EurasiaNet about Kelbajar occupation: 50,000 civilians were forced to flee in winter

Mon 06 August 2018 13:17 GMT | 13:17 Local Time

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Settling civilians in an occupied territory is considered a war crime by the Geneva Conventions.

Azerbaijani officials have regularly objected to the gradual settlement of the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions, reads an article on the occupation of Azerbaijani lands by Armenians published on  EurasiaNet. 

The article reminds that a 2016 report from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs documented what they called “consistent measures undertaken by Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan with a view to further consolidating the current status quo of the occupation. Such measures include implantation of settlers from Armenia and abroad.”

Infrastructure development projects in the occupied territories, the report continued, “facilitate their further repopulation with the ultimate goal of preventing the return of the Azerbaijani population to their homes, creating a new demographic situation on the ground and imposing a fait-accompli.”

The article goes on to say that settlement and development in the seven territories is still modest. The town of Kelbajar (capital of the district of the same name) now has about 600 residents, compared with the 23,000 it had before the war. "The town has electricity and internet, and along the main street are a new school, a handful of shops, even a bank with an ATM. Most importantly, there is a new highway connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, a joint project between government and diaspora groups, that passes through picturesque gorges about 18 kilometers from the town," the article says.

According to it, the capture of Kelbajar by Armenian forces in 1993 was one of the most controversial episodes of the war: 50,000 civilians were forced to flee over the mountains in the winter and several hundred died. The offensive occasioned the first UN Security Council resolution on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which demanded an “immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces” from Kelbajar. The episode also prompted Turkey to break off its nascent relations with Armenia; a quarter century on those ties have yet to be restored.

As seen from reportage, racist and anti-Muslim attitudes are high in the occupied lands. 

The representative of the illegal regime in a derogatory manner said that "the Muslims of the region weren't doing anything there, they were just shepherds or even doing nothing at all. The article notes, however, that mainstream Soviet history does not support these claims.

Now, the occupied territories remain  part of the negotiation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

It is noted in the article that settling civilians in an occupied territory is considered a war crime by the Geneva Conventions. Of particular concern has been the settlement of Syrian-Armenian refugees in the seven territories, though the numbers of those settlers are modest.

"While diplomats do not raise the issue of settling the territories publicly, it usually is brought up in meetings of the OSCE Minsk Group, the structure tasked with trying to mediate a resolution, one Western diplomat in Yerevan told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, the article reads.

“It's clear that the moment you are settling Armenians in the surrounding territories, you are making it difficult to possibly return certain parts of the surrounding territories to Azerbaijan,” another Western diplomat in Yerevan said. “So honestly, it doesn't help. And to bring investors there, and other economic activities, it's a sensitive issue and it interferes with the negotiations, with the efforts to resolve the conflict through the peace process.”

The Pashinyan factor

The idea that Pashinyan could be a peacemaker is at this point still mostly wishful thinking. In the early days of his administration Pashinyan has been signaling a relatively hard line on negotiations with Azerbaijan. He has demanded that the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities be brought into the diplomatic negotiations, a suggestion that Azerbaijan rejects, the article says adding that while Sargsyan still had some credibility remaining from his experience as a wartime commander, Pashinyan never participated in the war and so is more vulnerable to being seen as soft on Karabakh. During Pashinyan's campaign to become prime minister, members of Sargsyan's Republican Party tried to discredit him by bringing up old statements expressing willingness to concede some territories to Azerbaijan, though that position was not any different from Sargsyan's.

So it remains to be seen if the new administration will take a different approach on Nagorno-Karabakh and the territories than did its predecessor, the article notes.

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