Gegham Stepanyan

Artsakh Ombudsman Brings Attention to Increasing Azerbaijani Threats, Calls on Diasporans to Help Break International Isolation

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WATERTOWN — The mandate of Gegham Stepanyan, Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Artsakh, and his staff, should primarily be to defend human rights in Artsakh against the unlawful actions of Artsakh’s state institutions and individual office holders. However, living through a period of conflict, Stepanyan explained during an August 8 interview that around half of their time is used to deal with Azerbaijan’s violations of the rights of Artsakh’s inhabitants. Stepanyan prepares reports, participates in conferences and works to assure awareness of these violations. His staff, like Stepanyan’s time, is divided basically into two parts, each focusing on one of these two major areas. 

The 31-year-old Stepanyan, a native of Stepanakert who went to Armenia for his higher education, has a lot of relevant experience for his current job. He worked as assistant to the president of the Artsakh parliament from 2016 to 2020, and from September 2020 through March 2021 served as the chief of staff of the Ombudsman’s office in Artsakh before being elected as ombudsman himself by the National Assembly of Artsakh on March 25, 2021. He witnessed the 2020 Artsakh war and its aftermath firsthand.  

Stepanyan stated that the primary way he and his staff deal with Azerbaijani violations is by recording objective facts. He noted that as the ombudsman, he is not a member of the government of Artsakh carrying out its policies. He is an independent official obliged to present the truth. “Therefore,” he explained, “we first of all record facts, prepare reports, and work on the preparation of announcements, and send all of our reports and announcements immediately to various bodies and representatives of different organizations. Our main work is providing information and warnings…I think we have been able to do this, at least during the current period. Of course, the responses we have received are not that satisfactory and I think we must work a lot more to attain results. However, we are accumulating experience and we are continually advancing that experience.”  

The office of the Human Rights Defender in Stepanakert

Cooperation with Stepanyan’s counterpart, the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia, is crucial. Since Artsakh is not internationally recognized as a state, it cannot become a member of various world organizations for the defense of human rights. Sometimes there are problems for the ombudsman to even work with international organizations. Therefore, Stepanyan said that the channels of the ombudsman of Armenia are very important in speaking with the outside world. 

“Often, on various issues when it is necessary that Armenia’s ombudsman communicates directly with ambassadors or international human rights organizations, I enter into contact with him and ask him to immediately report what is happening in Artsakh and obtain their help, or at least deliver information in general on the objective reality of the situation,” he said. “In other words, it is by means of Armenia’s Defender of Human Rights that the voice of the people of Artsakh becomes audible.” 

This close relationship has existed during the consecutive periods in office of all the ombudsmen of Artsakh (Stepanyan is the fourth). It was particularly important, Stepanyan related, during the April 2016 war and in the fall of 2020. Roughly 20 reports have been prepared by his office concerning the crimes committed by Azerbaijan during the recent war and the violations of various human rights. 

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Ceasefire Agreement and Violations

Representatives of the Republic of Artsakh did not sign the trilateral November 9, 2020 ceasefire agreement. It was only signed by representatives of the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Stepanyan observed that while Artsakh (then called the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh), signed the 1994 ceasefire ending the first Karabakh war, after around 1997 or 1998, it only was indirectly represented by the representatives of the Republic of Armenia, who presented Artsakh’s points of view during negotiations and then informed the Artsakh people. 

Though Artsakh’s government did not sign the November 9 agreement, Stepanyan said that it is forced to accept it. “As much as it has very bad consequences for us, it does assure that at least the majority of the 90,000 Armenians who left Artsakh during the course of the [recent] war can return and at present they do live in Artsakh. Unfortunately, our voice is not being heard. In many matters we are directly ignored and we are carrying out what is decided in the course of the trilateral negotiations. It would be much more desirable if in that matter changes are made and Artsakh also has a direct participation in the deciding of its fate.”   

