I beg to move,
That this House has considered the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is one of those places that few people can pronounce properly, let alone spell, let alone locate on a map, yet in recent months it has been the location of a bloody war involving thousands of fatalities and casualties; bombardment of civilian areas and destruction of towns and cultural sites; the use of internationally banned munitions; and now a return to ethnic cleansing. It has involved not just Armenians and Azerbaijanis, but global powers such as Russia and Turkey, with significant implications for geopolitics far beyond this remote area of the southern Caucasus.
I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Armenia. I am well aware that this has been a long-running dispute between Armenians and Azeris over many years, which was only contained during the days of the Soviet empire, and which flared up again in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. I am also aware that most of the international community recognises Nagorno-Karabakh as, most recently, largely Azeri territory, and I do not want to reopen that centuries-old argument. Whatever one’s view on the future government of Nagorno-Karabakh—as part of Azerbaijan, as an independent state per an earlier referendum result, or as part of an extended Armenian state—I hope we can all agree that engaging in a bloody war and an almost medieval-style battlefield invasion is not the way to resolve the dispute. However slow and problematic it has proven, a legitimate, internationally supported resolution process has been in place, namely the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk group. The current status of that group is rather unclear after the conflict, with the boots on the ground now provided by Russian troops, and others supported by Turkey.
I am not going to go through the whole history of the conflict—certainly not in an hour-long debate. The recent military action started at the end of July, when Azeri forces launched unprovoked attacks at various points on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the north-east corner of Armenia, far away from Nagorno-Karabakh. That attack was defended against robustly by Armenia. It was accompanied by bellicose statements from Azeri Government Ministers, especially the Ministry of Defence, which raised the prospect of the Armenian nuclear power station at Metsamor being within the range of Azeri missiles. It was followed by deliberately provocative joint Turkish-Azeri military exercises close to the Armenian border and words of encouragement from the Turkish Government under the slogan, “Two countries, one nation”.
I wrote to the Foreign Secretary on behalf of the all-party group and that letter was published. I received chastisement, as I would call it, from the Turkish ambassador, who criticised me for the deeply biased tone of my letter that failed to reflect the current situation in the region. He said that he had irrefutable evidence, both circumstantial and concrete, that clearly indicated that the current aggression and violence were once again started as a result of Armenian actions. When I asked him what that was, he failed to produce any evidence—concrete, circumstantial or otherwise. I think it is widely accepted that this conflict was started, completely unprovoked, by Azerbaijan, yet there was hardly a whisper from western powers, including, I regret to say, the United Kingdom, beyond the usual diplomatic niceties about returning to the negotiating table. That was clearly a prelude to the serious assault on Nagorno-Karabakh that started on 27 September—again unprovoked.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This might seem a conflict in far-off lands, but the diaspora communities here have brought it to our attention. I know that he knows my constituent Annette Moskofian, from the UK branch of the Armenian National Committee, the ANC. The Hayshen centre and the Navasartian centre are also in my constituency, and they played a vital part when it felt as if the eyes of the world were looking elsewhere.
Absolutely. I know that there is a large Armenian community in the hon. Lady’s constituency and I pay tribute to Annette Moskofian—I will supply Hansard with the spelling later—and the work of the ANC, which so ably represents the Armenian community here.
The invasion took place almost 100 years to the day since the Turks invaded the newly independent republic of Armenia against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, which the Turks still deny took place. On 27 September, Azerbaijan launched sustained air and artillery attacks as well as an infantry offensive along the entire line of contact with Nagorno-Karabakh, indiscriminately shelling civilian populations and peaceful settlements, including the capital Stepanakert. We should remember that Nagorno-Karabakh has a population of just 146,000, 91% of them Armenian in origin. They are supported by the small country of Armenia, which has a population of just 3 million. It was attacked by oil-rich Azerbaijan, which has a population of 10 million and a defence budget of almost $2 billion annually. It spent $1.6 billion on a defence deal with Israel alone—almost the equivalent of a single year’s budget. That attack involved the use of F-16 Turkish fighter planes and rocket launchers brought in from Nakhchivan, which neighbours Turkey. Turkey has one of the largest standing armies and is one of the largest spenders on defence in the whole world.
