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Azerbaijan: Ongoing blockade of Lachin corridor endangering thousands of lives 'must end now' - new research

© Amnesty International

Blockade in ninth week is a serious blow to human rights in Nagorno-Karabakh 

Food, fuel and medicine shortages exacerbating humanitarian crisis

Since the blockade began the number of vehicles with aid has decreased from 1,200 to six trucks a day

Azerbaijani authorities and Russian peacekeepers failing to fulfil their obligations

‘With the blockade now in its ninth week, all eyes are on the Azerbaijani authorities and Russian peacekeepers’ – Marie Struthers

The ongoing blockade of the Lachin corridor is an unfolding humanitarian crisis blocking thousands of people’s access to health care, food and fuel in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Amnesty International said today (9 February).

The road, which connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, has been inaccessible to all civilian and commercial traffic since 12 December last year after being blockaded by dozens of Azerbaijani protesters, widely believed to be backed by the country’s authorities. The situation has left some 120,000 ethnic Armenian residents in Nagorno-Karabakh without access to essential goods and services, including life-saving medication and health care.

Interviews conducted with health workers and residents in the region revealed the blockade’s particularly harsh impact on at-risk groups including women, older people, and people with disabilities.

Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said:

“The blockade has resulted in severe shortages of food and medical supplies, as humanitarian aid delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Russian peacekeepers has been insufficient to meet demand. Disruptions to the supply of electricity, natural gas and vehicle fuel add up to extreme hardship, especially for groups who are vulnerable to discrimination and marginalisation. This must end now.

“The Azerbaijani authorities have internationally recognised sovereignty over these territories and exercise control over the area from which the blockade is being carried out. It is Azerbaijan’s obligation to ensure that people in Nagorno-Karabakh are not denied access to food and other essential goods and medications. For its part, the Russian peacekeeping mission is mandated to ensure the safety of the Lachin corridor. However, both parties are manifestly failing to fulfil their obligations.

“With the blockade now in its ninth week, all eyes are on the Azerbaijani authorities and Russian peacekeepers. We call on both parties to immediately take effective measures, in line with international human rights standards, to lift the blockade of the Lachin corridor without any further delay and end the unfolding humanitarian crisis.”

According to Nagorno-Karabakh de-facto officials, since the blockade began the number of vehicles arriving in the region has decreased from 1,200 a day to five to six trucks belonging to the Russian peacekeeping mission and the ICRC.

Lack of medicine and access to healthcare 

Access to healthcare has become the most pressing issue in the blockaded region, with a deficit of medicines and medical supplies as well as insufficient fuel to enable outpatient care. The situation is particularly acute for older people and people with disabilities, many with chronic health conditions, whose access to healthcare services is severely limited or in some cases completely disrupted.

Vardan Lalayan, a cardiologist at a hospital in Stepanakert (Khankendi), saw 30 to 40 patients – almost all of them older people – a month before the blockade. Now he only sees five or six patients and usually only those requiring acute care after a heart attack. He told Amnesty that most patients in need of stenting checks are largely unable to get the care they need because of insufficient supply of stents and other medical supplies. He said:

“We are doing 10% of the procedures now. We simply do not have enough stents […] We will have a very big [number of] heart attacks at home. Every day we lose many people, many patients.”

Biayna Sukhudyan, a neurologist, told Amnesty:

“A week ago, we had a child [with epilepsy] who needed an urgent medication, and we did not have it, and no one had it, stock was empty. […] After one week, after negotiations with the Red Cross, they managed to send the child for treatment to Yerevan.”

According to Vardan Lalayan, the ICRC transfers only those in “stable condition” to facilities outside the region, where care might be available. Patients in a critical condition at his hospital had to remain in a health facility where appropriate care was not available, resulting in several preventable deaths. Many patients are also reluctant to use the transfer as it often means separation from their families for a prolonged, uncertain period of time, without the guarantee of return.

Women’s health and maternal health are also under serious threat due to shortages of medical supplies.

Meline Petrosyan, an eight-months pregnant woman from Martakert (Aghdere) town, told Amnesty:

“The maternity ward was full, while medicines, hygiene products and baby essentials, diapers, formula milk were in short supply. The hospital room was often cold because of the electricity shortage. They could only operate one incubator and three premature babies had to take turns using it. When I think about all the uncertainties of giving birth in these conditions, I feel terrified.”

Health workers, older people and people with disabilities said that medication for chronic conditions, including those to manage blood pressure; heart conditions; epilepsy, and asthma as well as pain medication and antibiotics had become much more difficult or impossible to access, with many pharmacies in Nagorno-Karabakh closed completely. When they were able to find medication, it was significantly more expensive due to the blockade, forcing people to reduce their use.

Food and fuel shortages  

The blockade has caused a food shortage, which led the de-facto authorities to introduce a rationing system in early January. According to one resident: “each individual can get half a kilo of rice, pasta and one litre of oil and little sugar,” limiting products by one kilo or litre per month per person, regardless of age. Interviewees said that while those efforts had helped prevent spiking prices for essential food products, fresh vegetables and fruits have completely disappeared from store shelves, while long queues form for milk and eggs when they become available. 

Based on Amnesty’s interviews with residents, it appeared that women typically prioritised giving food to other family members over themselves. Healthcare professionals interviewed noted a significant increase in cases of immunodeficiency, anaemia, thyroid disease, and worsened diabetes conditions among women and children, as a direct result of food shortages. 

Nara Karapetyan, a mother of two, told Amnesty:

“We have not had any fruits or vegetables for over a month now. Whatever food I find I make sure my children get fed first, I simply do with what is left over.”

Several healthcare workers in Nagorno-Karabakh told Amnesty that pregnant women were showing increased complications, and the numbers of miscarriages and premature births have grown, as expectant mothers were unable to access vital medication and the nutrients required during pregnancy.

People with disabilities, including those with limited mobility, said they were suffering more from isolation during the blockade, as they were unable to use either public or private transportation due to the lack of fuel. Yakov Altunyan, who uses a wheelchair since both of his legs were amputated after stepping on a mine in the 1990s, is effectively stuck in his apartment. He told Amnesty:

Even since I was injured, I always try to be outside and socialise, because for me being in these four walls means being in a prison. […] Not being able to drive, to communicate and socialise with others, makes my life very hard.”

Worsening humanitarian crisis

Among other dire consequences inflicted by the blockade is the violation of the right to education. All schools and kindergartens, attended by around 27,000 children, were temporarily closed due to the lack of heating and electricity shortages. Although schools partially reopened on 30 January this year, school time is limited to four hours a day.

Over 1000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh have been left stranded outside of the region and unable to return home since the beginning of the blockade, including at least 270 children. They are accommodated in hotels or in the homes of relatives and volunteers in Armenia.

The shortage of gas and petrol is further exacerbated by frequent cuts to the supply of gas from Azerbaijan and electricity cuts that last an average of six hours a day.   

War in 2020

In September 2020, a full-scale war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, during which both sides committed violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes. Following a 10 November 2020 tripartite agreement backed by Russia, Azerbaijan regained control over large parts of the self-proclaimed republic, successfully cutting its ties with Armenia. According to the terms of the ceasefire agreement, the so-called Lachin corridor remained the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, the security of which was to be provided by the Russian peacekeeping contingent.

Amnesty’s research

Amnesty conducted 16 phone interviews with de-facto officials, healthcare professionals and residents, including older people and people with disabilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region of Azerbaijan inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians, which proclaimed its independence as the Republic of Artsakh in 1991.  

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