Even as people in Ukraine’s Donbas region continue to suffer amid the seven-year-long conflict between government forces and Russian-backed separatists, populations elsewhere in Eastern Europe find themselves also at the center of lingering tensions between conflicting regional powers. The “flash” hostilities that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in September again turned Nagorno-Karabakh into a theater of confrontation among local and national armed groups operating with significant support from Russia and Turkey. Once again, civilians are paying the price.

While intentional and widespread attacks on civilians such as those waged in recent conflicts – in Syria, for instance — were not reproduced in this round of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, the lack of consideration for the protection of civilians has been notable, both during the conflict and in the current phase since the Nov. 9 Russia-brokered ceasefire. The agreement put an end to intense hostilities, thereby decreasing physical threats to civilians. But schools, hospitals, and other critical infrastructure were destroyed, leaving the civilian environment significantly damaged and making it difficult for the tens of thousands of civilians who fled the violence to return home.

As humanitarian conditions worsen during these winter months and amid the global pandemic, local governments, assisting nations, and the international community must mobilize more quickly and decisively to aid the populations in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition to immediate humanitarian assistance and relief, civilians are in great need of physical protection.

Bombardments in Densely Populated Areas 

Compared to the heavy toll paid by civilians in Iraq, Syria, or Yemen, the ratio between civilian and military deaths in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict might seem low. According to confidential interviews conducted by our organization, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, the number of civilian deaths stands at 150 compared with estimates of military casualties of at least 5,000. However, every casualty is one too many, not to mention the numbers forced from their homes. The protection of civilians was largely disregarded during the active phase of the armed conflict by both parties and assisting powers, and as a result, the civilian population suffered — and continues to suffer.

Bombardments in densely populated areas took place on both sides, with attacks on the Armenian-controlled cities of Stepanakert and Shusha and on Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja. Parties to the conflict also used rocket artillery systems (BM-21 Grad, BM-30 Smerch, WM-80, LAR-160, EXTRA), drawing criticism from the likes of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It determined that “the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area against military targets in populated areas may violate international humanitarian law, which prohibits indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.”

While the damage this time was not as widespread as in the previous phases of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in the 1990s, critical civilian infrastructure — namely schools and hospitals — were destroyed. In Azerbaijan, cities like Barda and Ganja were severely damaged by Armenian forces using outdated, low precision weapons. Even worse, cluster munitions – banned by international humanitarian law (IHL) – were used by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia has also accused Azerbaijan of using incendiary weapons, specifically white phosphorus, an allegation that has been corroborated by news reports from the ground. Amnesty International even documented cases of beheadings and mutilations, definitively a war crime.

Many civilians, caught off guard by the rapid deterioration of security, including in major cities, had to leave their homes in haste, often not having the time to gather even basic necessities. This left authorities on both sides scrambling to quickly adapt and figure out how to provide heating, blankets, shelters, and other winterization items, while the influx of about 80,000 to 100,000 displaced individuals in Armenia put host communities under additional strain. (Azerbaijan also received about 40,000 people displaced by the fighting, though most of them returned home soon after the clashes ended.) Two months after the signing of the ceasefire, tens of thousands of people remain displaced across the region, with humanitarian needs expected to worsen during winter.

Uncertain Implementation of Ceasefire 

The Nov. 9 agreement succeeded in bringing an end to the hostilities. But how it will be implemented is uncertain, including the specified redistribution of territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, displacement of civilian populations, and conditions for safe returns. Each of these elements poses serious challenges in the coming months and years for protection of civilians.

The first open question relates to what steps and standards Russia should adopt for its so-called “peacekeeping forces” to prevent and mitigate risks to civilians. Moscow had been silent during the conflict’s operational phase, but finally maneuvered quickly to deploy almost 2,000 soldiers in the region. Russian forces seem keen to adopt a professional and protective posture towards local civilians, positioning themselves as the new defenders of stability in the South Caucasus. They have coordinated the removal of dead bodies and have been present in the Lachin corridor, where they now operate joint checkpoints with Azerbaijani forces.

