Good afternoon. Welcome to meeting number 45 of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format pursuant to the House order of June 23, 2022. Members are attending in person in the room, as well as remotely through Zoom.
I'd like to make a few comments for the benefit of members and witnesses.
Please wait until I recognize you by name before speaking. For those participating by video conference, click on the microphone icon to activate your mike, and please remember to mute yourselves when you are not speaking.
Interpretation for those on Zoom is at the bottom of your screen, and you have a choice of floor, English or French. For those in the room, you can use the earpiece and select the desired channel.
I will remind you that all comments should be addressed through the chair.
For today's purposes, the topic of our meeting is the current situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia and, more specifically, a focus on Lachin road.
I'd like to welcome the two witnesses, who will each have five minutes for opening remarks. We have Mr. Robert Cutler, who is a former senior research fellow at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University. We also have with us Ms. Olesya Vartanyan, senior south Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group.
You will each be provided five minutes for your opening remarks, but when you have 30 seconds remaining, I will put up a red sign as a warning. We'd be grateful if you paid attention to that. The same goes when members are asking you questions.
Mr. Cutler, we will commence with you. You have five minutes for your opening remarks.
Thank you for the privilege.
For identification purposes, I am a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and director of the energy security program at the NATO Association of Canada. I appear in my personal capacity and the views I express are my own. I matriculated at MIT for my bachelor's degree and earned my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. I have taught at all university levels in Canada and internationally. For over 20 years I was a senior research fellow at Carleton University, as you said.
I will make my opening statement in English.
However, I will answer questions in the language in which they are asked.
Canada has a long history of co-operation with Azerbaijan and Armenia, starting with NATO's partnership for peace program in 1994. Beginning in 2001, tens of thousands of military aircraft and supply trucks transited Azerbaijan, carrying NATO forces and equipment to Afghanistan. Beginning in 2002, the Azerbaijani peacekeeping battalion participated in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. When the northern distribution network was established in 2009, Azerbaijan continued to be a key link until it was closed a few years ago.
Canada has had formal diplomatic relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia since 1992, when it recognized their territorial integrity within the borders they had before the Soviet collapse. Acknowledging four UN Security Council resolutions from 1993, Canadian policy has always supported Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and opposed separatism, just as it has done in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Like Canada, Azerbaijan gives tangible support to Ukraine. It sends large cargoes of humanitarian aid. The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, or SOCAR, owns filling stations in Ukraine that give free fuel to such emergency services as ambulances and fire trucks. Azerbaijan recently provided Ukraine with emergency power generators for winter use.
What can Canada do today? First, Ottawa should do more to help demine the full one-sixth of Azerbaijan's territory—a region more than twice as large as the greater Toronto area—that was militarily occupied over the course of 30 years. Canada's contribution to the demining effort in Azerbaijan has not matched, I'm sorry to say, its international prominence on the issue. Many countries, NGOs and international organizations around the world contribute not just funding but also personnel and training and education assistance to Azerbaijan's long-term demining program.
Around the single destroyed city of Aghdam, no fewer than 80,000 mines were discovered and neutralized. Estimates of the number of mines laid throughout the formerly occupied territories range from upwards of one million. Canada should also encourage Armenia to fulfill its obligation under international law to turn over to Azerbaijan all maps of the mines laid by its forces during 30 years of military occupation, which it has so far refused to do.
Second, Canada should open an embassy in Azerbaijan. The latest crisis on the Lachin road, and indeed the whole political instability in the region, is today engineered by Russia, which seeks to derail the peace process. The European Union, United States and other western powers all agree that only direct bilateral contacts and negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia will succeed in arriving at a definitive settlement. Azerbaijan has many times declared its willingness to embrace Armenia, to reconcile the two civil societies and to build mutually beneficial co-operation, economically and otherwise. Russia alone opposes this, because it does not want to be locked out of the region where it has been so long accustomed to being the sole hegemonic power.
Both Canada and Azerbaijan are genuinely multicultural middle powers that continually punch above their weight in international diplomacy. Both Canada and Azerbaijan have demonstrated their belief in a rules-based international order by their actions, by their conduct of international diplomacy, by their participation in international co-operation and by their leadership of international organizations. If Azerbaijan is not as democratic as we might like, then without diplomatic representation we lose the chance to discover the real pluralism in Azerbaijani society, to engage in open dialogue and to tell official Baku what we think.
Azerbaijan is the most significant local geopolitical player in the broader region. Not only does it provide important support to Ukraine, but it's also a very important ally of Israel, which its neighbour Iran—ironically, like Russia, an ally of Armenia in the conflict—does not like. An embassy in Baku is essential, not only to be better represented in the broader Caspian region but also to get an even-handed view from the ground, sensitive to all the critical nuances upon which the whole future of the region will turn.
Thank you for your attention.
Good afternoon, Chairman Ehsassi, Vice-Chair Bergeron and distinguished members of the committee.
