Executive Summary


This publication addresses policy-related issues arising from displacement as a result of the Nagorno Karabakh (NK) conflict. Its purpose is to promote awareness of possible societal responses to Track 1 outcomes on this issue, to discuss broadly possible modalities and likely obstacles, and, through this discussion, to shape policy in ways that would make it more responsive to on-the-ground realities.


The forced displacement of some one million people is a key legacy of the Nagorno Karabakh (NK) conflict. Although a universal right of return will be central to legitimating any eventual Armenian-Azerbaijani framework agreement, after 20 years of protracted displacement refugees and internally displaced persons are likely to exercise a range of choices. This reflects a paradox lying at the heart of debates on return. The paradox lies in the fact that no return process can recreate or restore the pre-conflict demography and settlement pattern, yet any peace agreement that fails to create a realistic basis for some degree of return is unlikely to be seen as legitimate by all conflict parties, or by the international community.


This publication addresses this paradox by bringing an overview of international thinking and experience with forced displacement together with a selection of local perspectives by Armenian and Azerbaijani authors. Together, these papers provide evidence of significant gaps between emerging international standards and local rhetoric on return, of the wide distance between the different conflict parties’ entry points into these debates, and yet also of how international experience can provide, should the conflict parties accept the challenge, models for a broad range of approaches addressing the justice issues posed by forced displacement.


The Karabakh Contact Group

In mid-2010 Conciliation Resources (CR) devised the Karabakh Contact Group (KCG) project, as part of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Resolution of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK), a series of measures funded by the European Union supporting the Karabakh peace process. The KCG aims to provide a safe space for Armenian and Azerbaijani analysts to think through, with each other and with international expertise, alternative approaches to key policy dilemmas in the Karabakh peace process.


The format for this paper was to bring a small group of Armenian and Azerbaijani analysts (in this case Masis Mayilian, Azer Allahveranov, Ashot Beglarian, Tabib Huseynov, and Artak Ayunts) together with an international expert (in this case Gerard Toal) on the issue of forced displacement to produce policy-oriented research papers. Four regional participants in this first paper met in Tbilisi in October 2010, where they were briefed on current international thinking and practice on displacement, and given a number of perspectives on how experience in other contexts could be relevant for the Karabakh conflict. They then prepared their research papers and exchanged them for mutual commentary in late 2010-early 2011. The resulting research papers are published in this volume, and their main findings discussed in the remainder of this introduction.


The Contact Group papers – main findings

Gerard Toal’s overview draws on thinking and experience of addressing displacement across the world, and in particular Bosnia. He shows that while international practice is increasingly guided by the aspiration to reverse mass displacement, in practice, often the most that can be achieved is to offer individuals the choices to return or convert pre-war property into resources for lives in displacement. While the Bosnian experience offers useful parallels, there are also marked differences with the Karabakh context, not least the geographies of displacement and current territorial control, the fact that there was no clear winner in the Bosnian wars and also significantly less international presence and influence on the ground.


Nevertheless, Toal’s Bosnia-Karabakh comparison suggests a number of alternative perspectives in terms of how the end of forced displacement can be conceived and implemented. These alternatives redefine ‘return’ in broad terms to mean the return of decision-making powers to the displaced individual to make choices about where to live. What this approach underlines is that it should be not assumed that displaced people want to return to their former homes. Instead, they are likely to consider a range of options, including:

  • The reclamation of former property as a means of generating financial resources for a new life elsewhere;
  • Temporary or experimental return;
  • Partial return, in the form of reclaiming former homes for eventual use as secondary homes with the primary place of residence remaining that in “displacement”.


These perspectives prioritize the rights of the individual rather than their assumed role in a national project of return and reclamation of territory. There is an emphatic shift from seeing displaced people as passive pawns being moved physically from one location to another, to seeing displaced people as rational individuals with multiple motivations and the choice of which to act on. Such an approach may sit uncomfortably with broader narratives of the loss of national territory and the imperative to repopulate, but is more likely to be compatible with the life-choices and rights of long-term displaced people. It also offers entry points to address historical justice issues, discussion of which is controversial today, yet without which no process of Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation will be possible.


The papers by Artak Ayunts, Azer Allahveranov, Ashot Beglarian, Tabib Huseynov, and Masis Mayilian offer further insights into the considerable obstacles confronting attempts to redress forced displacement in the Karabakh case. These include:


  • The problem of sequencing: how can return be sequenced with other core issues such as status and security?
  • Balancing return with new post-war demographics: are returnees willing to live in some contexts as demographic minorities where once they lived as majorities?
  • Negotiating return to locations of particular symbolic or strategic locations, such as Shusha, Lachin and Shaumyan;
  • Psychological and practical obstacles to the release of territories occupied as a result of war, including a developing sense of ownership over occupied territories adjacent to NK;
  • The likely scope of obstructionism, ranging from bureaucratic obstacles to physical intimidation and violence;
  • Conceptualization of return as a unilateral process with no consideration of reciprocal obligations to accept returnees;
  • Popular understandings and historical narratives of population movements as tools of invidious policies of ‘ethnic engineering’;
  • Currently low capacities of Armenian and Azerbaijani states and societies to address issues of legal redress, historical justice and reconciliation.


In different ways and from different starting points, all of the papers indicate the considerable problems. Yet an approach consistent with emerging international practice offers mechanisms placing individual choice at the centre of processes addressing forced displacement. This points to the centrality of the individual’s right to choose between return, integration or resettlement in legitimating any eventual arrangements in this field.


This would necessarily imply a significant shift away from unilateral and often fiercely local portrayals of the issue. Based on the contributions to this volume, some possible parameters of this shift are explored in a final article by Laurence Broers. He argues that the extent of Armenian and Azerbaijani intermingling prior to the conflict means that the aspiration to return cannot be divorced from self-reflection on readiness to accept returnees from the other side. Regardless of eventual outcomes, return in the Karabakh conflict cannot be conceptualized as a one-way street, just as no one group holds a monopoly on loss and grievance. This reality would suggest instead a reciprocal re-imagining of Armenian and Azerbaijani societies’ capacity to accommodate individual choices – both those of their ‘own’ displaced who choose not to return but to integrate, and of those by members of the ‘other side’ to return and live among former foes in a new equilibrium.



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