I beg to move,
That this House has considered closure of the Lachin Corridor and the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am very pleased to see such a strong turnout for a subject that many of us have struggled to pronounce, let alone spell. I declare an interest: I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Armenia, and in April I took a delegation there at the invitation of the Armenian Parliament. I am glad that several of my fellow delegates are here to speak.
This is not a new subject for Westminster Hall, but it has certainly become a much more urgent one as a result of the clear breach of the terms of the tripartite ceasefire agreed between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on 9 November 2020. It was a breach by Azerbaijan after it invaded the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is now clearly intent on waging illegal, immoral and inhumane suffering on the Armenian population of this troubled corner of south-east Europe that borders Asia. That military conflict, and now humanitarian crisis, has gone largely unnoticed and unremarked on by the west—especially western media—and, regretfully, partly by our United Kingdom Government.
I will give some brief background to the long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which has always been an integral part of historic Armenia, and has a predominantly Armenian population. The conflict was largely supressed while those countries were part of the Soviet Union. In 1991, unprovoked, the Azerbaijanis launched war against Nagorno-Karabakh, with the help of Afghan mujaheddin, and Russian, Belarusian and Chechen mercenaries, and attempted ethnic cleansing by deporting more than 600,000 Armenians from the area.
After four years of conflict and 30,000 deaths, Armenia prevailed, and a Russia-brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994. After that followed 26 years of relative peace, helped by the oversight of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group, which ensured implementation of security measures. The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, has been routinely obstructed by the Azeris, and there have been numerous ceasefire violations, including the targeting of civilian infrastructure across the border into Nagorno-Karabakh and even into Armenian sovereign territory, and the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage.
Those violations culminated in 44 days of war between September and November 2020, when with assistance from Turkey, sophisticated battlefield drone technology from Israel, the assistance of mercenaries flown in from Syria and a blind eye turned by Russia, the Azeris invaded, terrorised and occupied large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving an effective island of Armenian-populated territory linked to Armenia only by a narrow strip of territory known as Lachin corridor. It is literally a lifeline—it is known as the road of life.
On 9 November 2020, a rather one-sided ceasefire was agreed with Russian mediation, and terms were imposed on Armenia, whereby Azerbaijan kept all the conquered parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the Armenian towns of Hadrut and Shushi. Those regions were subsequently cleansed of their Armenian populations. Disgracefully, at the end of that war, the Azerbaijan Government issued a set of commemorative postage stamps that showed Azerbaijanis in hazmat suits eradicating the rodents or pests, as they tried to put it, from Nagorno-Karabakh. That was a representation of the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population, very unsubtly portrayed on the postage stamps of that country.
The remainder of Nagorno-Karabakh was left isolated and surrounded on four sides by a deeply xenophobic state with a clear intent to eradicate or expel the population. A small detachment of 1,900 Russian peacekeepers, whose numbers may since have dwindled because of their attention being elsewhere, was deployed to maintain the ceasefire and patrol the 25 km Lachin corridor—the sole lifeline to Armenia for the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
To repeat, it was an express obligation under the trilateral agreement of 9 November 2020 that
“the Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee safe movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions along the Lachin corridor.”
It could not be clearer than that. But in the two years since the ceasefire agreement, there have been constant infringements by the Azeris—firing artillery across the line of contact and hitting civilian infrastructure, including nurseries. In the middle of September 2022, 300 soldiers were killed in an early flare-up of the conflict. They have still not handed over some of the prisoners of war from the original conflict. Indeed, in October 2022, Human Rights Watch reported on the extrajudicial killing of Armenian POWs by Azeri forces, and some alarming and distasteful footage has been posted on social media of decapitated Armenian soldiers and others. The Azeri forces routinely use loudspeakers across the border into Nagorno-Karabakh, warning people to leave or else come to harm. This is a constant war of attrition and intimidation of an Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh who have every right to live there and to live in peace, yet have been denied that by the Azerbaijani state.
Those of us in the delegation I mentioned met refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. We went down to the border town of Goris. Many came across from Nagorno-Karabakh to meet us, because we were not allowed to go into Nagorno-Karabakh. They gave us their first-hand testimonies of the appalling oppression that they had been suffering, and of course things have got so much worse since the blockade of the Lachin corridor.
On 12 December 2022, the Azeri Ministry of Ecology made a statement that suggested that natural resources were being illegally mined in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it asked Russian peacekeepers to monitor the situation. Before that could happen, a group of so-called environmentalists from Azerbaijan bypassed Russian checkpoints and set up tents on the main road, thereby blocking the Lachin corridor.
In fact, many of those “environmental protesters” have been identified as members of the Azeri military with Government backing. They are posing as civilians. Some of them are members of the Grey Wolves, an extreme fascist group. They have been brought in by the Azeri state, and their transportation and stay are paid for by the Azeri Government. The Human Rights Defender of Armenia report lists and gives photographs of many of the characters who have been identified as those so-called environmental protesters. The report shows that they are clearly
“representatives of Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations, which are directly and exclusively financed by the Azerbaijani government, or the Heydar Aliyev Foundation headed by the first vice president and first lady of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, evidence has been registered that representatives of the Azerbaijani special services are also amongst the alleged ‘environmental activists’ who are currently blocking the only lifeline”
I could mention a list of names—it will drive Hansard berserk—to give some examples. Telman Qasimov’s personal page on his social media network shows that he is
“military with strong anti-Armenian views for many years, who, according to some sources, is an officer of the military special intelligence service.”
There is a photograph of him protesting. Fuad Salahov,
“an officer of the special purpose unit of the Ground Forces of Azerbaijan, is one of the organizers of the action.”
Ruhiyye Memmedova is
“President of the Public Union ‘Support to the Elderly and Single Persons’; the NGO operates with the funding of the ‘Heydar Aliyev Fund’”.
Samir Adigozelli is
“Director of the ‘Center for Socio-Political Processes and International Studies’; funded by the Government of Azerbaijan”.
I could go on. There are photographs of all those people protesting. They are not environmentally conscious civilian protesters. They are put there, paid for and supported by the Azeri state and Government, and they should stop pretending otherwise. In effect, they are agents of the Azeri Government who are blocking the Lachin corridor. Together with the Russians, they refuse to do anything about it. Videos of the Azeri protesters posted by Azerbaijan show them side by side with Russian troops watching football matches while supposedly protesting as well. The Russians are not even turning a blind eye to this; they are in full sight of it. What an extraordinary contrast there is with protesters in Moscow, who only have to hold up a blank sheet of paper anywhere near a Russian police officer or soldier to be bundled off. But blocking a lifeline by pretending to be a protester is perfectly all right, as long as it is in the Lachin corridor.
The Azeri Government have orchestrated all of this activity, with the supposed Russian “peacekeepers” turning a blind eye. Only Russian and Azeri vehicles are allowed to pass through the Lachin corridor. As a result, 120,000 Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, including children, elderly people and disabled people, are effectively under siege. The blockade and isolation of many thousands of people has created a dire humanitarian situation and an existential threat for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The humanitarian crisis there is worsening with each passing day. Amid brutal winter conditions, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are being deprived of vital supplies of medicine, food and fuel from the outside world; the provision of healthcare and social services has been obstructed, causing human suffering and life-threatening situations; the shortage of food and other essential goods is becoming increasingly noticeable, because every day more than 400 tonnes of supplies remain undelivered; and the danger of malnutrition is becoming more palpable. In total, 41 nurseries and 20 schools have already had to close, with thousands of children being deprived of their right to education.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, first for giving way and secondly for securing this important debate. Given the unfolding humanitarian crisis, which is due to the closure of the Lachin corridor, does he share the belief that a United Nations or OCSE fact-finding mission should be established to assess the humanitarian situation on the ground?
