Azerbaijani and Armenian forces both committed violations of the laws of war by launching indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas during the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch said Friday, adding to the mounting reports of abuses by both sides during the war.
The report came a day after Amnesty International said it had confirmed numerous cases of war crimes being committed by both sides during the six-week war, including beheadings, extrajudicial executions, and the defilement of corpses.
Azerbaijan launched an offensive on the 27th of September to retake territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave within Azerbaijani territory that had been under Armenian control since fighting in the 1990s. The war ended six weeks later, with more than 5,000 confirmed military deaths and at least 143 civilian deaths confirmed on both sides, when the warring parties agreed to a peace deal granting large territorial gains to Azerbaijan.
According to growing evidence documented by rights groups, the conflict featured violations of the Geneva Conventions, including war crimes, by both sides.
In the latest reports documenting such violations, Human Rights Watch said that both sides had broken the laws of war by carrying out indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas. The laws of war prohibit deliberate attacks on civilians, along with attacks that are indiscriminate, or cause disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian objects.
The group said Azerbaijan’s apparently indiscriminate attacks on Stepanakert, the regional capital of Nagorno-Karabakh used “inherently indiscriminate” cluster munitions, as well as Smerch and Grad rockets, which are incapable of precision targeting.
Through visiting the territory and interviewing witnesses, and analysing satellite images and videos, the group was able to establish that Azerbaijani forces attacked residential areas with inherently indiscriminate weapons, launching aerial munitions and heavy artillery into populated residential areas with no apparent military targets.
The strikes damaged many homes and businesses in four neighbourhoods in the city visited by Human Rights Watch, two of which had no apparent military targets nearby.
“There’s a couple of attacks which did not appear to be targeting a military objective… which makes it appear to be indiscriminate,” Rich Weir, a researcher in the rights group’s crisis and conflict division, told VICE World News.
“Then there are other situations where you’re lobbing inaccurate rocket artillery into a populated area where it’s difficult or impossible to have that weapon system distinguish between a civilian or a military objective.”
He said in some cases, bombs were documented falling “as far away as 700 meters away anything that could be conceived as being a military objective.”
In a report released Friday, the group said it had documented 11 cases of Armenian forces indiscriminately hitting populated areas in Azerbaijan, and four other cases where Armenian forces hit civilians or civilian objects in areas with no apparent military targets.
“Armenian forces repeatedly launched missiles, unguided rockets, and heavy artillery into populated cities and villages in violation of the laws of war,” said Hugh Williamson, the group’s Europe and Central Asia director.
“Again and again in the course of the six-week war, these attacks unlawfully destroyed civilian lives and homes and should be impartially investigated.”
The attacks included an assault using cluster munitions and unguided Smerch rockets on the 28th of October on residential areas in Barda, Azerbaijan, which killed 21 civilians and wounded 70. VICE World News confirmed the use of cluster munitions in Barda the day after the attack, which was also confirmed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty.
More than 100 states are signatories to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits their use and requires their clearance, but neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan have signed up.
The reports came a day after Amnesty said it had authenticated 22 videos from the conflict depicting atrocities including beheadings, extrajudicial executions, and the defilement of the dead bodies of enemy soldiers. The videos have circulated on private Telegram channels in recent weeks.
In one incident, a group of uniformed Azerbaijani soldiers hold down an Armenian civilian, before one of them decapitates him with a knife. The victim’s head is then placed on the carcass of a pig, while a soldier is heard to comment: “You have no honour, this is how we take revenge for the blood of our martyrs.”
Another video showed two soldiers, apparently in Azerbaijani military uniforms, and an elderly civilian who is begging for mercy, before one of them cuts his throat with a knife.
Another showed a gagged and bound man in an Azerbaijani border patrol uniform being stabbed in the throat with a knife, while another showed Armenian soldiers slicing the ear off a dead Azerbaijani soldier.
“Members of the military on both sides have behaved horrendously, displaying a complete disregard for the rules of war,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s research director for eastern Europe and central Asia.
“The depravity and lack of humanity captured in these videos shows the deliberate intention to cause ultimate harm and humiliation to victims, in clear violation of international humanitarian law,” he said, calling for both governments to identify and prosecute the perpetrators.”
The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan did not respond to requests for comment to the reports, but have previously denied allegations of violations during the conflict.