You have already had the chance to listen to a number of speakers who have provided details of what's happening on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, at this important hearing, I will aim to support you with more context as to why we are seeing these developments and what should be done to stop them from happening, not just now but also in the future.
I will be speaking using analyses of my many colleagues at the International Crisis Group. Together we are doing field research and speaking to those who are affected by the conflict and to decision-makers from all different sides, both in the region and in foreign capitals.
International Crisis Group has been working on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for over 15 years. During this period, we have seen many ups and downs. The latest war was in 2020, and it took the lives of over 7,000 people in six weeks of brutal fighting. This year, we at the Crisis Group included Nagorno-Karabakh in the top 10 conflicts to watch worldwide. This was based on our analyses of the events that started taking place last year. Unfortunately we now see more potential for a new war in the region. Let me explain why.
Last year, Armenia and Azerbaijan started peace talks. Their leaders met several times, and foreign ministers started discussing the peace treaty. Their sights were really ambitious as they aimed to finalize the work very fast. Some even aimed for the end of the year, but the contents of these conversations were really difficult, with too many important parts that still needed to be discussed. Unfortunately, given all of the complexity of the talks, this negotiation process still has more chance of collapsing than of succeeding, but when or if that collapse happens, it will certainly be bad news as it will open chances for more instability in the region.
The stakes are really high for a new war. Last year, we already saw three escalations, each deadlier than the previous one. Two of them were in Nagorno-Karabakh and one was at the border. Azerbaijan has been making use of its military upper hand while Russia has been busy invading its neighbour and while others in the world have been distracted with responding to the war in Ukraine.
As a result, last year Azerbaijan seriously reinforced its positions, which have now been provided with significant military advantage should a new fight start. When I travelled to the place of the most recent fighting at the border, I saw the Azerbaijan military reinforcing its positions. In case of a new flare-up, Azerbaijani soldiers can make a military push through the only gorge that now separates their positions from the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan to the south of Armenia. This would cut Armenia in two, with severe humanitarian consequences, and it would leave the Armenian leadership under enormous pressure to make concessions.
To prevent this from happening, the European Union announced two days ago that it would deploy eight civilian unarmed monitors to observe the situation on the ground and report directly to all of the member states. In the coming days, we at the Crisis Group will have a report that discusses in detail what and how this should be done to make the mission work. Canada, similar to other interested outside actors, should support this mission and help it get enough staff and the necessary means and mandate to effectively prevent incidents that have the potential to spiral into a new war.
The mission will minimize chances of a new war, but it will not be able to completely eliminate the risks. What will be essential is a functional negotiation process that should lead to a peace accord to put an end to this conflict. The European Union has been playing an important role in facilitating more contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It brought leaders together and was present and ready to help when they agreed to proceed with the peace talks. The U.S. has been supporting this process. The European Union will need to pursue this diplomacy, and it should be supported by those in the region and in foreign capitals.
In light of all I have just told you, let me circle back to the events in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The situation is getting worse and many are worried, but as you can see, this is only the most recent manifestation of tensions. Indeed, more diplomatic pressure to relieve the situation is necessary, but what is also needed is a path for ending the cycle of crises and flare-ups, each one bloodier than the last. One way forward could be calls to resume contacts and talks. During the summer, the EU and the U.S. started working on a new track between Baku and Stepanakert. Such contacts could really help with resolving any future problems on the ground. They would also provide more confidence to the local Armenians that they will not be forced out of their home.
I will be happy to discuss these ideas in the question and answer session.
Thanks again for having me here for your session.
Thank you to our witnesses for appearing.
We're here today in particular to focus on the blockage of the Lachin corridor. My questions will be focused on that issue in particular.
I'd like to understand what exactly is the physical nature of this blockage. Is it at the border between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia? Is it within Azerbaijan proper? Does the blockage consist of human people standing in the way of traffic, or are there trucks or other pieces of equipment blockading the route? I'd like to understand the physical nature of the blockage first.
If you could speak to that, it would be helpful. If you don't know, that's also okay; I'll move on to other questions. Either one of you or both of you can answer the question.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you for your question, which betrays a widespread misunderstanding. I'm pleased to inform you that there is no blockage. Since some time—months—a thousand trucks of the Russian peacekeeping forces and the ICRC have passed through the Lachin road.
The situation started on December 13, when Azerbaijani eco-activists sought access to the territory temporarily occupied by Russian peacekeepers in order to verify the observation of ecological laws by a Swiss company, which, contrary to international law, is mining gold in the occupied territories. In fact, a British company, which has the contract to these deposits, has formally drawn the attention of the American, British and other governments to this fact.
The particular problem was not only that these illegally mined deposits were being taken to Azerbaijan for refinement and export through the corridor or road. There was also the ecological problem of not observing the necessary protocols for maintaining the environment. That was the original motive of the Azerbaijani protest on the road on December 13.
