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Azerbaijan counters Armenia claims of ethnic cleansing with landmine accusations

The Caucasus neighbors have each complained to the United Nations' highest court, accusing one another of violating a decadesold treaty forbidding racial discrimination.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Azerbaijan accused Armenia of using landmines to attack civilians during a hearing before the International Court of Justice on Tuesday, following allegations of ethnic cleansing by Armenia the day before. 

The pair are asking the United Nations' highest court for the second time to order provisional measures while their underlying case, stemming from a war over an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, is being considered. 

“Azerbaijan appeals to the court today for one reason and one reason only: to stop the killing and maiming of Azberbajians,” Elnur Mammadaov, Azerbaijan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, said in his opening statement before The Hague-based court Tuesday.

Azerbaijan's government based in Baku wants Aremenia to stop planting explosive devices in the region and hand over maps indicating where mines have been placed. Armenia says the weapons are needed for security and accuses Azerbaijan of fabricating evidence showing mines in civilian areas. 

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 countries appealed to the ICJ, sometimes referred to as the World Court, in September 2021, a year after the conflict ended. Both say the other is violating 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. 

The treaty has its own committee to adjudicate complaints but countries can also bring legal action before the ICJ. The court has seen only five cases relating to the CERD, all in the last 15 years. Georgia, which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan, brought the first case in 2008 against Russia over the Russo-Georgian War, which the court ultimately ruled inadmissible. 

The court also said it lacked jurisdiction in a dispute between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in 2021, while CERD-related proceedings between Ukraine and Russia over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea are ongoing

During the first round of hearings over provisional measures - essentially an injunction - in October 2021, Armenia argued Azerbaijan was intentionally exacerbating existing tensions by erecting a war memorial using the helmets of dead Armenian soldiers while Azerbaijan claimed the Armenian military had seeded the ground with landmines, leaving the area dangerous and impassable. 

In December 2021, the U.N. court ordered both sides to avoid anything that might exacerbate the conflict, but Armenia raised new issues last month and Azerbaijan followed suit this month. According to Mammadaov, Armenia has planted another 2,700 landmines since 2021. 

Tensions between the neighboring countries have risen in recent months. On Monday, lawyers for Armenia told the court Azerbaijan has blockaded the Lachin corridor, the only road between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, starving the 150,000 inhabitants of food and medicine and has cut off gas during the winter months. 

“Azerbaijan’s appetite for territory and concessions it seeks from Armenaias have been increasing,” Armenia’s agent Yeghishe Kirakosyan told the 16-judge panel. He acknowledged that his country has placed mines but only on its own territory and for defensive purposes. 

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 most recent conflict, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, left 6,500 dead and nearly 100,000 displaced. 

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