One year after the signing of the trilateral statement which ended the 2020 outbreak of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, publishes a memorandum addressing the humanitarian and human rights consequences of the conflict and formulates eight recommendations for urgent human rights protection.
The Commissioner observes that access to the conflict-affected territories remains very limited for organisations providing humanitarian relief, as well as for human rights monitoring missions, and that obstacles are increasingly being placed on such missions. In her view, the issue of access to all areas affected by the conflict should be resolved as a matter of priority. The Commissioner calls on all the relevant authorities to come up with effective and flexible modalities of access enabling humanitarian and human rights actors to reach out to all those in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and human rights protection.
The 2020 outbreak of hostilities forced tens of thousands of people living in or near the conflict area into displacement, in addition to those who had been displaced by the conflict in the 1990s. “Anyone who has been displaced due to the conflict and is currently living in Armenia or Azerbaijan, including in areas affected by the conflict, should not be coerced either directly or indirectly to return to their former home”, said the Commissioner. She underlines that returns should be voluntary, and they should be carried out in conditions of safety and dignity. Accurate information should be provided to candidates for return in order to ensure that their choice is informed.
The Commissioner is also aware of the high level of contamination of the region by mines and explosive remnants of war and regrets that since the cessation of the hostilities, many persons, including civilians, have been killed or seriously injured due to the explosion of mines. She calls on the parties to co-operate and engage in the necessary exchange of data so as to facilitate the demining process. She also calls on the Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities to ratify the UN Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW) and its relevant protocols.
The Commissioner furthermore notes that the issue of captives, in particular of Armenian captives in Azerbaijan, remains a contentious one which exacerbates the already tense relations between the two countries. It is therefore crucial to ensure that all those still in captivity are provided with all protections guaranteed under international humanitarian and human rights law, and to facilitate their release and return.
“Many families still bear the brunt of the conflict, especially those who have lost a family member or whose relatives remain missing. It is therefore of paramount importance to place the families of missing persons, their legal and practical needs, and their right to know the truth at the centre of all actions concerning this issue”, said the Commissioner. In this regard, there is a need for more engagement with both sides to promote communication, establish a common database, and increase the chances of location and identification of mortal remains.
In addition, the Commissioner has received credible reports from NGOs and victims and their families about breaches of international humanitarian law as well as serious violations of human rights by the parties to the conflict. The Commissioner emphasises that states have the legal obligation under international humanitarian law and the European Convention on Human Rights to hold those responsible for war crimes and serious human rights violations accountable.
Moreover, the Commissioner is particularly concerned by reports of indiscriminate shelling of populated areas resulting in deaths and serious injuries to civilians. She calls on Armenia and Azerbaijan to renounce the use of cluster munitions and to ensure effective investigations into violations of international humanitarian law, such as indiscriminate and/or disproportionate attacks, to identify and bring those responsible to account, and provide adequate and effective reparation to the victims.
Lastly, the Commissioner observes that the public debate in both countries has increasingly been marked by toxic, hostile, intolerant, and downright disrespectful communication. “The constant rhetoric of ‘aggression’ or the use of words such as ‘enemies’ to designate the other side only contributes to perpetuating animosities between the people living on the different sides of the dividing lines”, the Commissioner added. She recommends that both member states take resolute action to prevent and combat hate speech and support initiatives that promote peaceful co-existence and reconciliation.