What happened then was that Russian peacekeepers blocked the road by erecting fences across the road to prevent the Azerbaijani protesters from proceeding further. That blocked the road for about a week. Then Armenians from Hankendi, a city that during the Soviet period was called Stepanakert, made an excursion, a manifestation, out from their city along the road to the place where it was blocked to see that it should be unblocked.
Following this, the Russian soldiers took down their fences, and since then there has been free passage of vehicles through the road. They're making sure there are no illegal exports of gold and making certain that there are no mines being imported to be laid, as has been done, so the road is now open.
Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to respond to the question.
I believe you have already heard from a number of people who not only have heard from someone about this but also have a personal connection to the region. We at the Crisis Group speak to those who are affected by the conflict.
I had a chance to speak to those who are currently in Stepanakert. In fact, I have been doing that since the very beginning of the blockade, which has lasted for over 40 days. What I understand is that people are not able to travel through the road.
The 2020 war left us with a peace accord. According to this peace accord, we got the territories that are currently populated by the ethnic Armenian people and the Russian peacekeepers who are present there. The Russian peacekeepers are responsible for keeping up and observing the ceasefire on the ground.
In addition to this area, there is a road, and this is the only road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and, as an effect, to the outside world. The current blockage is happening at exactly that place.
Thank you very much, Chair.
I want to thank the witnesses for being here. I think both witnesses have shed some light on what is going on with the Lachin road. That's a big issue that we're here to look at. Is it creating a humanitarian crisis? That's what we're asking at this committee and what we're trying to find out, as well as, of course, whether Canada can do anything.
I want to ask a couple of very important questions. We know that the European Union became engaged and we know that Russia is meant to do the peacekeeping. We also know that there were observers from the European Union there. There's a report on all of that. People are engaged in trying to find out what's going on.
There's a big thing that I want to ask about. The United Nations can intervene. The United States has intervened and met with both sides. France has intervened and met with both sides. We know that Russia, actually, officially intervened around Christmas and met with both sides.
What do you think the chances are that the OSCE, the group that originally was dealing with the Minsk agreement...? Why did that fail? What can the OSCE do? The OSCE doesn't really have troops to put in, but members of the OSCE could marshal some help there. I mean, Canada's a member of the OSCE. As you know, there are 57 nation-states, some with and some without any kind of capability.
Why did the Minsk agreement, which is the official body for negotiating, fail? What are the chances that it can be renewed? What are the chances that we can put this to an end? Most of us want to see it end. Most of us want to see a peaceful settlement. Most of us want to see that people are able to go to their homes and to see that ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis are able to be friends. There was a time when they were friends. There was a time when many of them still continued, as Mr. Cutler said, the multicultural relationship and multireligious relationship they used to have.
What can we do? What is the role of Minsk and why did Minsk fail? Those are the two questions I'd like to hear either of you answer, perhaps starting with Ms. Vartanyan.
This is a great question, especially the part about the OSCE's role.
We have that organization involved and also the OSCE Minsk Group. The co-chairs are France, Russia and the U.S. As you probably know, the Minsk Group has been facing enormous problems in resuming its functions after the 2020 war due to Azerbaijani resistance to engaging with the group. Baku believes the group failed with the negotiations regarding a peace accord. Baku still tried to engage with the group, but then they saw that it wasn't really going the way they wanted and the process got into a deadlock.
The other reason we're not seeing the OSCE Minsk Group come together is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When the west got much more involved in mediating between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, we saw Russia basically withdraw from the group. It's still there on paper, so there is potential for it to come back, but at this moment, it's difficult to see any kind of co-operation taking place between the U.S. and Russia, including on Nagorno-Karabakh, unfortunately.
Having said that—
Thank you for the question.
To pick up on the last point made by the previous speaker, the OSCE did not send a fact-finding mission because the decision was poorly taken and without terms of reference.
The reason the Minsk Group has no chance, I'm sorry to say, is that its terms of reference have become obsolete. The Minsk Group's terms of reference were predicated upon the peaceful resolution of conflict, which has not come to pass. You are probably familiar with the six points in the so-called Madrid principles that were drafted in 2007 and revised in 2009. A reading of those six points shows that on their face they are obsolete. Either they have been accomplished or they have been overtaken by events. I think that's the way to say it. Also, if we look at the three co-chairs—Russia, France and the U.S.—none of them are interested in the Minsk Group anymore.
The U.S. Secretary of State just yesterday insisted that only direct bilateral contacts between the two parties was the way to proceed. France is not a neutral party due to very public proclamations by President Macron. For example, after the war broke out in the fall of 2020, he told his French co-citizens that France would not allow—this is almost a direct quote, because I wrote about it—Azerbaijan to reconquer upper Karabakh and that France will play its role to prevent this from taking place. That's a very close paraphrase, almost a direct quote. France is not trustworthy, and one can understand Azerbaijan's mistrust of France in this respect.