Yet, despite these positive signals, the United Nations and humanitarian NGOs still do not have access to the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. To date, the Russian “peacekeepers” and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are the only ones allowed in the enclave and to deliver assistance. The fact that Moscow has decided to deploy its own “international humanitarian hub” to handle functions usually managed by U.N. agencies is insufficient to ensure populations are provided with an adequate level of humanitarian assistance, and does not allow for the provision of aid by the wider humanitarian community, including from international agencies.

Moreover, the Russian force, which is supposed to enforce the ceasefire along the demarcation line, may find itself confronted with a whole set of challenges, given the lack of clarity over who has authority in frontline areas. Civilians who cross newly established boundaries, knowingly or not, risk being arrested by Azeri forces and deported to Baku to spend several days in prison.

Potential Resurgence of the Fighting

A second challenge is the potential for a resurgence in hostilities. The agreement sealed by local and national actors, and in which Russia and Turkey played an outsized role, does not prevent further escalation by the parties, especially if these regional actors change their strategies. In this respect, Turkey is interested in deploying its own Joint Observation Center, a military stabilization force, and teams from the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and Turkish Red Crescent. However, their deployment in the area could fuel new tensions with both Armenia and Russia. The proximity between Azerbaijanis and Armenians near Shusha/Shushi may also contribute to increased tensions and insecurity among civilians, hindering stabilization in the region.

Finally, civilians in and around Nagorno-Karabakh are now living in an environment deeply disrupted – in some cases destroyed — by the recent hostilities. Even if authorities are willing to incentivize returns to affected areas, civilians may not be willing or able to return to areas with high unemployment, limited access to essential services, damaged infrastructure, and explosive remnants of war. Environmental pollution due to the possible use of phosphorus munitions might also pose both short- and long-term complications.

In these winter months, there is a continuing unmet imperative for emergency shelter and other necessities, especially for displaced civilians. For the longer term, planning and resources are crucial to re-establish livelihoods, infrastructure, and public-health systems (especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic). People need psychosocial assistance to cope with post-conflict trauma, and mitigation measures are needed to safeguard cultural property like churches from future attacks in case hostilities resume.

Steps Forward 

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh remains fragile, with the potential for re-escalation in precarious and heavily militarized areas inhabited by civilians. Security and defense forces involved should proactively review the way they conduct military operations and strive to mitigate the risks to civilians arising from their operations, activities, and even their mere presence.

The protection of civilians must be placed at the center of all political and strategic considerations. To do this, local forces and governments, assisting nations (such as Russia and Turkey), and the international community (specifically France, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United States) should take the following steps:

  • Ensure full transparency and accountability for international human rights and humanitarian law violations reported during the previous fighting and any future combat phase of the conflict, provide civilians who suffered harm and their families with direct and facilitated access to adequate compensation for the harm suffered, and return the bodies of those deceased to their families.
  • Guarantee physical protection to civilians on both sides of the contact line, especially those in the process of returning to their homes.
  • Support the establishment of a protective environment, including through the provision by all parties (including Azerbaijan and Russian “peacekeepers”) of access to humanitarian assistance.
  • Ensure that post-ceasefire mechanisms, including for protecting civilians and for human rights monitoring are multinational, authorized by the U.N. and/or regional bodies, and given mandates that ensure they operate in an impartial and transparent manner. Doing so will increase their legitimacy and credibility.
  • Review the way forces involved in the conflict conducted military operations and the impact on civilians, and identify lessons learned and policies and practices that need to be put in place to mitigate risks to civilians arising from future operations, activities, and presence.
IMAGE: Local residents take shelter in the basement of an undisclosed church on October 12, 2020 in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. On the day after a ceasefire was broken between Azerbaijan and Armenia, war continued to rage between the two countries over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. The regional capital was left largely untouched by the latest spate of Azeri shelling, with fighting in the south intensifying and the city of Hadrut sustaining the heaviest damage. (Photo by Alex McBride/Getty Images)