BY HRANT APOVIAN
“A rebel group gained “Belligerent Status” when all of the following had occurred: It controlled territory in the state against which it was rebelling; It declared independence, if its goal was secession; It had well-organized armed forces; It began hostilities against the government; And, importantly, the government recognized it as belligerent.”
Christopher Greenwood (Crimes of War)
The government of Azerbaijan has so far refused to grant recognition to the people of Artsakh rebelling against it and their subsequent wish for independence. The government of Azerbaijan refuses to admit that it has lost effective control over Artsakh. It has no intention to grant legal status despite the will of its Armenian population.
It has now been over thirty years since Azerbaijan committed war crimes by attacking the civilian population with indiscriminate bombings, and over twenty six years since the end of hostilities, and to a ceasefire to which Azerbaijan is a signatory. However, by its own admission, it is still in a state of war with Armenia and Artsakh. “The war has not ended” declared its head of state.
To remind everyone, and to keep its threat alive – notably, to the mediators- Azerbaijan keeps the front line active, cease fire violations are constant occurrences. All kinds and calibers of artillery are used both at the front and occasionally against borderline villages in a war of attrition. It has a massive arsenal in full display that it uses indiscriminately…
Azerbaijan made a major and ill-advised attack on June 2016. Armenian authorities are still trying to assess the damage on the ground as well as the damage to the so called negotiation process. Azerbaijan’s foolhardy decision to attack resulted in impunity and cost the Armenian side over one hundred heroic young lives. Because of their sacrifice the attack was thwarted and failed.
Thankfully, this deadly miscalculated adventure caused the Armenian side to reassess and fortify our defenses, reformulate our strategy, and identify our vulnerabilities. However, Armenia failed to expose Azerbaijan for its violation of the ceasefire and it was never held accountable for its gross brutality against the civilian population. Azerbaijan knows what is illegal and what is criminal conduct. It never adheres to the humanitarian rules of war. Lately, the Armenian defense minister, Davit Tonoyan declared in New York, “As Minister of Defense, I declare that the formula ‘territories for peace’ will no longer exist and we will reformulate it as ‘new war – new territories,’ ” and that Armenia will boost its offensive capabilities.”
The response was swift from Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry. “We bring to the attention of the Armenian side that the armed forces of the Republic of Azerbaijan are among the most powerful armies of the world and are able to liberate the occupied territories of Azerbaijan in a short time.” This is in line with bellicose warmongering declarations made by Azerbaijan’s head of state at every occasion.
The Armenian Defense Minister’s declaration is significant in that it represents a clear demarcation from existing policy. He stressed that renewed attacks from Azerbaijan would result in more territorial loss, a major change from a purely defensive posture.
It seems that there is a dichotomy in the ongoing accepted basic concept. The right to self-determination and territorial integrity cannot coexist in actuality. It is not a realistic concept. Nagorno-Karabakh was never part of Azerbaijan. They represent dramatically opposite realities that can never lead to a just resolution of the conflict. For the western world, it is a convenient evasion from taking an honorable position on behalf of self-determination which is a basic tenet of human rights.
In reality, this adopted mode of negotiations for the last twenty-seven years, has not brought us any closer to resolving the conflict. Artsakh is still not a recognized entity even though it has made major advances as a viable state, having its own army and democratic government institutions. Being part of the original cease fire agreement, it is still not a party to the negotiation process. However it is still isolated and does not have international legal status. The future does not bode well for peace for its inhabitants. Living under constant threat of massive bombardments or even annihilation is very real.
Azerbaijan’s multi-billion dollar acquisition of sophisticated military hardware from all sources: Russia, Israel, Turkey, France, Slovakia, being its major suppliers. Its buildup of a deadly military arsenal is still ongoing. The military cooperation and coordination with Turkey and Nakhichevan marked by periodic joint military exercises is aimed at destabilizing Armenia. Another coordinated invasion might be devastating for the people of Artsakh even if it is not successful.
A fundamental change in strategy is in order. One can no longer rely on the negotiating process. It has not resulted in stopping the belligerence. It has not stopped the artillery from killing young Armenian soldiers on the front line. The mediators – in their diligence for equal parity- keep reminding “the sides” to respect the ceasefire. The snipers on the Azeri side are still at work. No monitoring mechanisms are allowed on the border…
One can easily presume that negotiations have failed miserably; that the future presents pitfalls for Armenian diplomacy; and the survival of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh depends on a new bolder approach. At this time, three forward looking, incremental steps have to be contemplated and enacted:
1. Armenia and Artsakh should launch a worldwide campaign against Turkey and Azerbaijan for their illegal blockade and isolation of Armenia and Artsakh. This constitutes a major impediment for their economies. It has had a devastating effect on their development. Upon the grand opening of the newly built civilian airport in Artsakh, Azerbaijan threatened to shoot down any civilian airplane using it. No worldwide condemnation of this flagrant disregard of civil aviation rules, and in contravention of major international humanitarian law. Thus far, the airport has not been in operation because of the seriousness of the threat.
Blockade is tantamount to an act of war. It is a belligerent act. It prevents the target states from outreach to the world. “There is also, as a result of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, an obligation not to deprive the civilian population of the basic means of survival.”
2. Establish a formal strategic military pact between Artsakh and Armenia. Any attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh would be deemed an attack on Armenia. Countries aiding and abetting Azerbaijan would be on notice. This is long overdue and a necessary arrangement that would clear the way for a more productive and coordinated alliance between Armenia and Artsakh. At this time, this has become a military necessity. Never the less, it will definitely create a new geopolitical reality.
3. Armenia needs to be reunified with Artsakh, and thus create a “fait-accompli.” This will create a major blow to Azerbaijan’s belligerence and bravado. It will change the existing configuration. It may put Armenia under tremendous pressures. However the right timing and advance notification of friendly countries will alleviate the initial impact and improve the long-term prospects of the faith of Nagorno-Karabakh. There will be no more talk of “Land for Peace.” Artsakh did not belong to any sovereign state at the time the Soviet Union collapsed and its population overwhelmingly voted for independence at the time. Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that “persons protected by the convention are those who, at any given moment, and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a party to the conflict or occupying power of which they are not nationals.”
It is not yet clear what the present government of Armenia is contemplating towards resolving the conflict. However one cannot have confidence that the present atmosphere of mistrust in the relations between Armenia and Artsakh is conducive to an approach that is mutually acceptable. There are accusations flying back and forth… It is imperative that a national consensus on the subject supersede any political divisions. The ultimate faith of our beloved Artsakh and that of Armenia is at stake.