Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenian Refugees — [Julie Elliott in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:29 am on 19 March 2024.

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[Julie Elliott in the Chair]

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 2:30, 19 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered international support for Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. The southern Caucasus is a melting pot of cultures, religions and ethnicities. Over the centuries, these different groups have at times co-existed peacefully and at other times experienced turmoil and bloodshed. In recent memory, we saw the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1923, when an estimated 1.5 million people were killed by forces from the Ottoman empire. As the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, officially voted to become part of Armenia. Azerbaijan sought to suppress the separatist movement, while Armenia backed it. This led to clashes and eventually a full-scale war. Tens of thousands died and up to 1 million were displaced, amid reports of ethnic cleansing and massacres committed on both sides.

The most recent hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan show that conflict is never far away. Although they have recently negotiated a peace agreement, tensions remain high, and if there is a peace it is certainly fragile. Just last year, a number of us gathered in Westminster Hall to raise concerns about the blockade of the Lachin corridor, the main supply route from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. At the time, several hon. Members highlighted the potential for starvation and humanitarian catastrophe. The supposed Russian peacekeepers were at best observers and at worst actively supporting the ongoing persecution of the local Armenian population.

Sadly, the outcome we most feared was realised last September when, after a nine-month blockade, the Azeri military expelled the Armenian population. This forced displacement of a people has taken place when the eyes of the world are turned elsewhere. As Armenia is a small country with a population of 3 million, the arrival of more than 100,000 refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as a further 40,000 refugees from the war in 2020, has had a significant impact on it.

I was a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation that visited Armenia last month. We met a group of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, who described the events of the blockade and their eventual expulsion in harrowing detail. They described the so-called Russian peacekeepers travelling to Armenia—a privilege not afforded to the local population—and buying goods and supplies only to resell them to the starving people at massively inflated prices. They described the difficulty of acquiring medical supplies, fuel and even water. They described the violent end of the blockade, when the people were shelled out of their homes. We heard how the shelling started at 12.30 pm, when children were at school and separated from their parents. They described the chaos of people trying to locate their loved ones, and of people abandoning their home with just the clothes on their back.

The lucky ones had some fuel in their vehicles; the others just walked. The 40 km journey to Armenia took three days because of Azeri forces’ continued bombardment and because of obstructive bureaucracy by the Azeris at the border. The lack of water on the journey meant that many, especially the elderly, did not make it.

Many of the refugees are now staying with family members in border towns and in and around Jermuk, but every Armenian town has been impacted by the influx of refugees. The refugees are, of course, critical of Azerbaijan, but they are also critical of the Russian peacekeepers’ failure to protect them.

A number of officials we met believe that the Russian forces had been directed by Moscow to foster instability, not peace. This seems to be substantiated by Kremlin rhetoric. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has insisted that Russia does not bear blame; he said that there was “no direct reason” for the exodus, merely that people were willing to leave. As an aside, non-intervention by Russian peacekeepers sets a dangerous precedent that international humanitarian law can be breached without repercussions, and opens up the risk of future Azerbaijani incursions into Armenia, for example to secure a path to its exclave of Nakhchivan.

When we met the mayor of Jermuk near the border, he described the triaging that had taken place and the intensive support, both practical and psychological, needed for these broken people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed that, noting that the 100,000 refugees required critical support.

For many, this ethnic cleansing of a people has echoes of the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1923. It is notable that while 34 countries, including the USA, Canada and France, have recognised the historic genocide, the UK has failed to do so. Several hon. Members have raised that point, including Tim Loughton. In denying formal acknowledgement of the historic atrocity, the UK Government continue to delegitimise the collective pain endured by the Armenian community. A Foreign Office memo from 1999 is revealing as to the motivations behind the UK’s position. It reads:

“Given the importance of our relationship (political, strategic, commercial) with Turkey…recognising the genocide would provide no practical benefit to the UK”.

I would appreciate a response from the Minister on whether the failure to recognise the historic genocide is simply an attempt to appease a trading partner.

Let me return to the situation on the ground in Armenia. In October 2023, UNHCR launched a $97 million emergency refugee response plan to provide urgent humanitarian aid and protection to the refugees and to those hosting them in Armenia. That support runs out at the end of this month, but not one refugee has been able to return home. Although there has been international support, for which the Armenian Government are grateful, far more is required. The US has committed $28 million since 2020, the EU has provided €17.5 million since September, and France committed €27.5 million in 2023. The UK, to date, has committed £1 million.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech outlining the scale of the crisis for Armenians who have left Nagorno-Karabakh and are now refugees. Does she agree that £1 million is woefully insufficient to support the Armenian Government in helping those refugees, and that we need to hugely scale up our support?

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

I think it is important that we are not critical of the support that has been given, and £1 million is a good starting place, but I agree with the hon. Member. I ask the Minister what further financial and humanitarian support the UK will provide for the Armenian Government to support the refugees and their hosts in Armenia. Aside from providing aid, the UK Government have a moral responsibility to show leadership in the region. They must undertake all diplomatic efforts to foster dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan and help to create the conditions for a true sustainable peace that will allow displaced Armenians to return home.

In October 2023, the UK Government argued:

“It is vital that international humanitarian organisations have independent access…We therefore welcome Azerbaijan’s decision last week to allow UN agencies into Nagorno-Karabakh, to complement ongoing efforts by the ICRC”— the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, given that the Armenian population had been ethnically cleansed a month earlier, that seems rather futile.

In January 2024, the UK Government stated:

“We welcomed the two countries’ historic joint statement of 7 December, in which important confidence-building measures were announced, aimed at reaching an historic agreement and securing lasting peace for the region.”

However, there is little confidence that that peace agreement will be sustained.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

The hon. Member mentions a lack of confidence that the progress towards peace will be sustained. I have a couple of questions. First, does she welcome the bilateral agreements and discussions between the leaders and Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia towards that end? Secondly, can she explain why, or from whom, the lack of confidence is coming?

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

First, any agreement that is reached has to be welcomed. Any steps forward have to be welcomed. As for who is concerned, the people we spoke to in the border towns who see Azeri incursions—who see the troops coming over the border—are the ones who are telling us that they do not have confidence in the agreement. That is because they are not seeing it being played out in real time in front of them.

Given the events of the past six months, I was concerned to read that in November 2023 Foreign Office officials were encouraging British business leaders to capitalise on lucrative commercial opportunities in Nagorno-Karabakh to support President Aliyev’s rebuilding agenda. That is quite simply an abdication of the UK Government’s moral and ethical responsibilities. It is also hypocritical. How can the UK Government condemn Azerbaijan’s “unacceptable use of force” in Nagorno-Karabakh in September and then, six weeks later, encourage British commercial involvement in the region? Can the Minister provide clarity on the reasons for encouraging British businesses to exploit the tragic situation?

Despite limited attention from international media, the situation on the ground in Armenia remains critical. Urgent assistance is required for the refugees and for those supporting them. When we asked the refugees about their hope for the future, they responded that they simply wished to return home. The International Court of Justice has issued an order requiring Azerbaijan to

“ensure that persons who have left…and who wish to return to Nagorno-Karabakh are able to do so in a safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner…free from the use of force or intimidation.”

