Humanitarian Ceasefire and Civilian Lives in Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: What is at Stake?
21 October 2020 – 10:57
By Esmira Jafarova
On September 27 Azerbaijan announced the launch of its counteroffensive in response to Armenia’s military provocations along the Line of Contact.
Armenian side claims that it was Azerbaijan who attacked Armenia first and violated the ceasefire, which Azerbaijan rejects completely in view of Armenia’s recently increased military activism along the front line, i.e. in July, 2020 in the direction of Tovuz district, as well as lately along the Line of Contact.
In the face of assertive advances by the Azerbaijani armed forces, since September 27 Armenia pleaded for a ceasefire, which was eventually brokered by the Russian Federation with the participation of Russia’s Foreign Minister, S. Lavrov, and the respective foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Z. Mnatsakanyan and J. Bayramov, on October 9–10 in Moscow.
By October 10, Azerbaijan had already managed to liberate parts of its occupied territories and had broken the defenses of the Armed Forces of Armenia along the Line of Contact.
Termed a “humanitarian ceasefire,” its purpose was to offer a temporary lull in the conduct of active military hostilities beginning at noon on 10 October. The joint declaration that was issued at the end of eleven-hour-long discussions envisaged following three main points. First, the ceasefire is for humanitarian purposes, to enable the exchange of prisoners of war and the retrieval of the bodies of the dead, which has to be mediated by and in accordance with the requirements of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Second, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs and based on the basic principles of settlement – the so-called Madrid principles – have to be engaged in substantive negotiations to reach a peaceful settlement as soon as possible. Last, but not least, both conflicting parties once again “confirmed the invariability of the format of the negotiation process.”
The provisions of the declaration that refer to the return to “substantive negotiations based on the basic principles” and confirm the “invariability of the format of the negotiation process” are important. The period after Prime Minister Pashinyan’s ascension to power in Armenia was dominated by his heightened militaristic rhetoric and nationalist agenda vis-à-the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict. He embarked on numerous provocations against Azerbaijan that, among others, included Armenia’s rejection of the Madrid Principles for a negotiated solution of the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict and demand to change the format of negotiations to include the Nagorno-Karabakh region as an independent party. (The author of these lines has previously written about this in greater depth.) The call for substantive negotiations based on the basic principles was therefore an important factor in establishing Armenia’s liability in regard to the documents already agreed during the decades-long negotiation process. Moreover, reconfirmation of the existing format of negotiations means that Prime Minister Nicol Pashinyan’s attempts to include Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent party to the peace talks have turned into a fiasco.
When agreeing to the humanitarian truce, Azerbaijan made its objective very clear – its determination to liberate its occupied territories is inexorable. Having embraced a position of strategic patience for almost three decades and remained a committed party in the peace negotiations, Azerbaijan had hoped for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. However, with negotiations lasting for almost three decades without delivering a tangible solution to the conflict, Azerbaijan’s strategic patience started to wear thin.
President Ilham Aliyev, in his interviews with the foreign media, underlined that Azerbaijan is determined to fight till the liberation of all of its occupied territories. He also underscored that the solution to the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict is politico-military. Nevertheless, he also made clear that the liberation of the occupied territories does not necessarily need to happen through military means and that Azerbaijan is ready to stop its counteroffensive if Armenia returns to negotiations and gives a clear timetable for the withdrawal of its troops from all occupied Azerbaijani territories in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 853.
Nonetheless, right after the humanitarian ceasefire took effect, Armenia’s subsequent actions and statements caused utter confusion and disappointment. Armenia violated the humanitarian truce that it had asked for within minutes of it being signed. The second largest Azerbaijani city, Ganja, was attacked using Tochka-U and, later, SCUD ballistic missiles on the very night that the ceasefire took effect. Azerbaijan also reported the shelling of cities such as Tartar, Barda, Mingachevir, Aghjabedi, and Beylaghan. However, Ganja became a textbook example of war crimes against peaceful civilians. The missiles used against Ganja are proven to have large destructive capacity and their use against civilians is prohibited under international humanitarian law. The attacks were also confirmed as having been launched directly from Armenian territory. This attack against Ganja, which is far from the theater of military hostilities, killed 10 people and injured 34. On the nights of October 16–17, Armenia again attacked Ganja city using a SCUD/Elbrus tactical operative ballistic missile that killed more than 10 and wounded over 50 civilians, alongside causing significant destruction to civilian infrastructure. On the same night, Armenia also attacked the Mingachevir Dam; however, the missiles were intercepted by Azerbaijan’s air-defense system.
