What's In Blue

Posted Wed 16 Aug 2023

Briefing on the Situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh Region

This afternoon (16 August), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenia requested the meeting in an 11 August letter to the Council invoking Article 35 of the UN Charter. Under Article 35 (1), any UN member state “may bring any dispute, or any situation referred to in Article 34 [that is, one that may lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute] to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly”. OCHA’s Director of Operations and Advocacy Edem Wosornu is expected to brief. Armenia and Azerbaijan are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.


Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a dispute over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. It has an ethnic Armenian majority, however, and is backed by Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh’s effort to secede in 1988 was the catalyst for the war that ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994. After the fighting ended, Armenian forces wholly or partially asserted control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts.

In the wake of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan during the early 1990s, the Council was heavily engaged on this issue. In 1993, it adopted four resolutions that called on the sides to halt hostilities and establish a ceasefire. The resolutions also called on both sides to resume negotiations within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by France, Russia, and the US. After the 1994 ceasefire, the OSCE took a prominent role in diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.

Between 1994 and 2020, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh was characterised as a frozen conflict, with sporadic violent incidents taking place. During that time, the Council discussed this issue solely in the context of its annual briefings by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and its meetings on the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA).

In September 2020, a full-fledged war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory. The fighting, which lasted six weeks, resulted in the deaths of more than 7,000 troops and about 170 civilians. The war ended through a Russian-brokered peace deal, which saw the withdrawal of Armenian forces from substantial parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven adjacent districts—areas which Azerbaijan now controls. Under the terms of the agreement, Russia deployed about 2,000 peacekeeping troops to Nagorno-Karabakh, who remain in place.

Today’s Meeting

Armenia’s 11 August letter to the Security Council alleges that Azerbaijan has been blocking the Lachin corridor—the only road connecting Armenia to the roughly 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region—resulting in a deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the contested territory.

Since December 2022, media outlets have reported obstructions to the movement of people and goods through the Lachin corridor. On 12 December 2022, a group of demonstrators claiming to be environmental activists launched protests near the town of Shusha in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, blocking the Lachin corridor and effectively restricting the flow of food, medical supplies, and other essential goods to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In a 20 December 2022 letter to the Secretary-General (S/2022/988), Armenia alleged that the demonstrators were “acting under false pretenses and manifestly under the instructions and guidance of the authorities of Azerbaijan”, described the situation as an “imminent humanitarian crisis”, and called for an urgent and efficient response from the international community. Azerbaijani authorities have denied the existence of a blockade and a humanitarian crisis.

On 22 February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its consideration of the case Armenia v. Azerbaijan in relation to the application of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, granted Armenia’s 16 September 2022 request for the court to indicate provisional measures, ordering Azerbaijan to “take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles, and cargo along the Lachin corridor in both directions”. Although ICJ orders on provisional measures under Article 41 of the ICJ Statute are legally binding, Baku did not comply. On 6 July, the ICJ reaffirmed its 22 February order.

On 23 April, Azerbaijani forces installed a checkpoint along the Lachin corridor on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, consolidating Baku’s control over the flow of goods into the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In a 21 July letter to the Secretary-General (S/2023/546), Azerbaijan argued that the checkpoint was necessary to prevent the import of “weapons, military equipment and soldiers into Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory”. It denied, however, that the checkpoint is used as a blockade. Yerevan, in turn, accused Baku in a 13 July letter (S/2023/533) of violating international humanitarian law by impeding the provision of humanitarian aid, as well as contravening the 2020 ceasefire agreement, which tasked Russian peacekeepers with the responsibility of monitoring the Lachin corridor.

On 7 August, former International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo published a report asserting that “the blockade of the Lachin corridor by the Azerbaijani security forces impeding access to any food, medical supplies, and other essentials should be considered a Genocide” under Article II (c) of the Genocide Convention: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction”. The report calls on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and the international community to ensure the freedom of movement and essential goods through the Lachin corridor and to find institutional solutions to the status of the disputed territory by May 2025, when the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping forces is set to expire. According to media reports, Azerbaijani officials have dismissed the report as biased, claiming that it “distorts the real situation on the ground and represents serious factual, legal and substantive errors”.

Armenia has called on the Security Council to take a more proactive approach to facilitating unhindered humanitarian access to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, including by sending an international mission to monitor the Lachin corridor. Azerbaijan has thus far resisted international pressure to unblock the corridor, arguing that the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region remains an internal affair. Several international interlocutors—including France, Russiathe US, and the UN—have called for the corridor’s reopening.

As details regarding the humanitarian situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region remain unclear, Council members may be keen to hear Wosornu’s assessment of the situation on the ground at today’s meeting. Wosornu is likely to reiterate the Secretary-General’s position, calling for urgent steps to facilitate access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In this regard, she may note the challenges faced by the ICRC in recent months concerning the delivery of humanitarian goods through the Lachin corridor. In a 25 July statement, the ICRC said that it “is not currently able to bring humanitarian assistance to the civilian population through the Lachin corridor or through any other routes” and called on relevant decision-makers to allow the ICRC to resume its operations in the area.

At today’s meeting, Council members are likely to express concern regarding the humanitarian situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and call for the unblocking of the Lachin corridor to facilitate the rapid, safe, and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need. These members may also stress the need to allow the ICRC to carry out its operations without obstruction. Some members may suggest that the blockade is threatening the ongoing peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Council members remain united in their support for a negotiated solution for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and supportive of the efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group. In the past, the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh represented a rare instance of cooperation between Russia and the P3 (France, the UK, and the US)—members who are often divided on other issues addressed by the Council. However, it appears that these dynamics may have changed because of recent developments, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In addition, it seems that in recent years, there has been a growing competition—between Russia, on the one hand, and the EU and the US, on the other hand—to assume the leading mediation role in the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In October 2022, Armenia agreed to facilitate an EU civilian mission along its border with Azerbaijan. Furthermore, a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 19 January condemned the inaction of Russian peacekeepers, saying that “replacement with OSCE international peacekeepers, under a UN mandate, should be negotiated urgently”. During a 28 February press briefing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the EU of abusing its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan and questioned the legitimacy of the EU mission in Armenia.

These tensions have also been apparent within the Security Council. In December 2022, France prepared a draft press statement on the situation in the Lachin corridor, calling for the free movement of people and essential goods. However, consensus on the text among Council members could not be reached. In a 31 December Telegram post, Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy said that Western members were unwilling to accept Russian-proposed language referring to “the efforts of the Russian peacekeepers”. It remains uncertain if Council members will seek a product related to this issue. Today’s meeting could provide insight on Council members’ willingness to pursue such a product.

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