During the 45-day bloody conflict that followed, countless soldiers on both sides lost their lives; bodies are literally still strewn across the battlefields, making it difficult to tot up the numbers. I was reminded by the International Committee of the Red Cross that 5,000 people are still unaccounted for from the conflict back in the 1990s. The Red Cross also estimates that there have been 150 civilian fatalities and more than 600 injuries. Fourteen thousand civilian structures—homes, schools, hospitals and heritage sites—were damaged or destroyed, and there were attacks on churches full of people at prayer.
The most worrying aspect of the conflict has been the use of Israeli so-called kamikaze drones—silent killers that hang over a battlefield; before anyone knows they are there, they explode their deadly cargo. That was a gamechanger for this conflict in a notoriously impenetrable mountainous area of the world. Also worrying was the use of banned cluster bomb munitions—the so-called Kinder surprise ribbon bombs. They have ribbons on them and are often picked up by children who think they are a trinket, only for them to explode. Those cluster bombs were used on a maternity hospital, schools and Shushi Cathedral, as witnessed by journalists from The Telegraph and other western representatives. They were delivered in Russian-made 9M55 Smerch rockets, described by Amnesty International as “cruel and reckless” and causing “untold death, injury and misery”. Also deeply worrying about this conflict was that Turkey, a NATO member, illegally transferred NATO-grade director drones to a non-NATO member country for use against civilians. That did, at least, attract a cancellation of export licences for certain defence items from Canada, Austria and the United States.
Most worrying of all was the importation by Turkey of thousands of jihadi insurgents brought in from Syria and Libya. Videos have been circulating of them openly involved in the conflict, and in some cases openly parading the decapitated heads of executed Armenian soldiers. It is reported they are paid a bonus—literally—for the heads of members of the Armenian military. Armenian families report having received gruesome videos of the mutilated bodies of their relatives, which were sent to them by these terrorists. Apparently, it is advertised in northern Syria that those who sign up for settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh will be given a parcel of land.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said
“reports indicate that Turkey engaged in large-scale recruitment and transfer of Syrian men to Azerbaijan through armed factions, some of which are affiliated with the Syrian National Army”.
Chris Kwaja, who chaired the working group, added:
“The alleged role of Turkey is all the more concerning given the similar allegations addressed earlier this year by the Working Group in relation its role in recruiting, deploying and financing such fighters to take part in the conflict in Libya,”
The report said:
“The way in which these individuals were recruited, transported and used in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone appeared consistent with the definition of a mercenary, as set out by relevant international legal instruments”.
That is the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner speaking; it is not just hearsay.
This is deeply worrying. After 45 days of bloody conflict, a ceasefire was signed on 10 November, brokered by President Putin and the Russians. The Armenian Prime Minister signed this declaration clearly under duress, without any reference to the President, Ministers or Parliament, because it was a fait accompli imposed by Russia and Turkey. Under its terms, the indigenous Armenian population from three regions were given just days to evacuate their lifelong homes. The Russians gave nine Armenian villages just 48 hours to leave their ancestral homes, without any chance to organise their exodus or get support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for example.
The Russians and Azeris continue to draw arbitrary borders without involving representatives from Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh itself. What has become an island of remaining Nagorno-Karabakh territory is to be connected to Armenia through a narrow Lachin corridor under Russia-Azeri control and a new link between Nakhchivan and Turkey in the west, and Azerbaijan in the east has been carved out of land in the south of Armenia itself.
Baroness Cox, who has been an extraordinary champion of the Armenian nation and people, recently visited the war zone—I think it was her 87th visit to that part of the world. She reported back on what she had seen in deeply distressing terms:
“Lines of refugees taking their belongings heading for the safety of Armenia carrying whatever possessions they could … taking with them livestock, even digging up the graves of loved ones fearful for their bodies being desecrated after they had left and torching their houses so they would not fall into the hands of the Azerians”.
This is ethnic cleansing pure and simple. No Armenian feels safe in lands that have been their homes for years; they are being intimidated out, to be replaced by Azeris and jihadi terrorists. That should raise serious security alarm bells for the west as well.
Genocide Watch declared a genocide emergency alert last month, but the cleansing continues apace. We had a briefing from the International Committee of the Red Cross through the Inter-Parliamentary Union last week. It calculated that there have been many thousands of military casualties, but the figure is still unknown because the bodies are still unretrieved. It has no idea of the number of detainees on each side. It is hard to access those prisoners, but there have been reports of torture and executions. Russian peacekeeping forces and Turks in some places actually turn out to be Syrian mercenaries.
