Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh shows danger of explosive weapons use

A Fall recap post by MAC Research Associate, Madison Hitchcock who is a graduate student in globalization and international development at the University of Ottawa.

On September 27th of this year, conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. While it is a self-governing, democratic region that holds independent, free and fair elections, it is a heavily disputed territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan while being home to mostly ethnic Armenians.

There has been confirmed use of explosive weapons and sustained heavy shelling in cities such as Stepanakert and Ganja, as well as multiple other areas. After multiple brief cease fire agreements, a peace seems to be holding. On November 9th, 2020, the two parties reached an armistice after six weeks of bloody conflict; with Armenia conceding territory to Azerbaijan.

The humanitarian cost of this conflict is heavy. Currently, hundreds of civilians have been confirmed dead and thousands have been displaced from the conflict. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas cause high civilian casualties from their wide area blast effects in densely populated zones, as well as damaging critical infrastructure including hospitals, homes, schools, roadways, electrical grids and sanitation centres. These reverberating effects will cause further death and injury, as well as continued displacement of survivors in the future.

These weapons have been utilized by those on both sides of the conflict. Azerbaijan has refused to allow additional humanitarian aid other than the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter the region which is extending the suffering of many survivors who are unable to access support. This crisis is all happening in the context of COVID-19 which puts civilians at further risk.

Additionally, there have been credible reports of the use of cluster munitions which have been banned by international convention – to which neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are signatories. These weapons are especially harmful to civilians as they have wide blast areas and it is estimated that between 5-20% of the munitions fail to explode leaving incredibly dangerous situations for civilians long after their initial use[1].    

Under international humanitarian law, Armenia and Azerbaijan have an obligation to minimize harm to civilians. Mines Action Canada strongly condemns the neglect of this duty and calls on all parties to uphold this obligation and refrain from using explosive weapons in populated areas and banned cluster munitions; as well as allowing further humanitarian aid organizations into the region. We also call on Armenia and Azerbaijan to immediately join the Convention on Cluster Munitions and support the draft Political Declaration on Strengthening Protections from Humanitarian Harm arising from the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. 

[1] Amnesty International