Even as the world is riveted by a hostage drama in the Middle East, another one simmers in the Caucasus, unheralded but potentially impactful. On 7 December, Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed to release 34 prisoners of war (POWs) captured since 2020 and raised hopes that a peace agreement between the two countries could be reached by the end of the year.
However, at least 21 additional Armenian POWs, political prisoners, and hostages remain in Azerbaijani jails as bargaining chips in the peace negotiations. Without their immediate release, negotiations between the two archenemies are unlikely to succeed anytime soon.
Azerbaijan purports to be a normative member of the community of nations. Although it is a family-run dictatorship, at least it pretends to some compliance with international law and expectations, and its economy is reliant on a brisk energy trade. So the world has leverage, and it should use that leverage to compel the release of the remaining Armenian prisoners in Azerbaijani jails (see the list here).
Indeed, an immediate and unconditional release will not only bring a measure of justice and calm to the South Caucasus, but also increase the chances for a genuine restart in the stumbling peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan that the Unites States and the European Union have been attempting to broker.
Azerbaijan’s tactics are hardly a surprise. Diplomatic pretending aside, the country’s appalling human rights record has been the subject of international concern and condemnation ever since it gained independence in 1991. Non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, intergovernmental institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council, and governments including the U.S., Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom have all repeatedly blasted Azerbaijan’s human rights failures.
In the past year alone, some 200 political prisoners, Azerbaijan’s own citizens, have been detained arbitrarily and tortured. The regime deploys the entirety of the dictator’s playbook, including the absence of rule of law, judicial independence, freedom of expression and assembly, accountability for human rights violations, and minority rights.
Against this background, on September 19, an Azerbaijani offensive set the stage for the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from their ancestral land of Nagorno-Karabakh. The offensive was preceded by an Azerbaijani starvation siege of the enclave. Over the course of nine months, many governments, the International Court of Justice, and other institutions urged Azerbaijan to end the siege. International jurists ruled it a case of genocide. Azerbaijan ignored them all.
Populated by ethnic Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Soviet Azerbaijan in 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed. A ceasefire in 1994 ended a bloody three-year war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the disputed territory was self-governed until September of this year, when Azerbaijan launched a military attack.
In early October, Azerbaijan arbitrarily detained eight democratically elected ethnic Armenian former political leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-government while they, together with more than 120,000 fellow citizens, were forced to flee their homes, victims of ethnic cleansing.
The eight were wanted for what Azerbaijan is calling “terrorism”, a term that allows a carte-blanche negation of human rights. They were arrested, humiliated in public, and jailed in Baku prisons along with at least six remaining Armenian POWs and seven civilian men held hostage on trumped-up charges. These prisoners’ only crime is their Armenian nationality.
The eight leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh should be released immediately and unconditionally, if not on account of human rights concerns then at the very least as a confidence-building measure to improve the poisoned atmosphere for negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
As political prisoners, they are protected by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Azerbaijan is a signatory. It determines their right to a fair trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal, to the presumption of innocence, and to a counsel of their own choosing. The independence of courts in Azerbaijan is highly questionable and their impartiality doubtful at best. Also, it is impossible for the eight to choose their own counsel in Azerbaijan where hatred for Armenians has become state policy, with government officials calling Armenians “cancerous tumor” to be eliminated.
During the September military assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan detained dozens of Armenian soldiers who joined an unknown number of prisoners of war who have remained in Azerbaijani custody since an earlier war in 2020 and later border confrontations. In addition, Azerbaijan has taken hostage at least seven Armenian civilians. Already, four of them have been sentenced to 15- to 20-year prison terms in sham trials and on trumped-up charges.
The remaining POWs must be freed immediately in accordance with the Third Geneva Convention, Article 8, which requires, without delay, the release and repatriation of POWs upon the cessation of hostilities. Article 118 requires the release of civilians detained during an armed conflict as soon as possible after the close of hostilities.
The Geneva Conventions also require that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visit detainees held in connection with armed conflicts to monitor their treatment and conditions of detention. This helps prevent torture, ill-treatment, and other abuses, and facilitates communication with families. But in this case, ICRC access to the detainees is either inconsistent or simply unavailable.
Moreover, Article 8 of the ceasefire agreement signed on 9 November 2020 between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia stipulates “an exchange of prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons”. While the Armenian side fully complied, Azerbaijan, obviously, has not, at least not completely.
Under the circumstances, it is fair to call all of the remaining prisoners hostages. And the international community has a responsibility to employ all diplomatic, legal, and if necessary coercive pressures to convince Azerbaijan to release them. That applies especially to the U.S. and the European Union as current peace mediators, and also to former mediators, including Finland, Sweden, France and Russia.
It is bad enough that Azerbaijan was allowed to get away with its outrageous blockade, sparking one of the most shocking cases of ethnic cleansing in recent memory. Allowing its crimes to proceed unimpeded is devastating to the world community’s own interest: a world in which rules mean something, and a semblance of order is maintained.