Why is that small population in a remote part of the world significant? It is significant because we should all take an interest when a nation and the peace-loving people in those territories are persecuted in an unprovoked way. It is also significant because of the geopolitical implications. Turkey has extended its influence eastwards to the Caspian, in an unholy alliance with the Russians. Russia has reasserted its influence over former Soviet republics and effectively stamped on the independent credentials of Armenia, one of the few democracies in the area. Russia will effectively exert control over the Armenian military, take over Armenian oil projects, effectively gain a military base in Nagorno-Karabakh and take over Armenia’s foreign policy. Those are all significant shifts in the spheres of influence in that volatile region. Russia has been extending its influence in Ukraine, Turkey and Syria, getting a taste for territorial expansion by force or stealth.
The Azeris will be given free rein to continue the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh and the suppression of its Christian culture. In the past 15 years, Azerbaijan has been more aggressive in destroying UNESCO-protected Armenian world heritage sites than even ISIS was in Syria. Not a single church or Armenian cross stone has survived in the historic Armenian Nakhchivan area. More than 189 churches and 10,000 Christian crosses have been blown up by the Azeris.
Israel does not come out of this well either. It is trading high-tech weapons, which have made the strategic difference in the war, for energy. It relies on Azerbaijan for about half its oil. It supports an Azeri President who embraces militiamen who behead prisoners, mutilate bodies, destroy churches and engage in anti-Christian campaigns. As the US writer Michael Rubin put it,
“Armenia is a democracy, while Azerbaijan has become a family-run dictatorship. Armenia embraces religious freedom while Azerbaijan works with Islamist extremists.”
Yet few have come to the aid of Armenia in the past few months. Armenia and the Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh are the victims in all this.
All this happened when the US was somewhat preoccupied by the controversy over the presidential elections. There have been minimal sanctions on weapons, and everything I have described has largely gone unchallenged. I welcome the meetings that we had with the Minister, and I acknowledge the calls by the Foreign Office for an end to the conflict, a return to the negotiating tables, and respect for human rights. We have also given some aid in the region. However, when a UN motion was proposed to prevent intervention of third parties in the conflict and to denounce the presence of Syrian mercenaries in the region, which was so important, it was reported that the United Kingdom Government stood in the way of the proposal. I would welcome a response from the Minister on that.
Where has been the condemnation of the use of Syrian mercenaries? Where has been the condemnation of the illegal use of cluster munitions? Where has been the condemnation and pressure on Turkey, a NATO member and ally, which has allowed NATO-grade weapons to be used against a democratic, sovereign country—Armenia—and is now exercising a worrying extension of its power into the Caucasus and beyond? I am afraid that the silence has been deafening. Many in Armenia are claiming that their ally, the United Kingdom, has let them down, and I can see why.
We urgently need western peacekeepers in the region to monitor ethnic cleansing and the activities of the Syrian mercenaries. We need a proper investigation into war crimes and the treatment of prisoners. We need to consider the future independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, which the citizens voted for many years ago and which was recently supported in the Parliaments of France, Holland and Belgium. I think it is time, at last, to recognise the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks—a century-old outrage in which between a million and a million and a half men, women and children were massacred by the Ottomans, in the first genocide of the modern age. I should tell the Minister that, with Members of both Houses, I have prepared the Armenian genocide 1915 to 1923 recognition Bill to commemorate the Armenian genocide through official recognition and remembrance, and to put formal recognition of that genocide on a statutory basis. I hope that there will be considerable support for that measure in both Houses.
Terrible things have happened in the southern Caucasus. They are no less terrible because of the remoteness of a country that few know about; but those terrible things, perpetrated specifically by Azerbaijan and its Turkish allies, need to be acknowledged, called out and punished. I ask the Minister to start that process today.
I shall be brief, Mrs Cummins. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing the debate, which is an important opportunity for us to raise the dire situation faced by the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a pleasure to follow him in the debate.
I take a keen interest in the conflict for many reasons, but in particular as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia, a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and someone who grew up hearing the horrific stories of the genocide of Armenian people in Turkey. As the hon. Gentleman set out, Nagorno-Karabakh is an autonomous region of Azerbaijan with an Armenian majority population. Since 1994 it has been controlled by Armenians as a self-proclaimed independent state, although neither country recognises that statehood as yet. On 27 September this year, after some alarming escalations during the summer, the worst violence in the region since 1994 erupted. By 13 October around 1,000 people had been killed, as Azerbaijani forces advanced past the line of conflict established as part of the 1994 ceasefire.
