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American Support is Needed to Resolve a POW Crisis in the Caucasus

Azerbaijan is illegally holding some 200 Armenian troops and civilian captives.

One of the most important principles of international humanitarian law is the humanitarian treatment timely release and return of prisoners of war following the cessation of active hostilities. This has been a foundational element of any hope for lasting peace, a humanitarian check against the practice of leveraging human lives as hostages for conflict related gains.

This past fall, a 44-day war was launched by Azerbaijan with the direct involvement of Turkey against the Republic of Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh) and its people. In the aftermath of the war, the Armenian side followed its obligations and quickly released all Azerbaijani soldiers it had captured. However, almost five months after the establishment of a ceasefire, Azerbaijan is still illegally holding an estimated 200 Armenian prisoners of war and civilian captives and refusing to release them.

This is not only contrary to its Nov. 9 ceasefire statement, but immoral and a violation of international law, including human rights law. 

The Biden-Harris administration has expressed a commitment to reestablishing American leadership in upholding international law, human rights, and protecting democracies, and we would argue this is an outstanding opportunity to demonstrate that.

To date, many in the international community have spoken up – including the U.S. State Department and members of Congress – but Azerbaijan continues to illegally hold and openly abuse the issues related to Armenian prisoners of war and civilian captives. However, the alternate reality spun by Azerbaijan falls apart as soon as it is actually examined.

Consider Azerbaijan’s words compared to reality during the recent war. They were flatly denying the reports that Turkey was recruiting and deploying thousands of foreign terrorist fighters from Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone to fight for Azerbaijan only to have their lies exposed by multiple sources, including major news outlets and the governments of numerous countries and captured foreign terrorist fighters themselves. Moreover, when Armenia and Artsakh flagged that American F-16 aircraft were being used by Azerbaijan in violation of terms of sale to Turkey, both Turkey and Azerbaijan labeled the allegations as false. Then came the satellite images showing American-made F-16s stationed on Azeri air bases. 

Now, it comes to the issue of nearly 200 prisoners of war and civilian captives. For months, Azerbaijan has denied this, and tried to use loopholes in international law to claim anyone who is still being detained is a “terrorist.” Then Human Rights Watch issued a damning report showing the extent of Azerbaijan’s lies and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war. In interviews with the limited number of prisoners of war who have been returned, they described regular beatings, electric shocks, constant psychological torture and humiliation. Extrajudicial killings, beheadings, torture, humiliation, and other war crimes systematically perpetrated by the Azerbaijani military personnel have also been documented.

Statements by the Azerbaijani side concerning the Armenian POWs – particularly their intentional misrepresentation — lead us to conclude that we face a hostage-taking situation. Setting aside the needless suffering of Armenian POWs and their families, these tactics undermine international law meant to protect prisoners of war all over the world. For example, 64 Armenian soldiers that Azerbaijan now refers to as “terrorists” were captured when they were defending civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh against Azerbaijani military attacks after the Nov. 9 ceasefire. 

There is a dangerous precedent being set that threatens all prisoners of war, both in the present and future. International law provides ironclad protections for POWs that enjoy broad-based compliance by armed forces around the world. The law of war is not merely guided by values of humanity, but also the desire to protect members of our own armed forces in conflict. 

Armenia is grateful to friends in Congress who have seen this farce for what it is. Earlier this month, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez condemned Azerbaijan’s unlawful detention of Armenian prisoners, and in a letter, more than one hundred members of the House urged the Biden-Harris administration to put pressure on Azerbaijan. Additionally, a bipartisan House resolution drafted on March 16 called on Azerbaijan to release all POWs and captured civilians. If adopted, this resolution provides a path for the United States to help end this injustice. 

As the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues recently noted, the longer the delay, the more Azerbaijan shows its disregard for human rights and international law. Further, the longer this injustice is allowed to continue, the more all prisoners of war around the world become less secure. 

In defining America’s place in the world recently, President Biden spoke eloquently of a diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values — such as upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity. 

While it is encouraging that the State Department acknowledged and expressed its deep concern over allegations by Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijan’s intransigence runs deep. Armenians have known more than our fair share of tragedy throughout our long history. We will overcome the trauma of the recent war. To expedite that process and create the foundation for lasting peace, we ask our American friends to continue to act swiftly to achieve the release the Armenian POWs and to avoid a dangerous precedent for the other prisoners of war all over the world. 

Varuzhan Nersesyan is the Armenian Ambassador to the United States.