a ceasefire to a conflict that killed 170 people, leaving many wounded.
The peace brokered by Russia did not hold as Azerbaijan blockaded the Lachin Corridor that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia in December 2022.
The blockade was withdrawn by Azerbaijan on September 2023, making Armenians leave Nagorno-Karabakh. The blockade left 1,20,000 people of Nagorno-Karabakh face starvation, shelling and human rights violations. Therefore, the article intends to focus on the existing human rights violations that range from the halt in the supply of necessities to the human rights excesses by the Azeri forces.
COLLAPSE OF THE RATIONING SYSTEM
The halt in transporting goods resulted in the collapse of the rationing system. As per reports, a family was restricted to only a packet of bread as supplies of essential items remained limited. The siege has also recorded instances of death by starvation as the long blockade limited the flow of food and medicines.
The shortages resulted in the spread of chronic diseases and illnesses associated with protein deficiency and malnutrition.
The siege has also recorded a death in the town of Stepanakert due to chronic malnutrition. The blockade also resulted in long queues in front of the bakery as the people waited for the supply of essential items for hours.
BLOCKADE ASSOCIATED WITH SHELLING
The blockade has also recorded instances of shelling. As per reports, instances of shelling have been recorded in the town of Goris, a resort town near the Armenian border. The shelling has forced the local population to move to a local airport guided by the Russian peacekeepers. The safety from the shelling in the airport did not guarantee a free license from hunger.
The population ended up in the airport with no food for days, making people eat grass as hundreds of them had to sleep in fields with no shelter above their heads. The people had to cut wood to lighten up bonfires for survival.
The attacks also uprooted hundreds and thousands from their homes, making them escape to forests. In one of the cases, a family fled to the woods to save their lives from the intense shelling. Several days later, their maimed bodies were discovered by the U.N. peacekeeping forces as they conducted search operations.
REVIVAL OF THE BARTER SYSTEM
The blockade by Azerbaijan has revived the age-old barter system. The barter system involved each member as the supermarkets remained closed for days. Such a system has been observed in the town of Stepenakart, as the racks of the supermarkets went empty for months.
The revival of the barter system has been associated with the slaughtering of cattle to meet the standards of long-term sustenance. The blockade has also resulted in the involvement of non-governmental organisations that supply food with the help of drones.
DISRUPTION TO PETROLEUM AND CONNECTIVITY SUPPLY
The physical blockade also extended to the disruption in internet connection and electricity supply. The reports have indicated that the electricity and internet connection that crossed through the Lachin corridor were damaged, paving the way for widespread blackouts across Nagorno-Karabakh.
The curfew also restricted the flow of petroleum. Such measures have prompted people to use cattle, horses and donkeys for transportation. This involved people with horses and cattle to bring food supplies, including oil, sugar and mineral water from the cities, which in turn was distributed among the other villagers.
EXCESSES BY THE OCCUPATION FORCES
The region witnessed intense militarisation. The militarisation also resulted in hundreds of arrests by the Azeri forces. The arrests targeted the local leaders of Nagorno Karabakh with charges of terrorism. The Azeri authorities limited the prison visits only to the members of the International Red Cross (ICRC).
The militarisation of Nagorno Karabakh also extended to incidents of murder and rape. In one of the instances, Azeri forces raped women and circulated the video on the internet.
The intense brutality also resulted in the death of many young people. In this case, the role of Russian peacekeepers also comes under scrutiny as the forces kept their food supplies to themselves. Such instances drove the local crowds to storm their barracks to search for food.
FLOW OF REFUGEES
The removal of the blockade has pushed hundreds of families out of their homes where they lived most of their lives. The Armenian families of the blockaded territory who conducted their day-to-day lives like any other family found themselves on the highways, walking long distances for days as refugees. The refugees moved to the nearby towns and cities only to leave by cars and buses the next day.
INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL CODE ON THE BLOCKADE
The tactics of the blockade and the creation of situations of malnutrition and starvation caught the attention of the former Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ocampo warned there remains a ‘reasonable basis’ that Azerbaijan has committed genocide against the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. The officials from Azerbaijan have claimed that the report by Ocampo dismissed the claims, citing factual errors.
GEOPOLITICAL AND LATEST DEVELOPMENTS
The region's geopolitics involve not only regional powers like Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, and Russia but also European powers and the U.S. In the case of Turkey, Azerbaijan’s occupation ensures a strategic victory but results in probable opposition from Armenia with its economic plans that aim to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan. In the case of Iran, such developments remain opposed to Turkey’s infrastructure development projects.
Russia’s position in the region will weaken as it refuses to defend its ally, Armenia. The Western powers led by the United States faced a moral dilemma concerning providing humanitarian aid to Armenia and maintaining energy supplies from Azerbaijan simultaneously during the conflict.
However, in the latest move, the Western powers led by the U.S. and European Union (EU) welcomed the moves by Armenia and Azerbaijan to exchange prisoners of war in December 2023. The normalisation of relations is also evident in the joint statement by Armenia that withdrew its objection to Azerbaijan’s bid to host the COP 29 Summit with an emphasis on mutual trust and confidence-building measures.
In conclusion, the blockade over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh reflects that long-sustained conflicts do not simply have consequences in terms of winners and losers but also have implications that affect the lives of ordinary men and women. In short, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh reflects a situation of desperation due to Armenia’s troubled history and a dangerous neighbourhood guided by warring neighbours driven by geopolitical considerations as the top priority and human rights as the second.
BY ANIRBAN DUTTA AND HAYK GEGHAMYAN