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Azerbaijan: Khojaly Massacre

Volume 829: debated on Monday 17 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they made, if any, of the impact of the Khojaly massacre in 1992 in respect of the recent hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan; and what steps they took, if any, to send condolences to the people of Azerbaijan on the anniversary of the massacre on 26 February.

My Lords, the events of 1992 were a tragic episode in the history of the Azerbaijani people and were rightly condemned by the Government of the day. Our ambassador to Azerbaijan laid a wreath at the memorial in Baku on 26 February as a mark of our condolences on the loss of life. We have made no formal assessment of the Khojaly massacre in the context of recent hostilities.

My Lords, the objective of this Question is to encourage the UK Government to go beyond issuing a formal message of condolences and to take appropriate action to honour the victims of this sad and tragic event.

My Lords, my noble friend caught me somewhat unawares by the succinctness of his question. Of course we recognise the events of the tragic episode that took place in Azerbaijan, as I said. I stress that there is no violent solution to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. We urge both sides to engage internationally. We support the engagement that takes place between those countries and the organisations that facilitate it, such as the OSCE.

My Lords, I was present in Nagorno-Karabakh many times during the war in the 1990s and can testify to the reality of events at Khojaly, a town used by the Azeris to fire so many missiles on the capital, Stepanakert, that it would have been annihilated if the Armenians had not taken control of Khojaly. They gave advance notice of their attack and requested that the Azeris allow civilians to evacuate. When the attack began, they saw Armenian civilians still present. They stopped fighting and asked the Azeris to allow safe passage, but Azeris mingled with Armenians and both sides suffered deaths. The Armenians gave the Azeris permission to collect their dead, but the Azeris mutilated captured Armenian prisoners.

Is the Minister aware of the Azeri bias in much of the media coverage of the Karabakh war, not only on Khojaly but on other events, such as the massacre by Azerbaijan at the nearby village of Maraga? I visited Maraga many times. I went first when the homes were still burning. The charred remains of corpses and the vertebrae of beheaded Armenians were still on the ground. Does the Minister agree that rewriting history has serious implications for future developments in the countries involved?

My Lords, we all recognise the importance of history. What is important in this conflict now is to look at what the future holds. It is important for both countries, and the region, for both sides to sit down. We are supportive of negotiations and further discussions. My colleague, the Minister for Europe, has been engaging extensively on this. He has visited Baku and is hoping to travel to Yerevan in the coming few weeks. I met the Foreign Minister of Armenia in December at the UN. I assure the noble Baroness that, from both perspectives—those who have a view supportive of Azerbaijan and those supportive of Armenia—solutions can ultimately be found only by direct negotiations, but there is a role for facilitation by organisations such as the UN and, as I said, the OSCE.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that answer. I wonder if I can tempt him to comment on the role of Russia in the current situation. Do the wider problems with Russia make it more or less likely that a solution might be found in Azerbaijan and Armenia?

My Lords, the right reverent Prelate raises the important issue of Russia’s role. To be quite clear, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK has suspended all direct engagement with the Russian authorities, except on a very limited number of issues including the Ukraine crisis. We have no plan to engage directly, but we welcome the interventions of other key partners. I think Russia’s war on Ukraine has hindered the progress that was being made. Whether in the context of Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine or the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, dialogue, discourse and ultimately a peaceful negotiation are desirable outcomes. But Russia’s intervention on the sovereign land of another country cannot be ignored. In that context, as I am sure the right reverend Prelate agrees, Russia can end that conflict now by withdrawing.

My Lords, given that the debate has turned to Russia, today Vladimir Kara-Murza is being put on trial in Moscow. He is a very committed voice for democracy and freedom. He has been imprisoned, allegedly for treason, because he has said it is a war. He is a British citizen as well as a Russian. Are the British Government doing anything about his case?

My Lords, the short answer is that yes, we are. We are appalled by the sentence announced today. He has bravely stood up for the rights of so many. This is another example of what Russia does to its own. In this case, there is a read-across for us as the United Kingdom. We see the action taken by Russia today and have seen what is happening with the further distressing stories about the detention of Mr Navalny and others. That, again, shows that it is not just about the war on Ukraine. Russia supresses its own; it is supressing the rights and freedoms of journalists, lawyers and many communities across Russia. If Russia wants to be a valid, recognised member of the international community, the first test will be how it treats its own citizens.

My Lords, prior to the violence in 2020, I hosted dialogue with young people in the region and, most recently, was concerned with the tension. The Minister is absolutely right that the reliability and dependability of the Russian peacekeeping force currently present is now under question. The EU has had one successful peacekeeping operation there, and its negotiations are carrying on. The Minister referred to the others who are engaged in negotiations—hopefully peace negotiations. Is the UK supporting the EU’s work, and are we offering technical assistance for its work in the negotiations?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we support all noble attempts at negotiation and bringing about an end to all conflicts. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has gone on far too long. The primary engagement through European bodies is through the OSCE, where many members of the European Union are present. We work closely with our partners in that context.

My Lords, on visiting Nagorno-Karabakh, I was struck that there is one land corridor that links it to Armenia, the Lachin corridor, which has been blockaded since last December. Has the Minister had a chance to read the report of the five United Nations special rapporteurs, which was issued earlier this month, calling for urgent action to be taken for the reopening of that corridor so that food, fuel, medicine and basic necessities can reach the 120,000 people now blockaded inside Nagorno-Karabakh?

The noble Lord is right to raise the Lachin corridor. He will be aware that, since its blockading, the United Kingdom has repeatedly called for open access, particularly for humanitarian support. Recently, there have been reports of people who have left the area not being able to access it and return home. Through representations and engagement through the OSCE and the United Nations—including at the UNSC—we continue to work with key partners to ensure that that important corridor is opened, particularly for humanitarian support.

My Lords, we must remember that Baku is one of the pivotal points of oil and gas transmission through central Asia. While oil and gas may be on the way out between now and 2050, in the meantime it is greatly in our interest to see that there are close relations with Baku and Azerbaijan in handling all these difficult issues. Can we be assured that we are very close to the Azerbaijan Government in analysing aspects of oil and gas? Cheaper oil and gas now could mean a cheaper cost of living, which we all want—it is greatly in our interest.

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we engage on a wide range of issues with the Azerbaijani Government. As I indicated earlier, this has included a recent visit by my colleague, the Minister for Europe, to Baku, where a wide range of issues were discussed, including the conflict that is the subject of this Question and the importance of our bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan.

My Lords, in accordance with international law, do the Government accept that Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan?

My Lords, it was right that the Minister referred to the case of Navalny. Is he aware that one of the more serious allegations is that he is being denied necessary medical treatment?

My Lords, we are aware of the various challenges faced by many people detained in Russia against their will. Mr Navalny’s case is particularly acute. He voluntarily returned to Russia to represent his own people, and Russia should recognise that opposition. We stand in this Chamber where we, as a Government, are rightly challenged and held accountable for our actions. If you are a democracy and want a place in the world, the challenge of opposition is part and parcel of your Government’s responsibility.