World Court says Azerbaijan must let ethnic Armenians return to Nagorno-Karabakh

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The UN’s top court Friday ordered Azerbaijan to allow the safe return of people to the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Baku seized in a lightning September offensive.

The International Court of Justice ruled Azerbaijan must enable anyone who wanted to return to Nagorno-Karabakh to do so in a “safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner.”

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said it had already pledged to ensure all residents’ safety and security, regardless of national or ethnic origin, and that it had not forced the ethnic Armenians to leave Karabakh.

“Azerbaijan is committed to upholding the human rights of the Armenian residents of Karabakh on an equal basis with other citizens of Azerbaijan,” it said in a statement.

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Azerbaijan’s one-day offensive, which gave it complete control of the mountainous breakaway region for the first time in three decades, sparked a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians.

The majority of the 120,000-strong population fled into Armenia in a matter of days along the narrow Lachin Corridor road amid chaotic scenes on the border between the two bitter rivals.

The court also ruled that Azerbaijan must allow anyone wishing to leave the territory to do so and ensure people remaining there would be “free from the use of force or intimidation”.

Armenia had petitioned the ICJ for so-called “provisional measures” to force Azerbaijan to stop any action “aimed at... displacing the remaining ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh”.

The ICJ rules on disputes between states, but while its decisions are legally binding, it has no power to enforce them.

Last week, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev oversaw a military parade in the region’s main city of Khankendi, which Armenians refer to as Stepanakert, during which blue-red-green Azerbaijani flags were hoisted.

When AFP visited Nagorno-Karabakh in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the region was already completely deserted, with the vast majority of ethnic Armenians having already fled.

During the October 12 hearings at the court in The Hague, the two sides traded barbs over what Armenia described as the “ethnic cleansing” of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Despite comprising for millennia the great majority of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, almost no ethnic Armenians remain in Nagorno-Karabakh today,” said Armenia’s ICJ representative Yeghishe Kirakosyan at the time.

“If this is not ethnic cleansing, I do not know what is.”

Kirakosyan said the ICJ “still had time to prevent the forced displacement of ethnic Armenians from becoming irreversible” and to “protect the very few ethnic Armenians who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Diplomatic impasse

Responding for Azerbaijan, representative Elnur Mammadov said Armenia had repeated accusations of ethnic cleansing so often that the claims “have taken on a life of their own”.

Dismissing the ethnic cleansing accusations as “unfounded” and “completely without merit”, Mammadov said they “do not reflect the reality of what has actually been going on in Karabakh”.

“Azerbaijan has not engaged and will not engage in ethnic cleansing or any form of attack on the civilian population of Karabakh,” he said.

Baku has repeatedly stressed it was encouraging ethnic Armenians to return and would afford them safe passage.

With this in mind, the ICJ ordered Azerbaijan to submit a report within eight weeks on the progress of the promises they have made to allow Armenians to return.

Internationally mediated talks to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between the arch-foe Caucasus neighbors have so far failed to produce a breakthrough.

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