CANBERRA: The Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) has moved to confirm that Australia “does not support any side” in the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, in response to probing questions through the Senate Estimates process, reported the Armenian National Committee of Australia (ANC-AU).

During the 2018-19 Senate Estimates, then-Senator Lee Rhiannon raised concerns that Australia might be taking the side of oil-dictatorship Azerbaijan in its ongoing dispute over the liberated Armenian territories that encompass the independent Republic of Artsakh in its quest for self-determination. These concerns arose after representatives of the Australian government had repeatedly used opportunities to comment on the dispute by singling out only its recognition of “Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity” and ignoring the other two, equal OSCE Minsk Group peace process principles of the “non-use of force” and the “right to self-determination of all peoples”, based on the Helsinki Final Act (1975).

Rhiannon questioned DFAT over a statement they had made, which stated: “The government’s longstanding policy is that Australia supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and does not recognise Nagorno Karabakh as an independent state. As you note, we’re supporters of the OSCE Minsk Group. We do not seek to intervene in the dispute.”

About this, Rhiannon quipped: “How can Australia support ‘Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity’ without giving equal weight to the OSCE Minsk Group’s other core principles of ‘self-determination’ and ‘non-use of force’ in relation to the Nagorno Karabakh dispute?”

To this line of questioning, DFAT reiterated its full support for the OSCE Minsk Process and “its role in seeking a resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict based on the above principles and additional elements” and, more significantly, that “Australia does not support any side in the dispute”.

The questioning followed extensive work by the ANC-AU to clarify the Australian government’s official position on Nagorno Karabakh following comments made by then-Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells while visiting Baku, that claimed Australia was a “forthright supporter of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and strongly supports Azerbaijan’s position on Nagorno Karabakh”.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group – the body delegated with the responsibility of brokering a negotiated settlement to the conflict – has outlined three core principles of conflict resolution that must be upheld; the non-use of force, the maintenance of territorial integrity, and the right to self-determination of all peoples. Fierravanti-Wells’s statement neglected mention of both the right to self-determination and the non-use of force.

Through the same Senate Estimates process, Rhiannon asked if DFAT acknowledged these measures as fundamental to the conflict resolution process outlined by the OSCE, to which DFAT responded: “Australia is aware of the OSCE Minsk Group’s call to all sides that a settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict must be based on the core-principles outlined in the question as well as additional elements (‘the Madrid Principles’). Australia encourages all parties to work constructively and in good faith with the OSCE Minsk Group to seek a negotiated resolution based on these principles and additional elements.”

ANC-AU Executive Director, Haig Kayserian said: “These clarifications, particularly confirmation of Australia’s impartiality, marks a significant step forward for the government’s position on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. By indicating its support for all three, equal, core principles, without qualification, DFAT confirmed Australia’s full support for the OSCE Minsk Process.”

Kayserian added: “These comments clearly distance the position of the Australian government from both the one-sided statement of former Minister Fierravanti-Wells and previous remarks made by Departmental representatives during Senate Estimates processes, which we welcome on behalf of all Armenian-Australians.”

However, Kayserian was quick to point out that, whilst the aforementioned three, equal ‘basic’ principles within the broader ‘Madrid Principles’ remain an important foundation for a final peace process, there are other elements in the proposed ‘Madrid Principles’ for settlement that are unacceptable for the Armenian-Australian community and for Armenians around the world.

“The failed attempted Blitzkrieg by Azerbaijan on the Republic of Artsakh in April 2016 demonstrated beyond any doubt, that true peace and stability in the region can only be made possible with a final, packaged solution to the conflict recognising Artsakh’s inherent right of self-determination,” Kayserian said.

“The suggestion of a unilateral return of the security buffer zone around the Republic of Artsakh before, and as part of, a phased resolution of the conflict is completely unacceptable and would constitute an open invitation for an increasingly belligerent Azerbaijan to yet again try to impose a military solution and ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Armenian population of Artsakh.”

Another significant step forward for Artsakh advocacy in Australia was in the identification of Azerbaijan’s obstruction of conflict resolution, particularly its role in the forcing the closure of the OSCE’s offices in Yerevan and Baku.

In 2015, Azerbaijan gave the OSCE one month to halt its operations in the country amid heightened criticism of Azerbaijan’s record on civil society and media freedoms – the OSCE was a prominent voice among those critics. In 2017, Azerbaijan vetoed the extension of the OSCE’s mandate in Yerevan. As a consensus-based organisation, the OSCE needs approval from all of its 57 members for funding decisions. Azerbaijan took issue with the OSCE’s role in humanitarian de-mining operations in Nagorno Karabakh, which its government saw as an attempt by Armenia to “misuse the OSCE Office” and strengthen its position in Nagorno Karabakh.

When pressed for comment by Rhiannon, DFAT indicated that it was aware of the closure of the offices in Armenia and Azerbaijan – choosing not to dispute the Senator’s wording regarding Azerbaijan’s direct role in the closure of the offices. The department went on to correctly identify Armenia’s continued engagement with the OSCE in line with existing commitments made prior to the closure of its office.

According to the ANC-AU, this development shows “the weakening of Azerbaijan’s oil-money funded, stranglehold over the narrative” surrounding the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, with revelations of its non-cooperative role in conflict resolution increasingly being acknowledged by political stakeholders.

Kayserian said: “Through the questioning of former Senator Rhiannon, the ANC-AU has been able to ascertain a clear position from the Australian Government in regards to Nagorno Karabakh, that:

a) The Australian Government supports the OSCE Minsk Process and considers on equal terms the basic settlement principles of non-use of force, territorial integrity, and the right to self-determination of all people as central to the resolution of the conflict;

b) The Australian Government does not support any side in the conflict, and calls upon all sides to work in good faith with the OSCE Minsk Group in line with the above principles; and

c) The Australian Government acknowledges the role of Azerbaijan in the closure of the OSCE’s offices in Baku and Yerevan, and supports the work of the OSCE in the Caucasus – noting the ongoing cooperation between Armenia and the OSCE despite the closure of its offices.”

“These outcomes mark the culmination of months of the ANC-AU’s ongoing advocacy work involving a commitment to raising awareness and understanding of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, and we recognise there is more to be done, particularly regarding the flawed aspects of the Madrid Principles,” Kayserian added.