BY MOVSES MUSAELIAN
Mercenaries have been used often throughout history in conflicts throughout the world. Their presence has helped armies and fighting forces gain manpower and fighting capability through monetary incentive, which has proven to be a rather convenient method of gaining a temporary military boost. The United Nations, however, has recognized the dangerous implications that such mercenaries have for international peace and security and has passed resolutions affirming not only the danger, posed by the use of such mercenaries, to international peace and security, but also to self determination and the freedom of people1.
At the breakup of the Soviet Union, many conflicts rose up in the Caucasus region and as a result of these conflicts, several parties utilized mercenaries in their struggle; for example, the use of Afghan and Chechen mercenaries against the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict arose when Azerbaijan attempted to brutally suppress the legal expression of self-determination by the NK2 people, who wished to live separate from a government that had continuously denied them rights and kept them under oppression. Even though Azerbaijan had a clear military advantage over the NK Armenians in all aspects, they were not able to defeat these people, who were determined to stay free. As a result of subsequent military failures in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan desperately turned to the use of mercenaries to try to change the course of the war. In recruiting such mercenaries, Azerbaijan actively tried to play the “religion card” in portraying the conflict between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris, when in reality such religious connotations were not at all at the core of the conflict. As a result, Mujahedin groups from Afghanistan, with ties to al-Qaeda, and extremist groups from Chechnya were brought to help in the clamping down of this expression of free will. The Washington Post in 1993 wrote, “The government of this Caucasian republic has hired a force of more than 1,000 Afghan mujaheddin fighters to buttress its sagging army, introducing a volatile new element to the five-year Azerbaijani-Armenian war on the former Soviet Union’s southern rim”–. This known faction was allied with infamous warlord, Hekmaytar, and associated with the mujaheddin faction, Hezb-i-Wahdat. In parallel, Chechen mercenaries were led by Chechen terrorist, Shamil Basayev, infamous for the Beslan School attack, who later realised that the conflict against the NK Armenians had little to do with proper jihad.
After the end of the NK war and with tacit approval and knowledge from the government, Azerbaijan continued to be used for terrorist activities by groups such as al-Qaeda and Hezb-e-Islami, which had logistical offices in the country. For example, Wadih el-Hage, leader of the al-Qaeda cell in Nairobi, which later destroyed the US embassy of Kenya in 1998, frequently relayed vital communication to individuals such as Osama bin Laden while stationed in Baku. After the US embassy attacks in 1998, international pressure began to mount on Azerbaijan for the harboring of such terrorist organizations; in response Azerbaijan did not extradite such individuals, rather repatriated them. The US Department of State noted in 1999, in its annual report on global terrorism, “Although Azerbaijan did not face a serious threat from international terrorism, it served as a logistic hub for international mujahidin with ties to terrorist groups, some of whom supported the Chechen insurgency in Russia.”4 The FBI later on established in 1998 that there were 60 telephone calls between Bin Laden and his contacts from the branch of “Islamic Jihad” in Baku, and it is further speculated that as a result there might have been an Azerbaijani trace in the September 11 attacks5. It was even mentioned by the Associated Press that, “one of Bin Laden’s associate claimed that Bin Laden himself led mujahedin in at least two battles in Nagorno-Karabakh.”6 The Congressional Research Services in its issued report also stated that groups and individuals affiliated with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had used Azerbaijan as one of its bases in their growing terrorist network7.
While Azerbaijan made stronger declarations to tackle terrorism after the September 11 attacks, it has used the pretext of both fighting terrorism and its frozen conflict with NK to suppress freedoms of various sorts and democracy in its own country. The United Nations has similarly passed resolutions on “the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism”8 which Azerbaijan has continued to violate. For example, the intimidation and imprisonment of journalists and activists has become routine in order to solidify the Aliyev clan’s authoritarian grip on the country. Amnesty International and various other human rights organization have often criticized this human rights situation and in one of its press releases, Amnesty International stated, “In oil-rich Azerbaijan, 20 years of independence, economic prosperity and relative stability have failed to translate into greater fundamental freedoms for its citizens while the consolidation of authoritarian rule over the last decade has been largely ignored by the outside world.”9 Freedom House has continuously described Azerbaijan as “not free” in both political rights and civil liberties and in May of 2011 the European Parliament expressed deep concern in this worsening of human rights in Azerbaijan and called on remaining political prisoners to be freed and for Azerbaijan to respect its duties to conventions on human rights10. The bleak status of democracy in this country was only darkened more by a referendum that abolished presidential limits and effectively allowed for Aliyev and his family to rule the country without end. In addition to this oppression, Azerbaijan has continued with provocative and violent actions in the border area with NK and Armenia, which has threatened the peace and security of the civilians living in the border areas; for example, its recent shooting on Movses village in the border area. The acts of such subversive terrorist groups by the Azerbaijan military in the border areas and near civilian populations can be seen as acts of terrorism and add to the legacy of Azerbaijan’s association with terrorism. The complete destruction of the Julfa Armenian cross stones by Azerbaijani military has added a cultural dimension to this terrorist ideology as well. Organizations such as UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) brought forward appeals to Azerbaijan to stop this blatant act of cultural destruction.
I shed light on the associations that Azerbaijan in particular has had with terrorism and violent mercenary groups, which, contrary to UN principles, contributed to the oppression of people’s rights to freedom and self-determination, namely that of the Nagorno-Karabakh people. The subject of terrorism and international strategies in tackling terrorism is a frequently discussed matter at the United Nations, in addition to the core UN principles of freedom and self-determination that have so frequently been violated by the Republic of Azerbaijan towards the NK people, who have expressed democratic desire for self-determination, and towards their own people, who have expressed the desire for a democratic country. During the time of the two week internship the subject of counter-terrorism was frequently discussed in the General Assembly. In UN’s 2006 strategy for counter-terrorism, it was affirmed that, “States must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism comply with their obligations under international law, in particular human rights law, refugee law and international humanitarian law.”11
In conclusion, in the past decade the importance of effective counter-terrorism strategies has greatly increased as the type of threats in the world have also changed. In employing effective counter-terrorism strategies it has been stressed by the UN that such strategies not affect basic human rights of the citizens. In extension to this, the use of mercenaries has also been brought under more heavy scrutiny, especially following the use of such mercenaries in the War on Iraq by US forces, which is reported by the UN Human Rights Council12. In the case of Azerbaijan, we have seen an almost intersection of these two important themes and it is hoped that countries like Azerbaijan can move to be more compliant with international conventions, requests, and urgings in order to contribute to the betterment of international security.
3. The Washington Post
6. Associated Press 11/14/99
7. Congressional Research Services (CRS, 9/10/2001)
Movses Musaelian completed the Internship program at the Armenian Mission at the United Nations this summer. Above is a research project completed for the internship.