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GORIS, Armenia — Azerbaijan is opening a new front against Armenia — but it involves legal briefs and environmental damage claims, not tanks and rockets.
Azerbaijan alleges that Armenia has destroyed the environment in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan that has been at war for 30 years; In 2020, a surprise attack by Azerbaijan reclaimed large parts of the region.
This is not the first time a country has used environmental litigation as a political means to seek compensation or assert territorial claims.
The Ukrainian government is recording the environmental impact of Moscow’s offensive, as Russian troops destroyed chemical plants, oil depots, water facilities and even nuclear power plants, as well as fields, forests and wildlife reserves. The purpose of this effort is to ultimately secure reparations and underline the illegality of Russia’s presence in Ukraine.
Leopard, wolf and bear
Azerbaijan’s effort is the first intergovernmental arbitration under the Council of Europe’s Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. It alleges that “Armenia has caused extensive environmental destruction during its thirty-year illegal occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory.”
Both countries are signatories to binding international agreements with the EU and more than 50 other countries, but it has never before been used to mediate environmental issues between two nations.
“Over the past two years, we have found shocking evidence of environmental damage in areas liberated from the 2020 war,” Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Elnur Mammadov told POLITICO. “There is loss of animal life and biodiversity. It was exploitation of natural resources and pollution from industry that harms our ecosystem even today.”
According to him, more than 500 species of Nagorno-Karabakh are now at risk, including leopards, brown bears, gray wolves and eagles. An interconnected landscape of snowy mountains, sunny open plains and green forests, the South Caucasus is one of the world’s richest biomes, and decades of war have undoubtedly taken a toll on nature, with many regions now bordered by minefields. The party itself.
“We have two objectives: one is to gain legal recognition for these violations and draw the attention of the international community. The second is to ensure reparations and reparations,” Mammadov said. Previous arbitrations had taken four years to conclude, he added, and Azerbaijan had now appointed its representative to the arbitration and was waiting for Armenia to do so before considering the claim.
Armenia’s representative office for international legal affairs confirmed to POLITICO that it had received notice of arbitration under the Berne Convention, but argued that legal action goes against the spirit of the treaty.
“We regret that Azerbaijan has chosen to pursue an adversarial process under an international instrument intended to ‘promote cooperation’ among states to conserve wild plants and animals and their natural habitats,” the officials said.
“Armenia is concerned that Azerbaijan’s pursuit of a controversial path that appears unrelated to the objectives of the Berne Convention could have a detrimental effect on the region’s environment, which has been significantly damaged by Azerbaijan’s war of aggression over the past two years,” the group of lawyers added, emphasizing with that Armenia would comply with its obligations under the treaty.
A spokesman for the Council of Europe, which acts as the treaty’s depositary, told POLITICO that it had “not received any requests so far.”
They added that while the Berne Convention has a clear process for arbitrating disputes, questions about whether a case is admissible “are not foreseen in the Convention,” leaving the process in uncharted waters.
According to the text of the convention, a standing committee composed of all contracting parties “shall use its best endeavors to facilitate an amicable settlement.” If not, a formal arbitration process may be initiated: three arbitrators will be appointed and an arbitral tribunal will be constituted. But, since the method has never been used, it is difficult to predict how it will proceed or what kind of compensation countries will be able to request.
While Azerbaijan’s gambit is unprecedented, it is not the first time ecology has come to the fore in a clash between the two countries.
On December 12, a group of self-described Azerbaijani environmentalists pushed their way to the only road that properly connects the Armenian-controlled part of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. The road has been guarded by Russian peacekeepers since the 2020 war, but troops have not intervened while protesters set up tents and blocked traffic. Karabakh will not leave until alleged pollution from illegal gold mines run by Armenians is resolved, and Azerbaijani officials have the right to inspect traffic.
It created a siege that lasted more than six weeks, with only peacekeeping vehicles and humanitarian convoys operated by the Red Cross able to bring food and medicine to the 100,000 people still living in the isolated region. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan condemned the near-total blockade as a pretext for “ethnic cleansing” against Karabakh Armenians.
Several international observers have complained that the protesters are being manipulated by the Azerbaijani government, few have any clear record of environmental activism, and the state frequently cracks down on internal political protests. Baku, however, denies it is behind the crisis and insists the picket line is moving aside to allow humanitarian relief.
“I’ve always been interested in researching air pollution, water pollution, etc. in Karabakh,” Abbas Panahov, a 34-year-old activist, told Politico, explaining why he traveled to join the protests. “We must defend the character and nature of Azerbaijan against ecocide by separatists.”
However, Karabakh Armenians insist that environmental issues are being used by Azerbaijan to put pressure on them and strengthen Baku’s grip on the breakaway region.
“Since May last year, we have been monitoring atmospheric air and surface water quality and we have not recorded any pollution,” said Garik Grigoryan, an expert working with the local administration’s environmental protection committee. “We are now asking international observers and environmentalists to come to the area. Azerbaijan has its own environmental problems – let them worry about that.”
Azerbaijan generates a third of its GDP from oil and gas pumping, which has left a legacy of land and water pollution. Critics say the government’s focus on Karabakh is being ignored.
The case brought by Azerbaijan is “very much a political issue,” said Andrey Ralev, a biodiversity campaigner at the NGO CEE Bankwatch, adding that both countries “are throwing claims at each other, which is just for political gain.” But he said the situation is “complex from an environmental perspective.”
For Ralev, some claims of environmental destruction in Azerbaijan may be difficult to prove. “Between 2000 and 2020, the extent of forests in Nagorno-Karabakh increased,” he said, “and many villages were deserted. [during the conflict] So that the pressure on the forest is reduced.”
Ralev also noted that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is currently fulfilling all of their obligations under the Berne Convention, especially when it comes to designating the Specially Protected Areas called the Emerald Sites. “from [a] From a scientific point of view, if you don’t have enough emerald sites like Karabakh has proposed, it’s hard to assess any significant damage to its protected species and habitats.”
Mammadov, the Azerbaijani minister, insisted his country was not politicizing its demands.
“This is a serious effort to ensure justice. We said after 2020 we want to turn the page and bring peace to the region, but we will also hold accountable those responsible for past violations,” he said. “Certainly it sets a precedent, and we’re interested to see what the tribunal does with the case.”