moved that the 11th report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development presented on Friday, February 17, be concurred in.
Mr. Speaker, I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House today on an urgent question of foreign policy.
After people have enjoyed more than three decades of political independence with their own self-governing democratic institutions, another power has just invaded their territory. It has the clearly stated intention of ending self-government for these people and incorporating the territory in question by force.
The aggressor has framed this attack as being a military operation instead of an invasion and has described the independently constituted defence forces of this area as being a terrorist entity. This doublespeak barely covers the naked desire of this invading force to reassert 19th-century norms of aggression and to replace diplomacy and the international rule of law with violence and the rule of power.
I could be, but in this case I am not, describing the Putin regime's illegal invasion of Ukraine. At least in the case of Ukraine, the fundamental right to self-determination of peoples and the essential illegitimacy of efforts to change the status quo by force were widely accepted. Russia's brutal invasion rightly provoked a significant international response, and the invasion was widely understood as a fundamental attack on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
However, today I am not speaking about Ukraine. Rather, I am speaking about the brutal assault of Azerbaijan's forces on the self-governing territory of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh. The sad reality is that, while the aggression of the Azerbaijani state bears many features in common with Russian aggression, many Canadians are probably completely unaware of this conflict. This needs to change.
While Neville Chamberlain could refer to the question of Czechoslovakia as “A quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing”, his ignorance did not make Czechoslovakia any less important.
There are differences between Azerbaijani aggression and Russian aggression; however, there are also similarities. My hope in moving this concurrence motion today is that our discussion will confront the relative lack of consideration of this important issue. I raise the issue most from concern for the people directly affected. I also raise it because the principle of peaceful resolution of conflict and respect for fundamental human rights needs to be established in every case, not just in cases that happen to be the most high-profile. After members have heard this story of these 120,000 people, I hope they will be able to consider more action in response as well.
As such, here is the background: Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over a disputed area. It had previously, according to Soviet-era internal borders, been within Azerbaijan, but its population was nonetheless overwhelmingly ethnically Armenian and Christian and enjoyed official autonomy during the Soviet period. Following the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, this territory became de facto independent and set up its own institutions. However, it maintained close relations with Armenia, it was still claimed by Azerbaijan and it was still seen by much of the international community as technically constituting Azeri territory.
In effect, the Armenian side won that war. In addition to establishing de facto independence for Artsakh, it established a buffer zone that provided secure linkage between Artsakh and Armenian territory. This buffer zone prevented the possibility of Artsakh being blockaded; it also led to many ethnic Azeris becoming victims of displacement, a situation that required resolution.
It is important to note the large amount of displacement on both sides during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, which was much larger on the Azeri side. In addition, there were various atrocities committed, for which there can be no excuse.
The conflict over Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, was the subject of sporadic conflict and much debate and negotiation between the end of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994 and the start of the second in 2020. The dispute over the core territory of Nagorno-Karabakh hinges on a certain tension between two established principles of international law: territorial integrity and the right of self determination.
Territorial integrity, the principle asserted by the Azerbaijani side, is the idea that a state's existing territory should not be interfered with and that states have a right to defend their existing territory. This principle is important for preventing conflict, because it establishes that a state cannot militarily intervene in the territory of another state outside of very narrow and specific circumstances. This principle is recognized in the UN charter.
Of course, an extreme interpretation of the principle of territorial integrity, read in isolation from other principles of international law, could say that borders should never change and that historical borders established with no regard for the preferences of the people within them should nonetheless be maintained, regardless of anything else. Such an extreme application of this principle would, in effect, justify the continuation of all forms of colonialism and domination that had managed to survive until the point at which that principle was promulgated.
Fortunately, in real-world international law, we do not apply this one principle of territorial integrity in isolation from other important concepts, such as the genocide convention, which establishes a responsibility to act and protect people at risk of genocide, and the principle of the right of self-determination of peoples in general. I will come back to the issue of genocide, but I want to speak first on this issue of the right of self-determination.
Self-determination is the fundamental idea that all human beings, bearers of inherent and immutable human dignity, have a right to play a role in directing the political community that they are a part of. A people should not be compelled against their will to be part of a political community; rather, their membership in a political community should be the result of collective choice. In this particular instance, those who defend Artzakh assert the simple idea that this area's population should be able to collectively determine their own future and decide on whether they wish to be part of Azerbaijan. They should be able to make that decision through their elected representatives, free from violence, intimidation or coercion.
The notion of a right to self-determination does not entail the presumption that a particular community would or should pursue independence or association with another state purely on the basis of ethnic or religious commonality. It is quite reasonable that a people might choose to be part of a multi-ethnic, multilingual state or, on the other hand, choose to pursue independence from another state with whom they nonetheless share the same language, religion or ethnic characteristics. The point of self-determination is not that people should draw state boundaries in a certain way or on the basis of certain factors. It is simply that the people affected should be the ones making choices about their own future. In the case of Artsakh, this means that this region's future should be decided by the people who live there and not by the leaders of Azerbaijan or Russia, or even by the leaders of Armenia or those elsewhere.