Although the Azeri Government state that return is safe, the refugees were clear that this is impossible. They were starved, they were bombed and they were killed, so their hope to return cannot be realised, certainly not at the present time. My final question to the Minister is this: what representations has he made to the Azeri Government on the treatment of the refugees and on their safe passage back to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Order. I remind hon. Members to bob even if they have put in to speak, so that I am clear on who wants to speak.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 2:44, 19 March 2024

Thank you, Ms Elliott. I begin by congratulating Carol Monaghan on obtaining the debate. She was a valuable member of the delegation from the British group of the IPU that I took to Armenia a few weeks ago. It is good to see all the other members of the group in the Chamber today; I suspect all of them will wish to contribute to the debate, with the exception of Lord McInnes, who I am sure is pursuing these issues in the other place. I thank the IPU for arranging the visit and Joe Perry for accompanying us. It is also good to see His Excellency the Ambassador here in Westminster Hall today; he has been hugely helpful.

I think we all felt that to be in Armenia at that time was extremely valuable. I have been to Armenia five times over the past few years, although that is a small number compared with the visits that Baroness Cox has made; indeed, she is known as the Angel of Artsakh because of her numerous visits. However, on a previous occasion I was able to visit Nagorno-Karabakh to talk to the Administration at that time. I did so because I believe that one of the most important things for us to do as Members of Parliament is to hear the arguments from both sides and see things for ourselves. I was very disappointed that the consequence of my simply going to Nagorno-Karabakh was that I was blacklisted by Azerbaijan; indeed, I believe that I am still blacklisted by Azerbaijan, simply for visiting Nagorno-Karabakh and holding those talks.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West has described what I have to say were extremely moving meetings that we held with the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. Whatever the rights and wrongs, to listen at first hand to their reports of the suffering that they endured was a very emotional experience—particularly some of the tales about how, without being given any notice, they were dragged from their homes and forced to march to neighbouring Armenia, which took a number of days. Not all of the people who set out made it to Armenia; some died on the way.

I pay tribute to the people we met in Jermuk, particularly the governor and the mayor, for the way Jermuk has opened its doors and welcomed the refugees. They continue to give them support. However, 100,000 people have moved into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh and that has imposed enormous pressure, so I absolutely endorse the calls for us to give them support.

I will say just a little about the conflict that has been raging for many years between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is the case that Nagorno-Karabakh is within the borders of Azerbaijan, but it was populated by Armenians. It is also true that a number of Azeris had previously been displaced. However, I do not want to get into the arguments about sovereignty and the history behind them. We have a humanitarian need to support refugees.

We were also privileged to hear from the Catholicos of All ArmeniansHis Holiness represents all Armenians —about the impact of the conflict on the priests and the churches in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also a matter of serious concern. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the cause of repeated conflicts and tensions between two neighbouring countries for decades, although there now appears to be a possibility of resolving the conflict and reaching a peaceful settlement.

We were extremely privileged to have a meeting with Prime Minister Pashinyan, who expressed to us his wish to achieve a peace and the plan he is putting forward to achieve peace. One of the most remarkable things about the plan that is being advanced by the Prime Minister of Armenia at the moment is that it does not contain any territorial ambitions to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh. That has been the subject of some criticism, as we heard from members of the opposition in Yerevan, but it is a realistic recognition of what has happened and an attempt now to try and attain a peaceful settlement.

There are still issues to be resolved, in particular the issue of the corridor connecting Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan. Those are both Azeri territories, but the corridor will go through Armenia, which—quite understandably—believes that any corridor through its own land must be controlled by Armenia, although they are open to negotiating free access to ensure that it is possible to travel easily between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan.

However, despite the apparent opportunity that now exists to obtain a peaceful settlement—we heard repeatedly from Armenians their desire to do so—in the last few hours the Prime Minister has issued a statement saying that Armenia could be at war by the end of the week, because Armenians believe that Azerbaijan continues to have territorial ambitions not just to take back control of Nagorno-Karabakh, as it has done, but for Armenia itself. So it is a very fragile situation.

As leader of the UK delegation, I met members of the Azerbaijan delegation to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe when I was in Vienna a couple of weeks ago. They are absolutely adamant that they have no aggressive intent towards Armenia and that this is propaganda being put out by the side of Armenia. Yet even while we were in Armenia, four Armenian soldiers were killed in the continuing conflict around the border. We were also taken up to see territory that is undoubtedly Armenia but is still under occupation by Azerbaijan.

There are some serious issues to resolve, but given the expressions of willingness to reach a settlement that are being made by both sides, now represents an opportunity for anything that we can do to facilitate that—I will be interested to hear the Minister’s view—because there are wider strategic issues at stake. Armenia is a former Soviet country. It has a Russian military base and has been seen to be closely allied with Russia. However, partially because of the feeling among people in Armenia that they received no support from Russia when they were under attack, there is a real anger and a wish to break away and move closer to the west. That was something else we heard when we were there; indeed, Prime Minister Pashinyan has been quite courageous in already making clear Armenia’s willingness to leave the Collective Security Treaty Organisation of Russia and its former satellites. His ambition to move Armenia closer to the west is in some ways not dissimilar to the decisions taken in Ukraine 10 years ago when it, too, decided that its destiny lay not with Russia but with the west and the EU. In the same way that we supported Ukraine in its ambition, we should be supporting Armenia in that.

I came back from Armenia in some ways encouraged that that was its clear decision, and that it saw its future lying in closer relations with this country. At the same time, a dangerous situation still pertains between the two neighbours. I think that there are opportunities to help resolve the situation that are perhaps greater than they have been for many years, so if there is anything that we can do, I hope we will work hard to achieve that.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton 2:52, 19 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. Although this debate’s title is primarily concerned with Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, there is a complex situation in a complex region, with multiple factors at play in some 4,400 square kilometres. Whether we call it annexation or occupation, the refugee crisis results from a struggle that struggles at the moment to gain attention in a world where we are becoming increasingly desensitised to conflict, be it Russia-Ukraine or Israel-Palestine. Yet we talk here of a European near neighbour—a democracy—that has a hostile neighbouring territory in Azerbaijan, with its aggressions and ethnically motivated crimes against Armenians.

The figures are grim, with 10 months of illegal blockading of food, fuel and electricity and the forced displacement of 100,000 people. My interest in the matter comes from my constituents. We have a vibrant and sizeable Armenian community and many members are hyphenated Armenians—Iranian-Armenians, Syrian-Armenians or Turkish-Armenians—underscoring that this is a country that has had pogroms, massacres and genocides for many years.

I was on the delegation in February with other MPs. That visit took in the Prime Minister, the President of the very handsome wood-panelled National Assembly, Opposition and Government people and, in fact, a Minister for Economy who had to resign hours after our visit. However, it was only when we got out of the embassies and the ministries and we got out to Jermuk in the snow-capped hills that the most memorable aspect of the visit took place. We got out of the cosy confines of the capital, Yerevan, and took in the ancient monastery on our route in the mountains, in a sign that that was the cradle of Christendom.

The atrocities we have seen—the destruction of churches and crosses, and the attempt to entirely delete Armenian culture through the renaming of towns and cities—are sickening. As Sir John Whittingdale pointed out, during our visit four soldiers were killed. The most memorable aspect of our visit was the refugees we saw.

Jermuk, which is known as a bottled water brand with a reindeer as its logo, was once a fashionable ski resort and spa town, but it is now 80% deserted because of the decline of that former trade. Instead, it is readjusting to its new existence, accommodating the influx of Nagorno-Karabakh refugees.

