BERLIN–Azerbaijani forces carried out apparently indiscriminate attacks in Stepanakert in violation of the laws of war during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
A Human Rights Watch on-site investigation in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, found numerous incidents in which Azerbaijan’s forces used inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions and artillery rockets or other weapons that did not distinguish between military targets and civilian objects. Evidence relating to an attack on October 4, 2020, indicates that multiple strikes hit residential homes in less than a minute suggesting possible bombardment – treating the whole area as a military target – which is prohibited under the laws of war. Azerbaijani forces also attacked infrastructure that may have an unlawfully disproportionate impact on the civilian population. The use by Armenian and local Nargorno-Karabakh forces of military bases and dual-use infrastructure in Stepanakert placed the civilian population unnecessarily at risk.
“Azerbaijani forces carried out apparently indiscriminate air and ground strikes hitting civilian structures in Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city that should be impartially investigated,” said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “While the hostilities may have stopped, the civilian population continues to suffer from possibly disproportionate attacks on critical infrastructure.”
On September 27, Azerbaijan began air and ground attacks across Nagorno-Karabakh, an escalation in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia
From September 27 through October 28, Azerbaijani forces conducted strikes on Stepanakert, at times using cluster munitions and Smerch and Grad rockets, which are not capable of precision targeting. Azerbaijani forces attacked Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh forces based in or around Stepanakert, including at two military bases, one of which is believed to be the headquarters for the local defense forces. Several structures were also military objectives, subject to attack. However, Human Rights Watch found that in the attacks investigated, Armenian and local forces were not deployed nor had set up any significant defensive systems or other weaponry in the city.
By early October, most of the over 50,000 residents had fled the city, many to Goris and Yerevan in Armenia. Some civilians remained in Stepanakert, including older people and servicemen’s families. Since the fighting ended, tens of thousands have reportedly returned.
Human Rights Watch visited Nagorno-Karabakh in October and November and spoke to 19 civilian residents of Stepanakert, two officials from the local authorities, a nongovernmental organization worker, and four other residents who had fled to Armenia but who were present during the fighting. Human Rights Watch also acquired and analyzed satellite images taken between September 27 and late October that corroborate accounts, photographs, and videos of repeated Azerbaijani air and ground attacks in Stepanakert, including scores of damaged structures and impact sites. Human Rights Watch was able to examine a small number of the attack sites in Stepanakert.
Human Rights Watch found that, in addition to the attacks on military targets, Azerbaijani forces attacked residential areas with inherently indiscriminate weapons and dropped aerial munitions and fired heavy artillery into populated areas that contained no apparent military objectives. Such attacks are indiscriminate, violating the laws of war, because they do not distinguish between civilians and civilian objects and military targets. Warring parties should also refrain from using explosive munitions with wide-area effects in populated areas because they cause both immediate and long-term harm to the civilian population.
Azerbaijani forces repeatedly struck infrastructure with dual use – military and civilian – functions, including the main electricity control center for Nagorno-Karabakh, and the central administrative building of Karabakh Telecom, the territory’s sole telecommunications provider. While dual-use objects are legitimate targets, Human Rights Watch found that Azerbaijani forces attacked them with inherently indiscriminate weapons, such as cluster munitions, or carried out attacks that may have been disproportionate – that is, the anticipated civilian harm caused may have been excessive in relation to the expected military advantage.
Azerbaijani strikes damaged or destroyed numerous businesses and homes in four neighborhoods visited, two of which had no apparent military target nearby. Also, on October 28, an Azerbaijani artillery rocket strike damaged the newly renovated maternity ward of the Republican Medical Center, which had yet to open; because the maternity ward had moved its operations to the basement, the attack caused no serious injuries.
Azerbaijani officials have denied that their forces carried out indiscriminate attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh. On October 18, Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, told the BBC that attacks in Stepanakert were against military targets and denied engaging in indiscriminate attacks, saying, “We are very accurate in our target selection using precision guided munitions.” He indicated that all civilian casualties occurred during lawful attacks. On November 8, President Aliyev, in an interview with the BBC, dismissed reports of indiscriminate attacks and the use of cluster munitions documented by Human Rights Watch as “fake news.”
The strikes on Stepanakert have taken a toll on civilians and civilian infrastructure. The human rights ombudsman for the Nagorno-Karabakh local authorities reported that from September 27 to November 10, 13 civilians were killed in Stepanakert and another 51 were injured.
In five locations that Human Rights Watch visited, there was visible damage from explosive weapons to natural gas lines, which are above ground. On October 2, the deputy mayor said that natural gas was shut off for “security reasons.” Residents said that without natural gas, they had no reliable heating or hot water.
