This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, 2014). The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been inhabited by ethnic Armenians thus far, and the seven surrounding districts were inhabited by Azerbaijanis until they were expelled in the 1990s (Rezvani, 2014). The Republic of Artsakh, a breakaway state from Azerbaijan, claims the Nagorno-Karabakh region. However, the territory has been internationally recognized as Azerbaijanian territory (Rezvani, 2014). Since 2020, Azerbaijan has re-established its control over both Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding territories. Under Soviet rule, the Armenian population in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast faced heavy discrimination (Yavuz & Gunter, 2022). Their culture was suppressed and they were pressured to leave the region – although Armenians remained the majority population (Rezvani, 2014). In 1988, during the Glasnost period, a referendum was held and the region was transferred to Soviet Armenia on the grounds of self-determination laws under the Soviet constitution of the time (Starovoytova, 1997). This measure was met with a series of pogroms targeting and ethnic erasure of Armenians across Azerbaijan (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, 2014).
In the early 1990s, this conflict became a full-fledged war after the Soviet Union was dissolved. Artsakh and Armenia won the war, and occupied the Nagorno-Karabakh region (Yavuz & Gunter, 2022). In 1991, the region held a referendum and declared independence – but its independence was not recognized by both states (Rezvani, 2014). In 1994, a ceasefire ended the war (Starovoytova, 1997). This was followed by two decades of relative stability which began to decline in the 2010s. In 2016, a four-day escalation caused major casualties. In late 2020, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War caused thousands of casualties, with Azerbaijan winning the war. An armistice was established by a tripartite ceasefire agreement on November 10, which resulted in Azerbaijan regaining all the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, along with a third of the region. Ceasefire violations continued. In December 2022, Azerbaijan began to blockade Artsakh (Geybullayeva, 2023). In September 2023, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military offensive, resulting in the surrender of Artsakh authorities. By January 1, 2024, Artsakh is set to be dissolved (Krivosheev, 2023)
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Gender-based violence has been rarely mentioned explicitly as an impact of the war, especially in the context of the first and second Nagorno-Karabakh wars (Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation, 2019). Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation (2019) reported that survival sex is normalised in the context of the conflict, where socially and economically disadvantaged women are often pressured to offer sexual services in exchange for money. The buying and selling of sex in the bordering regions and territories around military bases, as well. The report also indicates the prevalence of rumours that lower-ranking soldiers are expected to offer their wives sexually to higher-ranking officers (Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation, 2019). However, there is a culture of silence surrounding sexual violence, which makes it difficult to identify the precise number of cases. There have been instances of violence, ill-treatment, sexual harassment, and molestation (Cheterian, 2018).
Since the blockade in December 2022, women have not been able to access medicine, healthcare, contraception, and menstrual products (Women of Armenia, 2023). Pregnant women have faced miscarriages, stillbirths, and complications owing to malnutrition and inadequate access to care (Martirosyan & Sargsyan, 2023; WAVE, 2023). In 2023, Armen Press reported that women’s bodies revealed signs of torture (Armen Press, 2023a). Armen Press (2023b) also reported that telegram channels in Azerbaijan have distributed messages across a variety of telegram channels to encourage people to find, kill, torture, and rape missing persons.
Basis of the Use of Sexual Violence
At this point, with limited data on particular forms of sexual violence and rape make it unclear as to whether there is a deliberate, systematic intent. However, with reports suggesting messages encouraging the rape and murder of women, it appears that there is an intention to systematically use such forms of violence to further ethnic erasure. Reports show that the blockade, occupation, and armed conflict have each proceeded with the intention to carry out the ethnic erasure of ethnic Armenians. To this end, violence targeting the sexual and reproductive health of Armenian women is in furtherance of the intention to perpetrate ethnic erasure. Further, it appears from some data that torture has been carried out against women.
Armen Press (2023a). "There are signs of torture and mutilation on many bodies transported from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. HRD." https://www.armenpress.am/arm/news/1122336/
Armen Press (2023b). "Azerbaijan conducts information terror against people of Nagorno-Karabakh with terrifying threats to rape and kill." https://armenpress.am/eng/news/1120348.html
Cheterian, V. (2018). The uses and abuses of history: Genocide and the making of the Karabakh conflict. Europe-Asia Studies, 70(6), 884-903.
Geybullayeva, A. (2023). "Armenia and Azerbaijan: A blockade that never ended and a peace deal hanging by a thread." https://globalvoices.org/2023/07/19/armenia-and-azerbaijan-a-blockade-that-never-ended-and-a-peace-deal-hanging-by-a-thread/
Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (2014). Women’s Participation in the Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process. https://www.hart-uk.org/blog/womens-participation-nagorno-karabakh-peace-process/
Krivosheev, K. (2023). "What the Dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh Means for the South Caucasus." https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/90667
Kvinna Till Kvinna (2019). "Listen to Her: Gendered Effects of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and Women's Priorities for Peace." https://kvinnatillkvinna.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Listen-to-Her-–-Gendered-Effects-of-the-Conflict-over-Nagorno-Karabakh-and-Womens-Priorities-for-Peace.pdf
Martirosyan, L., & Sargsyan, S. (2023). "Queues for bread and no formula milk: Motherhood in blockaded Nagorno-Karabakh." https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/mothers-nagorno-karabakh-artsakh-armenia-azerbaijan-children/
Rezvani, B. (2014). Conflict and Peace in Central Eurasia: Towards Explanations and Understandings. Brill.
Starovoytova, G. (1997). "Sovereignty after Empire: Self-Determinationa Movements in the Former Soviet Union" United States Institute of Peace. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/pwks19.pdf
WAVE (2023). "WAVE statement on the Nagorno-Karabakh humanitarian crisis." https://wave-network.org/wave-statement-on-the-nagorno-karabakh-humanitarian-crisis/#_ftn2
Women of Armenia (2023). "Violated Reproductive Rigths: The effects of the ongoing humanitarian crisis on women’s reproductive rights in Nagorno Karabakh." https://womenofarmenia.org/2023/08/25/violated-reproductive-rigths-the-effects-of-the-ongoing-humanitarian-crisis-on-womens-reproductive-rights-in-nagorno-karabakh/
Yavuz, M. H., & Gunter, M. (2022). The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Historical and Political Perspectives. Routledge.