We heard harrowing stories of human suffering—really touching stuff about people who fled on foot in the absence of fuel and took days and days to get over the border. We heard about the sadistic actions of the Russian soldiers, with their black market boiling sweets and all sorts of other horrific stuff. We spoke to the mayor and governor of Jermuk. Generations of these people have been beset by trauma, but they have integrated well and are grateful for what the municipality has been doing,

In this country, our voice should be stronger. In this Chamber in 2020, we debated the blockade of the Lachin corridor, but our weak response emboldened those actions. This was totally foreseeable all those years ago.

It has been pointed out that Armenia has an old elite that moved from a velvet revolution, and is turning away from Russian influence—I think it has been called the pivot away from the Kremlin. The transition has not been comfortable. The EU has granted candidate status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, but Armenia has had no such privilege. It also has no love from Russia, despite the fact that it is still a member of the CSTO.

We vowed to use our voices to raise the plight of the Armenians on our return. We laid flowers at the national genocide memorial—again, the very fact that there is a national genocide memorial is significant. The hyphenated Armenians of Ealing and Acton remind us of how wide the Armenian diaspora is: it is scattered throughout many countries, forced out by continuous persecution, genocide and displacement. Among the 20,000 Armenians in London, we have Ukrainian-Armenian communities. Ealing has long commemorated the Armenian genocide of 1915. We have an apricot tree at Ealing Green, which was upgraded this September to a more permanent memorial, but it has already been vandalised by, it is suspected, the Turkish Grey Wolves group, which protested its inauguration last autumn.

I have called for this Government to recognise 1915 as a genocide. Our closest ally, Biden, has done so, and yet there has been no budging from our Government. This timidity—this vacuum—encourages these actions by Azerbaijan, which has recently had an election whose result was entirely foreseeable, rather like the Russian election this weekend.

Ealing and Acton are richer for having the Navasartian centre in Northfield and the Hayashen centre in Acton, which have both done fundraising for Nagorno-Karabakh refugees, but what are our Government doing? It feels as if, in our post-Brexit world, we are desperate for trade deals. On the role of BP, I would like to ask the Minister how much oil pulls the strings of these relationships. People who did election observation in Baku said that they could smell the oil when they landed; it is all about oil. It is ironic that COP29 will be held in Baku—what an act of greenwashing. Yesterday at the all-party parliamentary group, we heard that the ground was being rendered infertile for flora and fauna by this scorched earth policy.

I pay tribute to my Armenian communities, and I want to press the Government on aid. We know that the 0.7% commitment, which the manifestos we all stood on pledged to maintain, has been cut. Could there be a Homes for Ukraine-type scheme for refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh? We saw the trauma and the need for psychological help for people who have undergone this recent cycle of violence—and it is a cycle of violence. Ultimately, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh want to return to their land, to the places that they have lived in for millennia, even though we see attempts to wipe out territories such as Artsakh from the map.

While the eyes of the world might be elsewhere, we must be consistent in our principles. On Ukraine, we say that self-determination is right and destruction is wrong, so why can we not apply the same principles consistently here?

Shnorhavor. Thank you.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 3:00, 19 March 2024

I congratulate Carol Monaghan on securing yet another debate on Armenia and Armenians. We have spoken a lot in this Chamber and in the main Chamber. We have had my private Member’s Bill—the Recognition of Armenian Genocide Bill—and others, and we had a debate on the Lachin corridor blockade at the start of the recent problem. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group for Armenia and as part of a delegation that went to Armenia last Easter at the invitation of the Armenian Government. There is strong interest in the subject, not only among colleagues here today but in the overflowing Public Gallery, for which extra furniture has had to be provided. That does not happen often.

We had an alarming and sobering briefing yesterday from the former human rights ombudsman for Armenia, Dr Tatoyan. He gave us an update on the latest threat facing Armenia, as well as the chronology of what has happened in Nagorno-Karabakh over the past year.

I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West and my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale have said, so I will not repeat it, but will highlight the origins of the issue. The recent conflict goes back to 27 September 2020 when Azerbaijan, emboldened by strong military support from Turkey and with equipment provided by Israel, among others, launched an unprovoked and large-scale military invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Over 44 consecutive days, Azerbaijan relentlessly assaulted Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in the tragic loss of over 400 Armenian lives. Civilian infrastructure, including churches, schools and hospitals, became deliberate targets of Azerbaijan. There was a particular concern, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned, about some of the Christian relics and monuments, because Armenia was, of course, the first Christian country. We do not have to go far in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh to see the history behind that.

The conflict ended in a ceasefire agreement on 9 November 2020 between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, but the trilateral statement was heavily skewed against Armenia. Let us fast-forward to the end of 2022 and the blockade of the Lachin corridor, with bogus eco-protesters supposedly blockading that vital corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Azerbaijan completely ignored all orders under international law and the International Court of Justice to clear the corridor. Instead, Azerbaijani soldiers replaced the protesters.

On 19 September last year Azerbaijan launched a full-scale offensive, piling into Nagorno-Karabakh, mercilessly reoccupying territory and driving Armenians out of the homes that they had been in for generations. They blockaded escape routes out of the territory, as we heard yesterday, and took a number of military and political prisoners—specific individuals.

Despite the Azerbaijani Government’s having assured an amnesty, they took into captivity former Nagorno-Karabakh Presidents Arkady Ghukasyan, Bako Sahakyan and Arayik Harutyunyan. They remain in captivity. Other political prisoners of war include Ruben Vardanyan, Davit Ishkhanyan, Davit Babayan, Davit Manukyan and Levon Mnatsakanyan—Hansard will be relieved to know that I have provided details of those individuals.

What was the result of all that? Frankly, it was full-scale ethnic cleansing. The population of Nagorno-Karabakh used to be 160,000 before the 2020 war. Women, the elderly and sick people were evacuated during the initial bombings, and many never went back after the ceasefire in November 2020. The very sick and some students left Nagorno-Karabakh during the blockade. It is estimated most recently that after the attacks in September 2023, 105,000 Armenians left Nagorno-Karabakh, in a state of chaos, on blocked roads that took hours and days to negotiate.

It has been calculated that Nagorno-Karabakh is almost completely empty of its original population, with just 50 people remaining. Armenian sources report that those people who remained due to age or physical and mental conditions are even unable to use their mobile phones. That huge surge of people into Armenia has had an impact on the population of Armenia, which is not a large country of 2.8 million population. Just over 100,000 represents 3% of that country’s population suddenly appearing on its doorstep.

It is also a country that lacks funds and a long-term plan, so it has been a really difficult set of circumstances to cope with. The Armenian Government have generously given one-off payments of $250 to the refugees, followed by a $185 monthly stipend. The average wage in Armenia is $668 a month. A quarter of the Nagorno-Karabakhans were already living below the official poverty line.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned that there had been pledges of support from the EU, but there has been a big delay in the disbursement of those funds and funds from other countries. The UK has so far pledged only £1 million, which is a good start but does not reflect the scale of a humanitarian crisis that has gone so under the radar because the world’s attention, as we know, is on what is going in Ukraine and in Israel and Gaza. Those new arrivals from Nagorno-Karabakh include 30,000 children and 18,000 aged over 65. There are many men with limbs missing from war injuries and landmine explosions from the conflict. This is a population in above-average need of help and support.