I completely agree. If the Azeris are so intent on putting up this façade that there is a genuine environmental protest and nothing is amiss, why would they not want to allow independent investigators, backed by the UN or whoever, to go and ascertain that? They do not and they will not—that is the problem.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his campaigning over the years on this important issue. He mentioned the United Nations, but might there not also be a role for the OSCE or indeed for the European Union in this context? The situation requires urgent international action. Even though we are obviously focused on Ukraine, we should not ignore this struggle.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I completely support all his suggestions; in fact, such suggestions have been taken up by a declaration in the European Parliament, which I will come on to. Of course I welcome the comments of a fellow officer of the APPG for Armenia, who has also been a long-term campaigner on Armenian interests.
Moreover, this blockade deprives the people of Nagorno-Karabakh of their right to free movement. At least 1,100 citizens have been left stranded along the blocked highway for the past week, unable to return to their homes. Children have been separated from their families; 270 children had to find temporary shelter across Armenia while their parents and other relatives remain in Nagorno-Karabakh. And this is all happening at the coldest time of year—quite deliberately.
So what did the Azeris do? They cut the gas pipeline on several occasions. On 10 January, the sole high-voltage power line from Armenia was damaged and the Armenians were not allowed by the Azeris to go in and fix it. On 12 January, internet access was damaged. This process is incremental; trying to starve out and terrorise out the population. It is completely deliberate and calculated intimidation.
Only the Azeris and the Russians continue to refer to the militants blocking the Lachin corridor as independent environmentalists, but according to the authoritative global freedom scores of Freedom House, the international organisation, Azerbaijan comes ninth out of a hundred nations for its restrictions on and oppression of its population, which puts it on a part with China, Belarus and Crimea.
No Azeri civilian is allowed to enter the region normally without the official Government permit, so the demonstrators can only be there with the permission of the Azeri Government. The Azeri authorities are contradicting themselves by claiming that there is no blockade yet arguing that the blockade will only be lifted if their demands are met.
Nagorno-Karabakh has offered to allow UN environmental agencies full access to the mining activity, in order to show that it is being carried on quite normally, although the blockading of a lifeline would not be justified even if it was not being carried on quite normally. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has refused to engage.
So, 43 days on, it is clear that this blockade is deliberately fabricated and controlled by the Azerbaijan Government. It is part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate the 120,000 Armenian population; to starve them out, freeze them out, drive them into poverty and sickness, as part of the Azeris’ disgraceful ethnic cleansing campaign, while the rest of the world looks on, and all eyes are, of course, on Ukraine.
Modern treaty-based international humanitarian law prohibits deliberate starvation and impediment of humanitarian relief, regardless of conflict classification, and Azerbaijan is in gross violation of those basic international norms. The UN report on the Yugoslav war defines ethnic cleansing as
“rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area”.
It constitutes a crime against humanity and meets the criteria under the genocide convention, including creating unbearable conditions for a group singled out in this case due to its ethnicity, and aiming to inflict harm and achieve displacement from their homeland. Those actions include subjecting the entire population to psychological terror; cutting essential supplies, such as gas, electricity and the internet; prohibiting the free movement of people, goods and medical supplies; and gradually starving the population.
All those criteria apply in this case. They are attempting genocide, if not ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijan has a state policy of hatred towards Armenians. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination singled out Azerbaijan in August 2022 for its discriminatory policies against Armenians. The blockade is a deliberate attack, an inhumane tactic exercised by the Azeri state under various leadership. Azerbaijan has form. The current blockade is the second one in the history of Nagorno-Karabakh. The first siege was carried out in 1991-92.
Armenia is in a quite parlous position. It is weakened greatly by the previous war inflicted on it by Azerbaijan. It is facing the military force of the Azeris, backed by their cousins in Turkey, with sophisticated kit from Israel. They have a Russian military base on Armenian soil. They dare not offend the Russians, because they need the Russians to be peacekeepers, though that clearly is not happening. They are between a rock and a hard place.
Why does this matter? Apart from being a moral issue that we should take an interest in, it has big implications for the geopolitics of this important but unstable region, with Turkey, Russia and Iran to the south all flexing their muscles with neo-imperial territorial ambitions. Armenia and its next-door neighbour Georgia sit in the middle of it. The people of Armenia have been persecuted for more than 100 years, and I presented a Bill to the House recognising the Armenian genocide. The west has a duty to step in and play at least honest broker, but preferably peacekeeper and security guarantor, in the absence of Russia doing anything of the sort.
In December 2022, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling on Azerbaijan to unblock the Lachin corridor, but that was derailed by the Russians. What can, or should, we in the United Kingdom do? The Minister cannot be here today, but I am delighted that his colleague from the Foreign Office will respond. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), said that blocking the Lachin corridor and disrupting gas supplies in the winter risked severe humanitarian consequences. He called on the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to respect their ceasefire commitments and negotiate a lasting peace settlement.
More recently, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon responded to a written question from Lord Alton on the subject:
“The UK Government continues to monitor the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Armenian-Azerbaijan border. The UK Government has repeatedly urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani Governments to thoroughly investigate all allegations of war crimes and other atrocities in recent years. It is essential that allegations of mistreatment, abuse and summary killings are urgently fully investigated by the appropriate authorities.”
That is all very well but it has achieved nothing. The ceasefire breaches, the attempts at genocide, the aggression have all been pretty one-sided. Just telling the two parties involved to be nice to each other, as I fear is too often the case from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, has achieved nothing.
I recognise the good work that the UK has done in providing some humanitarian aid in the past, as well as in financing the clearance of mines laid in previous civil wars. However, the EU Parliament—to give it its due—passed a resolution last week calling on the Azerbaijanis to open the Lachin corridor immediately and to continue to refrain from blocking transport, energy ties and communications between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. It accused Azerbaijan of violating international obligations according to the tripartite ceasefire, and it underlined the need for a comprehensive peace agreement, which must guarantee the rights and security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population. It also called for a fact-finding mission, which we certainly would support. The French Senate has also said some quite punchy things, and American Senators have as well, yet all we have done is say the Azerbaijanis and Armenians need to be nice to each other.
The Government really need to come off the fence. A clear perpetrator is abusing the human rights of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and has continually intimidated the peace-loving people of Armenia, who just want to live safely and in peace. We need to be more forceful and proactive, and to come down on the right side. I urge the Government to use their leverage to facilitate the immediate opening of the Lachin corridor, to sanction the members of the Azerbaijani elite who are responsible for the humanitarian crisis, to deter Azeris from committing further atrocities with impunity in the future, to send immediate humanitarian aid to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, to demand that Russian forces stop blocking access for international aid agencies, to support the people of Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination in order to save them from ethnic cleansing, to join the EU Parliament and other allies in threatening sanctions, and to agree to be part of the UN, OSCE or European fact-finding mission.
