The ongoing blockade of the Lachin corridor by Azerbaijani authorities threatens populations in Nagorno-Karabakh with violations that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Since 12 December 2022 Azerbaijani authorities have blockaded the Lachin corridor, the sole road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, precipitating a humanitarian crisis. The blockade has deprived over 120,000 ethnic Armenians, including 30,000 children, of life-saving resources such as food, medicine, electricity and fuel. The blockade began after Azerbaijani environmental activists, purportedly supported by the country’s authorities, blocked the Lachin corridor in protest of the alleged exploitation of minerals. Azerbaijani authorities formalized the blockade by establishing a border point at the entrance to the corridor in late April 2023. Ongoing attempts to deescalate tensions – which have risen amidst the blockade – have been unsuccessful thus far.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but contains a majority ethnic Armenian population that has been led by Armenian de-facto authorities since December 1991. There is a long history of armed clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, including a war in the early 1990s that resulted in an estimated 30,000 people killed and 1 million displaced. Despite a 1994 ceasefire agreement, sporadic clashes have continued along the border of Nagorno-Karabakh for over 25 years. From 27 September to 9 November 2020 the situation escalated as forces from both sides reportedly used illegal weapons, including cluster munitions, and shelled civilian areas, damaging or destroying homes and essential infrastructure. According to local sources, hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded while tens of thousands fled the area. During the six-week war, parties to the conflict perpetrated attacks on civilian-populated areas that likely amount to war crimes.
A peace deal brokered by Russia on 9 November 2020 followed three failed ceasefires negotiated by Russia, France and the United States. The deal called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the deployment of approximately 1,900 Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh to patrol the border between Armenia and the enclave. The deal also called for Armenian forces to withdraw from parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and three adjacent areas where Azerbaijan seized territory during the fighting, including the second largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the 2020 peace agreement effectively ended the six-week conflict, deep-rooted tensions and sporadic violence between armed forces persisted prior to the imposition of the blockade.
On 28 July Armenian authorities accused Azerbaijan of denying transport of over 400 tons of humanitarian aid into Nagorno-Karabakh. In a statement issued on 25 July the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported being unable to deliver essential food and medical items for several weeks.
In August 2023 a group of UN Special Procedures called for the immediate restoration of free and secure movement of persons, vehicles and cargo moving along the Lachin corridor in both directions, in accordance with the ceasefire agreement of November 2020 and provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 25 February, which was reaffirmed by the Court on 6 July. On 16 August the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the humanitarian situation in the area around the Lachin corridor. During the session the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs highlighted ongoing reports of food and medicine shortages as well as disruptions to the energy supplies necessary to maintaining critical infrastructure and services such as health and water facilities.
During August Luis Moreno Ocampo, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and Juan Mendez, former Special Adviser of the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, both gave individual expert opinions on the situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, highlighting Azerbaijan’s lack of compliance with the ICJ provisional measures and warning of the risk of potential mass atrocity crimes.
Deprivation of resources indispensable to survival imposes excessive burdens upon civilians that may result in immense suffering and loss of life. The intentional and unlawful denial of humanitarian assistance may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The repeated failure to uphold multiple peace agreements shows a lack of genuine commitment to promoting a lasting peace in the region by leaders of both governments. Continuous political disagreement and the weaponization of humanitarian aid perpetuates human suffering, primarily for ethnic Armenians.
The ongoing blockade is part of a long history of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of Nagorno-Karabakh that has repeatedly resulted in widespread abuses against civilians. The genocidal history of the Ottoman Empire, having perpetrated genocide against its ethnic Armenian population from 1915 to 1917, contributes to fears that the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate, resulting in grave protection risks to the region’s ethnic Armenian population.
Azerbaijani authorities must immediately lift the blockade of the Lachin corridor and allow for unhindered and safe passage of civilians and goods along the corridor, as well as guarantee unimpeded humanitarian access in line with international law and the ICJ provisional measures. Under IHL, all sides must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, including medical supplies and essential food. The international community must engage in further dialogue with all parties, as well as support calls from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to establish an independent fact-finding mission to assess the humanitarian situation.
All parties to the conflict must rigorously adhere to the commitments made under the 2020 peace deal between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia and explore opportunities to normalize relations to contribute to greater regional stability and cooperation. Azerbaijan forces must take steps to prevent any violent escalation and guarantee the safety of ethnic Armenians within and attempting to leave Nagorno-Karabakh.