With heavy weapons and artillery barrages, Armenia recently attacked Azerbaijan, breaking a fragile truce that concluded the bloody, six-year war between the two countries in 1994.
Armenia’s assault across the “Line of Contact,” which separates the Azerbaijani and the Armenian forces in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan – triggered fighting that killed civilians and soldiers on both sides. After repulsing the attack, Azerbaijan declared a unilateral cease-fire, a move supported by the United States and other Western allies. Armenia accepted the truce two days later, after Russia intervened.
Now the international community must call on Armenia to abide by the ceasefire, withdraw its occupation forces from Azerbaijani territory and negotiate in good faith for a settlement to one of the world’s most protracted conflicts.
The stakes are high for a world beset by ethnic conflict, terrorist attacks and the threat that regional confrontations will escalate. If Azerbaijan and Armenia can resolve their differences peacefully, it will encourage other long-term adversaries to settle longstanding disputes. But, if force prevails over fairness, extremists and expansionists everywhere will be emboldened.
The timing of Armenia’s attack was noteworthy – coming just as Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was wrapping up a successful visit to the United States for the Nuclear Security Summit. Shortly after more than 50 world leaders came together to promote peace, Armenia incited the hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh — undermining hope of a sustained resolution.
Unfortunately, Armenia’s conduct during the current crisis is typical of its behavior over the past three decades. During the final years of the former Soviet Union, Armenia supported separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in western Azerbaijan. While some pattern of separatist violence has been replicated elsewhere in the region, Armenia’s actions then resulted in the largest and most dangerous separatist conflict in the former Soviet Union.
As a result of Armenia’s actions, the two countries have engaged in a prolonged war that has left 30,000 people dead on both sides. Among other atrocities, Armenia destroyed the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly in 1992, massacring more than 600 men, women and children.
When a truce concluded the fighting in 1994, Armenia occupied nearly 20 percent of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other districts. Some 700,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were displaced from the occupied areas and some 250,000 more were forced to leave Armenia.
More than two decades later, the occupation continues. Armenia has ignored four resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council demanding an end to its seizure of one-fifth of Azerbaijan. Ongoing negotiations, supervised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have failed to produce a permanent settlement. In the absence of a lasting peace, border skirmishes have erupted over the years.
Now that the ceasefire has halted the heaviest fighting in two decades, the international community must make the most of this opportunity to transform an unacceptable and unsustainable status quo. It is time to insist that Armenia not only accept the ceasefire but also withdraw its illegal occupation forces from Azerbaijani territory.
Azerbaijanis are frustrated with the slow pace of the negotiations, and are eager to do their part for peace. Just as our government declared a unilateral cease-fire during the recent hostilities, President Aliyev has unequivocally reiterated that Azerbaijan is committed to a peaceful negotiation process.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are strategically situated in the South Caucasus at the crucial crossroads of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It also stands at an historic juncture between two very different futures. We should seek coexistence so that all in our region can live alongside one another in peace and prosperity. And, at long last, let us reject ethnic cleansing, illegal occupation and displacement of civilians by force.
The international community should help us set an example for other nations embroiled in seemingly insoluble conflicts. Humanity’s hope for peace, stability and the rule of law call for nothing less.
Elin Suleymanov is the Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the United States.