Finally, Russia doesn't want to give the U.S. or France a voice in things because they had been, until Charles Michel began his mediation or convocations in December 2021, which were very successful to a point.... Russia, following the November 2020 trilateral statement, was monopolizing the interactions between the two countries. None of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group have—
I thank the witnesses for being with us today.
I'll address Mr. Cutler first. First of all, I would like to say that at first blush, his depiction of the situation seems to be an alternative take on the reality unfolding there. Indeed, this presentation does not, at first sight, correspond to all of the information circulating about what is really happening in the Lachin corridor. In that sense, I welcome his contribution to the work of the committee.
This prompts an immediate question. I must say that I am extremely dubious about the presentation, insofar as Canada, the United States, the European Union, France—which in any case the gentleman claims is not a reliable, credible and neutral player—in the first hours or days of the blockade, which would have taken place on December 12, demanded that Azerbaijan reopen communications. Yet Mr. Cutler presents a different sequence of events.
Mr. Cutler, are you suggesting that the intelligence services of the United States, the European Union, France and Canada were completely wrong?
Thank you for your comments, sir.
First of all, that is not information from the intelligence services, but information propagated by mass media. I assure you that all the findings I am sharing with you are based on reports from the field, which I follow on a daily basis.
Actually, it is indeed a different version of the facts, in that it differs from that presented by the mass media.
I'll give you an example. From the beginning, we have heard a lot about 120,000 people in Stepanakert being affected by a shortage of food, and so on. I'll say to you bluntly, honourable gentleman, that this figure is out of date, because it goes back to before the war in 2020. According to public statements and Armenian authorities, the population of Stepanakert is only 30,000.
There is also talk of the interruption of gas supplies, for which the Azerbaijanis are allegedly guilty. This is an underground gas pipeline built during the occupation, controlled by the Armenian state. Armenians in Armenia supply this gas to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan is not in a position to cut off this gas supply. Last year, the same story was told. I remember, because I follow the events very closely, and I am sure that the same story will be told next year. In fact, the Azerbaijanis had to ask permission from the Armenian authorities and the Russian troops to intervene on the ground and do what was necessary to solve the problem. They were allowed to do so, and the problem disappeared.
So this is not private information coming from the intelligence services or secret services, sir. It is information propagated by the mass media. We have learned for some time to be skeptical in assessing all of this kind of information.
In conclusion, sir, I assure you that as a specialist I follow events closely on a day-to-day basis. You say that I am presenting a different version of the facts. Indeed, it differs from the so‑called reality that is portrayed by the media, but I assure you that it is the reality on the ground.
With respect to the question of peacekeepers, they have a very limited contingent present on the ground. They are based mainly along the main roads, with various checkpoints. They do not have enough personnel, for example, to provide any kind of security to the local population. From the very beginning there were questions among the locals, but given their understanding that this was the only international presence that had been agreed to so far, they were okay with it and were very supportive.
The longer it went on, the more problems they saw. Azerbaijan has been making use of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the fact that Russia would still prefer to focus only on its war, its illegal war, in Ukraine. What Azerbaijan has been doing—and this is what I described in my notes and previously in my presentation—is attacking Nagorno-Karabakh, doing so twice last year, and even the border. The latest escalation was, I would say, scaled up, because it lasted for two days and it was along 200 kilometres. You cannot really come up with a spontaneous attack like this without preplanned actions.
What I'm trying to say is that with Russian deterrence, some were ready to trust in the beginning, but that's definitely going away, with more questions on the ground. That's why I think it's really good that we are now having this conversation here, because these are the main questions right now. If it continues like this, who knows, maybe we'll see even more violence taking place in the region. We definitely don't want to face a situation in which we cannot respond to this new war. I'm afraid that such a war would be really devastating, with serious consequences.
Thank you to the witnesses.
I imagine you can tell that we are trying to unravel something here to get a clear picture of the microsituation within the macro context. The macro context is 100 years old. We understand that. There is a conflict that emerged in 1992 and that continues to this day, so it is very hard for us to sort out what is happening on the road at this time. We are hearing different versions of reality. I don't want to cast any aspersions on any of the realities we've heard, but I'm trying to understand what is happening.
If you don't have first-hand knowledge, can you point me now to someone who does? To both the witnesses, who should we be talking to in order to find out the situation?
Mr. Chair, could you ask the witnesses to respond, since they can speak only to you and not to me?
Yes. I believe there are open-source satellite photographs that are available, without interpretation, to be inspected. There are all kinds of reports from the ground, given that this is the year 2023. It's necessary, of course, to evaluate these reports very carefully, but with practice it's possible to do so. It is not necessary to have a conflictionist view of things in order to suggest that skepticism is always a good thing when one is evaluating information provided by people who have an interest in the information being believed or disbelieved.