Azerbaijan forces struck four times the area near School Number 10, which is across the street from the main electrical substation. The attacks seriously damaged dozens of classrooms, the building’s exterior, and the school’s electrical and water supply.
“The Azerbaijani government should investigate and hold accountable those responsible for serious laws-of-war violations,” Fakih said. “Accountability for all violations of the laws of war is absolutely necessary if the region is ever going to move beyond a vicious, decades-long conflict.”
Attacks in Stepanakert: Strikes on Critical Infrastructure, Essential Services
Main Electrical Control Building and Substation
Azerbaijani forces repeatedly attacked the main management and control center for electricity in Nagorno-Karabakh, Artsakh Energo, as well as a substation, with artillery rockets, including those with cluster munition payloads, and air-dropped munitions. Both facilities are in populated areas of Stepanakert, close to a school, businesses, and multi-story apartment buildings.
Electrical power stations that make an effective contribution to military action and whose partial or total destruction, capture, or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage are legitimate military targets. However, the laws of war prohibit an attack on such a target if the anticipated civilian harm caused would be excessive in relation to the military advantage. The attacking force should also assess whether an attack on other military objectives causing less damage to civilian lives and objects would offer the same military advantage.
On the night of October 3, Azerbaijani forces attacked the area of the main control building and substation with a LAR-160 series cluster munition rocket. Human Rights Watch observed the remnants of the rocket about 100 meters from the main control building, and scores of the distinctive impacts of the M095 submunitions, the remnants of the pink-colored stabilization ribbons, and submunition fragments mostly along the street adjacent to the building and substation.
Numerous buildings, private businesses, and markets had varying degrees of damage. While the main control building and substation appear to have been the targets, Human Rights Watch research did not identify any other possible military objectives in the area at the time of the attack.
On October 4, around midday, Azerbaijani forces struck both the main control building and the substation, damaging both. The first attack struck the main building, disabling the control center, causing service interruptions, and killing two civilian employees, including the head of control and distribution operations. Another attack, which was part of a series of over a half dozen strikes on the area shortly thereafter, around 1 p.m., damaged the substation.
Human Rights Watch visited the site, reviewed satellite imagery of the area before and after the attack, and analyzed photographs and videos taken there. The damage observed is consistent with the damage signatures detected from satellite imagery.
Satellite imagery recorded on October 8 shows at least 10 impact sites within a radius of approximately 300 meters from the substation. A burn scar is also visible along the edge of the substation leading into the center of the transformer units.
Human Rights Watch visited seven of these impact sites. One was on the main control building; four were on the periphery of an elementary school. A cluster munition rocket also struck a store nearby and scores of submunitions damaged adjacent residences, businesses, and numerous vehicles.
Human Rights Watch reviewed and verified three videos taken at the time of the 1 p.m. attack. Human Rights Watch located three videos on Twitter and Telegram and contacted the videographers who provided longer and higher-resolution versions. In one, taken by Artsakh Public TV on October 4 about 100 meters from the substation and main control building, at least eight detonations can be seen or heard, including on the substation, and residential buildings.
In all three videos, the sound of jet aircraft flying can be heard and two of the videos filmed from different locations show a munition falling toward the substation at an 80- to 90-degree angle. The angle of attack as well as the presence of aircraft overhead at the time are consistent with the munition being air-dropped. The strike at 1 p.m. was among over a half-dozen on the area around the substation in the span of just under a minute, some of which landed over 400 meters away.
Civilians remaining in Stepanakert and two municipal employees described electricity outages across the city following the attacks. One employee said in mid-October that electricity was available in some areas of Stepanakert and that they were routing it to bunkers and basements where people were sheltering. Repair work, he said, was hampered by ongoing attacks. No figures about the total damage were available, and he expressed concern about providing electricity during the winter months.
Following the negotiated cessation of hostilities on November 25, Hunan Tadevosyan, spokesperson for Nagorno-Karabakh’s Rescue Services, told Human Rights Watch that electricity was still limited in Stepanakert and that repair work was ongoing.
The attacks on both the main control building and the substation may have caused disproportionate civilian harm compared with the immediate military advantage. However, the use of inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions in a residential area, causing harm to civilian objects, violates laws-of-war prohibitions against indiscriminate attacks.
Karabakh Telecom is a privately held business that provides cellular communications, including voice, text, and mobile internet services, to Nagorno-Karabakh. On October 2, the local Nagorno-Karabakh authorities took control of Karabakh Telecom, citing the security situation and the need to maintain interference-free communication throughout the territory, including to its armed force.
Telecommunications networks used by armed forces and armed groups are military objectives subject to attack.