Whatever the interpretation of the value of the ceasefire, anybody following the news from the region is aware that it is being regularly violated. When asked why, Stepanyan stated, “Azerbaijan is carrying out a policy which has as its goal the depopulation of Artsakh of its Armenians — in other words, the realization of ethnic cleansing….As a result of the [2020] war, Azerbaijan occupied a large part of the territory of Artsakh. A small part of Artsakh was left, and Azerbaijan could not be reconciled to the fact that the Artsakh Republic and its Armenian population is preserved. It desires to take over all of Artsakh completely. Azerbaijan is aggressively disposed towards this situation.” 

Stepanyan remarked that in all territories under Azerbaijani occupation, such as Shushi, and the areas of Hadrut and Askeran, Azerbaijan attempts to impose psychological and physical oppression to force Armenians to leave. If fully successful, “afterwards, the demand by Armenians for the right of self-determination will also disappear,” he concluded.  

Artsakh Army for Defense, Russian Peacekeepers and Monitoring

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of the Republic of Armenia recently declared that Armenian troops today are not serving on the territory of the Republic of Artsakh. Stepanyan said that this situation reduces the role of Armenia as guarantor of Artsakh’s existence, and the armed forces of Artsakh now are formed exclusively of the people of Artsakh. 

 “We must note that the Defense Army of Artsakh still exists and must remain, developing its capacities as much as possible, because we see that the Azerbaijani threat does not decrease. Although Russian peacekeeping forces are found in Artsakh, Azerbaijan periodically still carries out acts of military aggression, the most recent of which was on August 1, when 19 soldiers of Artsakh were wounded and 2 killed. The people of Artsakh must continue to take advantage of the right of self-defense provided for in international law, and this right is realized today by means of the Defense Army of Artsakh,” he said.

However, the Defense Army alone, Stepanyan admitted, cannot assure the safety of the Artsakh populace, and if it could, there would be no need for Russian peacekeepers as per the November 9 agreement, or peacekeepers in general. 

“No matter whether the peacekeepers perhaps do not use force or have certain failings, the placement of Russian peacekeepers restrains Azerbaijan from carrying out largescale attacks. The departure of Russian peacekeepers from Artsakh would be equivalent to the depopulation of Artsakh of Armenians. I would like to note that this important truth must be perceptible for Europe and America too — that today the Russian peacekeeping troops deployed in Artsakh are preventing another genocide of the Armenian people. America or Europe may have issues with Russia in other parts of the world, but here it must be understood that the Russian presence has a positive influence, purely from the point of view of saving human lives and defending human rights,” he explained.

There have been some questions about the effects of the Russian war operations in Ukraine on the operations of the Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh. Stepanyan said he thought Azerbaijan was indeed attempting more provocatory operations because it thought Russian attention would be focused on Ukraine. However, he did not agree that in practice this war led the peacekeeping force in Artsakh to be less effective. He pointed out also that Azerbaijani ceasefire violations took place before the Ukrainian war too, even if not in such large numbers. According to the Russians, he said, the numbers of their troops in Artsakh have not changed and they maintain the same quality of experience and leadership. 

Without delving further into broader issues of international politics, Stepanyan said he thought that the Russian peacekeeping forces are not intervening more forcefully because their mandate has not been clarified. He said, “Very often, when we raise the objective question of why appropriate actions are not carried out, we are given the answer that they do not have the order to fire or use force. This is what must be fixed and clarified. Appropriate mechanisms must be established through a written manner about what kinds of actions the peacekeepers can carry out under which circumstances, including, in case of necessity, the punishment of those who violate the ceasefire regime.” 

Stepanyan pointed out that it has been said that Azerbaijan declined to sign the mandate for the Russian peacekeepers, and commented: “I believe that if Azerbaijan declines to do this, then international mechanisms without asking Azerbaijan’s will or opinion, must directly establish this mandate. This issue must become a topic of examination, and after the establishment of the mandate, certainly the violations of the ceasefire regime will either disappear or at least not be of such magnitude any longer.”  