The conflict has caused a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. There are reports and evidence of numerous violations of international law by Azerbaijan, including the use of banned cluster bombs, the murder of elderly and disabled civilians, and the torture and humiliation of captured Armenians. Perhaps most shocking of all, Turkey, a member of NATO—an organisation founded to ensure a lasting peace in Europe based on common values of individual liberty, democracy and human rights and the rule of law—has been providing military support to Azerbaijan. Turkey has recruited and transported jihadi mercenaries to bolster Azerbaijan forces who are using Turkish weapons and war planes—in particular, drones.
The military attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh has been accompanied by a campaign of hate speech towards Armenian people in Azerbaijan and in Turkey. Garo Paylan, one of the very few Armenian Members of the Turkish Parliament—if not the only one—has said:
“Armenian-origin citizens have become scapegoats and the object of rising racism and hate speech”,
“The current climate reminds me of previous anti-Armenian pogroms.”
Paylan commented that Turkey’s Armenian community, and citizens of Armenia who live in Turkey, no longer feel safe.
Any conflict that leads to loss of life is a tragedy, but a conflict in which civilians are deliberately targeted, international law is ignored and the involvement of a NATO member, abandoning all pretences of neutrality, is making things worse rather than better is a conflict of which the west should sit up and take notice. To be fair, we must acknowledge that the US, France and other EU countries have raised concerns about the transportation of mercenaries, but the UK, unfortunately, has been conspicuous only by its silence. The broad lack of interest from the west has resulted in Armenia being forced to agree a peace deal devised by Russia and Turkey and—I kid you not—potentially with Turkish troops being deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to keep the peace.
The scale and horror of this conflict cannot be laid out in the few minutes that I have today, but the urgency of the need for action is only matched by the moral imperative that sits behind it. That those responsible for the atrocities listed should be charged with delivering a lasting and equitable peace is unconscionable. The UK Government and the international community must act, so I ask the following questions today.
Will the UK Government condemn Azerbaijan for using cluster bombs on civilians? Amnesty International has reported that there is growing evidence that Azerbaijan used cluster bombs in Nagorno-Karabakh. In particular, the capital, Stepanakert, was attacked with cluster bombs, resulting in an unknown number of civilian deaths. The use of cluster bombs violates the ban on indiscriminate attacks and violates international law, as we know. Are the UK Government aware of the above reports that Azerbaijan used cluster bombs in Nagorno-Karabakh? Do the Government consider such violations of international humanitarian law to be unacceptable? If so, will the Minister condemn those breaches?
Will the Government use their influence to put pressure on Turkey, a NATO member, to remove the mercenaries from the region and stop its effort to relocate mercenary families from Syria? Will the UK support the Minsk Group re-engaging for a final settlement for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh?
It is reported that British-manufactured parts were used to build Turkey’s Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles —drones—that were used extensively by Azerbaijan during the war. How do the Government trace the unsolicited sale of British military IP by Turkey to third countries?
The failure by successive Governments, including my party in government, to recognise the Armenian genocide, despite all the evidence, has led to yet another such experience for Armenians in the region, who are once more being removed from their ancestral land. Will this Government follow most countries in the world and our allies and finally recognise the Armenian genocide?
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on his excellent speech, with which I fully agree. I grieve for the suffering, particularly of civilians, in any conflict, but because time today limits me, I want, in speaking of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, to highlight only two points. These have been highlighted to me today by Baroness Cox. They are in her report, “Grief and Courage in Nagorno Karabakh”. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will read the full report, because there is much more in it, but Baroness Cox particularly wants me to highlight these two points.
The first is the urgent need to secure the return of Armenians still held as prisoners of war after the ceasefire and to ensure that ongoing atrocities against them do not continue. The second is the need to ensure that Azerbaijanis are held to account for the atrocities committed both during and after the conflict. I therefore ask the Minister these questions. What action are our Government taking, both by themselves and with international partners, to prevent the further abuse of Armenians held captive, to secure their release and to bring to justice those responsible for war crimes during this conflict? What assurance can the Minister give us that investigations into alleged war crimes, particularly those classed as genocide by Genocide Watch, as we have heard, will be carried out by a properly constituted, neutral and recognised international body?
