Since November, more than 20 Azerbaijani civilians and servicemembers have been killed and 85 wounded by mine explosions in Nagorno-Karabakh, including booby traps buried by the retreating Armenian military.
Many of those killed were among the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons who are eager to return to their ancestral lands. Among them was Shakir Haciyev, who traveled with his daughter and brother to return to the village his family was forced to flee in the early 1990s. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has urged the hundreds of thousands of IDPs like the Haciyevs to be patient and wait for the liberated territories to be cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance. For some, the wait is too difficult to endure. On Nov. 28, the Haciyevs’ vehicle tragically struck an Armenian anti-tank mine while traveling near the ruins of their village, killing everyone inside.
Armenia refuses to solve this crisis diplomatically. For months, President Aliyev has pointed to Armenia’s refusal to release the maps despite the government’s obligation under international humanitarian law to disclose the information. Azerbaijan has also raised its concern at the United Nations and with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In a Feb. 24 letter to the UN Secretary General, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov stated that Armenia’s lack of a response “seriously questions that country’s sincerity for a normalization of relations with Azerbaijan.” The Foreign Minister rightly notes that human costs inflicted by these mines constitutes a war crime. Recently, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs also emphasized the need to exchange data to ensure effective demining.
The conflict has left a massive area of Azerbaijan’s territory, estimated at more than 11,000 square kilometers, contaminated with explosive hazards. The Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action, or ANAMA, is coordinating a demining effort of about 600 people, 40 mine-detection dogs, and six mechanical demining machines. Since September 2020, ANAMA has discovered and neutralized over 3,500 anti-tank and almost 7,000 anti-personnel mines. In preliminary analyses, ANAMA concludes it may take up to ten years to fully demine the region.
The silence of the international community has allowed Armenia to keep maps of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines secret. President Joe Biden and his Administration must hold Armenian political and military leadership accountable for withholding maps of mined liberated territories. The existing lethal threat to civilians impedes our ability to rebuild communities torn apart by war and undermines efforts for inclusive economic development, lasting peace, and a safe return for refugees.
Elin Suleymanov is the Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United States.