On October 4, Azerbaijani forces attacked the immediate area of Karabakh Telecom’s head office in Stepanakert, which includes a large communication tower, with multiple LAR-160 series rockets that dispersed hundreds of M095 submunitions.
Human Rights Watch visited Karabakh Telecom’s headquarters in mid-October and identified a cluster munition rocket used to attack and damage the main building. Submunitions impacts were also observed in the vicinity. The submunitions damaged three large apartment complexes and numerous homes and businesses, punching holes in roofs, shattering windows, damaging and destroying several vehicles, including those owned by Karabakh Telecom, and causing localized electricity and water outages in buildings struck by submunitions.
Following the attack, residents in mid-October described significant difficulties accessing telecommunications networks. Family members, particularly those displaced to Armenia, described difficulty reaching and communicating with their relatives still in Nagorno-Karabakh. During the Human Rights Watch visit, mobile internet was not available.
By providing communications services to the local military, Karabakh Telecom was a legitimate military objective. Having its headquarters in a deeply populated neighborhood put civilians unnecessarily at risk. The importance of communications for health and well-being of the civilian population may have made the attack disproportionate. And the use of cluster munitions in a residential setting was unlawfully indiscriminate.
Indiscriminate Attacks; Use of Explosive Weapons with Wide-Area Effects
During the on-site investigations, Human Rights Watch documented the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in six areas of Stepanakert, damaging and destroying homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, and the local water supply, and significantly harming critical infrastructure to deliver electricity and natural gas and the telecoms network.
Explosive weapons with wide-area effects may have a large destructive radius, be inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time, causing high civilian loss if used in populated areas. Often a single weapon will fall into two of these categories.
They include air-delivered weapons, some rockets, and large-caliber artillery. Several types of weapons and weapon delivery systems, both manufactured and improvised, are inherently difficult to use in populated areas without a substantial risk of indiscriminate attack. Weapons such as mortars, artillery, and rockets, such as Grad rockets, when firing unguided munitions, are fundamentally inaccurate systems. In some cases, armed forces can compensate by observing impacts and making adjustments, but the initial impacts and the relatively large area over which these weapons could strike regardless of adjustments make them unsuitable for use in populated areas.
Their use kills and injures civilians at the time of attack, either directly, due to the weapons’ blast and fragmentation, or indirectly, as a result of fires, flying debris, or collapsing buildings. When used in cities and towns, these weapons also cause longer-term, reverberating effects because they damage infrastructure, which in turn interferes with basic services, such as health care or education. The wide-area effects of certain explosive weapons greatly exacerbate this harm to civilians.
Impact on Schools
Explosive weapons damaged at least two schools in Stepanakert.
The damage to school number 10 occurred when Azerbaijani forces repeatedly fired explosive weapons with wide-area effects at the main electrical substation across the street, and 200 meters from Artsakh Energo’s main control building.
Stepan Khachatryan, 57, the deputy head of School Number 10, said that the school had 1,300 students, ages 5 to 16, and about 100 teachers and 40 other employees. The school closed after hostilities broke out. Khachatryan said that starting on September 27 he and other staff, including a security guard, went to the school every day to keep watch. After strikes hit the school’s field in the first week of fighting he told the staff not to return.
Between September 27 and October 8, Azerbaijani forces fired two munitions that struck the field on the northern side of the school. During a visit on October 12, Human Rights Watch identified an unexploded Grad rocket in the ground on the northeastern end of the field. On the southwestern edge, there was blast damage from an explosive weapon and remnants of a rocket with a diameter of 300 millimeters, consistent with that of a Russian-made Smerch rocket.
Human Rights Watch analyzed a satellite image of the school and its vicinity taken on October 8. It shows damage to a wall in the soccer field, and an expended rocket motor is visible.
Due to the fundamental inaccuracy of the artillery rockets used in the attacks in an area with a high concentration of civilian objects, the strikes may constitute an indiscriminate attack.
On a subsequent day, Azerbaijani forces fired two munitions that struck the school grounds, causing significant damage. Khachatryan said that the first landed in the front of the school, blowing out the front-facing windows and doors. Human Rights Watch on October 12 observed a crater several meters wide and deep in the front of the school and significant blast damage to the front of the school, including scores of broken windows, tables, chairs, and other school equipment in numerous classrooms.
Khachatryan said the second munition landed in the northern courtyard, a few meters from the cafeteria. Human Rights Watch observed a crater several meters wide and deep, damage to dozens of classrooms, external damage to the building, a cut to the main electrical line, and damage to the water system. The explosion left much debris inside the school and as of October 12 it had no power, running water, or natural gas.