What has Azerbaijan done? Azerbaijan is trying completely to remodel, rename and reculturalise—if there is such a word—the entire territory. In October last year, Azerbaijan renamed one of the streets in the city of Stepanakert after Enver Pasha, one of the architects of the Armenian genocide. What more hostile, provocative act could there be? In March, just a few days ago, footage was aired on Azerbaijan television of various buildings and monuments in the capital Stepanakert, including its historic parliament building, being demolished for no good reason.

There are more than 4,000 Armenian historical and cultural monuments across Nagorno-Karabakh, among them churches, khachkars, burial grounds, historical cemeteries and bridges. There is a real concern about the future of the culture of Armenians left behind in Nagorno-Karabakh that could not be taken out of the country.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

When we were in Jermuk, we saw two khachkars—the posts with crosses—that had been removed from Nagorno-Karabakh. They were in pieces. We were told that there were many thousands that people could not take with them. The ones that we saw were more a thousand years old, and there will be many others left behind. It is real cultural destruction.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

It is completely gratuitous, unnecessary cultural destruction. It is all about trying to erase the name, the culture, the history and the heritage of a people who have lived in that territory for many, many generations. After the 2020 invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Government of Azerbaijan blatantly issued a set of postage stamps picturing a man in a hazmat suit, effectively cleaning out Armenians from the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. That is ethnic cleansing, in any shape or form that one might describe it.

We have a number of asks for the Minister today. Notwithstanding our long-standing and important economic links with Azerbaijan, we have humanitarian responsibilities and a long-standing relationship with Armenia, Armenians, and the Armenian diaspora across the world and in the United Kingdom. Will the Government investigate whether ethnic cleansing under the UN definitions has taken place? If so, what are the implications of that? Will the Government press for investigation in respect of both political and military prisoners who are still being held by the Azeris?

What will the Government do to put pressure on the Azerbaijanis to withdraw from the 4,400-square-kilometre territory within sovereign Armenian boundaries that they are still occupying—some 30 or so villages? As we have heard, there is great alarm that they may make further military encroachments deeper into clear, sovereign Armenian territory in the very near future.

There need to be consequences for these abuses of international law. There need to be sanctions. I think the UK has a role to play in any peacekeeping force that could go back in to make Nagorno-Karabakh and the borders of Armenia safe, because this is a very fragile situation. We have a duty of care here. One of the duties of this House is to make the world aware of this ethnic cleansing and this huge humanitarian crisis—it may have been going on beneath the world’s radar while its attention is turned elsewhere, but that makes it no less serious a humanitarian crisis—that is going on as we speak.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Shadow Minister (Wales) 3:11, 19 March 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. I thank Carol Monaghan for securing a very important debate and for her clear and excellent speech setting out the plight of the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. The debate is obviously timely, given the return of the IPU delegation to Yerevan—I think all of us have turned up to this debate. Our thanks go to the IPU, to Joe Perry and to our leader there, Sir John Whittingdale, for organising that visit. It is also timely because of the uncertainty about continuation of the UN aid that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West spoke of earlier.

It was poignant for me to visit two years on from the previous delegation. Then, we were warned many times, in stark terms, that while the eyes of the world were elsewhere, Azerbaijan would take control of Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia would stand by. Members of the APPG—I declare an interest—who were on that visit raised questions and debates and went to see the Minister about that; I remember a particularly feisty speech by Tim Loughton on it. And that was exactly what happened following the nine-month blockade, designed to drive the ethnic Armenian population out in a brutal way, which the European Parliament has described as ethnic cleansing.

That is why now we should heed the warnings from those we met in Yerevan just a few weeks ago, who told us that the risk of escalation is ever present—in fact, four Armenian soldiers were killed during our visit there. I am talking about the encroachment on 30 villages, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to; the incidents on the borders; and the fear that Azerbaijan could use military force to impose the Zangezur transport corridor—supported by Russia—with references to Armenia as “western Azerbaijan”. It is a fragile ceasefire. I hope the Minister today will acknowledge that fear and do all he can, with the levers he has and with the relationship he has with Azerbaijan, to be a friend to Armenia.

The subject of today’s debate is, rightly, the fate of those driven from their homes. Most of them have ended up in Armenia, although some are in Russia and Europe. We talk of 100,000-plus refugees—almost the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh, as others have said—but we should also remember the 40,000 displaced in the 2020 conflict. One in 30 of Armenia’s population is now from Nagorno-Karabakh; although the Armenian Government have tried to be generous with the payments the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to and with housing, psychological support and employment, it is an enormous number of people to integrate and a long-term plan will be needed for those exposed and facing an uncertain future.

Like other hon. Members, I will never forget those refugees we met in Jermuk. We promised them that we would give them a voice, and we are doing so today. They were subjected to a nine-month blockade, lacking food, medicine, energy and fuel— surrounded and very isolated. We heard of those killed and injured by shrapnel, of those forced to walk the three days to Armenia—as fuel was only sold at inflated prices, if they could get it—and of those who died on that walk. We heard of mothers who boiled sweets to get sugar into their children, and reports of Russian peacekeepers who sold food at inflated prices, exploiting human misery. We also heard of the refugees’ arrival with absolutely nothing but the scars they carried from that blockade—too fearful to ever return home, if ever they could.

We saw on our visit the generosity, led by the mayor and the governor, of the local authorities and communities that are trying to help. However, the magnitude of the problem is beyond what Armenia can cope with. International humanitarian aid has come, but more will be needed; 60 international and local organisations have helped, and Armenia has taken out a loan from the World Bank. The diaspora, including the community in south Wales—I thank them for their efforts—have also helped, but longer-term integration will require more, with housing and employment a priority.

Resolving humanitarian issues must be prioritised alongside diplomatic negotiations. It would therefore be good to hear from the Minister what more the UK Government can do with their international partners to address the plight of the refugees and the scale of the problem right now. We have already talked about the £1 million given in aid and how that should be increased. Could the Minister also explain what he knows about the UNHCR response plan? That plan sets out relief efforts until the end of this month. What happens next?

More generally, could the Minister explain what conversations the Government are having with the Government of Azerbaijan regarding the right to return for those who are displaced? With Armenia freezing its membership of the CSTO and significantly rebalancing its international relations, what practical steps is the UK taking to embrace Armenia’s pivot to the west? I also join other hon. Members in asking the Minister about reports that the Government encouraged businesses to get involved in the rebuilding of Nagorno-Karabakh, exploiting what is a horrific situation.

I know the Minister has visited Armenia twice in recent times. With Armenia reliant on its neighbour for trade, energy and grain, what more can the Government do to build on the strength of those ministerial visits, and on strategic partnerships, to co-operate on energy projects, infrastructure, transport and defence? I also want to raise the issue of acknowledging the genocide in 1915. In Cardiff we have the first memorial to that genocide in the UK, and many of us join members of the Armenian community in their commemorations there.

I also join other hon. Members in raising the destruction of cultural sites and artefacts, particularly the khachkars that we saw when we visited the Catholicos. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North West said, we saw just two; they were absolutely beautiful and ancient, but we were told that there were thousands more that have been destroyed.