Over the last three decades, the ethnically Armenian people of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, have asserted their right to self-determination against Azerbaijan's claim that Artsakh ought to be incorporated into Azerbaijan on the basis of the territorial integrity of these Soviet-era borders. This basic tension between territorial integrity and self-determination underlies the overall question, although the question is complicated in a few other ways that reinforce the need for negotiation and dialogue.
Undoubtedly, Azerbaijanis who were displaced during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war have a right to self-determination as well, although this issue is now somewhat moot, given how borders have changed since 2020. In addition, Artzakh has had self-governing independent institutions operating for three decades, so a legitimate question is this: At what point can an unrecognized territory start making an argument for territorial integrity in its own right?
Artzakh has been a self-governing entity for about as long as many states in eastern Europe have. However, moving forward, 2020 brought the second Nagorno-Karabakh war; this time, the war was won decisively by Azerbaijan. In a ceasefire agreement that ended the war, the buffer territory taken in the first Nagorno-Karabakh was ceded back to Azerbaijan, leaving Artsakh more isolated and strategically vulnerable, but still standing.
As I think my description illustrates, there are many aspects of this conflict that are legitimately complicated; however, there are also aspects of it that are not. Azerbaijan was rightly criticized for starting the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Although the conflict was an ongoing irritant, there was a legitimate hope that a negotiated settlement would lead to an agreement securing the position of all affected peoples. Instead of pursuing that path, Azerbaijan has launched wars of choice. From at least 2020 onward, it has been clear that Azerbaijan's authorities are willing to use violence to upend the status quo and pursue their own objectives.
At this point, the question is no longer primarily one of self-determination versus territorial integrity; rather, it is about whether violence should be the means for settling disputes in interstate relations. I think we should all clearly say “no” to that. We should assert that, regardless of the legitimate complexity here, violence should not be the path pursued or the means of seeking resolution.
Because of a decision that the Liberal government made to resume arms exports to Turkey, Canadian-made weapons played a significant role in Azerbaijan's victory in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war and potentially played a role in its calculation to use force in the first place. It should grieve Canadians deeply that the government's decision to sell arms to Turkey played a negative role in international peace and security, and I will return to that point later if time allows.
The territorial settlement that ended the second Nagorno-Karabakh war left only one narrow road, the Lachin corridor, linking Artzakh to Armenia. Russian peacekeepers were supposed to guarantee peace on it sand the access of essential goods to Artzakh via this road.
Notwithstanding the circumstances that led to the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, there should have been the basis at this point for efforts to pursue a long-term settlement that allowed the return of Azeris to their recently transferred territory and that recognized the right of self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in their remaining territory. However, the advances made during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war were sadly not good enough for the Azerbaijani government, which has continued to insist on its right to incorporate by force any people, no matter how unwilling, who fall within the parameters required to make an argument based on territorial integrity.
Further to this point, I think a good way to understand the initial question of self-determination versus territorial integrity is by analogy to the relationship of a married couple. Generally speaking, in most cases, we might hope to see the preservation of the integrity of an existing marriage. It is nice when a couple can stay together. Different individuals would likely identify different thresholds at which they believe other factors might outweigh the importance of marital integrity, but all other things being equal, it is nice to keep the family together. On the other hand, a general belief in the general desirability of couples staying together is not the same as a belief that people should be forced to stay together even if they are victims of violence and abuse. The fact that two people have a lot of history together clearly does not mean that one partner should be able to force the other to remain against their will.
In geopolitics, when I hear arguments that assert the right of one region or people to dominate another, purely on the basis of historical borders or relationships, this rings to me like the ravings of an abuser demanding continuing access to their victims. Centuries of Russian domination of Ukraine do no create some right for Russia to continue to dominate Ukraine in the present. Ukraine may choose her own path. The same principle ought to apply to Artsakh. Past domination does not justify future domination when the relationship is clearly not voluntary or consensual. When it comes to prospective independence or separatist movements, while, generally speaking, breaking up existing states is not a desirable thing, states should preserve themselves and their integrity through persuasion and through the consensual building of common endeavour, not through violence directed at those who prefer and argue for a different path.
Following the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, rather than accept the ceasefire agreement, the regime in Baku engineered a blockade of the Lachin corridor, which disrupted the flow of essential goods into Artsakh and caused great hardship for people living there. The objectives of this blockade have since become very clear. Following the start of this blockade last December, the Canadian foreign affairs committee chose to hold emergency hearings on the situation. Here at length is what we heard from Robert Avetisyan, Artsakh's representative in Washington. He said:
On December 12 of last year, a group of Azerbaijanis blocked the only road connecting Artsakh with Armenia and the world....the lives of an estimated 120,000 people have been severely worsening. Children and adult medical patients remain in critical condition and are suffering in hospitals from a lack of supplies and treatment outside the republic. People have died as a result.
Grocery shops and markets are almost empty. The Red Cross and the peacekeepers supply a fraction of the required products and medicines. A shortage of food has led to the closure of schools and other educational institutions across the area. To elevate the suffering, the Aliyev regime has cut the supply of natural gas and sabotaged and blocked the repair of high-voltage power lines, which provide much of our electricity.
