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New report details gross violations of humanitarian law in Second Nagorno-Karabakh War 

9 June 2021
Image via IPHR/Truth Hounds.

A new report published by IPHR/Truth Hounds has detailed extensive violations by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces of international humanitarian law during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, including unlawful bombing, extrajudicial killings, and torture. 

The extensive 100+ page report has independently verified 46 reported bombings of civilians and civilian infrastructure. Of those, it attests that 32 incidents qualify as ‘indiscriminate and/or disproportionate attacks on civilians’ and are in violation of international humanitarian law. 

It also details the seven extrajudicial executions, at least one enforced disappearance by Azerbaijani forces, the death of one civilian in Azerbaijani captivity ‘as a result of the conditions of his detention’ and what appear to be two extrajudicial executions of wounded Azerbaijani soldiers by Armenian forces. 

The International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) is a Brussels-based independent human rights NGO. Truth Hounds is a Kyiv-based human rights organisation that documents war crimes and crimes against humanity in war. 

Unlawful bombardment by Azerbaijani forces 

According to the report, Azerbaijani forces used ‘inherently indiscriminate weapons including cluster munitions’ and undertook ‘indiscriminate or disproportionate bombings’ throughout Nagorno-Karabakh, including, but not limited to the cities of Stepanakert (Khankandi), Martakert (Agdere), and Martuni (Khojavend).

The attacks investigated resulted in 20 civilian deaths as well as ‘numerous injuries and the widespread destruction of civilian housing, shops and other infrastructure’.

In Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, the IPHR/Truth Hounds investigation found that there was only one ‘potential military target’, a building that ‘serves as headquarters for the civilian and military leadership’ of Nagorno-Karabakh. Attacks with ‘inherently indiscriminate weaponry’ on infrastructure with dual civilian-military use such as the Stepanakert electrical substation and telecommunications equipment, were found to be ‘disproportionate to the potential military advantage sought’ due to ‘extensive harm to civilians and excessive damage to civilian infrastructure’. 


 Additionally, the investigation found that if not for the ‘many bomb shelters’ in Stepanakert ‘there would have been many more civilian casualties’.

In Martakert, the report notes that only one legitimate military target, an army base, was located within the city, and ‘it had been badly damaged and all-but-abandoned following the first week of conflict’. As a result, attacks on the city ‘using inherently indiscriminate unguided artillery and aerial bombs’ between September and October could not be justified under international humanitarian law. 

In Martuni, investigators found that for the majority of the war, the ‘closest legitimate military target’ was roughly 1 km from the edge of the city, and that there were no targets within Martuni itself until ‘the final days of the conflict’ — at which point Martuni had become a part of the frontline, and ‘Armenian/Nagorno-Karabakh forces moved in’.   

As a result, the report argues, ‘repeated unguided artillery attacks on Martuni/Khojavend at the end of September and throughout October 2020, were ‘indiscriminate’ and a violation of international humanitarian law.  

Unlawful bombardment by Armenian forces 

IPHR/Truth Hounds has verified 13 attacks on Azerbaijani civilians by Armenian forces during the war, which resulted in 80 civilian deaths. According to the report, nine of the incidents were ‘indiscriminate and/or disproportionate attacks’ that violated international humanitarian law. The report verified in the cities of Ganja, Barda, and Terter, among others.

In Ganja, the investigators verified three separate attacks on the city, two of which featured the use of SCUD missiles. The attacks killed civilians, destroyed homes, and, according to investigators, were a ‘flagrant violation’ of international humanitarian law. Investigators have found that in all three cases, there were no legitimate military targets in the areas that were hit. The only legitimate military target, the Ganja city airport, is located ‘outside of the urban area that came under attack’. Further evidence gathered by investigators appears to show that one of the attacks on Ganja was launched from the municipality of Vardenis in the Republic of Armenia. 

Investigators also verified a cluster munition and blast fragmentation warhead attack on the city of Barda on 28 October by Armenian forces, which killed 24 civilians — the largest daily civilian death toll during the entire conflict. According to investigators, ‘there were no nearby military targets, and no military casualties or damage were reported.’

In the city of Terter and surrounding villages, the report has verified ‘civilian deaths, a multitude of civilian injuries and the total or partial destruction of civilian housing, shops and a school’ as a result of ‘sustained fire’ from Armenian forces. According to investigators, ‘there were no legitimate military objectives located in the areas targeted by the attacks’. 

Extrajudicial killings

The investigation by IPHR/Truth Hounds has documented a number of violations of international humanitarian law by Azerbaijani forces including the execution of three captured Armenian combatants, the killing of three Armenian civilians, and the ‘enforced disappearance of two other Armenian civilians. Additionally, one Armenian civilian died in Azerbaijani custody ‘as a result of the conditions of his detention’. The extrajudicial killings of both POWs and civilians were documented on video and appear to have been carried out by the Azerbaijan Marines Special Forces unit. 

According to the report the killings have ‘no justification’ in international humanitarian law and are a ‘grave breach’ of the right to life. Investigators have not found ‘any indication’ that ‘investigations’ into these incidents, ‘if any, have been independent, prompt, public and effective or resulted in any criminal prosecutions’.

The investigation has also seen ‘unverified evidence’ of two cases of the execution of wounded Azerbaijani soldiers by Armenian forces. If these killings are confirmed, they would be a violation of international humanitarian law. The Armenian government is obliged under international humanitarian law to ‘conduct independent, prompt, public and effective’ investigations into these incidents, but to date ‘there is no indication that the Government of Armenia has complied with these obligations’.

Other violations of humanitarian law

IPHR/Truth Hounds have documented widespread torture of Armenian POWs held by Azerbaijan, as well as three cases of ‘ill-treatment and violence against Armenian civilians’ by Azerbaijani forces. They have also documented seven cases of ‘ill-treatment of Azerbaijani POWs by Armenian forces that ‘meet the threshold of torture. Another three cases, captured on video, including one which ‘may have resulted in the victim’s death’ require ‘further investigation’. 

They also note incidents of despoilation of the dead by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, the purposeful targeting of places of ‘religious/cultural significance’ by Azerbaijani forces, including Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha (Shushi), and five incidents of ‘deliberate attacks by Azerbaijani armed forces against hospitals and medical personnel’. 

‘Armed forces on both sides deliberately and indiscriminately fired on civilians with heavy artillery or air support, sometimes killing or wounding whole families’, Roman Avramenko, Truth Hounds Director is quoted as saying in a statement released alongside the report.  ‘The international community cannot let this pass without sanction, for it would render the laws of war meaningless’. 

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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