Armenia and Azerbaijan: dealing with the present-day legacy of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict

23-12-2010 Interview

Three times over the past year, the ICRC has been instrumental in the handing over of ex internees and mortal remains between Armenia, Nagorny Karabakh and Azerbaijan. The heads of ICRC delegations in Yerevan and Baku, Nadya Kebir Raoloson and Chérine Pollini, tell the story.

Who was handed over?

NKE and CP Last spring, one military internee and the mortal remains of two people were handed over to Azerbaijan. Then on 4 November one civilian internee and the remains of another internee were handed over along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, and on 6 November the mortal remains of three people were handed over along the line of contact.

Over the past 10 years, several handovers involving more than 70 individuals have been carried out under ICRC auspices, and there have been at least 10 other instances of handovers taking place without our involvement.

Handovers always involve negotiations, which at times can be quite intense and create considerable delays. Our role as a neutral intermediary is still recognized as necessary by all sides. This was reaffirmed at the end of September, when the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidents met in Astrakhan (Russia) and agreed on procedures for further handovers.

Handovers are a very emotional issue, first and foremost for the families, but also for the general population and the authorities on both sides. This often makes it difficult for us in our role as a neutral intermediary, as everyone expects the ICRC to act swiftly. However, we are dependent upon the authorities' willingness to go ahead. We too sometimes feel very frustrated when negotiations are blocked! We see the internees and their families. We know their stories and are moved by them. At times we bring very bad news. When a handover finally does take place, it is a special time for our staff, who feel they have accomplished something worthwhile through their work and hard effort.

Does the ICRC ask internees to give their prior consent to handovers?


NKE This is a standard procedure followed by the ICRC throughout the world. Our delegates always verify that prisoners of war or civilian internees are willing to be handed over to their authorities. This is done before the day of the handover, and then again at the meeting point between the two sides. For anyone who refuses to be handed over, an attempt will be made to find a third country where the person can be resettled. But as this involves the issue of refugee status, it will be handled not by the ICRC but by national authorities with support from UNHCR.


How does the handover take place in practical terms?


CP I personally took part in a handover on 6 November 2010. The ICRC and representatives from both sides drove near a previously agreed upon meeting point in no-man's-land. A small number of people then proceeded on foot, with the ICRC delegations on each side remaining in radio contact. Using ICRC handsets, both sides gave guarantees – in Russian – that no one would shoot or even be armed during the handover. Then both sides sent personnel carrying white flags into the area to clear it of mines before the mortal remains were handed over to ICRC delegates, who then placed them in the care of the authorities on their respective sides. Handover certificates were then signed by the ICRC and the parties concerned, and everyone went back to the vehicles. Things went quite smoothly.

NKE The presence of the ICRC gives the whole operation an aura of neutrality. I would also like to point out that we regularly visit civilian internees and prisoners of war to monitor their living conditions. Under the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC must be notified of internees and prisoners, and given access to them. When we face undue delays, we remind the authorities of their obligations. We give people behind bars the opportunity to exchange Red Cross messages with their relatives. After they return to their home countries, we also check on their welfare.

Are there more handovers to come?

CP Negotiations are still going on, and we definitely stand ready to assist. It is very important for the internees and their families. Also, organizing rapid handovers after a person is captured or has died in connection with the Nagorny Karabakh conflict helps to reduce tensions in the region. Clashes still occur, sometimes with casualties, and tensions can rise quickly.

The active phase of the conflict has been over since 1994. What is the humanitarian legacy the ICRC is dealing with?

NKE We are dealing mainly with cases of missing persons and the consequences for the families. A total of 406 people have gone missing in Armenia, 454 in Nagorny Karabakh, and around 3,700 in Azerbaijan. At the beginning of 2010, an ICRC economic survey of the families clearly showed that most of them lived under the poverty line, and the hardship they endure does not diminish with time. Relatives of missing persons are often stuck in their lives, bearing the heavy burden of hope, grief and anguish. Many lost a breadwinner, or a son to look after them in their old days. This prompted us to search for ways of meeting all their various needs.

To address their social needs, for example, we are working together with the Armenian Red Cross. We are also supporting a working group, chaired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, drafting a law on missing persons. In addition, we are putting the families in touch with micro-financial institutions, and arranging for them to receive vocational training or funds to repair their houses. We are also doing what we can to help the families get in touch with one another so as to put an end to their painful isolation. The whole idea is to help the families of missing people to help themselves and to receive aid to which they are entitled from local support systems.

CP People living in insecure areas and displaced people, particularly in remote areas of Azerbaijan, also sometimes find themselves in very difficult situations. Because of concerns – particularly with respect to families of missing persons – raised by an economic survey carried out this year, we decided to take micro-economic initiatives together with the Red Crescent Society of Azerbaijan and the British Red Cross, while maintaining the water and sanitation activities we have been carrying out for some years.

What else is being done for missing persons?

NKE For the past three years, the ICRC – together with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Armenia and Azerbaijan, or acting on its own – has collected ante-mortem data from the families of those who went missing. We did not always feel comfortable contacting the families again, as we feared we might aggravate their pain. But most were grateful that their loved ones had not been forgotten, and that we had not abandoned our efforts to account for them.

CP In Azerbaijan, which has an important caseload of missing persons, we have almost finished collecting the ante-mortem data. The next step will be to translate the information collected into Russian. When the whole process is finished, hopefully by 2012, the centralized database will be handed over to the authorities on all three sides. We hope it will help to identify any exhumed remains. We constantly stress that the need to account for missing persons is a humanitarian issue, and should not be held hostage to political tensions. Families have the right to know what happened to their loved ones, and ultimately to be allowed to mourn for them.


Fighting TB in places of detention

Quite apart from the conflict, the ICRC has also had to deal with tuberculosis in Armenian and Azerbaijani prisons. In Armenia, it has already brought its TB programme to a successful conclusion. In Azerbaijan, where the ICRC has been battling the disease in close cooperation with the justice ministry, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of TB cases in prisons – so much so that the programme has become a regional model that has been studied by delegations from Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. The ICRC plans to hand over the programme to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Justice by April 2011.


The repatriation of the remains of an Armenian citizen is about to take place.  

The repatriation of the remains of an Armenian citizen is about to take place.

The coffin of an Azerbaijani soldier is opened for preliminary identification. 

The coffin of an Azerbaijani soldier is opened for preliminary identification.