Canada and its allies have discussed sanctioning Azerbaijan over its military incursion last month into the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh — which triggered a mass exodus of more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians into neighbouring Armenia — a senior diplomat told the Commons foreign affairs and international development committee Monday.
"There absolutely have been discussions ... continued debate about when it would be most appropriate to use that tool," said Andrew Turner, Canada's recently appointed ambassador to Armenia, in response to questions from NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson.
Speaking by teleconference from Yerevan, Armenia's capital, Turner also said there's a risk that punitive actions could undermine efforts to arrive at a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"The pursuit of sanctions right now would risk disrupting the ongoing efforts at peace," he said.
"While we have not seen anyone take the route of sanctions, we have seen announcements from France, for example, about the possibility of military support, and that has caused Azerbaijan to withdraw from planned international meetings and discussions that could have helped advance the peace process."
Turner's testimony came a few days after Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly visited Armenia to officially inaugurate Canada's embassy. Asked by journalists about the prospect of sanctions during her trip, Joly said "everything is on the table" — which prompted criticism from Azerbajian's foreign affairs department.
Prior to September's military shelling operation, Nagorno-Karabakh had a majority ethnic Armenian population. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought two wars over the region, which is recognized as part of Azerbaijan under international law but had a de-facto ethnic Armenian government.
Refugees unlikely to return: International Crisis Group
Turner also pointed out that Ottawa has told Azerbaijan that refugees who fled Nagorno-Karabakh should be guaranteed the right to return.
Canada has signed a multi-country declaration to the United Nations Human Rights Council to that effect.
While Azerbaijan has said repeatedly that refugees are welcome to return, one expert told the Parliamentary committee that few refugees are likely to take up that offer.
"In my meetings with displaced people scattered throughout Armenia," said Olesya Vartanyan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, "I have not met a single person who is considering returning to Nagorno-Karabakh any time soon.
"They have no trust in [Azerbaijan's] rule and are too afraid to return."
Children sit on a curb as residents gather in central Stepanakert to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, a region inhabited by ethnic Armenians, on September 25, 2023. (REUTERS)
Vartanyan said Azerbaijan could build some trust by allowing displaced refugees to at least visit their homes and the graves of family members who have been killed, perhaps with assistance from international bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Some of the experts who testified disagreed with the ambassador's suggestion that punitive actions could drive Azerbaijan out of peace talks.
"Now is the time for targeted sanctions to be imposed on Azerbaijan," said University of Windsor law professor Christopher Waters.
"They would be a warning that Canada expects Azerbaijan to protect cultural heritage, to safeguard the few remaining ethnic Armenians, to preserve the possibility of the right of return for those who fled, and to ensure fair treatment for civilian leaders who have been detained by the [Azerbaijani] regime under the guise that they are terrorists."
He reminded the committee of how Canadian-manufactured drone parts wound up being sold to Turkey, Azerbaijan's ally in its conflict with Armenia, and then used in drones by Azerbaijan against Armenia in 2020.
Waters also pointed to how Azerbaijan has taken over some parts of Armenia's sovereign territory itself, and to Azerbaijani government rhetoric claiming another strip of land within Armenia.
Jean-François Ratelle, an expert in insurgency and the politics of Caucasus states at the University of Ottawa, also suggested the International Criminal Court could be another avenue for justice. He said Canada should support Armenia's recent move to ratify joining the body, which could lead to a probe of alleged ethnic cleansing in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
He cited the economic blockade imposed by Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh in the nearly 10 months prior to its military incursion, which largely stopped food and medication from making its way to the local population, as well as the exodus itself.
Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron and NDP MP Lyndsay Mathyssen speak to media in Yerevan, Armenia on October 25, 2023, as they accompany an official Canadian government visit. (Fin DePencier/CBC)
Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron, also a member of the committee, suggested Azerbaijan could feel emboldened to attack because of its recent military successes.
"I find it particular to point to France, which has been Armenia's only ally in the last few months," he said, citing how Paris brought up the conflict at the UN Security Council and sold defensive weaponry to Armenia.