Mount an airlift to feed Nagorno-Karabakh

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Lara Setrakian is a journalist and the president of the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia. Benyamin Poghosyan is the co-rapprteur of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Joint Expert Group and a senior research fellow at the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia.

It’s been eight months since Azerbaijan launched its blockade of the Lachin corridor, isolating some 120,000 ethnic Armenians from the outside world — a move that has had devastating consequences for everyday life and regional stability, while eroding the trust needed to build long-term peace in the South Caucasus.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been barred from reaching the area since mid-June, access to food and medicine is deteriorating. Fruit, vegetables, dairy products and cereal are now beyond the reach of many residents, and a lack of transport fuel is restricting movement from village to village. All this is adding to the now chronic stress of 30,000 children and their families, with one local maternity clinic reporting a threefold jump in the rate of miscarriages.

As a recent statement by the European Union warned, the situation is having “dire consequences” for the local population. 

Still, led by the EU and the United States, peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan had been making headway during the first few months of the blockade. However, the new, broader choke hold on the Lachin corridor will almost certainly derail any agreement. Armenia’s leaders won’t be able to sign a deal in good faith while the Baku government effectively starves ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The conflict needs a negotiated solution — not a forced capitulation at the cost of civilian lives. If Europe wants to save the peace deal, it needs to end the blockade. If the international community can’t find a way to keep all parties civil, however, it then needs to launch an airlift and find as many alternative supply routes as possible. Otherwise, it’s simply validating the use of a blockade as a negotiating tactic, which will either crash talks entirely, or lead to a fragile deal made under duress.

“The starvation of the Armenian population will leave a new legacy of unforgiving distrust,” wrote Laurence Broers, a nonresident fellow at Chatham House. “Any negotiated outcomes risk being discredited as the results of coerced agreement.”

Meanwhile, officials in Baku have floated the idea of an alternate route for supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh, passing through the Azeri region of Aghdam instead. But as European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell pointed out, this doesn’t absolve Baku of its legal obligation to open the Lachin corridor — which has been the main route in and out of the region.

Moreover, after forcing eight months of hunger and deprivation, this offer seems disingenuous — less an act of compassion and more a cynical bid to increase the region’s dependence on Baku. It also coincides with Azerbaijan launching a series of military moves aimed at asserting greater control over the population, as documented by the International Crisis Group.

The EU needs to send a clear message to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev that the forced humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh will significantly damage his image as a reliable and responsible EU partner. Additionally, as facilitators of the peace deal, European leaders have a hand to play in keeping all parties on track for a good-faith agreement, and should be mobilizing the international community to convince Azerbaijan to lift the blockade. 

This is also where the energy trade between EU countries and Azerbaijan comes in. It should be used as a tool for human rights diplomacy — not a reason to duck responsibilities. Baku’s trade partners should be invited to integrate human rights into their bilateral dialogues, so as to not implicitly fund the starvation and potential ethnic cleansing of the 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This applies to both Europe and its partners too. For example, while the U.S. has undertaken vigorous diplomacy alongside its calls for an end to the blockade, the United Kingdom has so far been relatively silent. And as the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan, the diplomatic weight of London, as well as energy giant BP, could play an important role.

Aligning human rights with trade policy in this manner is both good and moral long-term politics. It would also encourage Baku to fall in line with the EU’s foreign policy goal of achieving sustainable peace and stability in the South Caucasus, while helping calm interethnic tension.

The EU needs to send a clear message to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev that the forced humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh will significantly damage his image as a reliable and responsible partner | Omer Messinger/Getty Images

The cycles of violence and retribution that have kept Armenia and Azerbaijan at war for so long are now playing out in plain sight once more. This can only be stopped by insisting that the norms and values Europe taught itself to observe after its own long and painful history of conflict must be upheld. It should encourage Armenia and Azerbaijan to join the nations that have learned to abide by principles of mutual respect, decency and humanitarianism in their interstate affairs. 

We believe Europe is genuinely interested in securing lasting peace and stability in the region — one that is based on the mutual recognition of territorial integrity by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is a noble foreign policy goal, which will have significant geopolitical and economic benefits for the Continent. However, for this to happen, it must emerge from a peace process that’s guided by a principled and long-term view — not the result of coercion by the stronger party.

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