Representatives of United Nations agencies based in Azerbaijan, acting on instructions from that government, hopped into their four-wheel drives on Oct. 1 and proceeded from Baku, the capital, to Stepanakert/Khandendi, the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh region known to Armenians as Artsakh. They were joined by a senior official from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.
The UN team was also accompanied by Azerbaijani government handlers who were meant to ensure that the UN personnel strictly adhered to the protocols agreed for the mission on where it could go, with whom it could speak and similar matters.
By the time the mission left for Nagorno-Karabakh, virtually all of the enclave’s estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenian population had fled to neighboring Armenia. The largest forced population displacement in the post-Soviet South Caucasus region came on the heels of Azerbaijan’s full-scale assault on the area on Sept. 19. The offensive was preceded by a nine-month blockade of the region through the Lachin Corridor, cutting its access to vital supplies, including food and medication. The restrictions were also accompanied by the severance of gas and electricity and frequent sniper shootings of farmers working their fields and bombings of towns.
On Oct. 1, the UN team arrived in a Stepanakert that had been nearly emptied, with the central square littered with the belongings of people who escaped for their lives. Television reports showed the eerie silence of a once-thriving city, now inhabited only by roaming packs of shell-shocked dogs and horses.
The following day, in a most efficient manner by UN standards, the team issued its assessment mission report. It may as well have been written by the Azerbaijani government officials who had laid out the terms of the visit. In essence, it was. Its author, a national communications officer working for the UN resident coordinator’s office in Baku, formerly worked for Azerbaijan’s state broadcaster, ATV.
While the author and his photo were initially featured in the report, they have since been removed from the UN Azerbaijan website. Posting the report on the social media platform X (Twitter), the UN in Azerbaijan promptly tagged Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its permanent mission to the UN in New York City and Hikmat Hajiyev, an assistant to the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, whose X handle says that a repost is an “endorsement.” No Armenian government officials were tagged.
It is not surprising that the short UN assessment mission wrote: “In parts of the city that the team visited, they saw no damage to civilian public infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and housing, or to cultural and religious structures.”
Although the report noted that “the team heard from interlocutors that between 50 and 1,000 ethnic Armenians remain in the Karabakh region,” this did not stop it from concluding that “the mission did not come across any reports . . . of incidences of violence against civilians following the latest ceasefire.”
Although “the mission was struck by the sudden manner in which the local population left their homes and the suffering the experience must have caused,” it saw no reason to elaborate on what had caused the “sudden” exodus of nearly the entire Armenian population in the city. Yet it gave assurances that the “UN in Azerbaijan plans to continue to regularly visit the region.”
The mission that produced the report was the first time the UN had accessed the region in 30 years from either Armenia or Azerbaijan. Repeated pleas for humanitarian aid by the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh during the nine-month starvation siege earlier this year had faced Azerbaijan’s refusal to allow any aid from entering the region, except sporadic deliveries by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Attempts by the UN during those three decades to access the region were unsuccessful, given the lack of agreement with all parties to the conflict. For 30 years, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh was the longest-running frozen conflict in the South Caucasus. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, about 80 percent of the region’s population were ethnic Armenians, with ethnic Azeris constituting the rest. Armenians of the region had called Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh home for millenniums. During the Soviet period, Nagorno-Karabakh had the status of an autonomous region, administered by Baku. With years of discriminatory laws imposed on Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians by Baku, the Armenians held two referendums: one in 1988 calling for unification with the Soviet Republic of Armenia and another in 1991 calling for independence from Azerbaijan.
In both instances, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians voted overwhelmingly for the motions, and in both cases their will was crushed, first by Moscow, then by Baku. Two wars were fought over the enclave, in the early 1990s and 2020, with devastating death, destruction, human suffering and population displacements on both sides. While in the 1990s, Armenia emerged victorious, the 2020 war launched by Azerbaijan on the area witnessed the reversal of its territorial gains. The most recent military assault by Azerbaijan, on Sept. 19-20 this year, saw the final resolution of the Armenian question in Nagorno-Karabakh: the comprehensive elimination of the Armenian presence in the region through what can only be described as ethnic cleansing.
Until last year, I worked for the UN for 30 years and served in some of the most complex conflict zones in Cambodia, Tajikistan, Iraq and Somalia as well as for the UN envoy for Syria in Geneva. I was proud of the work the organization did in those countries and offices to alleviate human suffering and its efforts to mediate an end to conflicts. At no time had I witnessed the flouting of its principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence as was demonstrated in the recent sham assessment mission and statement by the UN Azerbaijan team on Nagorno-Karabakh.
It is difficult to compare the UN country team’s and OCHA’s compliance with Azerbaijani government demands with OCHA’s work in Syria earlier this year, without seeing different standards applied. When the UN Security Council failed in July to renew the UN cross-border humanitarian operation for Syria that had been in place since 2014, the Syrian government proposed that the UN continue cross-border humanitarian assistance “in full cooperation and coordination with the Syrian Government.”
The UN rejected this condition. In a note circulated to Security Council members, OCHA raised objections to Damascus’s control, arguing that the UN “must continue to engage with relevant state and non-state parties necessary to carry out safe and unimpeded humanitarian operations.”
Indeed, OCHA resumed its cross-border work only after its humanitarian principles were agreed on by Syria. So why didn’t the UN in Azerbaijan apply the same standards to its assessment of Nagorno-Karabakh? Instead, it appears to have complied with the demands of Baku, thus discarding core UN humanitarian principles and contributing to the whitewashing of Baku’s possible war crimes against the enclave’s ethnic Armenian population.
This stain on the UN’s reputation in Azerbaijan has a precedent, such as the 18-year tenure of Merhiban Aliyeva as a Unesco Goodwill Ambassador. Aliyeva is the spouse of Azerbaijan’s president, who not only inherited his office from his father but also created the post of vice president to appoint his wife to the job. The circumstances of her Unesco appointment in 2004 by a former Unesco executive director, Irina Bokova, were mired in scandal from the start and have been well documented. The goodwill ambassador resigned in late 2022, following international petitions calling for her dismissal.
It is astounding, too, that only one day before the UN-Azerbaijan team conducted its mission to Nagorno-Karabakh, it announced a $1 million allocation by President Aliyev to UN-Habitat, to “support the expansion of beneficial cooperation towards the development of sustainable cities in the world,” the Azerbaijan state news agency reported.
I believe some of the reputation harm recently incurred by the UN in Azerbaijan can still be reduced. At a minimum, UN Secretary-General António Guterres should launch an immediate review as to how the assessment mission was carried out in clear violation of the organization’s core humanitarian principles. Guterres should also distance himself publicly from the UN Azerbaijan’s mission statement.
Without taking these steps, the UN will appear complicit in Azerbaijan’s whitewashing of its crime of forced population displacement.