The President's Take

Nagorno-Karabakh’s Belligerents Must Stop Targeting Civilians

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, our President Robert Malley reflects on the tragic conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the implications of the U.S. election for Americans and the rest of the world.

As I write this column, the 2020 presidential elections are unfolding in the U.S. By the time you read it you may (or quite possibly may still not) know the results. Regardless of their outcome, they will have outsized implications. On the future of America’s economic and healthcare systems, its environment and immigration policies and its race relations among others. On public faith in its electoral process, the solidity of its institutions and the polarisation of its politics, as Crisis Group analysed in a recent report. But also on the rest of the world, whose denizens will be forgiven for lamenting that an event with such profound potential to affect their lives rests on a process over which they have no say, that is governed by a nearly inscrutable patchwork of rules, and that can deliver a Barack Obama one day, a Donald Trump the next. In the coming weeks and months, count on Crisis Group to delve more deeply into what a second Trump term or a first one by Joe Biden will mean for conflicts across the globe.

One conflict that can’t afford to wait is the tragic confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Clashes have now spread widely, involving artillery, missile and drone strikes, with attacks on Armenian positions, on Nagorno-Karabakh and on Azerbaijani cities near the line of conflict. Both sides agree to humanitarian ceasefires that they then immediately proceed to violate. Azerbaijan, frustrated by decades of diplomatic paralysis and convinced of its superior firepower, seems in no mood to halt its offensive and has provided no clue as to when it will consider its territorial advances to be enough. Armenia, outraged by its neighbour’s attacks, unwilling to accept a new, far more disadvantageous situation and persuaded the military equation eventually will balance out, is not suing for peace either. Two sides believing time is on their side is the age-old recipe for a protracted conflict.

It didn’t have to be this way. Over three years ago, we warned of Nagorno-Karabakh’s “gathering war clouds”, and we were not alone. It was clear then, and has remained since, that Baku was exasperated with the longstanding status quo and concerned that Yerevan was seeking to cement it. It was clear that substantive talks had to resume on the core issues that divided them. It was clear that the main foreign sponsors of the peace process – Russia, France and the U.S. – needed to get the parties to resume genuine communication, soften their positions and tone down martial rhetoric that fuelled their publics’ belligerence. 

I traveled to Yerevan and Baku with my colleagues roughly a year ago, and the situation we witnessed then is the lesson we unfortunately are learning now: that a conflict often portrayed as frozen was only a minor thaw away from exploding. Conditions may not be ripe for an immediate cessation of hostilities, although it is an objective toward which all should aim. At a minimum, the parties should eschew cluster bombs and stop targeting population centres. They should agree to – and this time respect – a humanitarian ceasefire, facilitate the delivery of lifesaving aid, including giving humanitarian actors access, and allow for the recovery of the dead. 

Our colleague and friend Michael Kovrig has been wrongfully detained in China for 694 days.  We will keep reminding the world of his fate, and call on the authorities in Beijing to do the right thing, until he is back home.


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