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February 17, 2013, Sunday

The South Caucasus and the plight of IDPs

The South Caucasus is a beautiful part of the world, yet at the same time, it remains hostage to its bloody past. Burdened by closed borders, quarrels between neighbors, trade embargos, territorial disputes and simmering conflicts, the potential of the region has been seriously hobbled.

One of the most tragic issues is the ongoing displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, constituting a significant human rights and humanitarian challenge. There are an estimated 2.5 to 2.8 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Council of Europe member states with the South Caucasus being home to around 1 million of these. The majority of these IDPs have been in this state of turmoil for over 20 years, not knowing when, if ever, they will be able to return to their homes.

According to UNHCR figures, Georgia has some 250,000 IDPs. Around 230,000 are a consequence of the wars over the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia during the breakup of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. This number was swelled by the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, which uprooted tens of thousands of people with some 22,000 remaining displaced.

In neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan, the 1988-1993 war over Nagorno-Karabakh had a horrific impact on the lives of ordinary people, as hundreds of thousands, the majority of whom had lived harmoniously together for decades, were forced to flee. Today Azerbaijan has one of the highest per capita IDP populations in the world, after Cyprus, Colombia, Somalia and Iraq, numbering some 600,000. They come not only from Nagorno-Karabakh but also from the additional seven surrounding regions which remain under Armenian occupation. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Armenia had some 8,000 IDPs. While many of these have now returned home, according to IDMC, over 2,000 (a 2011 IDMC report states the exact number is unknown) are unable to return due to “their villages being near to conflict areas, difficult socio-economic hardships [and] fear of landmines.”  Moreover, at least 2,000 are from Artsvashen, which was an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan before the war (similar Azerbaijani enclaves also existed in Armenia). Furthermore, according to UNHCR figures, the mass population swap created an estimated 235,000 Azerbaijani and 360,000 Armenian refugees in the aftermath of the war. Naturalization processes in both countries have considerably reduced these figures.

Sadly, two decades on, IDPs and refugees still rank among the poorest people in society with the unresolved fates of these long-suffering people a constant reminder of the unresolved conflicts of this region. Unfortunately, demands contained in various international agreements and resolutions have remained on paper alone. This includes four UN resolutions demanding the Armenia’s withdrawal from Azerbaijan’s territories and at least two Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolutions demanding Russia comply with and implement the seven point ceasefire agreement that was signed between then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy and former Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev in August 2008. Unfortunately they remain unenforced. Alas, this seems to have become the “norm” with numerous examples of unenforced UN resolutions existing including related to Cyprus, Palestine and North Korea. It is well recognized that the UN is used and abused by some of its member states. This situation remains unacceptable, serving to undermine the credibility of the UN and the values and principles for which it is meant to stand.

Meanwhile Russia, which has consolidated its military, economic and political presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, continues to fail to meet its international obligations. However, today in Georgia there seems to be a glimmer of hope that efforts by Georgia’s new prime minister, Bizdina Ivanishvili, aimed at improving ties with Russia, may slowly serve to improve the situation regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with Ivanishvili pledging to take steps to promote trust. The situation regarding Nagorno-Karabakh is far more depressing, with despair, fear, distrust and deeply entrenched animosity dominating the discourse.

It is crucial that the world does not forget these IDPs but rather steps up efforts to help promote durable and sustainable solutions for the return and reintegration of IDPs within their original communities before it’s too late.

Previous articles of the columnist