Artsakh refugees arriving in Kornidzor, Armenia (photo Raffi Eilliott)

National Assembly Ratifies Rome Statute as Artsakh Refugees Flood into Armenia

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YEREVAN — With 60 votes in favor, 22 against, and no abstentions, Armenia’s National Assembly adopted a draft resolution ratifying the Rome Statute, which now only requires the president’s signature to become law. Ratification would see Armenia joining the International Criminal Court.

The vote fell along party lines — with the opposition factions I Have Honor and Armenia Alliance, affiliated with former presidents Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan, respectively, opposing the motion.

The decision comes against a backdrop of turmoil in the South Caucasus, with Armenia’s authoritarian neighbor Azerbaijan conquering the ethnic-Armenian populated self-proclaimed republic of Artsakh during an entirely unprovoked attack between September 19 and 20, which resulted in hundreds of deaths, thousands more wounded, and the expulsion of the entire region’s 120,000 indigenous Armenian inhabitants.

Despite global condemnation of this attack and pledges of tens of millions of dollars in assistance to refugees, no country has yet imposed sanctions on Azerbaijan for breaking the terms of the November 9, 2020 ceasefire (as well as virtually every previous ceasefire agreement), all of which stress the importance of renouncing a violent solution to the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia, in particular, despite being the only foreign power with a military presence in the region (along with 2000 peacekeepers with a mandate to protect the people of Nagorno-Karabakh), notably failed to condemn Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing and went so far as to shift the blame to Armenia. Russia, which formally signed two mutual defense agreements with Armenia in the 1990s, has in turn been criticized by Yerevan for failing to fulfill its pledge to defend the South Caucasus nations’ territorial integrity.

In Kornidzor, the first Armenian village along the Lachin Corridor connecting Artsakh to Armenia proper, a Red Cross triage tent was set up to process the expected flow of refugees fleeing the Azerbaijani advance into their homes and villages. Among the first arrivals, Arsen Hambardzumyan from Nor Shen village, told the Mirror-Spectator that the entire village had been evacuated when the Azerbaijanis began shelling. “Only the mayor stayed behind,” Hambardzumyan said, “we don’t know what happened to him.”

Another refugee, Nairi Chapanyan, from the Stepanakert suburb of Krkjan—situated just below the Shushi cliff — described Azeri artillery spotters intentionally redirecting fire towards the village’s school after parents had rushed to save their children from the barrage. Footage shot by local journalists also shows evidence that Azeri munitions hit schools, municipal buildings, and civilian infrastructure all across Artsakh. Almost 200 Armenian military personnel and civilians were killed during the 2-day attack, with many others still missing. Official Azerbaijani losses amount to 192.

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According to Armenian authorities and the Red Cross, almost 101,000 indigenous Armenians fled Artsakh into Armenia between the 24th and 29th of September in one of the most dramatic acts of ethnic cleansing in the 21st century, ending an almost 3-thousand-year continuous Armenian presence in that land. A UN mission that visited Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani escort published a report estimating the remaining Armenian population at “between 50 and 1000,” most of whom include various government officials or medical personnel who are expected to leave within hours or days as well.

Azerbaijani authorities, including presidential advisor Hikmet Hadjiev, have repeatedly told the international press that their government is ready to “reintegrate” the local Armenian population while guaranteeing linguistic and religious rights. They have also claimed that up to seven Artsakh Armenians have taken them up on their offer and accepted Azerbaijani citizenship, though there is no way to verify the validity of these applications. Azerbaijan has yet to unveil any ‘reintegration plan,’ while Azerbaijani soldiers continue to upload themselves ransacking and even bulldozing Armenian homes across Artsakh, putting into question Baku’s sincerity on the matter.

In Yerevan, opposition groups linked to the former ruling parties, along with the Armenian Church,  blamed Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s diplomacy for the disaster while also accusing him of sitting out the attack. They declared the start of non-stop protests and acts of civil disobedience with the stated aim of toppling the Prime Minister’s government and setting up a national unity government to “save the country from the abyss.” Official endorsement of these protesters by RT boss Margarita Simonyan and other Kremlin-linked personalities has fueled speculation that Moscow was seeking to facilitate regime change in Armenia. Other groups of protesters targeted their anger towards the Russian Embassy over several nights of demonstrations.

However, both protesting groups called off their actions soon after due to a lack of momentum and some public criticism over their potential to disrupt the work of emergency services personnel at the height of an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Ratifying the Rome Statute has remained a contentious issue in Armenia. Despite signing the statute in 1998, a series of constitutional conflicts repeatedly delayed ratification. Ratification was further complicated earlier this year when ICC judges issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin over the abduction of Ukrainian children. As a member, Armenia would theoretically be obligated to arrest and extradite Putin to The Hague if he were to ever set foot on Armenian soil. Armenian officials insist that they could be able to provide immunity to Putin, but that did little to tame Russian pressure on Armenia not to sign.

Veteran human rights lawyer Sheila Paylan, who has represented Armenia at The Hague, insists that joining the ICC would allow Armenia to hold Azerbaijani war criminals accountable. “Ratifying the Rome Statute puts you in a group of like-minded states taken more seriously in our commitment to peace, stability, and accountability,” Paylan said.

Regardless, on Telegram, Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Yuri Vorobyo condemned the Armenian Parliament for what he calls “an unfriendly act towards Russia.” Citing Russia’s failure to act in the defense of Nagorno-Karabakh, however, Paylan commented, “what do we have to lose?”

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