Oct 20, 2020

Time to Properly Address Frozen Conflicts and Illegal Occupations in Europe

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) is calling on the international community, the European Union (EU) in particular, to make resolving European ‘frozen conflicts’ a key priority following the crises unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh, otherwise known as the Republic of Artsakh.

The UNPO profoundly regrets the current military confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh, which has killed hundreds and displaced thousands, mostly women and children, since September 27, 2020. We call upon all parties involved in the conflict to spare civilians, abide by the principles of the international humanitarian law, and faithfully uphold ceasefire agreements. 

Beyond the immediate crisis, however, we are calling on the international community to fundamentally change its approach to frozen conflicts and illegal occupations. 

A new approach is needed

The Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh conflict is just one of the many so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ at the fringes of Europe and the ongoing clashes demonstrate, once again, that they can re-erupt at any moment. Such ‘frozen conflicts’ need to be solved, not shelved.

Too often these frozen spaces become embroiled in high-level geopolitical dialogues. They are allowed to sit frozen without major steps taken to improve the lives or even understand the desires of those caught within them. The wounds underlying the conflict are allowed to fester unattended until conflict breaks out anew. 

States with limited recognition such Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Kosovo, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh, or people living under illegal occupations such as the people of Crimea, do not have a voice at global forums like the United Nations (UN), cannot access equal levels of international aid and funding. They are denied participation in international cooperation mechanisms such as the World Health Organization, creating serious problems when dealing with pandemics such as the Covid-19.

Their citizens, regardless of their political views, are victims of geopolitics and do not enjoy the same rights as citizens of other nations. They suffer, for example, from restrictions on movement and access to educational opportunities caused by a lack of access to internationally recognized travel documents or recognition of their degrees and diplomas. This not only limits economic development in these spaces, but also inflames conflicts by limiting the scope of inter-cultural experiences available to the people living in them.

Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh is a perfect case in point. Today we are witnessing a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan taking place over Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh. Behind this conflict sit Russia and Turkey, playing out their broader geopolitical strategies. And alongside this, for the past 28 years, has run a high-level international talking shop, the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, with the additional participation of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Turkey.

Conspicous by their absence, in all but the distressing pictures from the conflict itself, are the people of Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh.

People must be at the center of a new approach

In 2010, the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group visited these people. They found that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh “for the most part ethnic Armenians who were relocated to the territories from elsewhere in Azerbaijan, live in precarious conditions, with poor infrastructure, little economic activity, and limited access to public services. Many lack identity documents.” And they concluded that “[t]he harsh reality of the situation in the territories has reinforced the view of the Co-Chairs that the status quo is unacceptable, and that only a peaceful, negotiated settlement can bring the prospect of a better, more certain future to the people who used to live in the territories and those who live there now.”

Yet, 10 years on from this visit, status quo has reigned. Nothing significant has been done to improve the lives of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh. They continue to be treated like aliens in their own land, their views less important than those of the bigger powers over them. Their ability to travel to, learn from and trade with other countries and cultures is extremely limited. And, once again, they find themselves trapped in the middle of a conflict not of their making.

The people of Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh are not members of the UNPO. But their experiences are unfortunately shared by many UNPO members in the OSCE space, both past and present, whether it be the people of Kosovo or Abkhazia, or the Crimean Tatars living under illegal occupation. For each, the selfish national interests of the recognized states within the OSCE region have caused the international community to favor stasis over constructive and concerted efforts to resolve their long-standing crises. This situation must change.

The UNPO is calling on all parties involved in trying to resolve frozen conflicts to take a people-centered approach to their work.

Since 2018, the UNPO has been supporting efforts, led by the government of Lichtenstein, to develop and promote Guidelines on Prevention and Resolution of Self-determination Conflicts that would require the full and effective participation of the people in the conflict spaces in peacekeeping dialogues with processes for addressing self-determination made as inclusive and representative as possible. This should involve efforts to hear directly from the people in these spaces about their ultimate desires, learning from the positive recent lessons of resolving the conflict in Bougainville and enabling self-determination in New Caledonia.

It is the UNPO's position that such a people-centered approach is an obligation of all UN Member States flowing both from international law and from the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), SDG Goal 16 on "peace, justice and strong institutions" in particular. With regards specifically to states with limited recognition, the UNPO’s stance is that the international community need not immediately address whether they should be independent nations, but must deal with the reality that these pockets of the world do exist and function to varying degrees as states, which benefit and have obligations to the people within their jurisdiction, and to address the practical implications of this fact. 

Such an inclusive process would be run in stark contrast to how the Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh crisis has been addressed since it first erupted 28 years ago. But, given the abject failure of the process that has led us to where we are today and the disastrous impact that this has had on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh, such an approach is urgently needed.

The European Union must take the lead

There are strong reasons why we should look to the European Union to lead this change.

EU member states have diverse interests that prevent them from being fully aligned on the resolution to the frozen conflicts in Europe. Yet impressively, from time-to-time, the EU has managed to develop coordinated policies that have enabled the constructive engagement in these frozen conflict spaces, whether it be its 2009 ‘Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP)’ on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, its huge and wide-ranging mission in Kosovo and support for diploma and official document recognition processes, or its creative approach to recognition of the citizens of Northern Cyprus as EU citizens.

When working, these policies have had the dual impact of substantially improving the lives of those caught in frozen conflict spaces, while improving the chances of conflict resolution by providing cross-border travel, trade and educational opportunities that help make the citizens of these spaces part of the European polity. 

Over the past year, the UNPO has been instensively monitoring the impact of EU policy on these frozen spaces. Unfortunately, we have noted a significant slackening of the momentum from the EU over recent years, accompanied by an increased frustration amongst the people in the EU’s neighborhood about the pace and likelihood of increased EU cooperation, whether it be visa liberalization to allow for travel or educational opportunities, trade liberalization, or, indeed, the expansion of the EU eastwards.

One result of this has been an increased “ceding” of the space to the likes of Russia and Turkey.  And, in this context, the renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh and the protagonists ultimately behind it should not be considered a surprise.

Thus, in addition to seeking a substantive reform to the manner in which frozen conflicts and illegal occupations are being dealt with in Europe, the UNPO is calling on the EU to reverse its concerning trend towards disengagement. The EU must begin again meaningfully engaging in frozen conflict spaces in its neighborhood and to reverse the trend of increasing isolation of people living in these spaces. 

The EU should, once again, take meaningful steps towards granting the people in its neighbourhood visa liberalization, trade and, ultimately, accession to the EU itself. The people in these areas need to know that the EU is serious about helping them join the European polity in some concrete fashion. The EU cannot abandon them to the illberal forces that are increasingly asserting themselves in Europe, lest ultimately it find that all the gains of a stable and prosperous Europe that rightfully won the EU the Nobel Peace Prize are unravelling on its borders.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons