Joly announces more funding for Armenian refugees, stops short of threatening sanctions on Azerbaijan

CBC Canada
Oct 26 2023

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced another $1 million in humanitarian funding Wednesday to help displaced ethnic Armenian refugees who recently fled a military operation launched by Azerbaijan — but she stopped well short of threatening to sanction Azeri government officials over the attack.

"I've said everything is on the table. That being said, we expect that Armenia's territorial integrity [will] be respected and for us, this is definitely something that we're watching," Joly told journalists during a visit to Armenia's capital Yerevan to open Canada's new embassy there. She was attending a press conference with her Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan.

The $1 million has been earmarked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on top of $2.5 million Canada announced previously for refugee relief through the International Committee of the Red Cross.

More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians are believed to have fled Azerbaijan's shelling campaign in the long-disputed enclave of  Nagorno-Karabakh in September. Called an "anti terror" operation by Azerbaijan, the campaign also followed nine months of a blockade imposed by Baku that left the region short of food and medical supplies.

Nagono-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Before last month's events, it had a majority Armenian population and a de-facto ethnic Armenian government that was not recognized by any country in the world.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

"We continue to work on mitigating the unjustifiable impacts of this military action on civilians, who have already been affected by months of an illegal blockade, and to find a sustainable negotiated settlement to this conflict," Joly said Wednesday.

In a statement posted to its website, Azerbaijan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Joly's statements at her news conference an "indication of the overt bias of Canada against Azerbaijan."

"Regarding the non-exclusion of sanctions as a tool against Azerbaijan, we would like to note that it is erroneous to speak with Azerbaijan in the language of threat, and that it will not bear any results to either side," the statement warned.

Azerbaijan's statement also accused Armenia of hindering the peace process. "It was the party which violated [those] principles with every effort during more than 30 years," it said. 

Joly's visit comes as some experts warn of the risk of further conflict between the two Caucasus countries.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has made repeated claims to a strip of land within Armenia's internationally recognized borders, the so-called Zangezur Corridor. Azerbaijan wants the corridor in order to connect its mainland to Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave to Armenia's southwest.

Armenia says Azeri military forces have taken over roughly 50 square kilometres of Armenian territory after border skirmishes last year.

"I think the danger of this continuing or expanding is absolutely possible,"  said Kyle Matthews, the executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies and Human Rights at Concordia University.

Matthews said Canada could lead the world in applying sanctions on Azerbaijan, instead of waiting to hear if allies like the United States and the European Union are willing to take part.

"This is the third time we've been hearing from the minister saying that everything's on the table," said Sevag Belian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of Canada, a  Canadian-Armenian political advocacy group. He was visiting Yerevan for the embassy's inauguration.

"Certainly, that is a step forward," he said, citing Joly's claim that "everything is on the table." He said he hopes the Canadian government can identify different pressure points on Azerbaijan.

While Azeri and Armenian officials have met for talks on a few occasions since September, Azerbaijan skipped out on a meeting brokered by the European Union earlier in October.

At Wednesday's news conference, Mirzoyan told journalists that a meeting that was scheduled for later this month between Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and European Council President Charles Michel won't be happening either.

"Obviously it is Azerbaijan's president who didn't find the time," Mirzoyan said, adding his government is ready for further talks. "I do hope the reason really is a scheduling issue, and it will be possible to find time to schedule another meeting."

Earlier this week, Azerbaijan publicized video of military exercises with Turkey, a long-time regional ally in its conflict with Armenia. Azerbaijan's defence department said some of the exercises occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia, meanwhile, has concluded a deal with France to purchase air defence equipment, a move Baku officials have described as provocative.

"I think Azerbaijan will use whatever reason it has at its disposal to attack," Matthews said, adding Armenia has a right to buy defensive equipment under international law, especially given the hostility of its neighbours.

Armenia has depended on a security alliance with Russia for decades, but ties between the two countries have become frayed in recent years.

Armenia blamed Moscow for failing to intervene in a 2020 war with Azerbaijan, as well as the more recent blockade and military action, despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The Russian state-run news agency TASS quoted an unnamed Moscow official last week warning Armenia against becoming another Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Pashinyan, who said Armenia no longer sees any advantage in continuing to host Russian military bases on its territory.