This cannot go on. Every day that the conflict is allowed to continue, more innocent children, families and Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh will lose their lives, their jobs and their livelihoods—all because of a blatant breach of a ceasefire as part of a blatant campaign of intimidation waged against the Armenian people by Azerbaijan. We need to call it out for what it is, and the Government need to do that now.
Order. The debate can last until 4 o’clock. Eight Members are seeking to contribute, and I want to get everybody in. We will start off with a time limit of four and a half minutes without interventions, so that we stand a fair chance. The recommended time limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for His Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Tim Loughton will have two or three minutes at the end to sum up the debate.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the opportunity to take part in today’s timely debate on the increasingly desperate humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has now entered its 44th day. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on leading the debate and on his excellent speech. He is a hard act to follow, but I will do my best in four and a half minutes. I thank him for the attention he has drawn to the plight of the population in Artsakh, where people are under siege and cannot travel. They are cut off from food, medical and other vital supplies and are still enduring energy blackouts in the depths of a harsh winter.
I join the hon. Member in condemning the blockade by Azerbaijan and asking the UK Government to do all they can to help with their diplomatic levers. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh have the right to live freely and independently, and it would be good to hear from the Minister what measures, apart from strongly worded statements, the Government are willing to take in order to work with others to end the blockade and resolve the issues by diplomatic and peaceful means.
I declare an interest as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia and a member of the delegation that went to Yerevan last year, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As part of that delegation, as the hon. Member mentioned, we met and listened to refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, which I know will have had an impact on us all. It certainly had an impact on me and was a real reminder of the human cost of the decades-long pattern of hostility and conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
As the hon. Member said, this small and landlocked region has been disputed for decades, with animosity regularly boiling over since the early 1990s, and a descent into full-scale violence and hundreds of deaths in September 2020. The trilateral ceasefire agreed later that year now feels incredibly fragile, with the lifeline guaranteed by the agreement now violated.
The current blockade of the corridor—the only passage between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia—by Azerbaijan from 12 December has severed the only lifeline that the Artsakh Armenians have to the outside world. That is 120,000 Armenians now encircled and isolated. It is claimed that the road blockade has been initiated by environmental activists, but most feel that its intended effect is to isolate the population from Armenia.
As the hon. Member said, the blockade is an escalation of the cutting off of the gas supply during a freezing winter last year—a move that was repeated last month and will impact on some 80% of the population whose homes are supplied with gas. That is in the depths of winter, with temperatures dropping below minus 5° yesterday. Schools and nurseries have been forced to close and hospitals are struggling to operate.
The blockade has left families separated and most patients unable to travel for treatment in Yerevan. There is a shortage of medical supplies and no hot running water. As UNICEF has highlighted, children in the region are especially impacted, with parental separation and a lack of access to vital services. All this comes after 30 years in which the Lachin corridor has been open and functioning despite bitter tensions—but not now. The timing of the power blackouts, coupled with the blockade, feels designed to cause the greatest amount of human suffering possible during the winter months, to force a desired political outcome.
Like other Members, I am keen to hear from the Minister what role the Government will play by joining other countries in their condemnation. Of course, it is important that the persecution and terrorisation of the Armenian Christian population is met with united international condemnation, but it is also important that the UK Government use their leverage as a close diplomatic trading partner of Azerbaijan.
I am keen to hear about the release of Armenian prisoners of war and civilian hostages, and the Government’s view on that. Also, it would be good to know what discussions the Government have had about working with other countries on the logistics of an airlift and whether the Government are supportive of the EU’s joint motion on the blockade, which was made last Wednesday, and to understand the Government’s position in respect of the Caucasus.
Finally, it was a real privilege to be part of the delegation to Armenia last year. Coming from Wales, it is hard not to feel an affinity with another small, proud and mountainous country of 3 million people. Links between Wales and Armenia are long established, and the Armenian genocide memorial at the Temple of Peace in Cardiff was the first of its kind in the UK.
It has been a pleasure to meet members of the Armenian community in south Wales, who feel a strong connection with their ancestral home. Speaking to Armenians and the Armenian diaspora, it is hard not to be struck by their deep longing for peace—a burning desire informed by tragic history. It is understandable, then, that the Armenian people are more alert than most to where intolerance and violence can lead unless a light is shone upon it while there is still time. This is such a moment and the international community has a duty to do all it can now to work towards peace.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for bringing this incredibly important debate to Westminster Hall.
I recently met the Armenian ambassador, Varuzhan Nersesyan. He gave me a snapshot of what is going on in the region and it is horrific, so I am fully aware of how at risk and vulnerable Armenia is in the face of Azeri—and potentially Russian—aggression. This afternoon, I will update his excellency on the support from this place for Armenia.
The Soviet Union created the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region within Azerbaijan in 1924, when more than 94% of the region’s population was Armenian. If recent events have proved anything, it is that Russia is failing to uphold its role as guarantor of Armenian security, and we may as well ask why. Since 12 December, Azerbaijan has moved to block the Lachin corridor—the sole land route, 6 km long, connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. As the west failed to prevent the Taliban from retaking Afghanistan, I imagine Armenian eyes turning to Russia and wondering how it will prevent further Azeri aggression, and whether this will be the latest pretext for Russia to enter the sovereign land of others.
Following the six-week war of 2020, Russia sent in its army to act as peacekeepers. I am sure that no irony is lost on any Members present that those peacekeepers are now overseeing the peace fading, and that Nagorno-Karabakh is edging dangerously close to yet another conflict. Although Russia may not be the actual aggressor, regional instability presents a great chance for it to advance a plan that has been, nakedly, two decades in the making: rebuilding the geography of the old Soviet empire.
Azerbaijan must consider how the world now watches it and its friends. The president of Azerbaijan spoke about the Lachin corridor blockade that is causing such humanitarian suffering, saying that the action will continue until the demands of Baku are met. He said:
“Whoever doesn’t want to become our citizens can leave, the road is open. They can go by the cars of the Russian peacekeepers, by buses, no one will impede them.”
Does that not smack of an Israeli-Palestinian sort of answer? Are we not talking about a Berlin corridor or something like that? Threatening people with a Russian convoy will surely prompt an unwanted reaction.
As we have seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere, weakness is provocative. The west must support stabilisation in the region to prevent Russia from becoming the parental figure it seeks to be. We must support nations such as Armenia to maintain their place in the region or else, step by step, an expanding empire will be upon us all. The Lachin corridor must be opened. People are suffering and dying. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for bringing it forward. The issue is not new to him or to Westminster Hall, and it is a pleasure to be here to give him my support and to call for action.
The Armenian Christian community is close to my heart. I try to find time to speak about the plight of that community, which is often deserving of much more attention. Recent events in the region serve only to highlight that dire need. There is clearly a human rights catastrophe waiting to unfold, and the need for international intervention is clear. It must happen immediately. An estimated 120,000 Armenian Christians reside in the landlocked Nagorno-Karabakh region. They are currently enduring an economic blockade. Gas supplies were cut off and they are living with food shortages and limited access to medical aid. Armenian Christians are on the verge of suffering a humanitarian emergency.
