On March 6, the U.S. Department of State released its 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, prepared by its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The annual report contains updates on human rights conditions in countries around the world.
This year’s reports on Armenia and Azerbaijan have caused serious reactions in both countries and resulted first in a delay and then a postponement of a high-level Azerbaijani delegation’s visit to the United States. The delegation, led by Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, was scheduled to arrive in Washington on Monday, April 23 for annual U.S.-Azerbaijan security talks that include senior officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, National Security, Internal Affairs, Emergency, and other security agencies.
The main point of contention was the wording of several sentences concerning the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan that, along with seven adjacent regions, have been occupied by Armenian forces since 1992.
For the first time, the U.S. Department of State made an insertion into the Armenia report under the “Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life” section that read: “Armenia continues to occupy the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories” (initial U.S. Dept. of State report of March 6). While similar statements have appeared in previous reports on Azerbaijan, they have never been used in the reports on Armenia.
Yerevan reacted by officially contacting the U.S. Department of State and asking for a revision of the statement. At the same time, Armenian lobbying groups began sending letters to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with similar demands (PanArmenian.net, April 20).
On April 17, the statement was revised to read: “Armenian forces occupy large portions of Azerbaijan territory adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian officials maintain that they do not ‘occupy’ Nagorno-Karabakh itself” (revised U.S. Dept. of State report of April 17).
Meanwhile, there have been some slight changes to the 2006 Azerbaijan country report as well. In the introduction to this year’s report, the previously used statement “Armenian forces continued to occupy an estimated 16 percent of the country’s territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh” was revised to read: “Armenian forces controlled most of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as large portions of adjacent Azerbaijani territory” (U.S. Dept. of State report on Azerbaijan, March 6).
The difference in wording compared to previous issues and later revisions upset Baku and prompted strong reaction in the Azerbaijani press, which began questioning the “impartiality” of the U.S. as a mediator country in the Karabakh peace process (Day.az, April 23).
Rasim Musabekov, a local expert, stated, “Partnership and cooperation, even when it is between a superpower like the United States and a small country like Azerbaijan, cannot be a one-way street and [the U.S.] should show extra care to interests of [Azerbaijan], especially on such sensitive issue as [Azerbaijan’s] territorial integrity” (Day.az, April 23).
On April 20, the U.S. Department of State released another statement, saying that U.S. “policy with respect to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unchanged [and that the U.S.] reaffirms its support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and holds that the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh is a matter of negotiations between the parties” (U.S. Dept. of State Press Statement, April 20).
In an interview with AzerTag news agency, Matthew Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs and U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group that mediates the Karabakh conflict, remarked that there is “nothing to indicate any shift in [U.S.] policy” and noted that the U.S. has been an “impartial and honest broker” in the Karabakh conflict for years (AzerTag, April 24). Bryza also stated that he hoped the talks on U.S -Azerbaijan on security issues would resume soon (Zerkalo, April 25).
U.S. officials have reiterated that the statement in the Armenia report was a “mistake” that has been corrected. But some local analysts believe the insertion of such a statement into the Armenia report may also be associated with the upcoming parliamentary elections in Armenia on May 12 and the current stage at the Karabakh peace process (Day.az, April 23).
We are “at a very unique moment” in the history of the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations, said Bryza, adding that the parties are “at a juncture in the [Karabakh] peace process” where they have started discussing the future status of Karabakh (AzerTag, April 24).
Speaking at the OSCE Permanent Council on April 17, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian also stated, “I have seen all the [peace] proposals that have ever been produced by the mediators [of the Karabakh conflict]. I can assure you we have never been this close” (OSCE Press Release, April 17).
Nonetheless, on April 25, the U.S. Department of State made yet another revision to the report on Armenia and restored the initial wording of the sentence on Karabakh, which now reads “Armenia continues to occupy the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories All parties to the Nagorno‑Karabakh conflict have laid landmines along the 540‑mile border with Azerbaijan and along the line of contact.” (State Dept. Report on Armenia of April 25).
Whether the phrasing of the statement on Karabakh in the State Department report on Armenia was an unintentional “mistake” or another “carrot-and-stick” tactic, it remains to be seen what impact it will have on Baku or Yerevan. The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan are preparing to finalize the basic principles of the Karabakh peace process, which would then be presented to the presidents of both states. It will be up to the presidents to accept or reject these principles and thus determine the fate of the current negotiations.