I can answer only from my personal and individual experience. I was trained in the last decade of the Cold War. I cut my teeth on reading the Soviet press. It's necessary to evaluate even testimony that looks like it's first-hand and that says it's first-hand. It's always necessary to ask a question about the motives of the people providing it and to ask what the other angles are. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, and you have to put all the pieces together to equilibrate, to balance, what's more likely and what's less likely.
I'm not certain, sir, that there's a single source or even a small handful of sources that one can have recourse to with confidence to say that these are the ones we have.... With all due respect to the International Crisis Group, which I highly respect, they are one of a large number of analytical—
I think two things should be done around the blockade. First, I think Canada should continue exercising pressure on Baku so that we can start seeing at least more movement going on along that road.
I speak to the people on the ground on a regular basis, and I understand that it's getting worse and worse. The contacts, unfortunately, are non-existent. These are the ones that could, for example, resolve some of the problems with the lack of gas supply or shortages of electricity. The lines are in the Azerbaijani-controlled areas.
The second thing is very important, and that is to call for talks. In that sense, the idea that the European Union and the U.S. have to create a direct channel between Baku and Stepanakert is a great idea. Belief in that could satisfy all sides.
It's very important to continue supporting the European Union's efforts to bring the leaders together. Also, as I said, I think Canada should be supporting the European mission to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
As an active participant in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I have the opportunity to hear what Armenia and Azerbaijan have to say on this conflict, which has been going on between these two countries for many decades, as Mr. Oliphant pointed out.
Of course, we know that the Lachin corridor issue is directly related to this conflict. Zaur Shiriyev, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Eurasianet on December 15 that if Baku engaged in good faith with the local Armenians, it could reduce the risks to the peace agreement.
Could you tell us, very quickly, whether you feel a peace agreement is likely? Is peace possible or should we resign ourselves to this permanent state of war between the two countries?
My question is for both witnesses, equally.
Sir, one can only agree regarding engagement between Baku and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. This took place in the summer and fall.
The other expert appearing before you today knows as I do that a new leader has been parachuted into Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh from Moscow. His name is Ruben Vardanyan and he is not from Nagorno-Karabakh. I am sure that there is no relationship between him and Ms. Vartanyan. I am not going to tell you everything about him, but let's say that, as soon as he arrived, Armenian policy became harder. And yet a clear improvement had been underway.
I take this opportunity to express my agreement on the need to put pressure on Baku. As I said at the outset, this requires a Canadian embassy in Baku, so that we can let that government know what Canadians think. Canada can help by increasing awareness regarding the mines issue, and by furthering the implementation of the 2020 agreement.
Thank you, Chair and committee members, for inviting me to testify. I represent the Network of Azerbaijani Canadians, a grassroots community organization advocating for Canadian Azerbaijanis.
Earlier today, the committee heard from four Armenian witnesses and an expert who happens to be Armenian. I think it's very symbolic that the other side needs to present its point of view in five iterations. The Azerbaijani point of view will deliver the important facts that are missing from an inflamed narrative. One witness shall suffice to deliver the truth.
I've come here to speak at a very difficult time for the South Caucasus region, at a time when Russia's Vladimir Putin is trying to engineer yet another crisis and crack the fragile peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It is therefore very important to pause and look at what is not being said, so that we can put the situation in the context of what is actually taking place in the region.
I'll talk about three important timelines.
The first period covers the time when Armenia encouraged irredentism and ethnic separatism in Azerbaijan in the last years of the Soviet Union. Right after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the conflict turned into a full-scale war. The single mass atrocity of this conflict, the Khojaly massacre, was committed against the Azerbaijani civilians in the heart of Karabakh, where 613 people were killed overnight by Armenian troops.
The war stopped in 1994, leaving about 15% of Azerbaijan's internationally recognized territories under Armenian occupation and 700,000 indigenous Azerbaijani people of Karabakh having been ethnically cleansed from Karabakh and forced to live in IDP camps across the country. Speaking of refugees who were truly forgotten by the world, add to those another 200,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia proper.
Since then, for 26 years, there have been negotiations, or rather an imitation of negotiations, with Armenia taking no steps to withdraw from the illegally occupied Azerbaijani territories.
The second timeline of events to look at began when the war erupted in September 2020 and saw Azerbaijan liberate most of its territories that were illegally occupied by Armenia. On November 9, after Azerbaijan took control of key terrain and the historic Azerbaijani town of Shusha, Armenia agreed to sign a statement under which it provided a schedule to withdraw its troops from the rest of the occupied Azerbaijani territories. Unfortunately, some clauses of said agreement remain unimplemented by Armenia. I would be happy to elaborate on those if time permits. Based on the mentioned statement, a Russian peacekeeping contingent will be deployed in the region until November 2025.
Since then, the parties have been engaged in peace talks. Last October in Prague, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a declaration confirming their commitment to recognizing each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty. It was at that point that Putin's regime parachuted an Armenian-Russian oligarch, Ruben Vardanyan, into Karabakh to destabilize the situation and derail the peace process.
