Canada has committed to act against atrocities yet has failed to take even a principled stance in the Armenian humanitarian crisis it contributed to.

(This article has been translated into French.)

For the people of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as “Artsakh”), a breakaway state predominantly inhabited by ethnic Armenians since time immemorial, 2021 looks as bleak as 2020 was tragic. On Sept. 27, 2020, at the height of a global pandemic, Azerbaijan and Turkey initiated a large-scale, unprovoked war against Artsakh in a bid to reassert authority over the region despite the unwavering will of the people of Artsakh to exercise their right to self-determination for over 30 years.

The gamble largely paid off, as the international community turned a blind eye to acts of aggression and atrocity crimes, standing quietly by until Russia finally brokered a ceasefire statement between Armenia (on behalf of Artsakh) and Azerbaijan on Nov. 10, bringing a fragile end to 44 days of war that left thousands of casualties and a humanitarian crisis in its wake, while leaving the key issue of Artsakh’s final status unresolved, and making the prospect of renewed attack by Azerbaijan more than likely.

Canada’s reaction has been underwhelming at best, and, at worst, tacitly complicit. On Oct. 5, François-Philippe Champagne, who was then minister of foreign affairs, announced the suspension of all “relevant export permits to Turkey” after becoming aware of allegations of “Canadian technology being used in the military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” adding Canada is concerned by the conflict, which he acknowledged has resulted “in shelling of communities and civilian casualties.” Praise for the minister’s action quickly turned to outrage, however, when it became clear that these permits – for drone targeting sensors that Turkey has been accused of using in attacks – should never have been granted in the first place. Their  issuance was contrary to the Export and Import Permits Act, as well as Canada’s obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.

In fact, mere months before the Turkish-Azerbaijani offensive, Canada allowed the permits to be issued in spring 2020, making an exemption to a ban in place since October 2019 as part of an arms embargo in response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria. The exemption allowed the export of the Canadian WESCAM technology to Turkey (here p. 11). These components would later be identified in Artsakh in October 2020, fully embedded in Turkish Bayraktar drones.

The circumstances surrounding Canada’s issuance of permits to export military technology to Turkey remain unexplained, and the government’s purported investigation on the matter remains pending. Meanwhile, Canada has done little more than issue statements calling on the warring parties to negotiate peacefully and for Turkey to stay out of the conflict, all of which have fallen on deaf ears.

Canada has thus contributed, however unwittingly, to the humanitarian crisis in Artsakh by arming the aggressor. Its tepid reaction effectively amounts to doing nothing at all, despite Canada’s proclaimed commitment to the U.N. doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This stipulates that if a country is unable or unwilling to protect its civilians from mass atrocities, the international community must act swiftly to fill the protection void. Countries also have obligations to ensure that they do not contribute to mass atrocities outside their borders and, at minimum, refrain from exacerbating atrocity crimes of other states.

To be sure, nobody expected Canada to intervene militarily. Canada did, however, have opportunities to take a principled stance against wanton aggression and for human rights. One such opportunity was presented by Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, who introduced, on Oct. 28, Motion No. 36 calling on the Government of Canada “to immediately condemn the joint Azerbaijani-Turkish aggression against the Republic of Artsakh, uphold the ban on military exports to Turkey, recognize the Republic of Artsakh’s inalienable right to self-determination and, in light of further escalation and continued targeting of innocent Armenian civilians, recognize the independence of the Republic of Artsakh.”

R2P elaborates a range of options for timely and decisive response. However, every situation is different and calls for case-specific action. In the case of Artsakh, the measure of remedial secession or recognition could be particularly relevant and effective in definitively resolving a decades-long standoff that keeps rearing its ugly head with no end in sight. It may also be appropriate where atrocity crimes may be underway against the peoples vying for self-determination, especially if the lack of recognition constitutes an impediment to states and/or international organizations in reaching affected areas.

Photo: The National Assembly in the government district of Stepanakert, capital city of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Shutterstock.com, by Karsten Jung

Canada’s recognition in 1972 of Bangla Desh (as it was then called), for instance, was premised on the understanding that only by recognizing it could Canada provide the aid necessary to prevent a major humanitarian catastrophe. In light of the French Parliament’s near unanimous adoption of resolutions (on Nov. 25 and Dec. 3) calling on the French government to, among other things, recognize Artsakh, adopting Motion No. 36 could likewise have constituted an appropriate response. A legal analysis of Canada’s options and obligations in this respect can be found here.

Few senators spoke on Housakos’s motion, and a vote was called on Dec. 8 after independent Senator Peter Boehm, a former career diplomat, argued that “Canada simply cannot recognize the ‘Republic of Artsakh.’ ” He urged senators to choose realpolitik over principle and, bizarrely, to be mindful of engaging with diaspora communities, which he described as strong and well-organized, especially the Armenian community. This despite the gravity of the situation involving their historic homeland and, apparently, Canada’s own role in exacerbating the violence.

His reducing of legitimate concerns about mass atrocity crimes and possible Canadian complicity to mere bickering among ethnic communities under the guise of “diaspora politics” seemed to satisfy his honorable colleagues, and the motion was soundly defeated, with senators from the Government Representative Office, the Progressive Senate Group, and an overwhelming majority of the Independent Senators Group voting against. No amendments were proposed.

Continued indifference to the plight of the Armenians of Artsakh is unacceptable. Not only were the 44 days of war rife with reports of the use of inherently indiscriminate munitions, chemical weapons and mercenaries, but there is also mounting evidence since the ceasefire of acts of torture, mutilation, executions and enforced disappearances against Armenian prisoners of war still in captivity as well as civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Drunk on victory, Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian rhetoric has only intensified, with visible sights now set on Armenia proper through an irredentist philosophy that Armenian territory constitutes historic Azerbaijani land. If there was any doubt before the ceasefire statement that Azerbaijan’s aggression presented genocidal elements, its actions and statements since then constitute proof of the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the Armenian ethnic group from as much neighbouring land as possible.

The Senate’s wholesale rejection on the motion was a lost opportunity, as has been the House of Commons silence on the matter. Where Canada falls on the side of history, however, remains to be seen. Even if Canada is not prepared to recognize Artsakh at this moment, there is certainly no need to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater by refusing, in any way, to heal a wound that it helped reopen.

The issue is one for all Canadians. It runs contrary to Boehm’s reduction of the matter to diaspora politics with what he frames as “inherent danger in one ethnic community working against another in their new home, which is our country, Canada.” (Emphasis ours.) Statements pitting Canadian citizens as “us” against “them,” ignoring the government’s own grave mistakes, could not be more antithetical to core Canadian values.

It bears reminding that in 2006, the government of Canada recognized the Armenian Genocide (after ground-breaking resolutions by the Senate and the House of Commons in 2002 and 2004, respectively), despite objections voiced by Turkey and Canada’s own Department of Foreign Affairs. Canada’s principled stance in 2006 only increased its international stature. With all due respect to Boehm, it is not a lesson in realpolitik that parliament should hear on the issue of Artsakh, but one in courage and integrity.

Photo: Stepanakert, the capital city of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) in 2017. Shutterstock.com, by Karsten Jung