It is heart-rending to hear in Baroness Cox’s report of multiple accounts of brutality inflicted on military and civilian prisoners of war, despite the ceasefire, and equally heart-rending to hear in the report from the Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman, who states that there is evidence of
“the deliberate targeting of civilians, ambulances, hospitals, religious sites, electricity, gas and water infrastructure and the use of chemical incendiaries”.
The information has been sent, but
“we have received no adequate replies from major aid organisations…We are totally isolated.”
What information can the Minister give us about what aid from the UK has reached those in need of help in the area and how is it being applied?
Baroness Cox’s report states:
“The scale and ferocity of these offensives has intensified the justifiable fear among local people—who are 94% Armenian Christians—of the possibility of ethnic cleansing from their historic land, with grave implications for the region.”
She goes on to say:
“we remain deeply concerned by the lack of international engagement with, and balanced reporting of, the suffering of civilians in Nagorno Karabakh.”
While the report cites the history of oppression of Armenian Christians over the past century, it also states that attempts by some
“to present the latest escalation of violence as an Armenian aggression—or to suggest”
that Armenia is equally culpable
“for the violence and civilian destruction that has taken place—are manifestly untrue and dangerous. It would be entirely against the interests of Armenia to initiate the recent war.”
I quoted that because yesterday evening I had the privilege of speaking with a member of a family from Armenia. That person now lives in the west, but has family still there. That individual echoes the concerns of Baroness Cox in such a way that, time permitting, I want to cite in some detail from an email I asked that person to send to me and received this morning. They call for the
“urgent release of Prisoners of War and the freedom for the Armenian soldiers who are in hiding to return home.”
The message states:
“The majority of soldiers who fought at the frontlines were newly drafted 18-year-old boys, only 2-3 months experiences in the military. They were only equipped with 20th century weapons to fight a 21st century military. The reality in Artsakh is that the 150,000 Christian population was in no way prepared to face a 21st century invasion—it was an uneven battle. Armenia’s military was weak and unprepared for drones, mercenaries, F-16s and military intelligence backing Turkey and Azerbaijan military forces. Around 5000 Armenian military men were deployed to the frontline, majority of them 18-year-olds who had just enlisted in the summer.”
Indeed, the writer’s 18-year-old cousin, now injured and missing, was one of them. The email continues, saying that the young men are
“in desperate need to return home. We believe they are alive either as prisoners of war facing daily humiliation and torture, or they have been in hiding in desperate and immediate need of medical attention. There are hundreds of young men and women in hiding who are unable to obtain food, security, care for their wounds, and basic human needs. Azerbaijan officials have placed a price on their lives. Their new demands since the ceasefire agreement have been to either exchange Armenian soldiers for more land or for a ransom to be paid for each soldier. Red Cross negotiations and efforts have failed to set these men free. Will the British Parliament voice the immediate need to release these men from these dire, inhumane conditions?”
In the same email, the writer grieves at the continual violation of the ceasefire against
“servicemen, women and civilians who face annihilation where their lives, homes, churches, heritage and their culture are being destroyed in front of the entire world.”
The writer comments that not only is aggression not part of Armenia’s Christian way of life but Armenia does not have the practical means or resources to be an aggressor. They say that the military invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh should be yet another wake-up call to Christians around the world following the demise of Christian populations in other parts of the middle east.
The writer also expresses concerns that not only is Azerbaijan actively removing the Christian population; it is also going about the potential rewriting of the region’s history, citing the example of the 9th-to-10th century Armenian monastery at Dadivank, which is today being presented by Azeri officials as an ancient Albanian site. Finally, the writer also comments that in order to protect human lives the Armenian people ought to have the right to self-determination on lands that they have called home for nearly two millennia.
I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), on setting the scene so well. He and I share many concerns. It is also a pleasure to follow another good friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).
Behind everything, two superpowers, Russia and Turkey, are both playing for their own advantage and using the Armenians as the meat in the sandwich, so to speak. Something that sticks in my head is from the report of Baroness Cox—also vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief—who recently visited Nagorno-Karabakh. Her words are telling.
One family whose son was captured by Azeri forces said that his phone was stolen by his captors, who posted an image of his beheaded body on his own social media account for his family and friends to see—brutality, criminality and absolutely detestable action.
Similar concerns were expressed by the Armenian human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, who told Baroness Cox:
“We have video evidence of torture and mutilations...Azerbaijan have returned 29 military bodies and few civilians—DNA was needed to identify four bodies. But it refuses to provide the list of current prisoners…and continues to withhold information and access to prisoners from the Red Cross.”
