On Sunday, March 21, the Armenian National Committee of America Eastern Region (ANCA-ER), in partnership with the Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights and the Armenian Youth Federation Eastern Region hosted Artsakh Update: POWs, MIAs and Gross Human Rights Violations – a panel discussion addressing the POWs, MIAs and gross human rights violations that the people of Artsakh are facing at the hands of Azerbaijan.
Henry Theriault, PhD, president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and professor at Worcester State University, served as moderator. The panel of experts included Artak Beglaryan, chief of staff to the Artsakh president; Levon Gevorgyan, PhD, an attorney and Senior Manager of International Consulting; and Siranush Sahakyan, an attorney and president of the International and Comparative Law Center (IC Law Center) in Yerevan.
Beglaryan, who currently serves as the chief of staff to the Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan, was the former Human Rights Ombudsman of Artsakh from 2018 to 2020. He played a vital role during the most recent Azeri and Turkish attacks on Artsakh, collecting a dossier of human rights violations and abuses against the Armenians of Artsakh.
Dr. Gevorgyan is an international law expert, advocate and law professor at the American University of Armenia.
Sahakyan, who also serves as an adjunct lecturer at the American University of Armenia and the coordinator of the MA program in Human Rights and Social Justice, is the director of the IC Law Center in Armenia. She is also the co-founder of Path of Law NGO. Sahakyan’s IC Law Center is currently working in partnership with the Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights on gathering evidence and witness testimony and preparing legal dossiers in order to file cases with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), as well as other international bodies responsible for such cases, on behalf of the families of Prisoners of War (POWs) and those identified as Missing in Action (MIA).
In his opening remarks, Dr. Theriault stressed the urgency and importance of the panel who would not only provide updates on the current situation in Artsakh, but also an analysis of Azerbaijan and Turkey’s human rights abuses against the Armenians of Artsakh.
Dr. Theriault invited Beglayran to begin the evening’s discussion with an overview of the attack on Artsakh and his fact-finding mission to document the unprecedented levels of human rights violations during and after the war. His overview included the fact that Turkey and Azerbaijan imported terrorist mercenaries from Syria and Libya, as well as Pakistani forces, to fight alongside their militaries. Beglaryan also provided an overview of the targeted and indiscriminate attack on the civilian population of Artsakh including residential buildings and public institutions – several of which, he mentioned, were under special protection of international humanitarian law such as schools, churches and hospitals. He mentioned the Azeri and Turkish use of banned cluster munitions and weapons such as white phosphorus, which were deployed to kill civilians, destroy religious and cultural monuments and burn down forests, causing an environmental crisis. The report also included the deliberate targeting of local and international journalists reporting on the war from Artsakh.
“It was quite an intensive, quite aggressive war in which Azerbaijan had the intent to ethnically cleanse the Armenian population in Artsakh and occupy the whole Artsakh Republic,” Beglaryan said.
Beglaryan also discussed the many prisoners of war Azerbaijan is illegally holding, many of whom were taken hostage after the ceasefire on November 9, 2020.
“It’s quite important to mention that many war crimes were quite deliberate, but the cruelest and the most deliberate one is the inhumane treatment against Armenians under their control – both war prisoners and civilian internees and forcibly disappeared persons after the war, but also against Armenian dead bodies, both civilians and combatants. This inhumane treatment includes both beheading cases and tortures, and mutilation and many other things, insulting things, which is a part of Armenophobia or anti-Armenian hate policy in Azerbaijan, which was quite systemic and organized…and was encouraged by the Azerbaijani government and their army,” added Beglaryan. He underscored the dangers of allowing this magnitude of violations against human rights to go unpunished by the international community and responsible bodies.
Dr. Gevorgyan continued the conversation by providing an update on the Republic of Armenia’s judicial initiatives as well as the avenues that can be explored by the government public. He reported on the interstate claim that was filed by the Armenian government in February against the Republic of Azerbaijan that touches upon various violations that have taken place both during the war and its aftermath including human torture and property violations. He also spoke of a racial discrimination notice filed against the Republic of Azerbaijan. These filings can, if the convention permits, allow these cases to be brought before the International Court of Justice.
“We need to be realistic and realize that, for example, the International Criminal Court is most probably not a venue that can be utilized effectively,” said Dr. Gevorgyan. “There are certain political factors that would probably hinder any kind of attempt to bring the issue before the security council. But there are definitely ways to pursue this by initiating criminal cases in Armenia, and pursuing based on a pretty strong bilateral cooperation with various countries that the Republic of Armenia may have or under the Geneva Conventions, which provide free universal jurisdiction clause for all breaches of the Geneva Conventions,” he explained. “There is a ton of legal material to deal with. Some things that the state is already dealing with, but a lot of things that need to be chased. And, the government of the Republic of Armenia definitely has to be extremely proactive and much more than it is right now for the comprehensive protection of their rights of the victims of this war,” he concluded.
Following Gevorgyan’s overview of the complexities and legal implications of the war, Dr. Theriault invited Sahakyan to cover the individual initiatives with regard to the human rights violations and abuses by Azerbaijan – including the beheadings, mutilations and willful killings.
Sahakyan discussed the project she currently spearheads with the Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights in which she has recently filed 130 cases before the ECHR concerning Armenian POWs, which include many civilians.
Sahakyan reviewed the litany of human rights abuses and said that the work she is doing is twofold: to ensure the immediate security and repatriation of Armenians under the authority of Azerbaijan and to achieve recognition of human rights abuses.
“Now we have all Armenian captives and prisoners of war still in Azerbaijan under the protection of the specific measure of the European Court of Human Rights. This is the immediate effect of our legal processes, but we intend to achieve recognition of abuses – serious human rights abuses – acknowledgement of those facts and state responsibility and also compensation to Armenian victims. Thirdly, we try to achieve processes to punish the offenders of war crimes against Armenia be that in Armenia or in other jurisdictions… There is a rule of universal jurisdiction to investigate and punish war crimes. We anticipate that based on the facts established by the European Court of Human Rights independent judicial instance, many progressive States will be responsible in prosecuting Azerbaijani officers and corporate commanders for the crimes which happened during the war in 2020,” explained Sahakyan.
Through this work, the team has placed the Armenian captives and POWs under the protection of the specific measure of the ECHR.
Sahakyan also discussed the immediate repatriation of POWs being politicized by the government of Azerbaijan. For example, Azerbaijan categorizes POWs as criminals who committed terrorist acts instead of POWs in order to keep them captive.
Dr. Theriault asked all the panelists to comment on their analysis of the international community’s response to human rights abuses. Beglaryan noted the Human Rights Watch visit, but said that no other major international human rights organizations reported on the situation. A UN or Council of Europe report is also lacking, he said. Beglaryan also provided an overview of the international media’s attention to the war, which he said was appreciated but not sufficient.
“This war and this crime against humanity and all of the war crimes also happened because of the absence of the international community before the war for decades, and also because of their absence during the war and after the war,” Beglaryan stated.
“Of course, I also see the role of human rights organizations to respond adequately to human rights abuses and actions of Azerbaijan. Without these condemnations and sanctions, I don’t think that Azerbaijani authorities will act against their own interest – anti-Armenian policy – and behave in line with international commitments. Here, I see the responsibility of both internal governmental and non-governmental human rights organizations to be proactive in this matter,” Sahakyan concluded.
Panelists also commented on what the government of Armenia can be doing to aid in the judicial process.
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