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Armenia calls Azerbaijan blockade an act of ‘ethnic cleansing’

A legal showdown at the U.N.’s top court stems from a 2020 war over an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that left more than 6,500 dead and nearly 100,000 displaced.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Amidst rising tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the United Nations' highest court opened two days of hearings Monday for the Caucasus neighbors. 

Both countries have asked the International Court of Justice for a second time to intervene and issue provisional measures, accusing one another of violating a decadesold treaty forbidding racial discrimination. 

“Azerbaijan seems intent on strangling the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, no matter what the cost,” Armenia’s agent Yeghishe Kirakosyan told The Hague-based court. 

The case stems from a bloody 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,700-square-mile area that technically falls within the borders of Azerbaijan but is overwhelmingly ethnically Armenian. The region has been a source of friction since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

The pair have appealed to the ICJ, sometimes referred to as the World Court, under the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD, which requires signatories to take steps to end racial discrimination and promote of understanding between differing nationalities, races and ethnic groups. 

Lawrence Martin, another member of Armenia’s legal team, told the court that Azerbaijan blockaded the Lachin corridor, the only road between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, starving the 150,000 inhabitants of food and medicine. He also said that Azerbaijan's government based in Baku has cut off gas during the winter months.

“Such blatant acts of ethnic cleansing have no place in modern Europe,” Martin said. 

It is the second time the pair have asked the court to impose provisional measures - essentially an injunction - while the underlying case proceeds on the merits. During hearings in October 2021, Armenia argued Azerbaijan was intentionally exacerbating existing tensions. Among other complaints, Armenia’s government in Yerevan cited the creation of a victory memorial from the 2020 conflict that included the helmets of dead Armenian soldiers. Azerbaijan contended the Armenian military had seeded the ground with landmines, leaving the area dangerous and impassable. 

In December 2021, the court ordered Azerbaijan to ensure the safety of soldiers captured in the conflict, prevent incitement of racial hatred and protect Armenian cultural heritage sites, while telling Armenia to avoid doing anything to exacerbate the conflict. 

Azerbaijan contends that Nagorno-Karabakh has been illegally occupied by Armenia for 30 years and accuses the inhabitants of destroying the area's natural resources. Describing the region as the “formerly occupied territories," Elnur Mammadaov, Azerbaijan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, said the damage was so bad the region was “unrecognizable.” According to Mammadaov, Armenia has been using the Lachin corridor to move illegally mined mineral resources and blockades of the road were organized by environmental protesters who are opposed to the deforestation.

Last week, the Council of Europe, the oversight body of the European Court of Human Rights, ordered Azerbaijan to open the Lachin corridor after the Strasbourg-based court ruled the route was needed to bring vital supplies and services to Nagorno-Karabakh. The countries have a different case pending before the rights court, which protects the civil and political rights of Europeans, stemming from the same conflict. 

War first broke out over the territory in 1988, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Some 30,000 people were killed before a ceasefire was negotiated in 1994. That conflict left the area in Armenian control despite being enclaved by Azerbaijan. Thirty soldiers were killed when more fighting broke out again in 2016, before the 2020 war left 6,500 dead and nearly 100,000 displaced. 

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