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Volume 812: debated on Thursday 27 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and (2) reports of human rights violations by the Government of Azerbaijan.

My Lords, the UK Government continue to closely monitor the situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and we are deeply concerned by reports of human rights violations stemming from last year’s conflict and wider allegations that war crimes were committed. My colleague the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas has urged both sides to undertake thorough investigations of these claims, including during her visit to Baku and Yerevan in February of this year.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, is he aware that in Armenia this morning, six Armenian servicemen were captured by military forces of Azerbaijan, and on 25 May an Armenian serviceman was fatally wounded by Azeri soldiers in Armenia? This is a blatant armed encroachment on the sovereign territory of Armenia. Does the Minister agree that Her Majesty’s Government’s policy of talking has been seriously inefficient, and that effective action is needed in response to these threats to regional peace?

My Lords, I am aware of the media reports of this morning and of 25 May of military forces exchanging gunfire that the noble Baroness alludes to. What is encouraging in what remains a very tense situation is that the November truce that was brokered and agreed by three countries working on the Minsk agenda, particularly Russia, is still largely holding. However, I assure the noble Baroness that we are working with both sides, including through engagement at ministerial level, towards a lasting peace between the two countries.

My Lords, part of the rich cultural heritage of Armenia now lies in lands captured during the recent conflict. That includes 161 churches, tombs and other Christian monuments. I know that Azerbaijan has undertaken to protect and honour these religious sites. However, will the Minister go further than that and say that there needs to be some monitoring and investigation, and will he press Azerbaijan to allow UNESCO to carry out that monitoring and investigatory mission?

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord. Whatever the final settlement between the two countries, the importance of retaining and protecting heritage is a key priority for everyone. The noble Lord makes a practical suggestion regarding UNESCO and I will certainly take that back and share it with my colleague responsible for our relations. It is right that we see agencies such as UNESCO acting in areas of conflict to ensure that heritage sites are fully protected.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is hard to imagine a more fragile ceasefire, with Azerbaijan satisfied and crowing and Armenians weakened and insecure—and all this with allegations of war crimes on both sides? What steps is the United Kingdom taking at the United Nations to seek to achieve greater stability in the region?

My Lords, on the specific issue of the United Nations, we had sought and certainly worked towards a presidential statement, notwithstanding the challenges and representations from both sides. Unfortunately, that could not be secured at the last meeting of the UNSC but we are working, not just through the UN but the OSCE, to ensure that exactly the objectives the noble Lord has laid out can be guaranteed, particularly for those within Nagorno-Karabakh, who come from both communities.

The impunity enjoyed by Azerbaijan has given it the confidence to violate November’s peace agreement in a number of ways and to threaten the territorial integrity of Armenia. Will Her Majesty’s Government make urgent representations to the Government of Azerbaijan to withdraw their forces from sovereign territories of Armenia and to cease such open provocations?

My Lords, I note what my noble friend has said, and my colleague Minister Morton has been working on this agenda. However, very much the first priority is to ensure that the Minsk process, which has been agreed by both sides, is strengthened further. We are certainly lending support to ensure that all aspects of this conflict can be resolved through that mechanism.

As the Minister knows, allegations of war crimes have been made by both main parties to the dispute. What steps have Her Majesty’s Government taken to ensure that those are subject to proper international—not just local—examination, and, if proven, to prosecution?

My Lords, again, the noble and right reverend Lord raises an important point. Certainly, exactly those points have been pushed through the various engagements we have had with both sides, and indeed by those working on the peace deal more specifically, including our colleagues in Russia, the United States and France. The issue of holding to account those responsible for such actions is a key priority and both sides should seek to co-operate fully.

My Lords, what is the Government’s assessment of recent reports suggesting that Russia has significant control over the administration of Nagorno-Karabakh and has prevented groups such as MSF and the Halo Trust from entering the region? Has the Minister raised those issues at the United Nations as well?

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, we have brought forward specific support, including funding for key organisations working in the region, which is very difficult. Indeed, an announcement was made back in October that £1 million of funding would go to the ICRC. The issue of Russia is very clear. Yes, Russia is present; I believe that about 2,000 Russian troops are in Nagorno-Karabakh, and obviously they have an extended influence through the Minsk process. The noble Lord makes practical points and I can assure him that we are raising the important issues of civil society roles and humanitarian agencies’ access to that important region.

My Lords, I draw Members’ attention to my registered interest, particularly as a director of the John Smith Trust. The Minsk Group has failed to make any real progress on achieving an agreed outcome to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute or to act coherently, with Russia supporting Azerbaijan and the United States and France failing to balance that with support for Armenia. How can Her Majesty’s Government use their P5 position to help balance the situation by giving some more support to Armenia, where there is an increasing suspicion that the commercial relationship with Azerbaijan has become more important than finding an agreed peaceful resolution?

The noble Lord rightly raises the concerns of Armenia, particularly with regard to various other countries extending their support to Azerbaijan. We believe that we have dealt with this issue and continue to deal with it through direct engagement with Ministers at both levels—my colleague, Minister Morton, leads on this. Equally, however, from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to Minister Morton, we have engaged with countries that have supported either side, and we will continue to extend influence in that regard. However, the Minsk process is the agreed process, notwithstanding the challenges it faces, and our efforts continue to be in support of that.

My Lords, just to add to the catalogue, on 12 May this year Azerbaijani armed forces also invaded the border area of the Syunik region of the Republic of Armenia. On the ground, the constant incursions and the violations of human rights are perceived with impunity. Does the Minister believe that Minsk is working and is ultimately viable, and what more can the UK and its allies do to hold Azerbaijan to account?

My Lords, on the right reverend Prelate’s first question, I have already said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that I accept that it has been very challenging and that the Minsk process has not been as effective as all sides would have hoped, certainly for those hoping for further peace between the two countries. That said, the UK fully supports the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group as the primary forum. Of course, the other concerns that the right reverend Prelate describes remain, and we will continue to use all our interventions to ensure the cessation of hostilities and that perpetrators of any crimes are fully held to account.

My Lords, Armenia forcibly occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, which should have been part of Azerbaijan under four UN Security Council resolutions, in 1993. During the war there were injuries and loss of life on both sides, and one side cannot be held responsible for such consequences over another. Azerbaijan took what was rightfully theirs. Does my noble friend accept that? Does he also accept that the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is that Armenia is refusing to share landmine data with Azerbaijan, which is causing injury and death, and that Armenia is also failing to withdraw its armed forces from the territory?

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says and of course, we are working towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict for both sides.