There has been a very good turnout for this debate, not least in the very busy Public Gallery. Will the Minister please recognise that, and acknowledge that we in this Parliament care about the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, that we care about Armenia, and that we want our Government to actively help to strengthen our relationship with, and be a friend to, Armenia. As my hon. Friend Dr Huq said so well earlier, our voice in this place should be stronger.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Order. I call David Duguid, but I ask him to bear in mind that we have nine and half minutes left for Back Benchers.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan 3:18, 19 March 2024

I will bear that in mind, Ms Elliott. I will start by drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests, which includes my role as an officer in the all-party parliamentary group for Azerbaijan. My wife is from Azerbaijan, and I wish all my family and friends there who might be watching this debate a very happy Nowruz for tomorrow.

The history of the Karabakh region is a long and complicated one, as other hon. and right hon. Members have already said. It predates the formation of the Soviet Union, but for most observers and commentators—and for the purposes of today’s debate—the history since the fall of the Soviet Union is most relevant. However, the stated history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including that stated in today’s debate, does not always go right back to the start of recent hostilities that predated the fall of the Soviet Union. Separatist demonstrations, confrontations and skirmishes, as well as failed interventions by the Soviet leadership, took place at various times between 1988 and 1991. During that time, Azerbaijanis living in Armenia were also forced to flee from that country.

The conflict escalated into all-out war after Armenia and Azerbaijan attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Often, when the history of this period is presented, it only goes back to when Armenian-backed forces were already in full occupation of the region, even though it was internationally recognised as the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. However, what is not often reported—it has not been mentioned by hon. Members today, at least not yet—is that as a result of the occupation of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, over 800,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis from that region also became displaced.

Jumping ahead, in 1994 a ceasefire was reached through Russian mediation, but skirmishes continued along what became known as the line of contact. During that time of ceasefire, there were a number of international resolutions. In January 2005, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe condemned ethnic cleansing against Azerbaijanis. In May 2007, the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation adopted a resolution considering the occupation of Azerbaijani territory as the aggression of Armenia against Azerbaijan, recognising the actions against Azerbaijani civilians as a crime against humanity and condemning the destruction of archaeological, cultural and religious monuments in the occupied territories.

In March 2008, an OIC resolution further condemned the occupation of Azerbaijani lands by Armenian forces and Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, ethnic cleansing against the Azeri population, etc. Also in March 2008, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 62/243, which demanded the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Finally—although this is not by any means an exhaustive list of the resolutions that were made—in May 2010, the European Parliament in Strasbourg adopted the resolution that the occupied Azerbaijani regions around Nagorno-Karabakh must be cleared as soon as possible.

In September 2020, a new war erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, in response to which the United Nations called on both sides to de-escalate tensions and resume meaningful negotiations. That war ended in November 2020, when a trilateral ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia was signed, according to which Azerbaijan regained all of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as one third of Nagorno-Karabakh proper, including Shusha and Hadrut.

Unfortunately, an identifying feature of this conflict has been the extensive use of landmines throughout the area, particularly along the contact line, as well as in the form of booby traps that were left behind by departing Armenian occupying forces. According to the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action, as a result of a survey that is still ongoing, it was initially estimated that over 1 million hectares of land in that area could be contaminated by approximately 1.5 million landmines.

From 1991 until the ceasefire in 2020, over 3,000 people —I think it was almost 3,500 people—were injured or killed by landmines in this area. However, even since that ceasefire in 2020, a further 346 people have been added to that number, as of 5 March this year. With landmine contamination accounting for some 12% of Azerbaijan territories, coupled with reports that Armenia was failing to provide reliable maps, the threats emanating from the mines will continue to disrupt the life and economic wellbeing of Azerbaijani displaced persons for decades to come.

I welcome the assistance that the United Kingdom Government have given up to now, not just to the specific mine-clearing efforts in Azerbaijan but towards the learning of valuable lessons during that operation, which will no doubt prove invaluable in other areas of conflict where landmines are being used.

Others have discussed the events of 2022 to 2023, which culminated in the return of occupied territories to Azerbaijan. At that time, there was an exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians from the area, mostly to Armenia itself, which is the core subject of this debate. There is no doubt that the conflict itself and the return of occupied territories to Azerbaijan must have been distressing and destabilising for the people living in Karabakh. In some way, the desire to flee may be understandable, particularly given some of the propaganda and fearmongering that might have taken place with regard to the intentions of the Azerbaijani authorities. However, Azerbaijan refutes any accusation of ethnic Armenians being forcibly removed.

Various UN missions, including experts from UNICEF, the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, visited the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan twice in October 2023 and did not come across any reports of mistreatment with respect to ethnic Armenians or civilian infrastructure, including cultural objects.

Similarly, the UNHCR and the Red Cross, present on the ground throughout, have not—

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Order. I did say that we had until 3.28 pm, and we have one more speaker.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

You said nine and a half minutes.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

I apologise—I misheard. I will skip ahead to my conclusions, in that case.

Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly and unambiguously confirmed their commitment to create conditions for Armenians to stay and reintegrate and to ensure the right to return for those Armenians who can apply for Azerbaijani citizenship. Their return should of course be respectful of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. As Azerbaijan sees it, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is over. With the exception of a few local incidents, the past five months have been the calmest period in the history of the former conflict going back to the late 1980s.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have never been this close to peace since they were neighbouring Soviet republics. I will not repeat the full extent of what has been done, but, as part of the confidence-building measures, Armenia supported Azerbaijan’s bid to host COP29, while Azerbaijan supports Armenia’s candidacy for COP Bureau membership. Both sides have been working continuously on the draft peace agreement throughout the past five months.

As I mentioned earlier, Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Ministers have met, as have their countries’ respective leaders. All those meetings have appeared to be positive and constructive, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on how he and the UK Government view the progression of those talks. As Azerbaijan and Armenia engage in direct negotiations to reach sustainable peace, it is important that the progress of those negotiations, and therefore the future of the whole region, is not undermined by domestic or international political interference.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:26, 19 March 2024

I commend Carol Monaghan for setting the scene well. She spoke about the 100,000 refugees. Let us focus on what the debate is about: the refugees and the fact that they have been abused. They have been attacked, had their property stolen and had health and education issues. Their whole way of life has changed because of the aggression of Azerbaijan. We should be clear about what has happened and be under no illusions. I remember a former Member in this House, Stephen Pound, was a friend of Armenia, and he told me many times about stories that related to that. There is absolutely no doubt that Russia’s aggression towards Armenia has had a detrimental effect on good people, who have been abused as a result.

As my party’s health spokesperson, I want to speak about human rights. The relationship between human rights abuses suffered by minorities and refugee flows and internal displacement has been demonstrated time and again. The link between minorities and refugees was recognised in a resolution of the Commission on Human Rights in 2001 concerning persons belonging to national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities.

With your agreement, Ms Elliott, I will speak quickly about the issue of religious belief and ethnic minorities, because that is what I do in this House as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. I do not know any of the people in the Public Gallery, by the way, but I am sure that some of those people have been disenfranchised for being ethnic minorities or for their religious beliefs. Religious minorities as refugees face greater chances of human rights abuses and discrimination across the whole world. Human rights and freedom of religious belief march hand in hand; if one is taken away so is the other, and that is how it works.

As the conflict continues, the religious rights and actions for and against religious minority refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh must be addressed. I hope that when the Minister sums up, he will take on board that issue. I know that the two shadow spokespeople, the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), will do so. In addition to refugee rights in FORB, the UK must maintain relations and monitoring of the rights of freedom of religion or belief within Armenia during this conflict, because they have lost so much.

