Azerbaijan’s refugee and IDP pain highlighted in the heart of Paris

Press Release – Paris, 21 June 2017: As part of a series of events organised in the margins of UN World Refugee Day throughout the world, the French office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) organised a landmark conference entitled The Consequences of a Forgotten Conflict for France: The Current Situation and Prospects for Refugees and IDPs in the long-term – Azerbaijan as a case study, hosted in the Palais du Luxembourg, home of the French Senate. The event was organised in conjunction with the Robert Schumann Institute for Europe (IRSE) and the Paris-based regional association of the Higher Institute for Defence Studies (IHEDN). It took place under the patronage of André Reichardt, Senator for the Bas-Rhin region and President of the France-Caucasus Friendship Group in the French Senate, and was attended by over 50 people, including diplomats, senators, athletes, UNESCO representatives and civil society.

The international refugee crisis – particularly emanating from the conflicts in and around Syria and Iraq – and the impact of migration on a scale unprecedented since World War II has placed particular emphasis on this year’s UN World Refugee Day. Designated as 20 June by the UN General Assembly in 2001 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its objective was to recall that the concept of the ‘refugee’ was not relegated to an immediate post-war situation, but an ongoing issue with major ramifications for humanity.

Naturally, due to the hierarchy of news importance and misunderstandings and misconceptions about the post-Soviet world, one longstanding conflict has received insufficient coverage in the international media – the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The initial conflict raged from 1988–94, during and just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It concluded with Armenia occupying approximately 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory and, to this date, around one million Azerbaijanis remain as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) across Azerbaijan. Two generations have grown up in camps, but all have one outstanding wish – to return home.

Senator Reichardt opened by saying: “It is very significant that today’s event is being hosted in the Senate. In Azerbaijan, many thousands of people have been displaced by the conflict, but the vast majority are IDPs. Despite the fact that the OSCE Minsk Group has been working to achieve a negotiated peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia for over 20 years, the situation needs to be addressed by the international community. All IDPs and refugees still harbour one wish – to return home – even though the Azerbaijani government has done much to improve their living conditions.

“A new ‘contact line’ was drawn after the ‘Four Day War’ of 2016, and there were many calls within Azerbaijan to liberate the territories. But Azerbaijan has always said it supports peaceful conflict resolution. The OSCE Minsk Group has not achieved its objective, to date, and we need to adopt new strategies. A just, negotiated solution is imperative. The new concept for civil society contacts between the sides fills me with hope.”

Yamina Benguigui, Former French Minister, President, IRSE, reflected: “The objective of IRSE is to create solidarity between peoples. Due to the current migration crisis, the issues of IDPs and refugees are receiving greater attention in Western Europe. There are around a million IDPs and refugees in Azerbaijan, and new civil society initiatives are very valuable. This presents an opportunity for dialogue, and both Azerbaijan and France have a responsible role to play in facilitating this.

“We fully support the return of foreign populations to their homeland, and this is one of the basic rights of mankind. We need to open the doors of hope.”

In her introduction, Marie-Laetitia Gourdin, Director, TEAS France, commented:

“The Armenian occupation has been internationally condemned many times, including resolutions by the UN Security Council and the European Parliament, amongst others. The purpose of today’s conference is, on one side, to enhance understanding of the refugees and IDPs in Azerbaijan – by presenting the geopolitical context and their own testimony. On the other side, we will look towards the potential for a just, peaceful resolution to the conflict, both from the diplomatic perspective and through the actions of civil society.”

Edouard Detaille, President, IHEDN, explained: “We always consider national defence and look for the intersections and intercultural dialogue to alleviate issues. We must understand the underlying problems that lead people to become refugees and IDPs.”

H.E. Elchin Amirbayov, Azerbaijani Ambassador to France, speaking against the backdrop of a map demonstrating the extent of Armenian aggression, said: “Resolving the IDP issue in the South Caucasus is in the interests of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This has been a forgotten conflict that developed during the fall of the Soviet Union. Each week, soldiers are killed on the ‘contact line’. Armenia undertook ethnic cleansing against Azerbaijani civilian population.