Narine Khachaturyan, was staying in her parents’ apartment, which faces the school, during the October 4 attack between 8 and 9 p.m. Khachaturyan had moved there with her two daughters, ages 25 and 10, after being displaced by fighting from her home in Martuni, near the front line. She said:
I was in the kitchen with the groceries on the table in from of me, and suddenly, there was this roar, and glass flying everywhere, so I quickly turned off the gas and rushed downstairs and back into the basement. I was very frightened and left with the children the next day without going up even once, not even to take any belongings.
Khachaturyan said that as they were leaving they could see that the school was badly damaged.
Human Rights Watch analyzed a satellite image of the school and its vicinity taken on October 8. The image shows damage on the interior western part of the school and another impact site in front of the school, about 50 meters from the electrical substation.
Human Rights Watch was not able to identify the specific munition used, but both had a wide-area effect due to the large destructive radius of the munitions.
Witnesses said that on October 6 and 7, repeated attacks with explosive weapons apparently on a military compound used by local authorities damaged windows at School Number 12. Human Rights Watch on October 12 observed several damaged windows on the second floor. One school employee said that nearby blasts, which damaged a multi-story building inside the military compound, shattered about 40 windows in the school.
Impact on Hospitals
At least two hospitals were damaged by strikes during the October fighting.
On October 28, at least one artillery rocket launched by Azerbaijani forces struck the Republican Medical Center, one of the main hospitals in Stepanakert. The newly renovated maternity ward had the most significant damage. Human Rights Watch visited the site on November 23, reviewed 12 photographs and two videos posted on Twitter, Telegram, and news websites, and spoke to three witnesses. The photographs and videos show four stories of windows blown out on a stairwell of the northern side of the maternity ward. Human Rights Watch also located the remnant of a Smerch artillery rocket on the first-floor ledge of the ward.
Artur Marutyan, deputy-head of the maternity ward, said that because of the constant shelling in the city, they moved their operations into the basement in early October. He described the attack:
We were busy working and suddenly, everything is shaking, and it’s all dust and smoke. We couldn’t see one another even half-a-meter away. Just before it happened, our technician went to get an oxygen tank and the [blast] wave threw him all the way down the hall.
He said that although the munition directly hit the facility, because it hit the upper floors they were able to clean up and continue working.
Grigori Arustamyan, head of the emergency ward, who was on the ground floor, said:
Around 1 or 2 p.m. we heard a very loud explosion. The windows and window frames blew out and pieces of ceiling fell down. I was on the first floor in the emergency ward when it happened. We could hear several explosions, but others were remotely heard, while this one was very close, a direct hit on the maternity ward. People and staff got very scared, as the smoke even filled the bunkers.
Aida Marutyan, 50, head nurse of the emergency ward, said that “When the explosion happened the nurses in the dialysis unit, which is closer to the maternity ward, were thrown against the wall – suffered bruises and small cuts of shattered glass.”
Staff members said that dozens of patients and staff were at the hospital during the attack, including pregnant women, women with bleeding and other gynecological issues, civilians with light wounds, and soldiers in the emergency ward. The presence of injured soldiers in a hospital does not change its protected nature.
The hospital does not normally have any identifying markings on its roof, such as a red cross, Arustamyan said, and did not have one at the time of that attack.
Satellite imagery analysis corroborates the location and the timing of the attack, between October 28 to 29. Satellite imagery recorded on October 28 at 11:22 a.m., shows no signs of damage over the hospital complex but an image recorded the next day shows several impact sites near the main hospital and the maternity ward.
The use of an unguided artillery rocket in a populated area is inherently indiscriminate.
Three witnesses at the Health Center for Women and Children, which the new ward in Republican Hospital was to replace, said that it was struck during an attack in October. Human Rights Watch visited the site and observed an impact crater and shattered glass.
Impact on Residences
On October 4, a large explosive weapon from an Azerbaijani attack at about 1 p.m., struck the middle of Sasountsi David Street, in a residential neighborhood about 120 meters from the International Committee of the Red Cross offices, and over 400 meters from Artsakh Energo’s main control building. It created a crater more than 10 meters in diameter with damage patterns consistent with that of an air-delivered munition using a delayed fuze. Human Rights Watch was not able to determine whether the munition was guided or unguided. The strike was one of a series that damaged Stepanakert’s electrical substation along with area residences and businesses. Since many of the strikes that occurred in less than a minute were near multiple civilian residences, and not a military target, it suggests that the attack may have constituted bombardment violating the laws of war.
Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery, reviewed and verified photographs and videos of the incident, and spoke to witnesses.