I will give an example. I am aware that on 7 February Yerevan’s criminal court of appeal rejected an appeal by 20-year-old Baptist conscientious objector Davit Nazaretyan against a two-year jail term imposed in October 2023 for refusing military service. I am a Baptist as well, and I understand this issue for Baptist religious groups and other groups as well. Nazaretyan’s applications for alternative civilian service were repeatedly denied. He is considering a further appeal and will not be required to go to jail until any further appeal is heard. The last known jailed conscientious objector was freed in 2021.

This will be my last comment. I give you my word, Ms Elliott; I certainly will not take eight minutes to put over my point of view. Freedom House reports:

“Article 18 of the constitution recognises the Armenian Apostolic Church as a ‘national church’ responsible for the preservation of Armenian national identity;
94 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Apostolic. Members of religious minority groups have reported some discrimination in the past.

In 2020, the National Security Service opened an investigation into Yazidi activist Sashik Sultanyan after he publicly stated that Yazidis experience discrimination in Armenia;
international human rights NGOs criticized the investigation as retaliatory and unlawful. The case was apparently ongoing in 2023.”

In conclusion, as someone who takes a deep interest in human rights issues and freedom of religion and belief, on behalf of all the people in the Gallery and the 100,000 who have been disenfranchised and discriminated against, I think it is time to stand up for those people and do the best we can.

Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Scottish National Party, Dundee West 3:30, 19 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank my hon. Friend Carol Monaghan for securing this debate, which is long overdue. It is over a year since we debated the closure of the Lachin corridor and the impact of Azerbaijan’s aggressive actions towards the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh.

In January 2023, the majority of those who spoke recognised the dire humanitarian situation emerging in the region. We understood the tactics being employed by Azerbaijan and we warned that without a sufficient response from the international community, there would be full-scale ethnic cleansing, which is exactly what has happened. As I mentioned at the time, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, made his desired outcome of the blockade clear when he said:

“Whoever doesn’t want to become our citizens can leave, the road is open. They can go by the cars of the Russian peacekeepers, by buses, no one will impede them.”

What a welcome that is. He wanted to force the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to leave their ancestral homeland.

Nine months after that debate, we saw those words put into action after Azerbaijan violated the 2020 ceasefire agreement by launching a full-scale military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh on 19 September. More than 100,000 Armenians—almost all the region’s ethnic Armenian population—fled in fear of persecution, in addition to the 40,000 who had already fled in 2020. The Lachin corridor, which has been blockaded for so long, became the only escape route for those people fleeing on foot, by car or truck, by carriage or tractor—by any means necessary. They left behind their homes and belongings, their churches and cemeteries, and their businesses and schools. They were forcibly displaced from their land and became refugees.

A group of more than a dozen non-governmental organisations, including Genocide Watch, have issued a warning that all the conditions for ethnic cleansing are now in place. What assessment have the UK Government made of that claim, and will the Minister commit to supporting an independent fact-finding mission to establish what has occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh, and to support and promote justice for the victims in the coming months? Furthermore, what conversations is he having with Azerbaijani colleagues regarding the right of return for those who fled Nagorno-Karabakh, and what guarantees for the safety of those displaced would Azerbaijan be willing to provide, in line with the International Court of Justice order?

Armenia now faces an extensive refugee crisis. Within an estimated population of 3 million, one in 30 people in Armenia is now a refugee. Most of the refugee population arrived in Armenia suffering from the acute effects of the blockade, with medical workers reporting a high number of cases of malnourishment, dehydration and a lack of access to prescriptions. Armenia has been generous in providing resources to host refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, but the aid has been straining the state budget, and it is not clear how long the Armenian Government can sustain the payments. It is a huge burden for a country of some 3 million people, a quarter of whom already live below the official poverty line.

In October last year, the UNHCR estimated that the Armenian Government would need $97 million to cover refugees’ essential needs through the end of March. The Armenian Government have sought international aid, but the amounts received have been insufficient. France, the EU and the US have led the way in providing support. France has given €27.5 million in financial support, alongside the delivery of humanitarian aid containing 5 tonnes of medical equipment for the treatment of severely injured persons who have been forcibly displaced. The EU has given €17 million, while the US has provided $11.5 million to address healthcare and other emergency needs.

The UK, meanwhile, has offered only £1 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to meet humanitarian needs. That is a welcome start, but it is not enough. More aid is needed to immediately tackle the ongoing refugee crisis caused by the mass displacement, so will the Minister commit today to providing more financial assistance?

Although aid is much needed, it addresses only the symptoms and not the cause of the crisis. Support and protection are required not just for Armenian refugees, but for Armenian human rights and, ultimately, Armenian sovereignty. Atrocities do not begin when the first family is expelled from their home, or when the first village is razed to the ground. Wars do not begin when the first shot or missile is fired, or when the first troops and tanks cross the border. More often than not, they begin with words. They begin with othering and dehumanising a group of people. They begin by rewriting history, as we heard from David Duguid. They begin by laying claim to other people’s territory.

Let us hear some of the words of the President of Azerbaijan in recent years. Early last decade, he tweeted:

“Armenia as a country is of no value. It is actually a colony, an outpost run from abroad, a territory artificially created on ancient Azerbaijani lands.”

In October 2020, during the war, he made a public address in Azerbaijan in which he said, regarding the progress of the war:

“We are driving them away like dogs!”

A couple of years ago, he encouraged the Azerbaijani media to refer to Armenian settlements by Azerbaijani names, and has encouraged the use of the term “western Azerbaijan” instead of Armenia. All of that is historically incorrect and is hate speech. Those words are being put into practice.

In the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan, all Armenian cultural heritage has been destroyed, most notably the cemetery of Julfa, where thousands of centuries-old monuments were destroyed to make way for a military shooting ground—shocking, is it not? From the Google Earth satellite’s view of the site, an Azerbaijani slogan has been carved on a hillside where the cemetery used to reside, saying, “Everything is for the homeland”. Will Armenian culture and heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh suffer the same fate? More than 4,000 Armenian historical and cultural monuments are under the threat of total destruction. Can the Minister assure me of the steps that the UK Government are taking to preserve that cultural heritage?

Shamefully, the UK Government have also been caught encouraging UK businesses to participate in Aliyev’s plans for Nagorno-Karabakh. One senior UK Government official encouraged business leaders to take advantage of the financial opportunities. He said that a

“huge western chunk of the country…needs to be rebuilt from the ground up”.

Therefore, why are the UK Government not willing to condemn Azerbaijan’s actions towards Armenia, but are instead willing to be complicit and participate in those actions? When the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issued an expert opinion explaining that Azerbaijan’s impeding of food, medical supplies and other essentials in Nagorno-Karabakh represented

“the archetype of genocide through the imposition of conditions of life designed to bring about a group’s destruction”?, and when the ICJ considered it “plausible” that the Lachin corridor blockade produced a real and imminent risk to the health and life of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, why did the UK not take provisions to prevent this?

The renewed conflict demonstrates the failure of years of diplomatic efforts to prevent the persecution of ethnic Armenians. The lack of any condemnation, sanctions for wrongdoing and action to ensure a sustainable peace will only be taken as the green light for further acts of aggression. Indeed, in Syunik province, illegal incursions have been made on Armenian sovereign territories, with the establishment of armed outposts blocking roads, denying access to fields, places of work and places of worship, and intimidating and threatening civilians.

