(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of articles on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.)
In between reporting on COVID-19 and the U.S. presidential election, the fly on U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s head during his debate with Kamala Harris received more detailed press coverage than the newly hot war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. That despite the fact that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh also involves major political powers and weapons suppliers Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Israel. The resurgent fighting presents significant issues for anyone researching and working in the areas of international law and security, considering the limitations of news media reporting on the war.
One major problem is the difficulty in ascertaining the true scope and nature of the conflict. News media articles too often focus on the history and political context, with little information as to what is really happening on the ground. For example, my sources in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, note that there are drones flying over that city. These are likely Azerbaijani (Israeli-provided) drones, although further details are unconfirmed, with minimal specifics available in the press. It is unclear whether these are reconnaissance drones or weapons-capable drones, but regardless, this demonstrates that there is a risk of the conflict spreading into Armenia.
The lack of detail being reported means it is difficult for researchers and policymakers to know what is taking place on the ground. Reporting by humanitarian and non-governmental organizations fills some of the gaps, where they have on-the-ground access.
To the extent that information is available, international law scholars are debating many issues of international law, including territory, self-determination, and use of force. Certainly, none of these issues is straightforward, given that it involves an autonomous region within Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population (thus indicating a violation of the right to self-determination of the Armenian population) where the minority Azerbaijani population was forcibly displaced during the conflict in the early 1990s (thus indicating violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law).
One certainty is that international humanitarian law (IHL) applies, and that this is an international armed conflict between two states. Allegations of violations of international humanitarian law are being made against both sides in the current manifestation of the conflict. Both sides have alleged that the other has killed civilians, with the implication of deliberate and direct targeting of civilians.
One of the key principles of IHL is that of distinguishing between civilians and combatants, under which attacking civilians and civilian objects is prohibited. But Azerbaijan alleges that Armenia has fired missiles into cities such as Ganja, killing civilians. Armenia sees Ganja as a military target because of the presence of military personnel and defense-industry factories and has denied it is attacking civilians in cities. Armenia, in turn, alleges that Azerbaijan has shelled separatist civilian areas in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yet facts are hard to come by, making it difficult or impossible to know the reality of the situation. For example, BBC News reported, “About 70,000 people have been displaced in the latest escalation, officials say,” without indicating who had been displaced, where they had been displaced to or from, or which officials had made this comment. The Guardian provided more detail on this, citing Nagorno-Karabakh’s “rights ombudsman,” Artak Beglaryan, as saying “half of the population” had been displaced. Both sides accuse each other of breaching a recent ceasefire, and it remains to be seen whether the most recent one will hold.
Disproportionate Use of Weapons
Another IHL issue of concern is the potential for disproportionate use of weapons, which is connected to the geopolitical context and the prospect of escalation of this conflict. Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey and Israel (the latter supplying, at least, long-range missiles, drones that self-destruct on impact, and cluster munitions to Azerbaijan). Turkey, in addition to backing Azerbaijan politically, is providing it with drones and Syrian mercenaries. Israel is an ally of Azerbaijan because it is the largest purchaser of Azeri gas, a large supplier of military support to Azerbaijan, and because Azerbaijan is a geopolitically advantageous Muslim state ally providing a buffer between Israel and Iran. Due to this support, Armenia has now withdrawn its ambassador from Jerusalem.
Armenia is what could be termed “vaguely” allied with Russia. It does have a troop-defense agreement and an air-defense agreement (the latter expressly excluded Nagorno-Karabakh), which could be triggered if Azerbaijan attacks Armenian territory proper. Yet at the moment, Russia appears to be taking on the role of ceasefire negotiator, rather than supporter. The Armenian government elected in 2018 is out of favor with Moscow, which may be the reason behind the lack of immediate materiel support from Russia to Armenia. This does indicate an imbalance of military power and supporting allies between the two states, which opens the potential for military attacks by Azerbaijan that disproportionately kill civilians, an act prohibited under IHL.
There is also little reporting of animosity narratives. Amongst genocide scholars, there is discussion of a possible genocide risk, connected to the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Relations between Armenia and Turkey remain non-existent due to Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge that what took place in 1915 was genocide, and Turkey’s anti-Armenian conduct continues through the abandonment and even destruction of remaining Armenian cultural structures in Eastern Turkey.
There are reports of hate speech and destruction of Armenian culture, although these are unconfirmed by independent media sources, which of course doesn’t mean that such conduct doesn’t exist. Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made some troubling public statements, including a declaration that Turkey will “continue to fulfill this mission, which our grandfathers have carried out for centuries, in the Caucasus again.” And Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev declared that his forces confronting Armenian counterparts are “chasing them like dogs” (dehumanisation of the target group is a key component of the genocide process).
However, more independent investigation into such actions and declarations is needed to provide a sufficient scholarly and policy analysis of the situation, and to support an appropriate response to any possible genocide risk. Too often, we find ourselves, post-genocide, decrying lack of preventive action. Here, the international community needs information of what is happening on the ground in order to stop any escalation of conduct that indicates a genocidal process might be underway or in the offing.
Media Framing of Human Rights Stories
Lack of detail in reporting human rights-related media stories is not unusual. The media often relies on government narrative rather than independent investigative reporting (Brandle, 2018). The media needs to construct “interpretations of events that challenge official framing” (Bennett et al, 2006), and, rather than minimize the events according to a government narrative, use the language of international law, as in the example of war crimes (Rowling et al, 2011).
Another reason it is challenging to understand the true nature of the conflict is the tendency of some news media that may be closest to the source to have either pro-Azeri or pro-Armenian bias. Human Rights Watch notes that both Armenia and Azerbaijan “have laws restricting reporting about the conflict that is not officially sourced.” That creates an immediate barrier to independent reporting. Importantly, media influences distribution of power by framing stories in a particular light, and thus influencing policymakers and scholars in their analysis and responses (Entman, 2007).
Allies of the countries involved, such as the United States, should call for a sustainable ceasefire that could create an opportunity to seek a longer-term solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and they should demand that all parties involved in the conflict abide by IHL and other international law.
Russia, France, and the United States are involved in negotiating a new ceasefire, through the OSCE Minsk Group, but it is unclear if there is a concerted effort to seek a long-term solution. The United Nations Security Council has called for a truce, but with meetings on the issue being conducted behind closed doors, it is difficult to know what is really happening. Given the multiple nations embroiled in this conflict and the absence of clear information, escalation could draw in further states and reverberate beyond the region.
IMAGE: An Armenian soldier walks through the trenches on the frontline on Oct. 20, 2020 near Aghdam, Nagorno-Karabakh. As the war over control of Nagorno-Karabakh intensifies, heavy clashes are taking place on the entire frontline now, with Azeri forces claiming to have captured more territories in the breakaway region. (Photo by Alex McBride/Getty Images)