It will be of grave concern to us that more than 20 organisations, including Christian Solidarity International, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust and Genocide Watch, say that the blockade is designed to, in the words of the genocide convention, deliberately inflict “conditions of life calculated” to bring about the end of a
“national, ethnical, racial or religious group”
in whole or in part. Such groups warn that the current Azerbaijani aggression against Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh is consistent with a history of ethnic and religious cleansing of Armenian Christian communities in the region.
As chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I am speaking up for those Christians who are clearly being targeted. We know that there have been cases against Azerbaijan in the International Court of Justice for the destruction and vandalism of cultural and religious sites. Another chapter in this targeting of ethnic and religious groups is on the verge of unfolding as we speak today and in future. More must be done to stop this tragedy.
Last week, I spoke about the importance of addressing the situation in Afghanistan and not losing our zeal in the face of the crisis in Ukraine. The same concerns extend to Armenia and the Lachin corridor. The precarious and desperate situations in other countries should not be overshadowed by the horrific war in Ukraine. As a nation and as an international community, we must improve in order to care effectively for more than one group of suffering people at a time.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. As usual, he will encapsulate very well the feelings of those who have spoken already and who will speak later in the debate. I look to him for some guidance and support for the Christian Armenians who are suffering greatly. What can be done urgently? We can make a start on a resolution by ensuring the presence of international monitoring and peacekeeping troops in the region to help to restore balance to the weakened Armenians in the face of Azerbaijani self-interest. The Russia-brokered ceasefire, which helped to re-establish the safe corridor, is no longer working, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham emphasised. The reopening of the Lachin corridor is a key priority if a humanitarian crisis is to be avoided, as is the re-establishment of effective peacekeeping forces in the region.
What assessment has been made of the role of the Russian peacekeepers? It is almost a contradiction in terms to have a Russian peacekeeper; they really have no idea what peace is. What possibility is there of sending international peacekeepers to the region? It is alarming that the Azerbaijanis, claiming to be environmental activists, can bypass the Russian checkpoints and then go on to block the Lachin corridor. Have any representations been made to Azerbaijan in the light of the recent decision to start importing gas from Russia at a time when Europe stands united in cutting ties with it?
The ceasefire in the region is falling far short of a lasting peace. There are 120,000 people—Christian Armenians—at risk of a humanitarian emergency, as gas, food and medicine remain at low levels in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan must pursue dialogue and consultation to address those concerns, with the support of the international community if necessary, so that people’s needs are met. Let us not ignore that small Christian group’s human rights and its persecution. The civilians in that region—the Armenians—deserve better.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this timely debate. I want not to repeat what other Members have said—I agree with all the speeches that have been made so far—but to contribute because I have actually been to Nagorno-Karabakh. I travelled there about 10 years ago to see the situation on the ground following the conflicts. Sadly, there has been a repetition of conflict over many years in that part of the world, with Azeri aggression towards Nagorno-Karabakh.
I visited Nagorno-Karabakh and saw the democratically elected Government there and the efforts to rebuild the country following the previous conflicts. As a result of that fact-finding mission—it was not about expressing support for one side or the other—I am now sanctioned by Azerbaijan, as are a large number of colleagues in this House and other Parliaments who have had the temerity to go to Nagorno-Karabakh. I went with Baroness Cox, who is known as “Artsakh’s angel”, having visited Nagorno-Karabakh, I think, 100 times.
I was the UK Government’s representative in Yerevan in 2015 at the ceremony to mark the centenary of the genocide. I share the regret of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that the genocide is not formally recognised by the UK Government, but it most certainly was a genocide. It was only right that we should have representation. The matters we are debating are, to some extent, rooted in the genocide of 100 years ago, because there has been constant hostility and hatred for the Armenian population from Turkey and, more latterly, Azerbaijan. There is no doubt that there is evidence that what is taking place now is an attempt at further ethnic cleansing, and possibly even meets the definition of genocide.
As my hon. Friend said, the conflict dates back to the formation of Armenia and Azerbaijan following the break-up of the Soviet Union, and there have been several wars since that time. I lead the UK delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and my colleague on the Parliamentary Assembly who represents Azerbaijan wrote to us to say that the Lachin road is being used for unlawful military activities and the trafficking of minerals and other wealth from the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan to Armenia and elsewhere. That is strongly disputed. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the so-called environmental activists who have blockaded the road bear a striking resemblance to representatives of the Azeri Government. They are not just Greenpeace activists; this is a co-ordinated action and it has created a humanitarian crisis.
I do not wish to repeat what has already been said; I will say only that the world’s attention at the moment is rightly focused on what is happening in Ukraine. It is perhaps for that reason that Azerbaijan felt that now was a good moment—when attention was distracted elsewhere —to once again mount an assault. We are rightly aware of the pressure on Ukrainian citizens as a result of the winter and the Russian attempts to destroy their energy supplies. In Kyiv it is currently about minus 3°, and in Stepanakert it is almost exactly the same. The people in Nagorno-Karabakh are suffering in exactly the same way, without electricity and heat, as a result of the blockade. It is a humanitarian crisis; the international community and the Russian so-called peacekeeping force need to do more.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, if there is a suggestion that this is an environmental movement and there is no impediment to civilians moving from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, or for supplies to enter, why can we not have an international mission to establish the facts on the ground and unblock the road so that the people there—who are currently suffering desperately—can get the relief they need? I look forward to the Minister’s reply, but I hope the British Government will step up the pressure, if nothing else, to relieve the terrible suffering that is taking place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on bringing this issue to the attention of the House; it is important that we discuss it this afternoon. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are particularly concerned about friends and family in Nagorno-Karabakh, and they are frankly appalled at the lack of action on this front.
The blockade of the Lachin corridor is the latest stage in the ongoing hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The corridor is both a trade route and a link between many families who are split between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. When the blockade was started in December by the so-called “environmentalists”, described by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham in some detail, it severely limited trade as well as access to essential goods, medicine and foods.
While gas and electricity were being cut off, leaving people in Nagorno-Karabakh without heating and the means to power, there were also those outside who were stranded. In fact, there have been reports of up to 1,000 people who have ended up stranded outside their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh and have no way of getting back, including a number of school groups on field trips. Individually, these actions can cause chaos, but if we add in the freezing winter conditions that we hear about, they have left a situation that is rife for a humanitarian crisis.
I am pleased that the UK Government have spoken out on the issue and are focusing on restoring freedom of movement along the Lachin corridor, raising the issue at the OSCE and the UN Security Council. Those were both positive steps, but while the Government appear to be in dialogue with their Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts, I am disappointed at the detail we are hearing from them. I recently submitted a number of written questions regarding an action plan on this issue and what we should be doing on the Lachin corridor. I did receive responses, but there was a lack of detail; they lacked the teeth required to deal with this.
The UK has a significant trade relationship with Azerbaijan. The President of Azerbaijan has declared that the UK is Azerbaijan’s “largest investor” and strategic partner. Trade between the UK and Azerbaijan last year was over £1 billion, which gives us some leverage. It is not clear from the answers I received, or indeed from what we have heard so far, how humanitarian issues factor into any trade relations, so we need some detail from the Government on that. How can we on the one hand denounce the actions that lead to a humanitarian crisis, while on the other hand seek to increase trade with the very same state?