Azerbaijan continues to make territorial demands on Armenia and has ambitions to create the Zangezur corridor connecting Azerbaijan with its Nakhchivan exclave and to Turkey, cutting off Armenia’s southern border with Iran. Any land grab from Azerbaijan is illegal under international law, and the UK has a duty to take a stand on that. Will the Minister make it crystal clear today that this is unacceptable? These are the next steps in creating what President Aliyev calls “western Azerbaijan”, and it is, quite simply, akin to the Putin playbook in Ukraine being repeated by Aliyev in Armenia. We cannot, and must not, embolden this behaviour.

Throughout the world, the rules-based system is under threat by the actions of leaders who believe they can act with impunity. The flouting of international law is becoming more commonplace, and it is getting closer and closer to home. Whether it is Russia, Israel or Azerbaijan, the UK cannot pick and choose when human rights protections and international law apply depending on who it is allies with. If the UK is to play a credible role in the world, it must be consistent, and in this instance, it must support the rights of Armenian refugees and the Armenian people.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 3:38, 19 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Elliott. I thank Carol Monaghan for securing this crucial debate. We have heard typically powerful speeches from across the House, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), Tim Loughton, Sir John Whittingdale and Jim Shannon.

With such an unsettled global landscape, we must be absolutely clear not to lose sight of enduring geopolitical hotspots with the potential to lead to further human suffering and risk the escalation of wider tensions. Tensions in the Caucasus are a key example of that, and I am pleased that we are able to debate that today.

The situation in the region remains very serious. I remain in regular contact with both the Armenian and Azerbaijani ambassadors to the UK, and I have met the Foreign Ministers of both Azerbaijan and Armenia in recent times. We all want to see peace and stability in the region. Any return to the full-scale conflict of recent years would be an absolute disaster for the region and for all peoples. It is fair to say, as we have heard today, that this has been a profoundly challenging year for the people in the region and more broadly.

Last September, Azerbaijan launched a military incursion into Nagorno-Karabakh, which, at the time, was home to an ethnic Armenian population of 120,000 people. That was preceded by the nine-month blockade of the Lachin corridor, leading to shortages of food, fuel, medicines and basic provisions, which completely undid the social fabric of the enclave and led the UN to declare a humanitarian emergency in August 2023. I have raised that issue regularly with the Minister, publicly and in debates in the House.

We saw gas supplies cut off and electricity and communications damaged; I know that that was a concern to Members across the House. Nagorno-Karabakh became unreachable to the world and the implications of that period of such unimaginable insecurity and uncertainty continue, understandably, to reverberate throughout the population, now displaced, with lives altered irrevocably. No people should have to live in such conditions.

Last September, Nagorno-Karabakh came under direct Azeri control, and the ethnic Armenian population has now had to flee into Armenia. Although the ICJ issued provisional measures in November 2023, ordering Azerbaijan to allow ethnic Armenians to return

“in a safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner”, they remain in Armenia.

I am pleased that efforts have since been made by both countries and by global interlocutors, include the EU, the United States and ourselves, to find peace and normalise relations. The situation remains very precarious. Any further deterioration would only compound the suffering experienced by the people, especially the refugees located around Yerevan and Syunik.

From reports in recent days, peace seems closer than ever, publicly at least, but we have to remain cognisant that, given the recent history, we will have to go much further to bring tensions down and to ensure that the territorial integrity of both Armenia and Azerbaijan is maintained. We have heard powerful testimony from colleagues who went on the recent IPU visit, and we must remember that there is always a tragic human face to conflicts such as these.

As Action Against Hunger highlights, Armenia now faces an extensive refugee crisis. One in 30 people in the country is a refugee. More than half of those refugees are women and girls, nearly one third are children, and nearly one fifth are elderly. Their whole lives have been uprooted.

There is a mental health crisis, too. Nearly 22,500 of those refugees are estimated to be living with a mental health condition. Clearly, it is beyond the capacity of any one Government to manage this crisis. Despite the many global crises we face, which we debate regularly in this place, including in the main Chamber, we cannot allow the Armenian refugees to endure the challenges of 2024 without adequate support and without a clear means of beginning to rebuild the lives that they lost in September last year.

I have a number of questions to the Minister, and I hope he will be able to provide some clarity. First, will the UK Government continue to play a constructive and substantial role in brokering lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan? What recent discussions has he had with counterparts from both countries and other interlocutors? What were the outcomes of those discussions?

What discussions has he had with French and American officials, particularly about dealing with the impact on individuals who have been displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh? How can we work together to provide critical support to those refugees? We simply cannot return to the violence of 2020, when more than 6,500 people lost their lives and civilians had to live under the perpetual threat of conflict and violence. We need to work, of course, with European and regional partners to secure a return to dialogue more broadly and a peaceful settlement.

I hope that the Minister can provide some further clarity on the funding issues that colleagues have raised. In September last year, he and the Government announced £1 million for the ICRC to support its humanitarian response for those refugees. The FCDO said in February this year that it continues to liaise with the UN, ICRC and other NGOs to assess humanitarian needs in the region.

What have the results of those assessments been? What has that money been spent on? Indeed, has it all been spent? Is it the view that the £1 million payment is sufficient? In comparison, France announced in December that it was taking its total contribution to emergency appeals to €27.5 million. The EU has provided €17.5 million in humanitarian aid to assist those displaced in Armenia. I hope the Minister can provide clarity on the sufficiency and the assessments that have been made of our support.

An important issue was raised around the protection of cultural and religious heritage, not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but more broadly. What assessments of that has the Minister made? what discussions has he had with the Azeri authorities and with UNESCO and other bodies? The issue is of critical importance, and reference has been made to Armenia’s critical role, particularly in the history of Christianity.

Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider region may seem remote to many, but I am afraid that it contains men, women and children who have been successively let down for years, and they need and deserve our focus and support. Will the Minister say a little about alleged extrajudicial killings, torture and abuse of prisoners of war? What assessment has he made of the individuals who are still held in prisons? Has he discussed the issue with his counterparts in Azerbaijan and elsewhere?

Will the Minister set out a wider strategy for the Caucasus, spanning diplomacy, aid and trade, and, crucially, atrocity prevention, humanitarian support and the upholding of human rights? Also, what assessment has he made of UK corporations in the region? That is an important point. We have a significant presence, and with that come particular responsibilities in relation to ethical practices.

We are clear, and I think there will be unity in the House on this, that Russia should have no place in the region’s future and that it would actively seek—indeed, it is actively seeking—to impede progress towards peace, security and good governance. The last few years have demonstrated that Putin’s vision for the region is for one that is less secure, less cohesive and weakened so that it remains in Russia’s sphere of influence. What assessment has the Minister made of Russia’s engagement in the region, and what steps are being taken in concert with our partners to counter Russia’s malign influence?

I note that Armenia has frozen its membership of the CSTO and is apparently considering leaving. What is the UK Government’s view on that? Also, how can we support all countries in the region, and indeed across Europe, that are seeking to extricate themselves from Russia’s malign influence? Finally, what is the official UK Government position on the right to return for ethnic Armenians removed from Nagorno-Karabakh? I referred earlier to the ICJ provisional judgments. I hope he can provide a clear answer on that issue.