This brings me to my final point, where we are now.
This individual, who is, by the way, sanctioned by Ukraine, quickly took power as the so-called “state minister” within Azerbaijan's Karabakh region, where the Russian peacekeeping contingent is temporarily deployed. Since December 12, Azerbaijani activists have been demonstrating on the road that the Armenians in Karabakh have been using to connect with Armenia proper. The demonstrations are against the illegal exploitation of gold and copper mines in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan—not against civilians or any humanitarian transport.
Currently Azerbaijani activists are controlling the road to prevent the transfer of illegally extracted gold resources and weapons. I reiterate that no humanitarian access is being blocked. This is evident given the many vehicles that continue to pass through daily. More than 1,000 vehicles and trucks have passed over the road in the past month and a half. This is the latest information.
While the current situation on the Lachin road is not at all where Azerbaijanis and Armenians should be, we question the motives of those amplifying easily refutable narratives put forward by a Russia-backed oligarch. We question the motives of those who have not once spoken in favour of the peace process and the signing of a peace agreement, but who have instead been regurgitating hateful pro-war propaganda. Our Azerbaijani Canadian community stands firmly against Russia's interference in the South Caucasus region, so that Azerbaijan and Armenia can continue peace negotiations leading to a peace treaty.
Therefore, we urge our Canadian government to question whether the narratives it amplifies are, first, fact-based or manipulated and, second, whether they will lead to a lasting peace in the region or aid the region in returning to Russia's sphere of influence.
Thank you very much.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, and many thanks for the invitation to appear before the committee.
I have been studying the South Caucasus for 25 years, and that includes multiple trips to the region in my capacity as a law professor. The fact that Canada is now engaged with the South Caucasus in a way that it wasn't for much of those two and a half decades is partly thanks to this committee, in particular for its hearings held two years ago on the weapons transfers to Turkey and the subsequent ramifications of that for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, so thank you.
I have three points.
The first is that the blockade of the Lachin corridor represents a current and pressing humanitarian crisis. Secondly, I would argue that Azerbaijan bears state responsibility for that. Third, I would submit that Canada has good reasons to take a stance.
First of all, on the Lachin corridor as a lifeline, on November 9, 2020, as you know, the Russian-backed ceasefire agreement included, in part, a provision that, “The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the safety of citizens, vehicles and goods travelling along the Lachin corridor in both directions.”
Since 2020, the corridor has been a lifeline for the roughly 120,000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. Its blockade by Azerbaijan has already had dire consequences, and they are poised to worsen.
These actions have involved the cutting off of electricity and gas; food shortages, including rationing of staples such as wheat and buckwheat, along with vegetables and other supplies; shortages of medical supplies and an inability to transfer critically ill Armenian patients, including children, to hospitals in Armenia proper; and cutting off some children stranded in Armenia from returning to their families in Nagorno-Karabakh.
These actions represent not only breaches of the ceasefire agreement as well as international humanitarian and international human rights law. They are part of a broader effort to ethnically cleanse Nagorno-Karabakh. They come in a context of widespread Armenia-phobic statements propagated by the regime and the destruction of cultural property. It should worry us that the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention has issued red flag alerts for genocide in the region.
We can recognize that both sides have legitimate concerns about how the ceasefire has been implemented. I absolutely recognize that both sides have legitimate concerns in this regard, and we should press both sides to make genuine efforts to compromise to reach a lasting peace in the region, but there's no scope for false balance or “bothsidesism” over this particular issue of the Lachin corridor. The blockade is having immediate and dire humanitarian consequences for civilians. They are essentially being held hostage.
Let's be frank. Azerbaijan is an authoritarian state and claims that this blockade is a result of spontaneous Azerbaijani citizen activism are simply not credible, but don't take my word for it. Human Rights Watch, in its report on Azerbaijan, says, “The space for independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity has been virtually extinguished”.
Power in Azerbaijan is in the hands of President Ilham Aliyev, a dynastic successor to his father, who has served as president since 2003. Even assuming that these eco-activists are private Azerbaijani individuals spontaneously blocking the road, Azerbaijan bears state responsibility. A state may be responsible for the effects of the conduct of private parties if it does not take the necessary measures to prevent those effects.
Let me give an analogy. A state is not responsible for individual citizens taking over an embassy, such has happened in Tehran, but it is responsible if it fails to take measures to prevent that or to act appropriately afterwards to protect the embassy or regain control over it. Russia also bears state responsibility here, and perhaps that will come up in questions.
My third point is that Canada has good reason to be involved. As you know, 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Canada and Armenia. The celebrations were muted because of the ongoing violence, not because relations between Canada and Armenia are poor. On the contrary, relations between the two countries have never been stronger.
