Azerbaijan Looks to Thaw Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Through Targeted Diplomacy

Azerbaijan is taking its turn as the Chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, and is attempting to put its own stamp on the body’s policy and pronouncements.

The foremost issue for Azerbaijan is Armenia’s continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani provinces, which has led to an armed line with frequent shootings, over one million internally displaced persons, and incalculable human and property loss. So it was that when Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was in Strasbourg Tuesday to commemorate Azerbaijan taking over the Chairmanship, he marked out much of where that Chairmanship will be aimed.

Although he made it a point to promise that Azerbaijan would use the Chairmanship to battle corruption (a “disease” that holds back whole nations’ potential), the primary focus of his speech was the Armenian invasion and occupation. He was quick to draw comparisons between Crimea and Nagorno-Karabakh, both annexed (the former de jure, the second de facto) in violation of international law and numerous resolutions by international bodies. Yet he also noted that where Moscow had been quickly sanctioned across multiple international fora for its illegal acts, Armenia remains unscathed. “Some United Nations resolutions are implemented within hours; but in our case, it has been twenty years,” he said.

This was a theme that Azerbaijan continued in a motion to the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe (PACE), backed by over 50 delegates from 14 countries, which called for sanctions against Armenia that would parallel those entered against the Russian Federation. (Russia was stripped of its voting rights in PACE for a year as a sanction for invading and annexing Crimea.) Yet the motion itself quickly faced procedural obstacles that suggest that Aliyev’s insight remains trenchant.

Azerbaijani MP and PACE Deputy Elkhan Suleymanov, the sponsor of the motion, quickly redrafted and resubmitted it. However, he minced no words about how he viewed the procedural obstacles thrown up apparently to protect Armenia.

“Although we followed all the procedures and respected all the rules, [PACE] Secretary General [Voetsek] Savitsky openly told me during our meeting yesterday, which was marked by his attacks, attempts at convincing me or friendly remarks, that I had to redraft my motion because it is  simply impossible to impose sanctions against Armenians. Thus, as an Azerbaijani citizen, I believe that this institution, the Council of Europe, is a useless institution for Azerbaijan. … This proves that PACE is not willing to protect democracy, supremacy of law, human rights and cooperation between states.”

This is a dangerous state of affairs, as it is driving home to Baku that there exists one standard for violations of international law for Armenia, and another for everyone else. While the response to Russia’s mischief in Ukraine has been underwhelming, it has been something. All Azerbaijan has to show for twenty years of pain and suffering is insistence that toothless motions be recast to avoid offending anyone.

It is time for the Council of Europe to take its own words seriously. A resolution with no enforcement mechanism is merely a whim. Almost every major international body, including PACE, the European Parliament, and the United Nations (in the General Assembly and Security Council) has passed at least one resolution demanding that Armenia end its illegal occupation of Azerbaijan; and yet, two decades later, each of those bodies is quick to hammer Russia for taking a pretty port town, yet curiously uninterested in enforcing its own judgments for war crimes and illegal invasions.

The result of a complete loss of confidence by Baku would be dangerous indeed. It is now significantly wealthier than Yerevan, and is rapidly losing incentives to continue peace processes that seem to go nowhere. If its frustrations reach the point of total abandonment of international institutions, the damage to the region will be much greater than the loss of voting rights for Armenia in a voluntary supranational body.

Aliyev correctly said in his speech that without enforcement mechanisms, international resolutions “lose their substance.” If there is to be any substance to the rule of law between nations, it must start now — and Armenia must suffer for its defiance of that law.