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UN says ethnic Armenians’ right of return to Nagorno-Karabakh must be prioritized

NEW YORK CITY: The UN on Tuesday expressed deep concern about the escalating humanitarian crisis in the South Caucasus, where more than 100,600 ethnic-Armenian refugees, including 30,000 children, have poured into Armenia from the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in the past few weeks.

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, called for urgent measures to be put in place to protect their rights and safety, and to ensure they are able to eventually return to their homes, if they wish.

“I call on all efforts to be made to ensure the protection and human rights of the ethnic-Armenian population who remain in the area, and of those who have left, including the right to return, which should be prioritized,” she said.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have struggled for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region for decades. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but came under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists in the mid-1990s. The Armenian forces also took control of a substantial amount of surrounding territory but Azerbaijan regained control of most of it during a six-week war with Armenia in 2020.

Azerbaijan launched what it described as an “anti-terrorist” campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh on Sept. 19, and during a two-day offensive regained full control of the part of the region that had remained outside its control. Soon after, many ethnic Armenians, fearing reprisals, began to flee across the border to Armenia.

The latest conflict led Armenians to accuse Azerbaijan of “ethnic cleansing,” an allegation that was strongly denied.

Nderitu echoed a call by the UN’s high commissioner for human rights that the rights of all internally displaced people and those in refugee-like situations must be fully upheld, including ensuring that their right to return in safety and dignity.

She acknowledged the assurances given by authorities in Azerbaijan that the ethnic-Armenian population and their rights should be protected, and welcomed initial access that has been granted to representatives of the UN to assess the humanitarian situation in the region.

“These positive steps need to be continued, including by permitting full humanitarian access,” Nderitu said.

“I encourage the government of Azerbaijan to take steps toward putting in place a comprehensive plan in this regard, including measures to ensure the right to return of those who have fled, as well as concrete steps for ensuring the rights and protections of minorities, which is a cornerstone of international human rights law.”

In addition, she stressed the importance of thoroughly investigating allegations of violations committed during the conflict, including reports of civilian casualties, and the need for full accountability in line with the standards of international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Nderitu also called for increased dialogue to help prevent any further military escalation or violence in the South Caucasus.

“The region has witnessed cyclical violence for far too long,” she said. “The impact on civilians has always been devastating. The risk of atrocity crimes remains present.

“All the people in the region deserve a future free from violence and fear. This requires concrete action to ensure a lasting peace, as well as to address and overcome the deep scars, distrusts and division that exists between communities.”

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