In three videos taken at the time of the attack, including one from approximately 220 meters away, the sound of jet aircraft can be heard as eight explosions are heard or seen. No soldiers or military equipment are visible in any of the videos or photographs of the attack.
Both the size of the crater and the presence of aircraft overhead are consistent with the use of air-delivered munitions.
Human Rights Watch visited the site on October 11 and saw one destroyed building and damage to several nearby multi-story apartment buildings and businesses, as well as to the water and natural gas lines.
Mirzoyan Arleta, 69, who was in a basement about 15 meters away from the strike site, said that dust and other debris filled the room. “We were covered by debris,” she said. “We are so lucky that we were not outside. We went outside after that and saw that all around us the windows were broken and so dirty.” She said that around the time of the attack she did not see any soldiers or other military equipment in the vicinity.
Human Rights Watch is unaware of any military target in the vicinity besides the Artsakh Energo control building and substation, which was over 400 meters away, making this attack apparently indiscriminate.
On October 4, Azerbaijani forces damaged a five-story apartment building with a furniture shop on the ground floor, over 120 meters from Stepanakert’s main electrical substation.
Human Rights Watch visited the site on October 12 and observed significant damage to the southern edge of the building, including the destruction of several garages behind it and nearby vehicles. Human Rights Watch also observed scores of broken windows and damage on the east-facing portion of the building.
Nvard Aleksanyan, who lives in the building, said that the area was attacked multiple times since September 27 and that her building was hit on October 4. She said that she had been making coffee before the attack and managed to rush down to the basement.
One high resolution video, among the three taken at the time of the attack on the electrical control building and substation, taken from a hotel east of the building shows a munition falling at an 80- to- 90-degree angle before striking the southwest corner. The angle of attack and sound of jet aircraft are consistent with an air-delivered munition.
A satellite image recorded on October 8 shows significant damage to the southern edge of the building and severe damage to 10 structures south and west of the building, consistent with the photographs and videos Human Rights Watch reviewed. A video taken shortly after the attack did not show any soldiers or military equipment. The strikes, which hit multiple residences in the span of less than a minute, may have amounted to bombardment.
In another residential area, Human Rights Watch observed apartment buildings with substantial damage from explosive weapons that struck directly or from fragments or debris.
Eva, who asked that her real name not be used, said that she was in her home at night on either October 7 or 8 when an Azerbaijani attack struck a building across the street. She described two large explosions and a blast that propelled large stones dozens of meters, some of which damaged her home. She said that at the time, everyone was hiding in bunkers except for one man who had minor leg injuries. Eva said that after the attack, there was no electricity until workers repaired the electrical lines on October 11.
Human Rights Watch reviewed photographs posted online on the morning of October 8 that matched the location and damage from the site visit. Satellite imagery taken on October 8 at 2:25 p.m., shows several residential buildings damaged during the attack and debris along the street and a cross street.
The closest military target that Human Rights Watch could identify was a military base over 500 meters way. In the absence of a valid military objective, this attack appeared to be indiscriminate.
Relevant International Humanitarian Law Standards
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applicable to the international armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians or attacks that are indiscriminate or cause disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian objects. Warring parties must take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm, including not deploying in densely populated areas.
Indiscriminate attacks strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. These include attacks that are not directed at a specific military objective or that use weapons that cannot be so directed. Prohibited indiscriminate attacks include area bombardment – attacks by artillery or other means that treat as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives in an area containing a concentration of civilians and civilian objects.
Military commanders must choose a means of attack that can be directed at military targets and will minimize incidental harm to civilians. If the weapons used are so inaccurate that they cannot be directed at military targets without a substantial risk of civilian harm, they should not be deployed.
While there is no general prohibition against using explosive weapons in populated areas, the use of weapons that are inherently indiscriminate, such as cluster munitions or unguided rockets, may invariably cause indiscriminate harm to civilians and civilian objects. Warring parties should avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas due to the foreseeable civilian harm they cause, both at the time of attack and in the future.
Serious violations of the laws of war by individuals with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes. Governments have a duty to investigate allegations of war crimes by members of their armed forces or forces on their territory and to fairly prosecute those found responsible.
Countries are in the process of negotiating a political declaration that would commit them to refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Azerbaijan and Armenia should endorse such a political declaration.
The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions comprehensively prohibits cluster munitions and requires their clearance as well as assistance to victims. Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect and long-lasting danger to civilians. Cluster munitions typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of small bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Cluster submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like anti-personnel landmines for years and even decades.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are not among the cluster munition treaty’s 110 states parties. Both should take the necessary steps to join the convention without delay, Human Rights Watch said.