UN arrives in Karabakh — but what’s the point?

Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh arrive in Armenia. September 2023 (PHOTO: CivilNet / Hasmik Khachatryan)

By Mark Dovich

Amid reports that nearly all of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians have fled, a United Nations needs assessment mission reached the region on Sunday, marking the first time in about three decades the organization has had access to the region.

The mission is meant to “assess the situation on the ground and identify the humanitarian needs for both people remaining and people that are on the move,” a UN spokesperson told reporters last week.

But with Nagorno-Karabakh largely emptied of its Armenian population after more than 100,000 people fled from the region to Armenia in just the past week, the UN mission’s arrival has left many observers wondering: What’s the point?

“Of course, it looks like a bad joke, and it’s very strange to send a mission there now,” David Akopyan, the former head of the UN Development Program in Syria, told CivilNet by phone. “It probably mostly will be useless.”

“But,” Akopyan stressed, “that is not to dismiss the mission overall,” pointing out it could be the first step to setting up a longer-term, more permanent UN presence on the ground.

UN officials may also have the chance to document possible evidence of alleged violence against civilians committed by Azerbaijani forces during their lightning offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh last month, Akopyan added.

What’s the context?

After blockading the region for more than nine months, Azerbaijan launched airstrikes across Nagorno-Karabakh last month, marking the worst outbreak of hostilities in the region since 2020. After just one day of fighting, the Nagorno-Karabakh government agreed to a Russian-brokered ceasefire that in effect amounted to a surrender and later indicated it would dissolve itself.

The blitz left at least 200 Armenian and 190 Azerbaijani soldiers dead, with hundreds more wounded on both sides, and prompted a mass exodus of Armenians from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In fewer than seven days last week, more than 100,000 people — almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population — fled to Armenia, rapidly becoming one of the worst refugee crises in the South Caucasus in three decades.

Most of the people forcibly displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh traveled to Armenia in their own vehicles, many of them only with whatever belongings they could wear on their backs or fit in their cars. Almost all of them are malnourished after living under near-total blockade.

In August, Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, warned “there is a reasonable basis to believe” Azerbaijan’s blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh constituted an act of genocide.

Failure of the international community

In recent months, observers have repeatedly accused the international community of failing to respond adequately and quickly enough to the escalating crisis in the South Caucasus.

Azerbaijan’s move last month to seize control of Nagorno-Karabakh by force shows “the bankruptcy of EU and U.S. diplomacy” in the region, Stefan Meister, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told CivilNet last month.

Tigran Grigoryan, who heads the Yerevan-based Regional Center for Democracy and Security, echoed those remarks: “We’ve been warning about this situation for months. We’ve been telling all the international mediators and diplomats about this…and now the worst-case scenario is underway.”

Emergency talks at the powerful UN Security Council just days after last month’s hostilities ended with the body failing to issue a legally binding resolution on the matter. That came after two previous Security Council sessions on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, once last December and the other in August, likewise ended without agreement.

In February, a UN court ordered Azerbaijan to ensure freedom of movement between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, but the court does not have any enforcement powers, and Azerbaijan in effect ignored the ruling.

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