The UK must support both a lifting of the blockade and a lasting peace in the region. To realise that ambition, there must be engagement with both the Azerbaijani Government and the Armenian Government to reach solutions, but the UK has trade leverage with which we can help to resolve the conflict. We should be looking at sanctions and international monitoring of the situation, including supporting a humanitarian airlift mission to get supplies into Nagorno-Karabakh. Ultimately, we need the blockade lifted. Over 100,000 people are suffering greatly at the moment, and they seem to have been forgotten, so I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In particular, I have the honour of being the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Azerbaijan, so I hope I will be able to address some of the incorrect assertions that have been made during this afternoon’s lengthy debate.
First, we should remember that this conflict began in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet empire. In that context, a three-year war effectively took place, which ended with a ceasefire brokered in 1994 by the OSCE Minsk group. That directly leads to the current problems, because the reality is that it was recognised that the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan, but administered by an Armenian-backed regime. That, of course, led to frequent skirmishes along the line of control over an extended period of time. One of the things that has not been mentioned in this debate is the 1.5 million Azeris who were displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and ended up having to find alternative accommodation further into Azerbaijan. I have had the pleasure of visiting Azerbaijan on many occasions and have met many of those refugees, who still live in camps and just desire to go home, but have been denied that by the Armenians. Once again, we must remember that there are two sides to this dispute.
The war that took place in 2020 ended with a Russian-backed ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, under the terms of that agreement—we should remember what those terms were—Azerbaijan regained control over a substantial amount of territory, and Russian peacekeeping forces were deployed along the line of contact and, indeed, the land corridor of the Lachin pass that links Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Over the past two years, there have been frequent clashes along that line of control; we should understand that this is not an isolated incident. Those clashes have led to more than 300 deaths along the line of control, including many civilians on both sides of the conflict, so this is not a simple thing where we can wave a magic wand and put things right.
What we do know is that the Azerbaijan Government have a direct concern about what is going on in the mines of Nagorno-Karabakh. The position of the environmental protesters has been mentioned; it should be remembered that the Armenians refused access to those mines to inspectors who could have checked what was actually going on. That led directly to those environmental protests taking place. There is irrefutable evidence that gold and other precious metals are being exploited and transported from Karabakh to Armenia, in flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement.
We should understand that there is a clear dispute about what the position of the pass is. That corridor is only supposed to be used for humanitarian purposes; however, Armenia and the Armenian-backed forces continue to use the corridor for illegal purposes, such as the transfer of landmines that have been put on to Azerbaijani territory and have killed civilians and members of the military.
I, too, refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My hon. Friend is quite correct that there have been several deaths in the area, but will he join me in congratulating the British Government for providing more than £1 million towards de-mining in the area to allow people from both sides of the conflict to come back and repopulate the area in which they had previously resided?
Clearly, we want to see landmines removed and the unnecessary deaths they cause ended. The landmines that have been transported have caused 276 Azerbaijani nationals, including 35 civilians, to be killed or seriously wounded. There is an issue around what is being used and the so-called blockade that is taking place. The reality is that Red Cross and Russian peacekeeping vehicles are permitted to go along the road; indeed, vital humanitarian aid is permitted along that corridor. We should be quite clear about that.
A key issue is how Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian oligarch of Armenian origin, has been parachuted into Karabakh, apparently by Russia, and given a ministerial role. We need to understand that this is someone who is sanctioned as part of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, and it is believed that Russia is thereby trying to reinforce its capability in terms of its war effort. His companies have been well used and well involved in the whole process of expanding the military presence in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh.
I will raise one final issue. Armenia has refused to co-operate with discussions on a proper, long-term peace deal with Russia and Azerbaijan. That demonstrates that Armenia has no interest in actually seeing a long-term settlement and peaceful co-operation between the two countries. Can my hon. Friend the Minister encourage a peacekeeping and a peaceful settlement for the two countries?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for this important debate. I am afraid my time has been shortened by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), and there are a few things I wish to refute. Last year, I, too, had the opportunity to visit Armenia and go to the area of Goris. I heard first hand from the refugees from those recent conflicts about some of the brutality and horrors, which were painful to hear.
As a member of the International Development Committee, I participated in a recent report on atrocity prevention. One thing I learned is the importance of language and how rhetoric plays a role in creating the conditions for crimes against humanity. After all, words are deeds. For years, Azerbaijan and its allies have used hate speech against Armenians. Indeed, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, proudly admitted that a generation of Azerbaijanis had been brought up to deeply despise Armenians, and he has negated the existence of Armenia as a nation, stating:
“Armenia is not even a colony, it is not even worthy of being a servant.”
We must see the current blockade in the context of those attitudes. The President of Azerbaijan has also said: “Whoever doesn’t want to become our citizens can leave, the road is open. They can go by the cars of the Russian peacekeepers, by buses, no one will impede them.” That is a transparent attempt to pressure the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to forcefully displace themselves from their ancestral homeland. It could be strongly argued that the present blockade is designed to deliberately inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, in whole or in part. As a result, more than a dozen non-governmental organisations, including Genocide Watch, have issued a warning that all the conditions for ethnic cleansing are now in place.
The Minister has mentioned in writing that
“The UK Government has seen no evidence that ethnic cleansing is taking place or that the conflict is religiously motivated.”
Is that still the case? Why is the Minister ignoring the calls by international organisations warning about ethnic cleansing and genocide? Is it not the FCDO’s stated intention to be
“a force for good in the world”?
So where is it?
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute commented:
“Genocide happens in the dark. If we are able to shine a light in the region then oftentimes we can proactively prevent the worst outcomes.”
Given their influence in Azerbaijan, the UK Government have a significant role to play in shining a light on what is happening and bringing an end to the blockade. The comments from Ambassador James Kariuki at the UN Security Council last month were somewhat encouraging, but the lack of action since and the continuation of the blockade remain extremely worrying.
Reports have suggested that, since the UN Security Council meeting, UK diplomats have been actively engaged in ensuring that a Security Council resolution, drafted by France, that condemned the blockade was not brought forward and approved. Will the Minister confirm whether that is an accurate portrayal of events? Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Brussels, Vaqif Sadıqov, tweeted:
“Today France lost another battle to Azerbaijan in UN Security Council in a failed attempt to push biased pro-Armenian UNSC statement on Lachin…Words of gratitude go to Albania, Russia, UAE & UK! A great job of AZ diplomats!”
If the UK did not have a part to play in that, why was that inaccurate account allowed to be published? Will the Minister address that with the Azerbaijani ambassador to ensure that a correction is issued?
Finally, I am sure that everyone in this Chamber will agree that, given Russia’s ongoing invasion in Ukraine, it would be unthinkable that any UK Government would support human rights in Ukraine yet work in parallel with Russia to deny the condemnation of continuing violations in Nagorno-Karabakh. Human rights are universal, and we cannot pick and choose when to stand up for them depending on the identities of perpetrators or those who abuse them. Being a strategic partner of Azerbaijan should be a reason for the UK Government to assist in bringing the blockade to an end, not an excuse for timidity and tolerance.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate. I was not able to make the delegation last year, because I had covid, but I know that it was ably facilitated by my constituent Annette Moskofian. I hope there will be another one soon that I can join.
