Despite the formal end of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, many problems still persist, including the plight of Azerbaijanis who were forced from their homes by the long-standing bitter conflict between the two sides, writes Martin Banks.
Another major unresolved problem are the many mines which still litter the entire landscape, posing a deadly and constant threat to the local population.
These, and other issues which have resurfaced just this week, highlight the fragility of a Russian-brokered ceasefire that halted six weeks of fighting between Armenian and Azeri forces towards the end of last year.
The recent military confrontation including Armenia and Azerbaijan, which raged unabated for six weeks, has caused casualties, damages and displacement of the local population.
The fighting pushed thousands to flee their homes for safety, of which some remain displaced and will not be able to return to their homes in the long-term. The hostilities have brought damage to livelihoods, houses and public infrastructure. Moreover, many areas have been left with mines and other unexploded ordnances, bringing significant risks for the civilian population.
Despite the ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan on 9 November 2020, the humanitarian situation, further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, remains of concern.
The conflict first escalated into war in 1991 with an estimated 30,000 people were killed and many more were displaced.
Fierce fighting erupted again on 27 September last year, with thousands thought to have been killed. Azerbaijan’s military retook the territories that had been occupied since the early 1990s.
But the many of Azerbaijan’s IDPs (internally displaced persons) who vowed to return to their homes had little any idea what they’d be returning to.
Many of the homes they left decades ago – and more recently – are now gutted ruins and the scars of the expulsions and displacement run deep. As this could affect as many one million Azerbaijani people, each with a tragic and deeply personal tale to tell, the task of re-homing them is a sizeable one.
But, even so, last year’s liberation of Karabakh and surrounding regions of Azerbaijan from Armenia’s occupation demands urgent and immediate resolution to one of the world’s biggest ever displacement of people.
Forced displacement in Azerbaijan was a consequence of the military aggression by Armenia conducted in the territories of Azerbaijan in the beginning of the 1990s.
More than a million Azerbaijanis were forcefully displaced from their native lands, among them hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees who fled from Armenia.
All forcefully displaced people in Azerbaijan were temporarily settled in more than 1,600 heavily populated settlements in 12 tented camps.
Last year’s unrest resulted a further 84,000 persons being forced to temporarily leave their home. These include 85 displaced families in Tartar region of Azerbaijan.
The situation in Azerbaijan is notable for several reasons. The first is that, in a country of a little over 10 million citizens (7 million during the displacement), Azerbaijan hosts one of the world’s largest per capita displaced populations.
Another unique feature is that IDPs in the country enjoy the same rights as other citizens and do not experience discrimination. Azerbaijan has also assumed full responsibility for improving living conditions of the lDPs.
In fact, since the late 1990s, the government has made significant progress in improving living conditions of the forcefully displaced population, providing 315,000 people living in dire conditions with temporarily homes in the newly established settlements.
Another crucial issue to be resolved is Armenia’s refusal to submit the maps of mined areas (formularies) in the recently liberated territories to the Azerbaijani side.
The immediate danger this poses was seen in the short period following the signing of the trilateral statement last November when more than 100 Azerbaijan citizens became victims of mine explosions, among them lDPs.
After three decades of conflict everyone agrees that it is vital to clear these territories from mines and other unexploded ordnances.
Information about their location is seen as an absolute necessity to save human lives and accelerate post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction processes.
It is also necessary to restore the cities and other settlements totally destroyed during the conflict and create necessary conditions for voluntary, safe and dignified return of the lDPs to their native lands.
For over 25 years, Azerbaijan has sought diplomatic negotiations for the peaceful resolution of the conflict with Armenia.
The unconditional and safe return of Azerbaijani displaced population has also been confirmed in dozens of resolutions and decisions of the UN General Assembly, Security Council, OIC, PACE, OSCE and the European Court of Human Rights.
As far back as 2014 the Special Rapporteur on human rights of lDPs of the UN acclaimed the Government of Azerbaijan for its dedication to the issue.
Despite the hardships being suffered by IDPs, there is still some good news.
Take, for example, the successful return to something like normality for one wrecked village in Azerbaijan, Jojug Marjanly, which has seen 150 families to return to their homes after 23 long, painful years.
This is something thousands of other Azerbaijani people hope to do in the coming months and years.
Azerbaijan is now, understandably, looking to the international community, including the EU, to put pressure on Armenia to cooperate on eliminating the humanitarian consequences of its activities in the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan.
The European Commission, for its part, has agreed to contribute €10 million in humanitarian aid to help civilians affected by the recent conflict. This brings EU assistance to people in need, since the start of the hostilities in September 2020, to around €17m.
Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič told this site the humanitarian situation in the region continues to require attention, with the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating the impact of the conflict.
“The EU is substantially increasing its support to help people affected by the conflict to meet their basic needs and to rebuild their lives.”
Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, added that the EU will work towards a more comprehensive conflict transformation and long-term socio-economic recovery and resilience of the region.
EU funding will help to provide emergency assistance including food, hygiene and household items, multi-purpose cash and healthcare. It will also cover protection assistance, including psychosocial support, education in emergency and ensure early recovery assistance through livelihood support.
The assistance aims to benefit the most vulnerable conflict-affected people, including displaced persons, returnees and host communities.
A commission spokesman told this site: “Funding will also ensure humanitarian de-mining in populated areas and provide mine risk education to affected people.”
An Azerbaijan government source said: “The three decades war in the territory of Azerbaijan is over. The people of Azerbaijan want long-lasting peace and prosperity in the region. All necessary humanitarian measures for alleviating human suffering caused by 30 years of conflict should be taken.”