In addition to a role for the Russian peacekeepers and the Artsakh Defense Army, Stepanyan declared that there is a need for additional security mechanisms. Among them, he suggested, would be the establishment of the offices or representatives of various international organizations in Artsakh. He elaborated: “Let us suppose that if the United Nations has an office in Stepanakert, then it can obtain additional information. Azerbaijan cannot engage in provocations when it knows that the UN is conducting monitoring locally, or if the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is conducting monitoring locally. However, there is no representation of any such organization here. Nobody refuses their entry into Artsakh except for Azerbaijan.”

Status of Artsakh

When asked whether Armenia under pressure might agree to the integration of Artsakh into Azerbaijan without any special status except general human rights guarantees, Stepanyan declared, “Armenia has its foreign policy and may resort to different strategies and tactics but this does not change the reality. The Artsakh question first of all is connected with the right of self-determination of the Artsakh people. If we understand it as a matter of human rights, we must also understand that the right to self-determination is included as part of human rights…The Artsakh issue should not be presented merely as Armenia’s demands of land from Azerbaijan, but as the defense of the rights of the Armenian people living on these territories, including the defense of their right to self-determination.” 

Stepanyan added that Artsakh has never been part of the body of an independent, sovereign Azerbaijan and its inhabitants already exercised their right to self-determination just as the population of Azerbaijan did to emerge from the Soviet Union. 

In summary, Stepanyan said, “The negotiations conducted by the Republic of Armenia cannot ignore the right of self-determination of the people of Artsakh…If it is decided in the end through negotiations that Artsakh must be part of Azerbaijan, this will never be accepted by the Artsakh population. I can say with full confidence that the people living in Artsakh will never live under Azerbaijan’s control.” 

If such a decision were to be taken, he said “We would fight against that decision to the degree that our possibilities permit. We will continue the struggle in Artsakh to not be in any fashion part of Azerbaijan, and except the assistance of our compatriots in the diaspora and the Republic of Armenia so that the Artsakh issue will not have such a denouement. I can say that in such a worst-case scenario, if we do come to it, Artsakh within the body of Azerbaijan is equivalent to the emptying of Artsakh of Armenians and the loss of Artsakh…the sending of 120,000 people directly to genocide. As the Defender of Human Rights, I hope that commonsense will triumph and such a decision will not be taken.”

Lachin Corridor and Its Remaining Armenians

According to Stepanyan, the two major places where Armenians are still living in the Lachin corridor, a territory connecting the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh which is at present patrolled by Russian peacekeepers, are the town of Berdzor and the village of Aghavno. Prior to onset of war in September 2020, he estimated that around 2,000 or more lived in Berdzor, of whom 170 people remained after the war, while nearly the entire population of Aghavno returned, with around 200 Armenians living there now. 

The November 9 trilateral agreement stipulates that in three years’ time a new connecting route be established in the Lachin corridor. Azerbaijan has already constructed such a route on the section of territory it controls which bypasses Berdzor and Aghavno and demands that the switch to the new route take place soon. As a result, the Artsakh authorities have asked the Armenian population of these two places to evacuate their homes by this August 25.

In addition to the Armenian section of this new route not being ready, infrastructure lines that ran through the original route will all have to be changed. This includes gas, electricity, telephone and internet lines running from Armenia to Artsakh. The electricity and communication lines are comparatively easy to construct, and Artsakh’s government has already promised to work on them as quickly as possible, but the gas pipelines will take longer and require greater resources, Stepanyan said. Consequently, he said, “For this matter, the intervention of the Russian peacekeepers is necessary so that Azerbaijan will not interrupt the gas supply to Artsakh until the building of the new lines…It is a fact that due to the change of the route, at least in the near future, infrastructure will be more vulnerable. International aid, especially from the United States and France, may be necessary.”  

