Danger remains after conflict, agencies comment on Karabakh landmines

Landmines: the danger after a conflict
Civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh are falling victim to these hidden hazards

Francisco Castro

March 18, 2021 

These landmines were recovered from Afghanistan and show what such weapons look like up close. Landmines pose a severe risk to civilians in Karabakh, as planted mines from a period of 30 years and two wars continue to lay undetected in unmapped zones.Image credits “Landmines. Kabul, Afghanistan” by Carl Montgomery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The six-week conflict that exploded last September in the Nagorno-Karabakh region after Armenia’s forces in the occupied region shelled military Azerbaijani positions and civilians settlements came to a stop after a ceasefire deal.

For civilians who live in the area or those returning after evacuating the region, the danger remains. This time in the form of landmines that have killed over 13 people and injured 24 others, and continue to pose a threat.

Anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the 1997 United Nations Mine Ban Convention, but they continue to be planted by forces in conflicts around the world, lying hidden in the ground, out of sight, until someone triggers them and explodes, often with lethal consequences.

“People use landmines as a force multiplier to defend static positions, delay pursuing enemy forces,” says Dr. Ken Rutherford, Professor in the Department of Political Science at James Madison University in Virginia.

Known worldwide for his work to ban landmines, Dr. Rutherford adds that “they (landmines) are a huge threat to civilians because long after the peace treaties are signed (as in the case in the Nagorno-Karabakh region), the landmines remain active and ready to go off if touched by an innocent act of a civilian who returns to former battlegrounds to continue or re-start their pre-conflict lives.”

The latest incident involving landmines in the liberated region took place March 16 when two Azerbaijani civilians were killed and three were severely injured in a blast from an anti-personnel mine in the Aghdam region, according to the Aghdam region Prosecutor’s Office.

The two persons killed were identified as Razi Huseynov and Bayram Huseynov. The injured were Akif Huseynov, Anar Huseynov, and Bahruz Abdulov.

Last weekend, Azerbaijani civilian Iman Bakhshaliyev, 41, was also injured after hitting a mine during agricultural work, the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General’s Office reported on March 15.

Azerbaijani officials say clearing this danger is difficult, in part, because they have denounced Armenia for not providing minefield areas set up by their forces.

“To not give us the maps of the minefields means intentionally dooming civilians and soldiers to death and maiming,” Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said at a press conference on February 26.
Dr. Rutherford says this is not unusual.

“In today’s era, many people (who) use landmines do not map or mark their mine emplacements (ISIS, for example),” he notes.

While Dr. Rutherford recognizes Armenia for mapping and marking their minefields, he is critical that they haven’t released those maps to Azerbaijani forces.

“It is against the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons and additional protocols not to share maps after the war ends.

Unfortunately, both sides involved in Nagorno-Karabakh did not sign the 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty, so those particular laws, while not applying to them, are moral standards that should be acknowledged, especially since a majority of the world has signed the treaty,” he says.

During a webinar titled “New Realities in the South Caucasus: Prospects and Challenges” organized by the Center of Analysis of International Relations on March 4, Robert Cutler, a researcher at the Canadian Institute of Global Affairs, echoed that criticism.
“Armenia’s failure to provide mine maps is a war crime. Armenian-Azerbaijani cooperation is necessary for long-term peace.”

The problem of landmines is not new in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which has been the site of clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia for several decades.

In 2019, the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) registered six mine incidents causing 11 casualties, two of them fatal.
Apart from mines, there are other dangers related to ordnance used during the 44-day conflict, says Tanya Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia Associate Director at Human Rights Watch.

“We documented extensive use of cluster munitions by both sides. Some of those strikes resulted in civilian casualties,” Lokshina says.

She explains that “the use of cluster munition leaves unexplored ordinances, which turn into de facto landmines and represent a threat to civilians long after their initial use and after the end of hostilities.”

“Use of cluster munitions, an inherently indiscriminate weapon banned by an international treaty, cannot be justified under any circumstances. We have made repeated calls on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to make an immediate commitment to stop using them and to join the International Convention of Cluster Munitions,” she added.

Getting rid of that danger could take a long time. ANAMA estimates neutralizing mined areas could take some 10-13 years, and getting rid of other explosives left behind could take between 5-6 years.