The people of Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be forgotten. They are the human face—the huge human face—to this tragedy. The impact on individual lives, which many hon. Members here have heard about directly, has been immense. I hope the Government will continue to support those people in their plight, as well as working to bring about a lasting and enduring peace in this troubled region. The view of the official Opposition is that the UK has a critical role to play in the Caucasus, and I hope the Government can demonstrate that they are ready to meet the challenges.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

We are now back on time. I call the Minister.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:48, 19 March 2024

I am pleased to be here to answer this important debate, Ms Elliott. I am grateful to Carol Monaghan for securing it and for highlighting, through reference to her recent experience of travelling in the region, the acute challenges facing those affected by September’s military action in Nagorno-Karabakh. I appreciate her sharing her impressions of her time there.

I am grateful for the contributions of all other hon. Members, and I shall seek to cover off the questions and points raised during this afternoon’s powerful and compelling speeches. I will begin by reflecting on the humanitarian situation, before turning to the topic of peace efforts. As colleagues have concluded this afternoon, lasting peace is at the heart of any long-term solution and any improvement in the lives and livelihoods of people in the region.

As hon. Members have eloquently set out, relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are deeply complex. The plight of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh is the most recent chapter in a 35-year conflict in which hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides have been displaced from their homes. As we have heard this afternoon, Azerbaijan carried out a military operation last September that restored its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, nearly the entire ethnic Armenian population of around 100,000 people fled to Armenia, where they faced acute humanitarian challenges.

Although the UK fully recognises Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, we are also clear that the use of force is not an acceptable means of resolving tensions between communities. As we have heard this afternoon, that military operation followed a nine-month restriction of the Lachin corridor—the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia—which resulted in a dire humanitarian situation, including shortages of food, fuel, medicine and other basic supplies. The UK made it very clear bilaterally, as well as in the OSCE and at the United Nations, restricting access to the Lachin corridor and other supply routes was unacceptable, and we publicly called for access to be restored.

Dwelling on UK action as part of the humanitarian response, we continued to work alongside international partners in both countries to support humanitarian responses to the situation. Last September, as has been discussed this afternoon, we announced £1 million for the Red Cross’s movement of life-saving medication, healthcare and other essential support for the most vulnerable people affected by the conflict. I have heard the calls this afternoon for an increased financial contribution, and I can say that we will of course continue to keep these issues under review. We should also bear in mind that we have contributed £1 million to regional de-mining since 2021. I have noted the views of colleagues this afternoon, and we will also keep that issue under review.

We provided further medical assistance to survivors in Armenia in partnership with the UK medical education database, including medical supplies given to the National Centre for Burns and Dermatology. We are committed to supporting Armenia as it provides for the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, and we will continue to work with international partners and the Armenian Government to strengthen their capacity to support the refugees and the communities hosting them. We are also determined to support Azerbaijan to make safe its recovered territories for the return of its own displaced population, as well to ensure the integration of ethnic Armenians who wish to return. As I have mentioned, we have contributed £1.5 million to mine action in the region, which continues to have a very important, lifesaving effect.

I turn to the peace process. I intend during my peroration to answer all the questions posed. It is clear that the peoples of both Armenia and Azerbaijan have suffered greatly during this long-running conflict. That is why the UK Government have been a leading voice in urging peace and engaging extensively with both Governments. I thought my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale summed up the current feeling when he said that there is a realistic recognition of the current situation and a quiet positivity about the possibility of peace, and I concur with that sentiment.

The UK stands by to be a partner for peace, and we will continue to engage energetically in diplomacy and to offer our ability to convene and encourage. In a nutshell, our role is to try to enable those two countries successfully to come together, settle and conclude a lasting peace.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Would the Minister be able to address the issue raised by my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty regarding Russian influence? We hear of Russian peacekeepers, but is that not a contradiction in terms? Should there not be international border forces?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: it is a contradiction in terms to refer to Russian peacekeepers. They are nothing of the sort, and we see the Russian role across the region as nothing but extremely unhelpful meddling; I may dwell on that at the end of my remarks. To answer the question posed by Stephen Doughty about our approach in the context of Russia’s historical role in the region, it is clear that practical experience has revealed Russia to be an unhelpful and unreliable ally.

It is clearly incumbent on countries such as ours—I say this conscious that His Excellency the Ambassador is in the Public Gallery, and I am very glad to see him there—to offer the hand of friendship and partnership to Armenia. I am very pleased that during my last visit we undertook the first stage of the strategic dialogue that now exists between our two countries. It represents a thickening and deepening of an increasingly meaningful bilateral relationship that is good for both sides and for the region.

On the peace process, in calls with the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan last September, I urged both sides to return to dialogue and ensure unfettered humanitarian access to the vulnerable people and communities affected by events in Nagorno-Karabakh. The then Foreign Secretary reiterated that message last October when he spoke to various Foreign Ministers. As I mentioned, I visited Yerevan and Baku last November, where I met the leaders and Foreign Ministers of both countries, and I urged them to engage meaningfully in internationally mediated negotiations to reach an agreement and secure a lasting peace for the region. I was delighted that President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan met in Munich last month at the security conference, and that their Foreign Ministers quickly followed up with a meeting in Berlin at the end of February. We continue to engage energetically on the diplomatic front.

I am encouraged by both sides’ openness to continuing their discussions and to recognising and welcoming the offers of international support. We, in concert with our allies in Europe and across the Atlantic, continue to stand ready to support them at every step of their journey towards peace. I again refer to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon: there is a realistic recognition of the opportunity that lies ahead for both leaders to achieve a meaningful and sustainable peace, and we should be quietly optimistic about that. We will continue to offer support through our diplomacy as they do that important work in a bilateral context, which is something we should be quietly encouraged by.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

The UK will be hosting the European Political Community summit. Does the Minister see that as another key opportunity for the UK to play a role in finding peace?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are pleased that we will be hosting the EPC in July; it is a very useful convening moment and a good opportunity for leaders from the Caucasus to come together, in concert with other European leaders, to progress peace.

Let me turn to some of the other questions that were asked. On the preservation of religious sites, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are responsible for ensuring that the cultural heritage of all the peoples of the region is protected and preserved for the benefit of all. We take very seriously reports of the destruction of religious and cultural sites, and we support the work of international organisations undertaking observation missions to evaluate those. I am grateful that Jim Shannon raised the important issue of freedom of religion, and I entirely agree with the sentiment he expressed.

Several hon. Members asked about prisoners of war and war crimes. We continue to encourage the return of all prisoners of war and the remains of the deceased from the conflicts. We were pleased that Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to the release of 34 prisoners in December last year. We continue to call for—

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Order. I remind the Minister to leave a moment or two for the Member who moved the motion to wind up.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

To conclude, therefore, I reiterate that we stand by those affected by this conflict. We will continue to offer humanitarian support, and we will energetically offer our diplomatic support. We hope that, after many turbulent years, there is a real, meaningful and sustainable chance for peace in the south Caucasus.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 3:59, 19 March 2024

I pay tribute to the Government and people of Armenia, who have ensured that the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh have been given the food, shelter and support they require. I thank all those who joined us this afternoon in the Public Gallery, including His Excellency the Ambassador. Finally, I thank all Members who have participated in this really important debate. It is important that we shine a light on the troubled area of Nagorno-Karabakh and ensure that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh who are currently in Armenia are not forgotten.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered international support for Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh.