Armenia extensively practiced taking and holding of hostages and mistreatment and summary execution of Azerbaijani prisoners of war and hostages during its aggression against Azerbaijan started in early 1990s. 3890 persons (3171 servicemen, 719 civilians) from Azerbaijan are still missing as a result of the conflict. Despite the fact that the taking of hostages is clearly prohibited by international humanitarian law, 267 Azerbaijani civilians (including 29 children; 98 women; 112 elderly people) were taken hostage and are not released until now by Armenia.
By these illegal acts, Armenia seriously violated the relevant provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and the civilian persons in time of war. Along with relevant norms of international humanitarian law, the issues related to missing persons are also considered in the context of internationally protected human rights, in particular those relating to the right to be protected from arbitrary detention, the right to fair trial affording all judicial guarantees, the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the prohibition of enforced disappearances, the rights of persons deprived from liberty and others.
Those reported missing among Azerbaijani population disappeared in circumstances that raise serious concerns as to their well-being, particularly given the atrocities widely practiced by armed forces of Armenia during the conflict. Similar to other breaches of international humanitarian law, unlawful detention, torture and outrages on the personal dignity of detained hostages and prisoners of war were part of systematic policy of collective punishment and discrimination against Azerbaijanis.
The State Commission on Prisoners of War, Hostages and Missing Persons of the Republic of Azerbaijan identified that in violation of the norms of international humanitarian law, the Azerbaijani hostages were detained under unbearable conditions, together with prisoners of war, were transferred from one place of detention to another, both in the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan and in the territory of Armenia. There was mass annihilation of Azerbaijani prisoners of war and hostages by Armenian armed forces in 1990s. Many hostages, including children, women and the elderly, were brutally killed, some died later in Armenian captivity as a result of torture, intolerable conditions and diseases. As the corpses of the dead were not handed over to Azerbaijan, these persons are still registered as missing persons.
The main source of the information on hostage-taking by the armed forces of Armenia is the testimonies of persons released from Armenian captivity. Having many irrefutable facts of hostage taking, it could be possible to trace the fate of missing persons, but all attempts of search were unsuccessful due to the rigid position of Armenian side and concealment of the facts on missing persons. For more than 30 years, Armenia has failed its obligation under the applicable international law to conduct effective investigation into the fate of missing persons.
One of the most serious crimes against humanity was committed in Khojaly town of Azerbaijan. Among the 613 residents of Khojaly killed by the military forces of Armenia during the occupation of Khojaly, 63 were minors and 106 were women. 8 families were completely annihilated, 487 people, including 76 children were injured. 196 Khojaly residents, including 36 children and 65 women are registered as missing persons.
The liberation of the Azerbaijani territories from occupation makes possible to accomplish the work of identifying the fates of missing persons and alleviate almost three decades of pain and anxiety of thousands of people in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has already started the process of identification by conducting exhumation works in unnamed burial sites in cooperation with the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC).
It should also be taken into account that hostage-taking have been practiced by Armenia not only at the beginning of 1990s but the whole period of 26 years of case-fire. In 2014 two Azerbaijani civilians who visited the graves of their relatives in occupied lands (Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev) were captivated and kept as hostages by Armenia for 6 years. Armenia refused Azerbaijan’s proposal to exchange all people detained in connection with the conflict and politicized humanitarian issues for many years.
Since September 27, 2020, in compliance with the obligations under the trilateral statement on cessation of hostilities, as well as those of international humanitarian law and principles of humanism, Azerbaijan withdrew from the former conflict zone all Armenian combatants who surrendered to the armed forces of Azerbaijan, as well as elderly Armenians left in the liberated territories. These persons were treated with full respect to their dignity and human rights and have been provided with all necessities such as food, water and medical treatment. After the end of war in 2020, Azerbaijan released 107 Armenian detainees.
As a result of search operations carried out in the former combat zone in order to collect remains of fallen military servicemen, more than 1600 corpses of Armenian servicemen were found and handed over to Armenian side. In accordance with its obligations under November trilateral agreement, Azerbaijan has created all necessary conditions for Armenia to collect remains of its deceased servicemen. Unfortunately, Armenia still conceals the information on the whereabouts of Azerbaijani POW and hostages and their remains, despite the dozens of facts proving their furtive burying and abduction. Seven Azerbaijani servicemen are still missing after the last year’s war.
At the international level, Azerbaijan has also been active in drawing the global attention to the issue of missing persons and people taken hostage. Azerbaijan is a main sponsor of the UN General Assembly biennial resolution on “Missing persons”. The resolution notes that the issue of persons reported missing continues to have a negative impact on efforts to put an end to conflicts and inflicts grievous suffering on the families of missing persons, and stresses the need to address the issue from a humanitarian and rule of law perspective.
Azerbaijan is also the main sponsor of the resolution of the UN Commission on the Status of Women on “Release of women and children taken hostages, including those subsequently imprisoned in armed conflicts” which strongly urges all parties to armed conflicts to prevent and combat acts of hostage-taking.
The Azerbaijani side, remaining committed to the obligations arising from the Trilateral Statement signed by the President of the Russian Federation, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the prime minister of the Republic of Armenia on November 10, 2020, and the norms of international humanitarian law, as well as the principles of humanity, consistently fulfilled its obligations to ensure the rights of Armenian servicemen captured during the war. The information about the Armenian captives has been regularly provided to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Russian Peacekeeping Forces, and some of them were unilaterally released. During their stay in Azerbaijan, these prisoners were provided with the necessary medical care and dignified treatment, were given the opportunity to keep in touch with their families, and were provided with other rights.
Keeping in the spotlight the issues of the return of Azerbaijani citizens taken prisoner or hostage for various reasons during the hostilities to the homeland, our side constantly negotiated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Russian peacekeeping forces and other international organizations, and took all possible measures.
Azerbaijani side has repeatedly declared that the war in its territory is over and its population wants long-lasting peace and prosperity in the region. It is our firm position that all necessary humanitarian measures for alleviating human suffering caused by 30 years of conflict should be taken and war-criminals should be punished.
Dr. Huseyn N. Najafov,
Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Romania