Time for Canada to step up in the South Caucasus

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians face armed aggression and ethnic-cleansing

By: /
18 May, 2023
'We Are Our Mountains' is a large monument north of Stepanakert, the capital city of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, de jure part of Azerbaijan. The monument is regarded as a symbol of the Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0 'We Are Our Mountains' is a large monument north of Stepanakert, the capital city of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, de jure part of Azerbaijan. The monument is regarded as a symbol of the Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0
Susan Korah
By: Susan Korah
Award-winning freelance journalist based in Ottawa

As ripples from the Russia-Ukraine war spread outwards, its impact – largely ignored by the international media – has been particularly acute in the South Caucasus. Here, a deadly brew of armed aggression and ethnic cleansing against the majority population of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a land-locked and mostly mountainous area within the territory of Azerbaijan, has the potential to erupt into another bloody war and destabilize the entire region.

Conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh (also referred to as Artsakh by Armenians) are also ripe for a full-blown genocide, warn several human rights organizations. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent organization working to prevent wars and shape policies for a more peaceful world, has also placed this situation on their list of conflicts to watch in 2023.

The current situation came about following renewed fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia that began in September 2020. Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkiye, made significant gains and recaptured previously Armenian-occupied Azeri territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The fighting ended in early November 2020 after a ceasefire agreement was signed between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which also led to the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.

However, the Russian peacekeepers, charged with maintaining law, order and security according to the November 2020 agreement, have not stopped several flare-ups this past year, ICG stated in its April 2023 report. In particular, the report noted that last year Azerbaijan improved its military position vis-à-vis Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku had sent “troops over the border to take positions inside Armenia, where they remain.

Russian peacekeepers are also supposed to ensure the safe passage for people and supplies through the six-kilometre long Lachin corridor that connects what remains of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. However, the corridor was recently blockaded for months by so-called eco-activists. While they have since departed, a new corridor checkpoint guarded by Azeri soldiers continues to restrict the movement of people and goods.

Indeed, isolated, encircled and cut off from food and vital supplies for five long months by the eco-activists – with no relief in sight – some 120,000 Armenians in Artsakh say it is not a leap of the imagination to conclude that they are targets of a campaign of ethnic cleansing or genocide by Azerbaijan, given the long history of discord between the two countries.

The 1948 UN Convention on Genocide states that this crime against humanity may be committed by causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group or deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

What makes the situation even more unbearable is that that blockade has stopped most humanitarian organizations from delivering aid to a panic-stricken and starving people.

Several of these organizations have voiced their concerns. Michael LaCivita, Director of Communications for Catholic Near Eastern Welfare Association (CNEWA), an international charitable organization has been observing the scene from his New York office.

“According to Caritas Armenia, the charity of the Catholic Church in Armenia, only two groups can supply aid into Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been completely severed by Azerbaijanis since 12 December 2022: the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Russian peacekeeping forces that have been in place since 9 November 2020,” he told Open Canada. “It’s estimated that 65 percent of those who fled to Armenia in 2020, when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia – mostly women, children and the elderly – have returned to the enclave, although much of its territory has been seized by Azerbaijan, and its infrastructure, destroyed.”

“ICRC has been one of the few organizations that have been able to provide some assistance to the population,” confirmed Hagop Ipdjian, Strategic Planning Coordinator, Humanitarian Assistance Department of Artsakh from his office in Stepakakert.

“However, the aid has been limited in scale, and the organization has faced numerous challenges in delivering aid to those in need,” he added.

Nuri Kino, leader of the Sweden-based humanitarian organization A Demand for Action (ADFA) agreed that this is an unprecedented situation. Kino, who founded ADFA in 2014 to help survivors of the ISIS genocide in the Middle East is acutely aware of impending and unfolding genocides.

“We were among the first responders to help refugees from the Artsakh war of 2020,” he said. “We sent over 40 tonnes tons of winter clothing and $30,000 US worth of food to refugees from this war. We have been monitoring the current situation there daily and are ready to send humanitarian aid, but the blockade is proving to be a real obstruction this time. The international community needs to act immediately to put an end to it.”

Isa-Lei Arminé Moberg, a humanitarian aid consultant living in Sweden has reported that other organizations such as Médecins sans Frontières have been unable to provide services including mental health support that they had been able to deliver in the past.

The hardships suffered by the Armenian population, under the prolonged blockade, and the threat of genocide hovering over their heads, are traumatizing, not only for the people living under siege but also for their loved ones scattered all over the world, say members of the Armenian diaspora in Canada.