This is a humanitarian crisis caused not by an economic downturn, a global pandemic or a natural disaster. This is, rather, a political disaster. Aliyev wants to decide who can live and who must have death. It is a political disaster if, in the 21st century, we witness medieval cruelty by a repressive regime toward people whose only crime is the desire to live in freedom, democracy and dignity.
We heard other harrowing testimony, way back in January, that nonetheless did not impel stronger action by the international community, or even by the Canadian government. However, in response to this testimony, the committee did agree unanimously to adopt the following motion:
That the committee report to the House that it calls on the Azerbaijani authorities, in accordance with its obligations as a party to the trilateral declaration of November 9, 2020, and following the appeal made by the Government of Canada on December 14, 2022, to reopen the Lachin Corridor and guarantee freedom of movement in order to avoid any deterioration in the humanitarian situation.
The committee adopted this motion because we understood that what was happening was a grave and unjustified violation of the fundamental human rights of the people of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and of the agreement that Azerbaijan had itself signed. Regardless of the conclusions that one comes to about any of the history of the conflict, this blockade was a clear violation of international law and of the ceasefire agreement. Azeri authorities showed no interest in taking their commitments seriously, and Russia showed either an unwillingness or an inability to fulfill its peacekeeping obligations under the agreement.
Again, regardless of one's views on the nature and exercise of self-determination, the blockade was a clear violation of fundamental human rights. In terms of how we classify that violation, it is important review the genocide convention to which Canada is a party. The convention underlines the responsibility of state parties to act to prevent and punish genocide. The convention defines “genocide” as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, and of the possible acts, the convention includes “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.
The blockade of the Lachin corridor created conditions which made the continuation of normal life impossible in Artsakh, bringing about an increasing exodus from the area. The fact that this relates strongly to the genocide convention criteria explains why various experts have raised the flag about genocide in this context. States, regardless of their claims, never have a right to use genocide as a tool to advance their objectives, and other states have a moral and legal responsibility to respond when they do. The House should know that Armenians have been victims of genocide before, a genocide that, to this day, continues to be denied by the Turkish government. The world's relative ignorance was, in fact, used by Hitler to justify his own preparations for the Holocaust.
By launching this blockade, Azerbaijani authorities sought to and did squeeze the people of Artsakh, with their plans culminating in a full-scale invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh last week, about nine months after the blockade began. Last week, Azerbaijan declared that it would no longer tolerate the existence of Artsakh's independent institutions on its territory and launched coordinated attacks on security and civilian installations. Essentially, this was to be the final invasion. Without any international support, Artsakh was quickly forced to surrender and begin the process of negotiating its so-called reintegration into Azerbaijan.
It looks as if now it is all over for Artsakh, and now the ethnic Armenians who have long inhabited this territory will no longer be able to choose their own leaders. They will be at the mercy of their invaders unless the international community finally steps up. Meanwhile, we continue to hear reports of grievous human rights violations that will likely spawn the further exodus of these Armenians from their homeland.
Where has the international community been in response to these events? Where has it been in response to this assault on the idea that people ought to be able to choose how they are governed, that political conflict should be solved peacefully and that starvation and ethnic cleansing are never acceptable tools for forcing a civilian population into submission? Where has the Liberal government been? It initially condemned the blockade but has been largely absent since, and its statement last week on the invasion was certainly substantially weaker than those of our allies. This invasion took place during the operation of the UN General Assembly. Where was the world?
While keeping the focus on human rights, it is important to underline also the strategic implications of what has happened. Armenia has historically been an ally and partner of Russia, reflecting the fundamental reality of how challenging Armenia's neighbourhood is, landlocked and surrounded by, among others, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran. However, Armenia has recently been making a series of welcome moves to align instead with the global community of free nations. This is natural, from a values perspective. Unlike its neighbours, Armenia is a free democracy. Armenia has given humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The first lady of Armenia has recently visited Ukraine, and Armenia made the point that it is not Russia's ally in the war with Ukraine. Ominously, Russia said it took note of Armenia's stand in this regard. Just before the final invasion of Artsakh, the U.S. and Armenia held joint military exercises.
What is happening here? Armenia appears to be moving more into the western camp of nations. In response, Russia appears to have greenlit or allowed Azerbaijan's aggressive action against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, in spite of the fact that this invasion may have been impacted by Armenia's outreach to the western camp, we in the west have entirely failed to show ourselves to be a good reciprocal partner, and this sends a terrible message to any would-be allies: that even if they would like to execute a strategic pivot away from the Russian sphere of influence to the community of free nations, we may not have their backs. This is the wrong message and a dangerous message.
Adopting this concurrence motion at this time is, in certain respects, late to the game because the motion, of course, does focus on the blockade. The invasion has now overtaken these issues, but it is critical for the House to speak to this. So much hangs in the balance: the fundamental rights of the people of this area, the importance of preventing another Armenian genocide and the need to show all nations that we will do what we can to support free people seeking to exercise self-determination and disentangle themselves from Russian influence.
I hope this motion will have the support of the House and then that we will do more to stand for freedom and justice against violence and aggression, and for a peaceful international rules-based order.