“There were parallels between the Khojaly Massacre, perpetrated by the Armenians, and the massacre of the population of Oradour-sur-Glane by the Nazis in 1944 during World War II. The Armenian occupation has been condemned in four UN Security Council resolutions. We need to achieve rapprochement between the countries, and this would be a major step towards resolution. However, this has been impacted by the non-constructive attitude of the Armenian government and the ineffectiveness of the OSCE Minsk Group.

“The Azerbaijani government has done much to alleviate the conditions faced by IDPs and refugees. However, all the regions remain under occupation. The impact of the ‘Four Day War’ demonstrated the importance of this issue to the Azerbaijani population. Armenia provoked Azerbaijan into retaliation in 2016, but it now needs to come to the negotiating table. There are IDPs and refugees in 60 districts of Azerbaijan and they need to return home. This is an intolerable situation for Azerbaijan.

“I am hopeful that the new French Administration under Emmanuel Macron will expand French efforts towards achieving an expeditious conclusion to this occupation.”

After screening a short film, directed by Thomas Goltz, entitled Offside, about the Garabagh FC football club – the team that always plays ‘away’ from home since its Aghdam-based stadium was occupied by Armenian forces in 1993 – French taekwondo master Pascal Gentil spoke about the power of sport. He referred to his recent engagement in a taekwondo competition for refugees that took place in Paris a few days ago, and explained how participation in sport can impart a sense of solidarity. He also commented on the potential for Azerbaijan to play a role in the Peace and Sport initiative, which operates under H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, Pascal Gentil being himself a Champion for Peace under this organisation. 

Samuel Carcanague, Researcher, Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), explained: “This impasse has continued for 24 years, violating international law, and that is due to Armenian intransigence. The ‘Four Day War’ demonstrated the enthusiasm of Azerbaijanis to return home, but there is a need for peaceful resolution. New dialogue between the sides is essential to achieve this.”

Fuad Husyenov, Vice-President, Azerbaijani State Committee for IDPs and Refugees, commented: “This issue is the No.1 problem for Azerbaijan. There has been excellent Franco–Azerbaijani relations for 25 years. This issue has continued throughout that time. Currently, one-tenth of the population is displaced, and this has had a tremendous economic impact on Azerbaijan. However, the issue continues, due to the non-constructive stance of the Armenian authorities.

“There are two main objectives of the State Committee: firstly, to improve social conditions; and secondly, a strategy for returning populations to their lands, following conflict resolution. Even though the EU is afflicted by migration, the specific nature of the Azerbaijani problem is not widely understood. Much has been done to improve the living conditions of IDPs and refugees, and 250,000 people have been rehoused, but still over 400,000 live in very difficult conditions.

“Only one element of the Great Return Programme has been implemented so far – to Jojug Marjanli – the town liberated during the ‘Four Day War’. We guarantee that, when the conflict ends, there will be equal rights for the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations.”

Rovshan Rzayev, Azerbaijani Parliamentary Deputy and Co-founder, Armenian–Azerbaijani Peace Platform, a new initiative aimed at bringing the sides together through the machinations of civil society, explained: “The Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh support dialogue with their Armenian counterparts, and seeks peaceful resolution.

“New dialogue must happen, yet the Armenian side is absent. Not a single positive response has been received from Armenia towards the Peace Platform. Meanwhile, young men are killed on the ‘contact line’ every day. We aim to transmit a message of peace.”

H.E. Bernard Fassier, Ambassador and Former French Co-Chair representative, OSCE Minsk Group, commented: “The OSCE Minsk Group has been spearheading the dialogue for over 20 years. It needs a new force to fuel the negotiations. The Madrid Principles were placed on the table in 2009, and were agreed by Baku, but not Yerevan. Armenia constantly calls for the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh to be recognised, but this is occupied territory.

“We must avoid a second war. The international community must not indefinitely accept the status quo. There must be a new air of compromise between the Presidents and a new culture of negotiation.”

The question-and-answer session covered varied topics, including increasing the role of Germany in the OSCE Minsk Group process; the role of Armenian President Sargsyan in the Khojaly Massacre; the relationship between Russia and Armenia; the intransigence and aggression of the Armenian diaspora in France; and the role of art in stimulating dialogue.