People-to-people links mediated through a sizable and engaged Armenian diaspora in Canada are strong. Politically, Armenia is on a reformist—albeit fraught—track following its 2018 Velvet Revolution. Geopolitically, Armenia is inching away from the Russian orbit and, diplomatically, Canada's recent announcement that it would open an embassy in Armenia, its first in the South Caucasus, was a very welcome step, as were the other recommendations from Monsieur Dion to, “Make Armenia a priority as a fragile democracy”.
Monsieur Dion's report was commissioned before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In his mandate letter, he was specifically told not to look at the geopolitics of Canadian support for Armenia. Since that time, however, Canada's support has taken on greater geopolitical significance. Simply put, Canada's support for fragile democracies in the former Soviet areas matters more.
In conclusion, in my view, Canada, while continuing to press both sides to come to a durable peace, should condemn Azerbaijani actions over the specific issue of the Lachin corridor in words similar to its allies, the European Union and the Council of Europe, and use all diplomatic and economic tools to ensure that the humanitarian corridor is opened and remains open.
Again, I'm just asking for your opinion. It's one thing to say, “Okay, I'm going to take action against this industry or these people involved in this industry,” but to take action against the entire region in such a manner looks to me—from the outside looking in—as though it's being overplayed. It's being taken to a level that it doesn't necessarily need to be. Would you not agree with that?
Why would you block food shipments, for example, going into the region? Why would you block medical shipments going into the region?
It's one thing if you want to block mining equipment going in there or things related to mining equipment. That would be one thing. Why would you escalate it to include other areas or products with nothing to do with the mining sector? Why would you go so strongly against people who are actually living in that region?
That's a very good question, Mr. Bergeron.
I think there is a misunderstanding there. It's not true that the Azerbaijani government is letting people out and not letting people in. I think the statement by the President of Azerbaijan was different. It was that we want to welcome the Armenian community as our citizens of the country, but if anyone is not content with the situation, we can't keep them.
That's the essence of the statement. It is not that people leave and they cannot come back. For the last two years, Mr. Bergeron, there have been people going back and forth without any problem.
I want to touch quickly on another issue. According to the November 2020 agreement, Armenia undertook to guarantee the passage and unobstructed access between the western Azerbaijani regions and Nakhchivan region. It hasn't happened. For two years Azerbaijan has been negotiating to get that access, but it hasn't been happening.
You know, the work of this committee on those transfers was very important in having the suspensions put in place. To my knowledge, Canadian-made sensors or other weapons are not being used by Azerbaijan's forces in current skirmishes in the current very fraught version of peace that we're seeing in Azerbaijan today.
I have other concerns about Canada's arms exports, including those to Saudi Arabia and other countries, and I'd be happy to get into those if that would be of interest to the committee. I'm not sure the arms exports are an issue for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict today, but they certainly are, in broader scope, something that I think brings Canada into disrepute in terms of its international obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.
Mr. Davies, through the chair, I think there are three legal frameworks, if you will.
The first is the trilateral ceasefire obligations being breached. I'm not even going to point fingers and say that they're being breached by only one party. My particular concern is with respect to the humanitarian access. For me, that breaches both international humanitarian law—or the law of armed conflict—and international human rights. When we're thinking about international human rights—for example, the rights of the child—the fact that several thousand schoolchildren in Nagorno-Karabakh can't go to school right now because their schools don't have electricity or heat raises human rights issues such as children's right to education.
With respect to international humanitarian law, given the fact that there remains an armed conflict, issues such as the killing of Armenian prisoners of war, which is being identified by Human Rights Watch amongst other international humanitarian law issues, are an ongoing concern.
There may or may not be the full return of prisoners. It seems to me that there are credible reports that prisoners have not been returned from Azerbaijan to Armenia. In the fall there was a video recording, apparently, of five Armenian prisoners of war being killed, and Human Rights Watch has reported on this.
The failure to provide the humanitarian corridor or to allow relief supplies to pass freely and unhindered is also a breach of international humanitarian law.
There might be some quibble about whether there is still an international armed conflict, but I would argue, given that there were attacks by Azerbaijan on Armenia proper in the fall, that the state of international armed conflict remains, so the obligation to allow international humanitarian relief supplies to flow freely and unhindered remains an issue.
In some ways, Azerbaijan's actions over recent months since the ceasefire was put in place have promoted the ethnic Armenian population's right to self-determination. Our Supreme Court, for example, said in the Quebec secession case that the self-determination right applies in “colonial” or colonial-like situations, or where an ethnic minority is unable to find self-determination internally and where rights are being abused. We've seen those kinds of rights being abused over the last couple of years, so, if anything, the right to self-determination is stronger now.
What I would argue is, let's get away from a binary territorial integrity versus self-determination issue. It has got us absolutely nowhere in terms of this conflict, as well as other conflicts in the former Soviet Union. There are literally dozens of ways in which territory can be understood to be shared, and it's important to be creative here.