Lucy Dadayan of Montreal is one whose family is directly affected by the blockade.

“The humanitarian catastrophe was devastating even at the beginning,” Dadayan, who recently returned from a visit to Armenia, told me. “But the worry is even bigger now. It has been five months since the blockade started and the international community has done nothing to lift the blockade and prevent the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Armenians from their ancestral lands.”

“People don’t have sufficient or nutritious food to eat and have been getting very limited food via food stamps,” she said. “Warmer weather has not brought much relief. Farmers are afraid to do their work because every single day Azerbaijan fires on workers in the fields.”

Furthermore, Azerbaijan has completely cut gas for almost two months, making travel between villages impossible, and that this is particularly hard on the elderly and on children, she added.
“My aunt’s husband died a couple of months ago and my father couldn’t travel from Yerevan to Artsakh to be at the funeral. Many families are still separated because of the blockade,” she said.

Desperate for a way to help, she offered to give English lessons to her relative’s children via Zoom, but found that was impossible because electricity is cut off on a regular basis and the internet is slow. “There are 30,000 children in Artsakh whose childhood is being taken from them because of the blockade,” she added.

Inga Emiryan, another Canadian Armenian is watching the Artsakh scene with a growing sense of alarm.

“My family, who is in Stepanakert is struggling to survive every day. They stand in endless lines for basic products like flour, sugar, cooking oil and pasta. I must work twice as hard to send money for their survival,” she said from her home in Toronto.

The humanitarian consequences of the blockade have been discussed by the United Nations Security Council; the European Parliament adopted strong resolutions to end it while the European Court for Human Rights ordered Azerbaijan to end the blockade. While this has happened in one sense, in another the new government checkpoint serves the same purpose.

The UN International Court of Justice at the Hague has ruled that all restrictions by Azerbaijanis impeding the free flow of movement of people, vehicles, and goods through the Lachin corridor must be lifted.

The Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs also unanimously adopted a motion on 14 February 2023, calling on Azerbaijan to open the Lachin corridor, guarantee the freedom of movement and avoid further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We are waiting for the government response to the committee’s motion calling for an end to the blockade,” a spokesperson from a committee member’s office said in an e-mail dated 24 April. And the next day, Ottawa finally released a statement noting the establishment of a checkpoint by Azerbaijan in the Lachin corridor was continuing to undermine the peace process and the government called on Baku to guarantee the freedom of movement of people and goods.

On 5 May 2023 the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken did meet with Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan to discuss the situation, but Artsakh residents claim that there has been no actual relief from the effects of the blockade.

As for Canada, and other Western governments, there is a need pull their collective weight to resolve the issue.

For example, the Canadian government, under the leadership of then Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy played a leading role in the development of the UN principle of R2P (Responsibility to Protect) which is rooted in international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It was adopted by the UN in 2005.

R2P states that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations from crimes such as ethnic cleansing and genocide through appropriate intervention such as actual or threatened political and economic sanctions, blockades, diplomatic and military threats, international criminal prosecutions –and as a last resort – actual military action.

R2P emerged as a result of the failure of the international community to respond effectively to atrocities committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The blockade of the Lachin Corridor is clearly endangering the lives of an entire population, and also bears the marks of an unfolding genocide.

Canada, and the rest of the international community, should seriously consider applying the principle of R2P to stop ethnic cleansing in Artsakh and prevent tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia from erupting again into armed conflict or other forms of aggression by either side. Perhaps now might be the time for Canada to also step-up and lead efforts to create a UN peacekeeping force to replace the Russian presence?

There are other actions the Canadian government could also take to contribute to the long-term security in the South Caucasus. Last year, Ottawa announced that Canada will open a new embassy in Armenia with a resident Ambassador and a consulate has already opened in Yerevan. This was good news, but Canada should also have a permanent diplomatic presence in Azerbaijan, instead of double-hatting our ambassador in Turkiye. It just makes sense given that Russia’s presence in the South Caucasus is likely to fade given the continuing war in Ukraine and the possibility of a new all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could easily erupt if the international community moves on to yet another crisis.

Indeed, renewed fighting would destabilize the entire region, undoubtedly lead to ethnic cleansing, while also jeopardizing important trade and energy routes that criss-cross the South Caucasus – all together dire consequences for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and the entire region that must not be allowed to happen.

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