The hon. Gentleman set out the background very clearly. Since 12 December, the Lachin corridor—the “only lifeline”, as he called it, between Nagorno-Karabakh and the outside world—has been blocked. We have heard about the faux eco protesters; we know that they are not the Greta Thunberg types. It seems that Azerbaijan is emboldened by Russia’s woes elsewhere. In some senses, the blockade was foreseeable. It is the latest episode in a decades-long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Russia and Turkey involved as well.
I want to concentrate on the human suffering. Ealing Central and Acton is very Armenian in many ways. We have the Hayashen cultural centre in Acton, and the Navasartian Centre, a cultural hub, in Ealing. Between them, they provide advice and all sorts of things. It was at the Christmas party at Hayashen on 16 December—four days into the blockade—that I was presented with a petition with 120 names. I want to talk about some of their demands. It is not just the road that is blocked; food, fuel and medical supplies are unable to get through to the majority-Armenian population—they are not an ethnic minority, remember. We know that the gas pipe was cut off between 13 and 16 December. These are vulnerable people—children, the sick and the elderly—and it is a cold winter, as we have heard. At the other end of the Lachin corridor, over 1,000 people, lots of them children, are stranded in Armenia and unable to get home the other way. That is exacerbating a desperate situation. A lady from Ealing whose whole family are in Nagorno-Karabakh emailed me:
“They do not have electricity, they have only few hours of electricity supply per day, and gas is also cut…Azerbaijani authorities do not want Armenian people to communicate with the outside world, so television and internet are periodically disconnected. The situation in villages and small towns is even worse than in capital…They have run out of essential supplies of food and medicine”.
Throughout our diaspora communities, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned, there is real concern about the consequences of the blockade and the complete inaction of Russia, which we know has its own woes—the Ukrainian war has well outlived the 44-day war of 2020—and the Azerbaijani authorities. The ceasefire of 2020, which was always a bit fragile and unsatisfactory, is now in tatters. We have also heard that the European Parliament has adopted a resolution on the humanitarian consequences.
There were four demands in the petition: first, to condemn and call for the end of the blockade of the Lachin corridor; secondly, the permanent and unconditional reopening of the Lachin corridor, as well as Stepanakert airport; thirdly, to airlift emergency provisions of food, winter clothing and medical supplies directly from UK; and fourthly, to replace Russian peacekeepers with OSCE international peacekeepers—I speak as member of the OSCE parliamentary assembly—under a UN mandate.
The Armenians are a resilient people. We know that they have had repeated invasions and persecutions. I have also spoken about how what happened in 1915-16 should be recognised as a genocide. I do not want to get into inflammatory talk of ethnic cleansing now, but the cry of the self-determinists is “Kets’ts’e azat Arts’akhy”—“Long live free Artsakh.” We should not let their words be in vain—something has to give for this to be sorted.
I think I have used up all my time. The Armenian people are not only resilient; they sure know how to party. The Christmas celebrations with Santa and the dancing at Easter are annual fixtures and highlights of my year.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this important debate, and for the manner in which he presented the case. He used a phrase that summed up the whole situation perfectly, given its clarity and its historical background, when he said that it was “illegal, immoral and inhumane”. I echo those comments.
This debate has helped to shine a light on a truly horrific humanitarian catastrophe, which, despite unfolding before our eyes, has gone largely unnoticed and unreported in the UK. It is therefore not surprising that there has also been a lack of effective action to resolve the crisis.
All too often, we describe business that is debated in this place as important, but the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh—or Artsakh, as the Armenians call it—as a result of the blocking of the Lachin corridor for the last six weeks truly is. If the closure of this corridor is allowed to continue without challenge, it will lead to nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe. It is good that we have heard an informed debate, including contributions from several Members who have direct knowledge of the area—something that I cannot profess to bring to the table. In preparing, I gained an interesting insight into how little people knew prior to this debate, and I hope we have managed to address some of that ignorance in the community.
The Lachin corridor is the only road transport link between Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which has a 95% ethnic Armenian population. That 120,000-strong population is suffering as food and medical supplies cannot get through. These are the basic necessities of life; it is not luxuries we are talking about. We have been very well warned that all the conditions for ethnic cleansing are now in place by a group of more than a dozen non-governmental organisations, including Genocide Watch. As we have heard from several Members, there is form in that regard in the region. I highlight to Members a quote from President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, who said,
“Yerevan is our historical land and we Azerbaijanis must return to these historical lands”.
That is a statement that puts a shiver through any self-respecting person’s mind when we think about how that could be achieved.
Russian peacekeepers are supposed to be keeping the corridor open. As we have heard, however, it has been blocked since 12 December by self-proclaimed environmental activists from Azerbaijan, who claim to be protesting illegal mining. The counterclaim is that Azerbaijan is creating a false narrative as a pretext to ethnically cleanse the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham thoroughly exposed the so-called protesters as agents of the Azerbaijani state and highlighted the collusion of the Russian peacekeeping forces. As we have heard, only Russian and Azerbaijani vehicles can pass.
During the height of winter, on the 13 December, Azerbaijan cut off gas supplies, with the Azerbaijani state-owned gas firm claiming that the disruption was due to bad weather, and that repairs were ongoing. The supply was reinstated on 16 December, although, as we have heard, there has also been disruption to both electricity and internet services. The area, which is a disputed territory, is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, although it is mostly governed by the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh.
Regardless of where our sympathies lie, the Azerbaijanis’ actions mean that they are not only abandoning long-established international laws and norms, but reneging on the commitment that they made in the trilateral statement on 9 November 2020, which states that
“the Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee safe movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions along the Lachin Corridor”.
That is clearly not happening. The effect of the blockade is that fuel, medicines and basic goods are running low. Price controls and rationing have had to be introduced, and schools have been forced to close. The restrictions on freedom of movement along the corridor are causing significant distress among the residents, with over 1,000 people, including children, stranded in Armenia and unable to get home.
I would like to hear from the Minister more information on what steps, if any, the UK Government are taking to help de-escalate tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and to help to support the reopening of the Lachin corridor in Nagorno-Karabakh. The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, is on the record as saying that the United Kingdom is Azerbaijan’s largest investor and strategic partner, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for helping to quantify the extent of that support—£1 billion of trade. It is therefore imperative that the Government use their significant influence on Azerbaijan and follow the examples of their allies in demanding the immediate unblocking of the Lachin corridor to prevent the unfolding of a human tragedy.
I call on the UK Government to convene with other international partners and work together to come up with a plan to exert pressure in order to find a sustainable, peaceful solution. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) regarding the lack of action, and the action that has been taken since the UN Security Council met, needs to be addressed. I reiterate his point, and let us see what the Minister has to say about the UK’s involvement. It is vital that the situation is unblocked to avert another violent war, as well as a humanitarian disaster, and I back calls for the UK Government to support an independent fact-finding mission to the Lachin corridor in order to support and promote justice and accountability for the victims in the coming months.
I seek assurances that the FCDO is working with donor agencies on the ground, including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It is absolutely essential that there is no repeat of the cutting off of gas supplies in the coming weeks and months, as it is still the winter period. The UK Government must fulfil their atrocity prevention responsibilities by working with the UN Security Council to require an immediate lifting of Azerbaijan’s blockade, and we should look seriously at attempts to launch a humanitarian airlift.
