Ottawa: ‘Everything is on the table’ [Canadian FM] Joly says of potential Azerbaijan sanctions, at Armenian embassy opening

Canada – Oct 28 2023

Ottawa opened its first-ever embassy in the distant Republic of Armenia on Wednesday, making history as Canada's first in the South Caucasus region.

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Foreign Minister Melanie Joly was on hand for the event, visiting Armenia to both officially open the embassy and for a raft of meetings with Armenian officials.

"Canada stands by the people of Armenia and supports their sovereignty and independence," Joly said at a press conference with her Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan. "We believe in your democratic aspirations and are ready to work with you to make them a reality," she said.

Joly's visit to Armenia comes in the wake of a humanitarian crisis following the influx of 100,000 refugees from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region last month.

Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh had been de facto independent for more than three decades, with multiple wars in that span. Following a nine-month blockade, Azerbaijan attacked the territory again on Sept. 19, leading to a mass forced displacement(opens in a new tab) of nearly the entire ethnic Armenian population to Armenia.

Canada and Joly had regularly called for Azerbaijan to lift its blockade, and were "gravely concerned" by Azerbaijan's assault last month. Speaking in Yerevan, Joly announced an additional $1 million of aid for refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh.

The minister also hinted that more consequences for Azerbaijan, including sanctions, could be on the table from Canada if the country's aggression against Armenia itself continues.

"Everything is on the table," said Joly, in response to CTV News' question regarding the possibility of sanctions against Azerbaijan. "We expect that Armenia's sovereignty will be respected, and we are closely watching this," Joly said.

The embassy in Armenia is Canada's first in the South Caucasus region, which was previously covered by the Canadian embassy in Moscow. Neither of the other two regional countries — Georgia and Azerbaijan — host a Canadian embassy.

The choice of Armenia as Canada's entry to the region was a pointed one. Countries with embassies in only one of the South Caucasus countries usually choose Georgia, with both its longtime pro-Western orientation and ability to cover all three regional countries. But democratic backsliding there, as well as Armenia's strong pro-Western turn in the past year, made Armenia a more attractive option.

"This is the only democracy in the region," said Stephane Bergeron, the Bloc Quebecois MP for Montarville, Que. and one of two MPs besides Joly on the trip. "So they need support. And this is why I think it's important to intensify the relations between Canada and Armenia," Bergeron said.

Lyndsay Mathyssen, in attendance as the NDP MP for London-Fanshawe, Ont. echoed these sentiments.

"This is a historic moment, one that the Armenian diaspora and politicians have been working on for many, many years now," Mathyssen said. "For our [two] countries, economically, politically, there's a lot going on. We can certainly benefit from strengthening the relationship between Canada and Armenia, and this is a wonderful way to do that," she said.

Canada's commitments in Armenia have already gone beyond the establishment of a permanent diplomatic mission and humanitarian aid.

In July, Global Affairs Canada announced that Canada would be joining the European Union's Mission in Armenia (EUMA), becoming the first third-party country to do so.

The mission was established in February to observe the country's border with Azerbaijan in the wake of a two-day Azerbaijani offensive into Armenia last September that saw Azerbaijani troops occupy a swathe of Armenian territory. Joly visited the Armenian town of Jermuk, close to last year's fighting, on Thursday, observing Azerbaijani military positions on Armenian territory alongside the EUMA.

That attack by Azerbaijan, as well as last month's assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, has fuelled fears of further Azerbaijani military offensives against Armenia itself. While Azerbaijani officials have denied any territorial designs on Armenia, regular belligerent statements by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, as well as irredentist claims against Armenia itself, have cast doubt on these.

Bergeron underscored the need for consistency in Canada's foreign policy and support for a fellow democracy under attack by an autocratic neighbour in his support of the embassy opening.

"Very often [Canada] decides to chastise a country that attacks another one, [but we were] silent when Azerbaijan not only attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, but also the sovereign territory of Armenia," Bergeron said. "We were all together to support Ukraine, so I don't understand why we're not together to support Armenia that was attacked by Azerbaijan.

"I think it's time to impose sanctions against the leaders of this country [Azerbaijan], because an aggression is an aggression, no matter which country [does it]," Bergeron said.

For Sevag Belian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of Canada (ANC), the opening of the embassy and Joly's visit were a good start – but hopefully just the beginning.

"I think that Canada is pivotal in terms of supporting the physical integrity of Armenia," Belian said. "Having a Canadian presence here…is a message that I think Canada is trying to project, that Armenia is a country that needs help, in the face of aggression by Azerbaijan," he said.

As Canada establishes itself in the region, Belian hopes that additional pressure on Azerbaijan by Ottawa can help restore stability to the South Caucasus.

"For the last three years, since the 2020 war and especially over the last month, we've [ANC] been very clear, asking the Canadian government to take decisive action [against Azerbaijan]," Belian said. "Sanctions are one way, but there are many levers that [Canada] can use. We'd like to see real, tangible results, and we're confident that the [Canadian] government is moving in that direction."