THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Armenia pleaded with judges of the United Nations' highest court on Monday to order Azerbaijan to break up a road blockade that is isolating the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, calling the action part of an act of “ethnic cleansing.”
Azerbaijan rejected the claim, accusing Armenia of using the dispute to create leverage in peace talks.
The hearing at the International Court of Justice comes amid rising tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia just over two years after they ended a war that killed about 6,800 soldiers and displaced around 90,000 civilians. Nagorno-Karabakh is within Azerbaijan but had been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a separatist war in 1994.
Late last year, Azerbaijanis claiming to be environmental activists began blocking a winding road known as the Lachin Corridor that forms the only land connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The blockade threatens food supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh’s 120,000 people. Armenia argues the protests are orchestrated by Azerbaijan and says the country also has repeatedly halted supplies of gas to the region — a claim Azerbaijan also rejected.
“The Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh has been almost entirely cut off from the outside world," Lawrence Martin, a lawyer representing Armenia, told judges Monday. "They have been — and they continue to be — deprived of access to food, medicine and all the other necessities of life. Without swift action by the court their lives are in danger.”
Armenia's main legal representative to the court, Yeghishe Kirakosyan, told judges that Azerbaijan has effectively tuned the Lachin Corridor into a one-way street.
“Ethnic Armenians may not enter Nagorno-Karabakh but they may leave," he said. "Judges of the court, such blatant acts of ethnic cleansing have no place in (the) modern era.”
The local government in Nagorno-Karabakh has begun rationing essential food staples and called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan hasn’t given authorization for the region’s airport to operate.
Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Elnur Mammadov told the court that his country was not orchestrating the protest, which he said was a legitimate civil demonstration against environmental damage caused by mining companies.
“Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of the gravest of misconduct, making allegations of attempted ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijan rejects Armenia’s baseless accusations in the strongest terms,” he said.
Mammadov accused Armenia of using the road “to try to create political leverage in the ongoing peace negotiations between the two states and instead of trying to resolve issues, it encourages hatred and fear of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis.”
The long-running underlying territorial conflict ended in a Russia-brokered cease-fire agreement that granted Azerbaijan control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as adjacent land occupied by Armenians. Russia sent a peacekeeping force of 2,000 troops to maintain order, including ensuring that the Lachin Corridor remained open.
Azerbaijan alleges that Armenians have used the corridor to transport land mines into Nagorno-Karabakh in violation of the armistice that ended the conflict. The Azerbaijan government also has filed a request for the court to order a halt to Armenia laying land mines and to “take all necessary steps” to enable Azerbaijan's de-mining efforts. Hearings in that request are scheduled for Tuesday. Armenia denies the claim.
The requests for what the court calls provisional measures are part of a pair of cases Armenia and Azerbaijan filed at the world court that are linked to the war. The court is likely to take years to rule on the merits of the cases, which both allege breaches of an international convention aimed at eliminating racial discrimination.
The latest flare-up in tensions comes despite the court ordering both nations just over a year ago to prevent discrimination against one another’s citizens in the aftermath of the war.
The court will likely issue a legally binding ruling within weeks on the provisional measure requests by both countries.