What the UN can do to Stop Looming Ethnic Cleansing in Karabakh

By Hakob Gabrielyan - 29 September 2023
What UN can do to Stop Looming Ethnic Cleansing in Karabakh

Hakob Gabrielyan outlines measures to protect civilians in Karabakh.

On 19 September 2023 Azerbaijan announced the launch of “anti-terrorist operation” in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which for decades has been an apple of discord between official Yerevan and Baku. Azerbaijan’s actions were accompanied by substantial infrastructural damage and heavy casualties, including among the civilian population. They have been reported not only by the Armenian authorities, but also international media and confirmed by states attending an urgent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting, initiated by France, on 21 September. During the meeting, the situation was said to be on the cusp of genocide, as previously confirmed by the first chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. 

Videos and pictures on social media networks confirm not only the casualties but also the ethnic intolerance of Azerbaijani aggressors. They share details of how to disembody the civilian population of Karabakh that have begun an exodus from their homes towards the only airport in the area, controlled by Russian peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the Lachin Corridor, which is supposed to be a secure free land route, backed by Russian peacekeepers, has in practice been closed by Azerbaijan for almost a year. This prevents much international aid, including food, medical supplies and other immediate goods from reaching local Armenians.

Under these conditions, the meeting of the UNSC caused several arguments over how to manage the looming crisis. Divided by the international conflict in Ukraine, Permanent and Elected members were not unanimous about the regional risk assessments and the way to re-install peace. All the presenting states confirmed the necessity of a resolution that secures the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan; however, there were disagreements as to how this should be done.

Most of the Western cohort (Germany, UK, the EU’s High Representative, the United States, France, Switzerland, and Malta), and Brazil and Ecuador, unambiguously supported Armenia’s position on an immediate end to active hostilities, the reopening of the Lachin Corridor, the introduction of new security mechanisms for Karabakhi Armenians and the protection of their fundamental rights and dignity. These demands were further underpinned by the briefing of the United Nation’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights whom underlined  concerns over heavy human rights abuses by Azerbaijan in Karabakh.  

China, the UAE, Japan, Albania, Russia and Mozambique stressed the importance of the current role of Russian peacekeepers who are supposed to provide physical security for the Armenian population. Gabon and Gana emphasised post-conflict reconciliatory activities. Apart from Azerbaijan, Türkiye was the only state to justify the necessity of conducting a “anti-terrorist operation” and accused Armenia of a reluctance to “fully implement the trilateral declaration” [meaning the Russia-brokered trilateral Statement of 9 November 2020].

Although there was not a unanimous entente, general consensus about how to secure the human rights of civilian populations is reaching a moment when an agreement is feasible. Despite the evolving situation on the ground, there are measures that can be introduced now to protect civilians. They include:

  • The introduction of a new Special Rapporteur under Human Rights Council for the rights of refugees and civilians suffering in Karabakh.
  • The establishment of a new UN Committee, aimed at collecting monitoring reports, "keeping the peace" and ensuring the consistency of investigations and efforts.
  • The development and implementation of a roadmap for a UN peacekeeping contingent to be deployed in the South of Armenia, where the major influx of Armenian refugees will arrive, and Karabakh, to monitor and protect the physical safety of the remaining population, complementing but not duplicating the mission of the heavily criticised Russian peacekeepers.

These measures are in the interests of all parties, local and global, including those who are in confrontation elsewhere. Consensus over a geographically smaller conflict would create a precedent unique for our current times and raise the declining authority of the United Nations. Despite visible discontent, Russia may agree to support for its peacekeepers by an international mandate as it will allow Moscow to temper criticisms from Armenians that its troops are inactive.

One can expect that the Azerbaijani authorities will oppose any new mission and the wider internationalisation of the conflict. However, considering the voices in the UNSC meeting and wide diplomatic pressure placed on Baku to secure a decent life for ethnic Armenians, Azerbaijan could be convinced to agree to the aforementioned mechanisms. Otherwise, the country may face economic and personal sanctions already a matter of discussion of by the European authorities.   

Finally, even if Azerbaijan does not provide consent to deploy a UN mission or humanitarian relief to Karabakh, the UN Charter, UDHR, the Capstone Doctrine, and the Brahimi Report, do suggest and allow for the introduction of peacekeepers even when the consent of one of the parties is not received, such as during times of extreme urgency and vital necessity. As stated in the UN Brahimi Report:

“… in the context of intra-State/transnational conflicts, consent may be manipulated in many ways. Impartiality for United Nations operations must therefore mean adherence to the principles of the Charter: where one party to a peace agreement clearly and incontrovertibly is violating its terms, continued equal treatment of all parties by the United Nations can in the best case result in ineffectiveness and in the worst may amount to complicity with evil. No failure did more to damage the standing and credibility of United Nations peacekeeping in the 1990s than its reluctance to distinguish victim from aggressor.”

The United Nations can and must act swiftly as preventive measures have not worked. To null any genocidal threats, protect civilians and minimise any likelihood of further escalations, the United Nations as a whole has the power, mandate and recognised authority to engage in robust peacekeeping. Doing so, will create room for peacebuilding and a reconciliatory phase.



Dr Hakob Gabrielyan is an international scholar with expertise in peace, mediation, and reconciliation studies. He holds a master’s degree from Durham University and a doctoral degree from the Russian-Armenian University. Hakob has previously worked for the Global Policy Institute (UK), Council of Europe Office in Yerevan, as well as different consulting and research projects.

Photo by cottonbro studio

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