On the issue of sanctions, effective pressure must be brought to bear. It cannot be in the interests of the UK or the wider world to have a weakened Armenia, which may well be the only true democracy in the region. More must be done.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing the debate at such a critical moment for Nagorno-Karabakh and the Caucasus more broadly, and I thank all Members for their contributions.
It is a past interest of mine, but I used to work for the OSCE parliamentary assembly in a past life and was an assistant to the special rapporteur on Nagorno-Karabakh at the time, the Swedish MP Göran Lennmarker. That was some years ago, in a more peaceful time, and it is deeply concerning to see recent events. Indeed, the official Opposition are deeply concerned about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and the people who are besieged and cut off because of the blockade of the Lachin corridor, which we think must end. This is a humanitarian crisis and undoubtedly worthy of the House’s time. It is an area on which I hope the Minister and the Government will focus intently if we are to avoid further catastrophe for civilians both in Nagorno-Karabakh and in the region as a whole.
In my role as Labour’s shadow Europe Minister, I have met the Azerbaijani and Armenian ambassadors and members of the communities on a number of occasions. Obviously, I am keen to engage with all sides. It is clear to us that unless a peaceful resolution is found, civilians in the region face further perils. That has to start with the ending of the blockade and the preservation of Armenia’s territorial integrity.
As has been said, 120,000 people are trapped beyond the blockade, without access to medical supplies, food and other supplies. On 13 December, gas supplies were cut off and have been intermittently disrupted since. On 9 January, the only high-voltage power supply in the region with electricity was damaged. On 12 January, access to telecommunications and the internet connection was cut. We have heard repeatedly from Members from across the House that the corridor is the only link between Armenia and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the transport of people and goods through it are critical to the wellbeing of all residents who live there. It is a literal lifeline for them.
As we have heard, territorial changes that took place last summer following the recent outbreak of conflict led to the land around the corridor being transferred to Azerbaijan, making the passage even more vulnerable and critical to the enclave and its residents. We have all heard the reports of more than 1,000 civilians being stranded along the blocked highway, unable to return, and of the 270 children who had to find shelter in Armenia while their relatives remained in Artsakh.
Despite the resumption of gas supplies, fuel, medicine and basic goods are now reported to be running low, and local authorities have had to impose price controls and rationing. There is a real risk of malnutrition and other health consequences for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. The provision of healthcare and social services has been obstructed. Following the closure of 41 nurseries and 20 schools, children are being denied their elemental right to education.
Patients with cancer are missing vital treatment, and those with diabetes are without medicine. The situation is especially challenging for those with disabilities and those living in residential institutions. The International Disability Alliance and the European Disability Forum have called on all parties to fulfil their obligations to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and Security Council resolution 2475, and they have called for an immediate unblocking of the Lachin corridor. I am sure they have the full support of Members who have spoken in the debate; they certainly have the support of the official Opposition.
No population should have to live in such conditions. The onus is on international institutions and the international community, with the backing of the United Kingdom and our allies, to do the right thing. It has been said many times in this debate that the blockade contravenes what was agreed in the 2020 trilateral ceasefire. It was agreed that all transport and communication links would be restored and unblocked.
I have raised concerns directly with Ministers over recent weeks, including in parliamentary questions. On 12 December, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Azerbaijani ambassador, and I understand that a range of issues were covered. Will the Minister confirm what conversations have been had since then, and with which parties? Do the UK Government propose to play a positive role in unblocking the blockade and brokering a lasting peace? We simply cannot return to the violence of 2020, when more than 6,500 people lost their lives and civilian lives were shattered. Nor should civilians in the region have to continue living under the shadow of perpetual instability and conflict. We favour fully working with our European and regional partners to secure a return to dialogue more broadly and a peaceful settlement facilitated by, for example, the OSCE Minsk Group. Of course, that has to start with removing this blockade, which is a complete impediment to progress.
From responses to parliamentary questions and the contributions that have been made today, it appears that the Government’s strategy is to watch and wait. It is apparent that, without the UK and others providing a diplomatic impetus to seek peace, violence, discord, instability and humanitarian catastrophe will remain. The Government do not seem to be operating with the same urgency as other Governments around Europe, the United States and others. I have been looking through the list of Governments who have spoken out on this issue in recent weeks. I hope the Minister will assure us that this is a very important issue for his colleague the Minister for Europe, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), and others across Government, including the Foreign Secretary.
We all know who will benefit if peace eludes the Caucasus—President Putin and Russia. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) asked what assessment had been made of so-called peacekeeping efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the corridor. I understand from a response to a parliamentary question that the Government have not assessed the adequacy or effectiveness of Russia’s so-called peacekeeping forces. Frankly, I hope the Minister can explain what our strategy in the region is and what is our assessment. We need to understand Russia’s intentions and role across the region—in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and of course in relation to this situation.
Hon. Members have made a number of comments. We have heard about the Russian base in Armenia, and we heard the allegations made by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s comments on them. There have also been serious allegations about matters in Azerbaijan. I have had serious concerns raised with me—I hope the Minister can comment on them—about Azerbaijan bringing in gas from Russia in recent weeks. Of course, it exports gas to the rest of Europe. Given the key role that our own oil and gas industry plays in Azerbaijan, I would like the Minister to give us some more detail on that.
No, but I say for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit that I have raised the issue directly with the Azerbaijani ambassador. I understand that the Azerbaijani Government engage in a so-called gas swap with Russia every year. That is deeply concerning given the matters in Ukraine at the moment and the need to wean Europe off oil and gas. If Azerbaijan is taking in gas and exporting it, I hope the Government are looking at that.
Nagorno-Karabakh, although it may seem remote to many, contains women, men and children who will be at risk if efforts to find peace and end the blockade fail. We have heard from many human rights groups—they have been referred to during the debate—about extra-judicial killings, torture and abuse of prisoners of war. I hope the Minister will give his assessment and tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that such crimes are not committed with impunity.
I understand that the EU is planning to establish an observer mission with the goal of permanently ending the conflict. Those plans were formally adopted by a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers. Obviously, we are outside the EU, but I hope that the Foreign Office and Ministers are working closely with our allies there and, indeed, in the United States to play a role in any measures of that sort. I understand that the United States Secretary of State had meetings with the Armenian Foreign Minister last week. Will the Minister say a little about what discussions we have had with the United States and other allies? Will he also say what conversations there have been with Turkey, which is a key NATO ally and a key partner of the United Kingdom, and comment on our assessment of its role in this situation and in the region more broadly?
It has been reported that the ICRC has been given access to the enclave and has transferred people who were seriously unwell to Yerevan, but can the Minister give us an up-to-date assessment of how much humanitarian relief and how many emergency medical evacuations are passing through the corridor? Is the UK contributing to any humanitarian operations there?