He noted that in March of this year, when Azerbaijan obstructed the gas supply, the European Union, France, America and others condemned this act, and put direct pressure on Azerbaijan to restore the supply, while the Russian peacekeepers intervened to facilitate negotiations which led to the restoration of the gas service. 

Stepanyan reported that according to the authorities of the Republic of Armenia, there has not been any agreement on a deadline for the switch to the new route. He said, “There are two fundamental issues at play here: Azerbaijan itself is aware that the Armenian section is not ready but it ignores this and ignores that people have the right of free travel, and imposes its will. In order to achieve its demands it is resorting to escalating its aggressive activity, to make us accept these demands.” 

As to why the inhabitants are being evacuated, he said, after citing the precedents during the 2020 war, it is “because there is a direct threat to their lives. If Aghavno or Berdzor comes under Azerbaijan’s control, the people living there will either be killed or placed into captivity. Karabakh’s government is carrying out the evacuation of their populations so that this will not happen.”  

Stepanyan said that in his opinion, Azerbaijan intended to take Berdzor under its control because it is following a policy of restoring cities and towns. He said, “I have some hope that it will be possible to postpone at least until the spring of 2023 the deadlines. I have certain information that negotiations are taking place.”

Meanwhile, the Armenian media has reported that there has been a threat by Artsakh government representatives that if the evacuating villagers burn their homes before leaving, they will not receive compensation or new housing. Stepanyan said that he has requested clarification on this matter from the government of Artsakh. He has been assured that such a declaration has not been made. He stated, “Irrespective of whether such a statement has been made, as the Defender of Human Rights, I wish to declare that the allocation of housing to displaced people cannot be connected in any way with the burning of their houses. Displaced people must receive residences in accordance with their status of being displaced. If they need residences, they must receive them in an obligatory manner. The declaration of a minister or this or that action cannot have any effect on the realization of the rights of such individuals, and I can guarantee that independent of whether there has or hasn’t been such a declaration, I will defend the rights of all those displaced people concerning the obtaining of residences.”

What Can Be Done?

Stepanyan reiterated that Azerbaijan’s goal is to get Artsakh’s territory without its Armenian population. He said, “These are not isolated words. What does [Azerbaijani President] Ilham Aliyev proclaim? After the war, he proclaimed once that there are only some 30,000 Armenians living there [in Artsakh]. Then he said only 20,000 Armenians live there. He periodically tries to show that only a few thousand Armenians live there and their numbers are continually decreasing. But we see that this is not the truth, and also the Russians see that this is not the truth. Aliyev cannot continue presenting this lie to the international public…but he continues to try in every way — by sending various letters of threat to the inhabitants of Artsakh, calling on people living in various villages to leave their homes or, if they do not, force would be used. This is their goal, to do everything to get the native people of Artsakh, the Armenians, to get tired and leave their country.”  

Stepanyan said he always notes in interviews that the more Armenians live in Artsakh the greater the chance it has of remaining Armenian. He said, “Today, when our population asks what we can do to get out of this situation, my immediate answer is, it depends on you. It [the solution] is to live here, to endure all the deprivations and difficulties that we have in the situation that has been created and live here. Because in the end, I have the hope that our will shall not be ignored.” 

As far as the Armenians in the diaspora are concerned, Stepanyan said that Artsakh more than ever needs their help. He said, “Many when they think of the diaspora think of financial help, but that is not what I am speaking about. The diaspora today is necessary for Artsakh first of all as a tool to break the international isolation in which we are living. Each and every Armenian living in the diaspora must understand that he/she has the obligation to speak about Artsakh every day and keep our issue alive. Our possibilities are extremely limited, but in this connection, having a diaspora is a great advantage for us. No matter how much the diaspora may be disappointed with the results of the war, no matter how much during the discussions on various issues it is disappointed with governments or this or that official, it should not leave the people of Artsakh alone. It should understand that what it does is not for the governments of Armenia or Artsakh but for the people living in Artsakh, its compatriots.”

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