Both sides should be pressured. This is where pressure is needed. Both sides should be pressured into making the concessions necessary to find a lasting and durable solution. It's not impossible to imagine a situation where Armenians and Azeris flourish in the South Caucasus together in friendship. Perhaps I'm naive. Perhaps I'm unduly optimistic, but I think it's possible.
There are numerous situations where creative solutions have been found, and what's needed here is compromise. I'm not sure a kind of black and white, binary, self-determination versus territorial integrity approach will get us very far.
Thank you very much, Chair.
I want to thank the witnesses for reasonable presentations. I think both have a sense.... I feel their integrity and their sincerity in saying that there are ways we need to end this, and they're very honest about what they know is on the ground.
When we talk about conflicts, what we see is that both sides always have their story to tell, and those stories are nearly always biased. As Rob Oliphant said earlier on today, the first casualty of war is truth. We need to talk about how we can get this to happen, if there really is a blockage of humanitarian aid. We've heard some people saying there is. We've heard some people saying things are getting through and that there are videos of certain things getting through.
The bottom line I wanted to ask is this. Russia is now there in that corridor to keep peace and to allow for movement. It is my feeling.... I am the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly head of delegation. I talk to both sides every time I go to these meetings. The parliamentarians seem to be reasonable people. They are on the right side of this. They want to make changes. Yes, they each have a beef about certain things, but I think there is a willingness there for people to speak. What I feel, though, is that both sides don't want Russia there. They were always under the aegis of Russia, and they want to get away from that.
My question is this. Given that Russia is not necessarily trusted and given that the European Union, while it is there, helping with assistance.... The reality is that you need to have the OSCE, which understands the history and whose nation states surround that region and belong to that region.
Would it not be an idea for Canada, which is a member of the OSCE in good standing, to try to talk about how the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—the OSCE—can be that force that observes and makes things happen while the agreement is ongoing?
I realize Minsk has died, because Russia is in it and because Russia continues to want to influence the region. I realize that Minsk has no chance of working now with the Ukrainian war, so we have some real, practical problems to resolve.
Is the OSCE the best body to intervene? That would include Canada. That would include all of the 57 member states, many of whom have the trust of both Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Could I get a quick response, both from Mr. Jahangirli and from the professor?
Thank you very much, Dr. Fry, for this question.
I think that you pointed to a very pertinent issue of Russia's presence in the region and the fact that both counties, both societies, want to distance themselves from Russia's influence and Russia's involvement, but there is one major distinction here. That's right; currently both countries are trying to do so, but Armenia started doing so only after Russia stopped sustaining the occupation of Azerbaijani territories.
For 26 or 27 years, Russia supported Armenia as part of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization that Armenia and Russia are members of, to sustain the occupation, to guard Armenia's borders and to make sure that Armenia's troops stationed in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, which contributed to 700,000 people in Azerbaijan living in IDP camps....
Dr. Fry, as a former member of the OSCE mission in Kosovo, I'm a big fan of the organization. I do fear that the organization has some tough days ahead of it, and while I think we should push the OSCE to continue to act as an intermediary, potentially even to have a field presence there, I agree with my colleague that the European Union has a current presence on the ground, one that it has agreed to renew.
Ms. Vartanyan from the International Crisis Group referenced the renewal of the mandate as well. We should absolutely support that. We should support any forum and every forum where we can encourage the two parties to dialogue.
If I could stress one more thing, though, it's that the fake news approach to the humanitarian corridor issue is really puzzling and problematic for me. While there's much to discuss in terms of finding a durable peace, this issue of allowing humanitarian access unfettered is a really important one and threatens civilians now.
I would like to ask Mr. Jahangirli two questions.
First of all, I was happy to hear you say that a solution to the present crisis must be found. However, on the website of your Network of Azerbaijani Canadians, the latest statement dated January 23 is about a five-point proposal submitted to Armenia with the aim of normalizing relations between the two countries.
Why don't you even mention the Lachin corridor blockage?
What efforts has Azerbaijan made so far to end the blockage of the corridor, in line with its commitments in the ceasefire agreement?
On January 19, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the humanitarian consequences of the blockade in Nagorno-Karabakh, which “Urges Azerbaijan to respect and implement the trilateral statement of 9 November 2020 and immediately reopen the Lachin corridor to enable free movement and ensure access to essential goods and services”. It also urges the parties to come to a “comprehensive peace agreement”.
There are two tracks here which, to my mind, are quite simple. We have to encourage immediate access for humanitarian goods and people to travel back and forth. The idea of children being stuck in Armenia proper and unable to return to their families in Nagorno-Karabakh is simply untenable. We have to have these two tracks whereby we demand, frankly, as a player on the international stage and a country that now has a presence in the South Caucasus, that the humanitarian corridor be opened.
At the same time, we also encourage, urge and, frankly, demand that both parties continue to negotiate and come up with a durable and comprehensive peace solution. I would encourage us to do something like the European Parliament has done in that respect.