Turkey, which is behind Azerbaijan, has totally ignored what is acceptable in the rest of the free world. I do not know if anyone in this place could read such information and remain untouched; that would be impossible. I certainly wish to see what more can be done—not simply to ensure that the ceasefire remains in place, but to see a return of soldiers home to their loved ones.
In the short time that I have, I also wish to express great concern about the attacks on civilians, on innocents and on churches—the dispersal of the Christian community, ethnic cleansing and despicable criminality. Those involved in murders and the extreme violence should be accountable for their war crimes. The exact numbers are unknown. Armenian officials in Yerevan told Human Rights Watch that Azerbaijan holds dozens of Armenian prisoners of war. Armenia is known to hold a number of Azerbaijani POWs and at least three foreign mercenaries.
I read carefully the response of the Minister for European Neighbourhood to the ANC. Clearly, there is more to do than to applaud a ceasefire—the ceasefire was despicable. Will the Government, in recognition of our obligations under the Geneva convention, uphold everybody’s values and demand that Azerbaijan ensures the safe return of all prisoners of war? Furthermore, will they commit to set up a commission or working group to support local efforts accurately to determine the number of captives and monitor their return?
I think I have spoken more quickly today than I have ever spoken. There is more to be said, but not enough time to do it. I appeal for POWs to be returned to both nations, but it is clear that the horrors faced by too many families have not ceased with the ceasefire. We must intervene where we can and use any and all diplomatic pressures at our disposal. I am sure that you, Mrs Cummins, would join the rest of us in beseeching the Minister for action, and for support for this war-ravaged nation—in particular for the Armenians, who have been despicably and unbelievably treated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I commend him on an excellent and balanced speech. It is a great pleasure to follow so many thoughtful and passionate contributions from all parts of the Chamber this evening.
The dreadful upsurge in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has seen 2,700 deaths that we know of and, as we have heard, there is concern that it could be worse, so we should be glad of the ceasefire. It is very much to be welcomed, but our concern is very much that it is good news for now. In particular as we see the refugees return to their homes, we could see tensions escalate again.
Armenia handing over the disputed regions of Kalbajar, Lachin and Aghdam has impacted upon upwards of 90,000 refugees. Many thousands of people are affected, and a huge effort remains to be done in clearing the munitions to make the area safe going forward. We therefore believe that there is a need for international observers of the process—not just from one country, not least when it is not impartial itself. We need the international community to remain engaged in peace-building within the region. I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister this evening that the UK will play its role within that coalition and take a greater role than, frankly, we have seen hitherto.
We can learn some conflict lessons from the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan, in global terms, does not have a huge defence budget: 2 billion US dollars is a considerable sum of cash but, globally, is not huge. Yet by buying in advanced weaponry from other places, in particular armed drones and GPS-guided ballistic missiles, it was able to turn the balance. That is indicative of the threats that we face here and will face in future.
I would be grateful if the Minister reassured us that those evolving threats will be very much a part of the ongoing integrated foreign and defence review. I hope that the UK Government, in that review, will take good note of the SNP submission that we need to work, globally, towards closing the loophole and grey legal area in which lethal autonomous weapons operate because the issue is of global significance.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has cooled for now—that is to be welcomed—but there could be plenty of others; this will be an ongoing global issue, particularly because those weapons are so easily deployable, worldwide, to various places. The UK could do much to close that legal grey area, and I would be glad of an assurance from the Minister that we will work towards that. She can rest assured of the SNP’s support in that project—I will soon lodge a 10-minute rule Bill to help that discussion—because we believe that it will calm tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh as well as elsewhere. There is much to be done, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. It was great to hear the very strong introductory speech from the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and that of the vice-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark). I look forward to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend’s remarks about the banned cluster bombs and the potential violations of international humanitarian law.
As we have all heard, the conflict has had all the hallmarks of a truly dreadful modern international conflict: the use of heavy weapons in civilian areas, the involvement of third-party competence and regional powers, the impotence of several international organisations to facilitate peace at the beginning, an unfolding and tragic toll on the civilian population, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, the destruction of places of worship. Despite all that, the humanitarian catastrophe in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the wide-ranging regional geopolitical consequences, have really not had the attention that they deserve from the global community.
