Armenian Refugees Can Return, But Will They Find Their Nagorno-Karabakh?

The United Nations International Criminal Court (ICJ) has mandated that Azerbaijan uphold the right of Armenian refugees to return to their homeland in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory seized by Azeri forces during the most recent military operation in late 2023. But if and when Armenians return, the reality they might encounter could be very different from the one they remember. According to the images released by the monitoring organisation Caucasus Heritage Watch, several buildings and cultural artefacts of Armenian origin have been systematically destroyed by Baku, rendering the previously Armenian-majority inhabited Nagorno Karabakh unrecognisable.

Different comments have been issued following the publication of this news. Armenia’s representative at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) trial, lawyer Yeghishe Kirakosyan, said that “After threatening to do so for years, Azerbaijan has completed the ethnic cleansing of the region,” reported Al Jazeera. Husik Ghulyan, a lead researcher at Caucasus Heritage, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), “I think the goal of Azerbaijan in this case was to completely demolish [the buildings] to rebuild a new village for Azerbaijani internally displaced people or other re-settlers.”

Moreover, Lori Khatchadourian, an associate professor at Cornell University and the co-founder of Caucasus Heritage Watch, said that her organisation has so far acknowledged the destruction of 10 heritage sites within Azerbaijan’s retaken territory since 2020 and that Baku is no stranger to these practices. The erasure of Armenian heritage in the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan is an example of what may lie ahead in Nagorno-Karabakh. “One of the important lessons learned [from the Naxcivan case] is that total cultural erasure takes time. The demolition of the Armenian cultural landscape in that region unfolded over a decade, beginning in 1997 and continuing until at least 2009, and possibly as late as 2011. [For Nagorno-Karabakh], this sad story is likely to play out over many years.”

This destruction, which the Azeri government has deemed legitimate, appears to be a serious violation of the ICJ’s November 2023 order, which states that Baku must respect its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, particularly the need to “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage, including but not limited to churches and other places of worship, monuments, landmarks, cemeteries and artefacts.” Moreover, as noted by numerous analysts, this is only Azerbaijan’s last attempt to remove any reference to Armenian heritage in the region. The demolition of the building that once housed the ethnic Armenian parliament of Karabakh, for example, took place in March last year.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been subject to numerous confrontations between the two Caucasian countries ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. Both parties have advanced claims over the region, citing cultural and historical links between the mainland and this region. Two wars have been fought, and several altercations took place with either Yerevan or Baku conquering territories and putting them under their control. The latest developments date back to Baku’s military operation in late 2023, which ended in the seizure of several villages by Azeri forces and the consequent mass flows of internally displaced refugees.

Many problems persist in the region, from the chronic lack of humanitarian aid to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an issue that has important repercussions for all conflicts dealing with similar problems regarding territorial integrity and self-determination. The ongoing trial at the International Court of Justice is just one attempt to find a solution to this long-running conflict. The tribunal’s decision to ask Baku to allow Armenians to return to the region is a step in the right direction. However, given the realities on the ground, this should not be celebrated as a victory. Refugees are unlikely to recognise the place they once called home. One can only hope that the future will be brighter and that  Nagorno-Karabakh will find some peace.