Despite these heinous terror attacks against civilians in Ganja, Azerbaijan expressed commitment to the humanitarian ceasefire, vowing, however, that this act of terror will be reciprocated against Armenia on the battlefield. The Foreign Policy Advisor to President Ilham Aliyev, Mr. Hikmet Hajiyev, also reiterated that Armenia’s ballistic missile launchers that target Azerbaijani cities and civilians automatically qualify as legitimate military objectives under jus in bello and Azerbaijan reserves the right to neutralize these installations to preempt future terror attacks. Representatives of the diplomatic corps in Azerbaijan were dispatched to Ganja to witness the destruction caused by the missile attacks. On October 14, Azerbaijan announced that it had neutralized several operational-tactical missile systems with ballistic missiles at the starting position in the border zone with the occupied Kalbajar region of Azerbaijan, having identified these as legitimate military objectives. Azerbaijan thereby prevented potential further deadly strikes against its peaceful civilians.
In the meantime, the latest statements by Armenia’s leadership in no way testify to any genuine intent to observe the humanitarian ceasefire, finally comply with the four UN Security Council resolutions, and de-occupy Azerbaijani lands peacefully. In his address to the nation on October 14, Prime Minister Pashinyan declared that, despite the losses that the Armenian army had incurred and its “tactical withdrawal” from some positions, Armenia will not withdraw from the occupied territories unless the issue in regard to the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region is solved. Having reasserted Armenia’s maximalist and unconstructive position, Prime Minister Pashinyan once again confirmed that Armenia rejects the Madrid Principles, which envisage the staged de-occupation of Azerbaijani territories before any discussion on the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region actually takes place. Such a belligerent and denialist rhetoric clearly hinders the chances for a peaceful solution of the conflict.
Apparently, Armenia is clutching at straws in an effort to compensate for its losses on the battlefield. Its pleas for a ceasefire once again proved to be a stratagem, as it had previously employed during the active military hostilities in the 1990s, for achieving a temporary lull in military hostilities in order to stage an attack of greater magnitude. A vivid example was the occupation of Shusha by the armed forces of Armenia on May 8, 1992, only a day after a ceasefire was mediated by Iran on May 7, 1992.
Today, Armenia continues to violate the humanitarian ceasefire and is attacking Azerbaijani cities and civilians in Ganja, Tartar, Aghdam, Aghjabadi, Goranboy, Ordubad (in Nakhchivan), and so on that are located far from the arena of military operations. In doing so, Armenia aims to terrorize innocent civilians and also, potentially, drag third parties, namely, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), into the conflict by provoking an Azerbaijani counterattack against military objectives in Armenian territory. Azerbaijan, however, remains resilient, shows restraint, abides by the humanitarian ceasefire, and defeats the repeated attacks by the armed forces of Armenia, who want to recapture the lost positions. In exercising its inherent and individual right to self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter, Azerbaijan, through the proportionate use of military force, is curbing the armed attack against its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In doing so, Azerbaijan is fighting against combatants in full compliance with the Geneva Conventions (1949).
The violent terror attacks against Ganja city on October 11, the very night that the humanitarian ceasefire took effect, and also on October 17 are utterly deplorable acts that amount to war crimes and violate all the relevant international legal documents. Unfortunately, similar attacks are still being carried out against Azerbaijani cities and civilians every day. Houses, hospitals, schools, kindergartens, and administrative buildings are exposed to intensive shelling, and Azerbaijan has so far suffered numerous deaths and injuries among its civilian population, including children. As of this writing, according to information distributed by the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan, the death toll among the civilian population had reached 63, with 292 injured and about 1981 houses and 386 civilian facilities damaged or destroyed. Armenia has also repeatedly targeted Azerbaijan’s critical energy infrastructure, having launched missile attacks against the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline in the vicinity of Yevlakh district and against Mingachevir city in an effort to strike the Mingachevir Water Dam and Hydropower Station. It is not difficult to imagine the magnitude of the civilian causalities as well as the environmental consequences if these strategic objects were to be damaged.
Just very recently, starting from 18 October, midnight Armenia and Azerbaijan declared of another humanitarian ceasefire to take effect. However, the very same morning Azerbaijan reported of Armenian shelling of Azerbaijani cities again. One civilian died in Aghdam as a result of the shelling. Armed forces of Armenia also made attempts to attack Azerbaijani positions using fighter aircrafts.
The militaristic posture demonstrated by the Armenian side against Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, the security of its citizens, and its critical energy infrastructure may have dangerous consequences not only for the South Caucasus, but well beyond. Armenia continues to openly ignore the four resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (822, 853, 874, and 884) and, in contravention to the norms and principles of international law, and the Geneva Conventions in particular, is attacking Azerbaijani civilians. Innocent Azerbaijani civilians should not be punished, terrorized, or retaliated against to compensate for Armenia’s military losses on the battlefield. Even wars have laws, which Armenia grossly ignores and violates every day.