British people with dual nationality have been caught up in a situation where people have been displaced or lost their homes—it is freezing cold at the moment—and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, illegal weapons are being used against people in the form of cluster bombs. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that there has been no full British ambassador in a couple of years, since the last one left, and that that just adds to the impression that the conflict is deprioritised for this Government?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She has been a real champion, together with our hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray), in making the case not just for the diaspora here in the UK, who are really suffering, but for what is happening on the ground.
I have only three questions for the Minister, because I know that we are keen to hear her reply. Will she tell us what is happening with respect to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, which, earlier this week, were unable to access all the detained combatants, and have struggled to begin the tragic process of returning the deceased to their families? What role are the UK Government playing in that effort? Will the Minister address that immediate and pressing concern? In addition, the impact of covid-19 brings an extra difficult dimension to the conflict, adding further pressure on the health authorities in both countries in coping with the injured and the displaced.
My second question is on the role of Turkey, which many hon. Members have mentioned, including the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who was eloquent in his questioning of Turkey’s UK armaments. Has the Minister—as I have as shadow Minister, together with the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who is shadow Minister for the Middle East—confronted the Turkish ambassador about the situation and the potential use of Syrian and Iraqi fighters? Turkey is an ally of the UK and is part of NATO; we should be able to have those frank conversations and hold our friends to account.
Finally, will the Minister tell us what she is doing with respect to Russia’s role and in bringing in the international community? This is not just about leaving it to Russia, which of course traditionally has the military pact. What effort is being made to breathe some life into the Minsk format and reinvigorate it so that the UK can play its role—for example, by tabling a proposal for a new resolution at the UN Security Council? Of course, all hon. Members want the conflict to stop and the peace process to be successful. We should all get behind the peace process, not just leave it to Russia’s protection of the Lachin corridor.
As all hon. Members are aware, Turkey does an enormous amount for refugees. It has been a welcoming force for Syrians in the last five years of terrible conflict. There are many things on which we can work together and be friends. In this regard, however, the use of that kind of weaponry and the bringing in of other mercenaries from the middle east was just a cocktail for aggression and conflict. That is why I felt that I as a shadow Minister had to go, along with the other shadow Minister my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, to make those representations. I am sure we will hear that the Minister has done that as well.
In the time available, I will endeavour to answer as many questions as I can. If I am unable to cover the odd point, I will come back to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I am grateful to him for securing this debate on an incredibly important topic. I pay tribute to him for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Armenia. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have illustrated, it is a very sensitive and complex issue. I assure my hon. Friend that I am conscious of the strength of feeling in the House.
The Government welcome the cessation of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Since the fighting broke out, we have been pressing both sides on the need to end the fighting, to secure a humanitarian ceasefire and to ensure a lasting peace settlement. I have made those points directly to the Foreign Ministers of both countries. The impact of recent fighting on innocent civilians has been absolutely devastating and it had to stop. We acknowledge that both sides had to make difficult decisions to reach the peace settlement.
The Government will continue to support both Governments and the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group—France, Russia and the United States—to ensure a sustainable and fully negotiated settlement to the conflict. Only that will ensure stability, security and peace for the people of that region. It is important that all further agreements and decisions are made under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk group and with the involvement of the co-chairs: France, Russia and the United States.
Despite not being a member of the OSCE Minsk group, the UK was diplomatically active throughout the conflict. I spoke three times to the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov and the Armenian Foreign Minister Mnatsakanyan during the conflict. I also spoke to the new Armenian Foreign Minister Ayvazyan at the end of November. I delivered strong messages of de-escalation and urged a return to the negotiating table under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk group.
The conflict came at an extraordinarily difficult time for both countries as they tackled the covid-19 pandemic. As hon. Members have pointed out, the approach of winter has further exacerbated the humanitarian situation. The internally displaced persons from both sides have required significant support, which will need to continue as the weather deteriorates. In late October, the Foreign Secretary announced £1 million in funding to the International Committee of the Red Cross to support its efforts. The Government continue to consider what further support we might provide, including in the key areas of de-mining, reconstruction and reconciliation. We are aware of the challenges in getting access and we are pushing that point. I am happy to come back on that but we are aware of it. The UK Government welcomed the news of the ceasefire. The security and safety of civilians is paramount.
I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me and the shadow Minister recently. Does she have anything to say about consular assistance to our citizens? France, the US and Russia are involved in the Minsk process, but there is an impression that this country is dragging its feet. Could the Minister step up our efforts?