Can the Minister say when the Government will set out a wider regional strategy for the Caucasus that spans diplomacy, aid and trade but also, crucially, atrocity prevention and human rights? It has been mentioned a number of times during the debate that language matters. It is important that the Minister listens to the comments by the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for East Worthing and Shoreham, particularly as we are in a week when we recognise the terrible impact of the holocaust, with all of us committing to preventing atrocities and ensuring that they never happen again. Will the Minister also say what is being done through not only the OSCE but the Council of Europe and forums such as the European Political Community—a new forum that the UK is taking part in—to find solutions to end the conflict and ensure that civilians are protected? What role does he see the UK playing in that?
In conclusion, Russia has shown clearly that it is no guarantor of regional security. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh deserve far better. The blockade must be ended. The UK must play a key role, and we will continue to work with Ministers on the issue. I thank all colleagues for their insights and contributions.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate and focusing attention on the closure of the Lachin corridor. I have known him for many years —in fact, we were at school together—and he is a good friend. More importantly in the context of this debate, he is a well-respected colleague and a hard-working chair of the Armenia all-party parliamentary group. He is also the esteemed chair of the archaeology APPG, but that is a different subject for a different day—we are not going to go there.
The Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), would have been delighted to take part in this debate, but he is travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond to the many important and informed contributions that have been made, and I will endeavour to do so.
I particularly welcome the comments by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), drawing on his experiences with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He raised important questions about Russia, in particular. I will come on to some of his points. I cannot give him exact details on some of the medical evacuations but will ensure that the Minister for Europe writes to him on that. We have a good relationship, and he knows that we will get back to him on that point.
The shadow Minister raised important issues around what the US Secretary of State, Secretary Blinken, is saying about the conflict. He is pushing Azerbaijan to redouble its efforts to secure a lasting peace agreement with Armenia, and to reopen the Lachin corridor to avoid a humanitarian crisis. I underline that the UK firmly supports both those asks. I will explain a little more once we get into the background of this issue.
My colleagues know that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is deeply complex; I do not think that anybody would say otherwise. We have heard both sides of the debate today. Over the last 30 years, the Armenian and Azerbaijani people have continued to suffer due to the conflict, which has been the backdrop to regional relations in that time. As hon. Members will understand, such territorial disputes are rarely easily solved. That is why the UK Government, following the 2020 conflict that claimed the lives of thousands of service personnel, has engaged extensively with both Governments. In January 2021, the then Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), was the first western politician to visit Armenia and Azerbaijan following the 2020 conflict. She spoke regularly with both Foreign Ministers after the conflict to urge peace, and her successors have done the same.
I assure Members that the UK Government’s policy and position towards tensions between those two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh remain unchanged: this conflict cannot be solved by military means. Peaceful negotiations are the only way forward. As was set out in this debate, and as hon. Members know well, the Lachin corridor is a narrow strip of land that provides a lifeline for the people living in Nagorno-Karabakh, enabling food and goods to enter from Armenia. Since 13 December, it has been closed by Azerbaijani demonstrators, who are preventing not only food and goods from moving freely, but in some cases the individuals who live there. The 2020 ceasefire statement agreed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia places responsibilities on both countries. All parties should act in good faith and for the benefit of the civilians of Nagorno-Karabakh. That includes enabling the unimpeded use of the Lachin corridor. Territorial disputes should never harm civilians.
The current Minister for Europe issued a statement making that point on 13 December. He discussed the situation in detail with the Armenian Foreign Minister on 18 January, including the humanitarian support that the UK has provided. On 20 December, the UK permanent representative at the United Nations Security Council called for the immediate reopening of the corridor. That message was echoed by our permanent representative to the OSCE on 17 January. To be clear, the United Kingdom was one of few countries that directly called on the Azerbaijani Government to ensure the unimpeded movement of humanitarian aid and civilians. I repeat that message today: it is imperative that the Azerbaijani Government help to reopen the corridor. Further harm to the civilian populations of the region, who have endured decades of conflict, should be prevented as a clear priority. The UK ambassador to Azerbaijan has also engaged extensively with the Azerbaijani Government since 13 December, stressing the importance of reopening the corridor.
The Minister for Europe plans to speak again to the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov in coming weeks, to once again call for the immediate reopening of the corridor for humanitarian goods and civilians. Our message is simple: the Lachin corridor must reopen. We call on Azerbaijan to do that. Substantive peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan are needed to resolve this and other matters, and they must continue in earnest, as they are the only means of bringing a lasting peace to the region.
I assure Members that the UK Government continue to support international efforts, including those led by the EU and the OSCE, to secure peace and stability in the region. Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain extremely fraught. In our engagements with the Governments’ representatives, we encourage them to make full use of all channels of mediation, and to pursue constructive dialogue to settle all outstanding matters.
The long-standing position of the UK Government remains that military intervention, inflammatory rhetoric—mentioned by the hon. member for Dundee West (Chris Law)—and indefensible actions, such as restricting the free movement of civilians, are in neither Government’s interests and will not secure stability and peace in the region.
A number of Members raised important concerns about the humanitarian situation, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) rightly highlighted the amazing work of Baroness Cox. The humanitarian situation is a concern for the Government. UK officials have been in frequent contact with humanitarian organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières and the HALO Trust, to further our understanding of the situation on the ground, and of the most urgent needs of the civilians in the region. We will continue to work with non-governmental organisations on the ground.
The United Kingdom has not been a passive actor. We have not just watched the situation. We have engaged extensively and have acted. The Start Fund, which is administered by the Start Network, a UK charity made up of multiple NGOs, to which the UK is a major donor, has allocated £350,000 to support those affected by the closure of the corridor. Officials continue to monitor the situation and, through their extensive engagements with humanitarian actors, keep under review the need for further humanitarian assistance.
We also recognise the need to show respect to different faiths. Perhaps that is the point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) wanted me to make, because he and I know how important that issue is, along with many other issues. We were having conversations before about how important faith is in many of these issues.
We will continue to respond to the situation on the ground in a co-ordinated way. If it is okay with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, in the remaining minutes, I will endeavour to answer more questions. The Foreign Office remains in discussion with humanitarian agencies. We will work with those trusted partners, but at the moment there are no plans for an airlift of food or other supplies to the airport—a point raised by the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden).
Lots of points were made about prisoners of war and their return, and the remains of the deceased, sadly. Both are equally important, and we continue to stress the importance of returning all prisoners of war as a clear priority for both sides. We heard strong contributions from the hon. Members for Dundee West, and for Ealing Central and Acton, on the risk of genocide. The UK Government take their commitments under the genocide convention very seriously. Where there is evidence that the threshold has been met, we will take appropriate action, for sure.
Others questioned what happened at the UN Security Council. To be clear, the UN did not block the UN Security Council statement on the closure of the Lachin corridor. We were working in good faith to find a way to accommodate a statement that would be acceptable to all members of the Security Council.
Some have called for sanctions to be brought in. We are aware of the human rights challenges and concerns that have been raised today, although it is not appropriate for us to discuss any future sanctions; that goes for other places as well. Others have talked about Russia; we know that Russia cannot be relied on or trusted. Its actions in Ukraine clearly demonstrate that. That is why it is vital that Armenia and Azerbaijan engage in constructive dialogue to settle their outstanding issues. The EU has brought forward a civilian mission; we will continue to work with the EU and other partners to move that forward.
Other concerns have been raised, which we will take forward, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that I have reassured them that we are on the case and are working towards resolving the conflict.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).