I assure the hon. Lady that we absolutely support the efforts and the work of the OSCE Minsk group. If there are specific consular cases, I will probably need to come back to the hon. Lady, if I may.
Turning back to the ceasefire and the importance of the safety and security of civilians, during my recent visit to Moscow I met Deputy Foreign Minister Titov and noted the role of Russia in the negotiations. I welcomed its efforts to deliver the ceasefire. There are many details that still need to be clarified. It is essential that any further developments and agreements are made by Armenia and Azerbaijan and are in their best interests. However, this initial agreement paves the way for future discussions through the OSCE Minsk group. We note that the agreement does not mention the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and consider that to be a matter for the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs to facilitate discussions, in the light of the Madrid basic principles.
During the hostilities, I also held discussions with the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Önal. I urged Turkey, as a member of the OSCE Minsk group, to support fully efforts to secure a ceasefire and return to negotiations. Since the cessation of hostilities, I have spoken again to Deputy Foreign Minister Önal, welcoming the news of the ceasefire and urging full engagement with the OSCE Minsk group, as the primary format through which a peaceful and lasting settlement should be negotiated.
I will try to make progress because I am conscious that I do not have a huge amount of time and there are a lot of questions that I want to try to answer. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister also spoke to their Turkish counterparts during the hostilities and delivered similar messages.
Colleagues have asked about the role of foreign fighters during the conflict. I assure them that the Government remain deeply concerned by reports that foreign fighters were deployed. However, we have seen no conclusive evidence on that matter. We are aware that Turkey gave strong diplomatic support to Azerbaijan. Turkey and Azerbaijan have long-standing strong relations and describe themselves as one nation with two states. President Aliyev himself has referred to the use of Turkish-made drones by the Azerbaijani army, yet we have seen no evidence of direct Turkish involvement in the conflict. We will continue to raise any concerns we have on the matter directly with the Government of Turkey.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I will endeavour to resume where I left off. We were discussing the engagement with and involvement of Turkey. I was just going on to say that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister also spoke to their Turkish counterparts during the hostilities and delivered similar messages to mine.
Members have also raised the issue of alleged desecration of cultural heritage. I am conscious that they have raised that issue with me previously, and I also know that many Members of the other place attach significant importance to it. The Government have been clear to all parties that the desecration and destruction of cultural heritage sites is appalling and wholly unacceptable. When I spoke to Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Ayvazyan in November, I expressed deep concern over these reports. Our embassies in Baku and Yerevan have continued to engage on this matter, and we fully support the efforts of UNESCO.
I know that many right hon. and hon. Members will have seen the videos that purport to show war crimes committed by both Armenian and Azerbaijani troops. I want to be clear that this Government’s position on war crimes has not changed: where we have irrefutable evidence that war crimes have been committed, we will call them out and take appropriate action. In this case, the evidence is not irrefutable and we know that some of these videos are several years old or doctored. Nevertheless, I have raised concerns with both Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov, who committed to a full investigation, and the former Armenian Foreign Minister Mnatsakanyan.
I will try to finish these points, given that I am almost running out of time. Members have raised points that I want to cover, including about the UN Security Council and the direct question whether the UK had vetoed a UNSC product, to which the answer is no. Although the UN Security Council was united in seeking an end to the conflict, it was unfortunately unable to agree the text of a statement.
The issue of prisoners of war has also been raised. I spoke to the Armenian and Azeri Foreign Ministers following the ceasefire agreement, and highlighted the importance of returning prisoners of war. I also highlighted the International Committee of the Red Cross as the primary mediator through which prisoner exchanges should take place, but we continue to monitor that situation very closely.
The issue of cluster munitions was raised. We are deeply concerned by reports that both sides used cluster munitions during the conflict. The reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which seek to verify the deployment of these munitions by both Governments, are incredibly concerning.
I will draw this debate to a conclusion. While the Government welcome the recent peace deal, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that we remain deeply concerned by the humanitarian situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan. We remain committed to utilising the diplomatic and humanitarian tools at our disposal to see lasting peace and recovery in the region. Since the cessation of hostilities, I have continued to engage with our partners. The UK and the international community have repeatedly welcomed the cessation of hostilities and stressed the importance that all further discussions are held under the auspices of the chairs of the OSCE Minsk group. The UK will continue to raise with the relevant parties any concerns we have over the protection of cultural heritage, the role of external factors and the humanitarian situation.