Indiscriminate weapons banned under treaty not signed by Armenia or Azerbaijan
A man holds a unit of a cluster bomb in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Azerbaijan has been accused of using banned cluster bombs in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, including munitions found in civilian areas, and has accused Armenia of using the same weapons, though without providing evidence.
Media and human rights organisations have confirmed the use of Israel-made M095 cluster munitions, which scatter hundreds of bomblets, or submunitions, on residential areas of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, which is being targeted by Azeri forces.
The use of the banned weapons was documented as fighting continued on Thursday and international mediators prepared to try to reach a ceasefire agreement in Geneva.
Expectations for short-term peace are low and there are fears that regional powers could be dragged into the conflict, with a Russian-led military alliance that includes Armenia warning it could intervene in the conflict if Armenian sovereignty is threatened.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has made clear he does not consider fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh – ruled by ethnic Armenians but inside Azerbaijan’s territory – to be a trigger for the six-member Collective Security Treaty Organisation’s involvement.
As the deadliest fighting over the region since the 1990s entered its 15th day on Thursday, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of bombing the historic Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral.
Baku denied its forces were behind the attack, saying that, unlike Armenia, “the Azerbaijani army does not target historical, cultural, or especially religious, buildings and monuments”.
Rubble was strewn about the floor, pews were knocked over and the interior was covered in dust from the building’s limestone walls that had been hit. A section of its metallic roof had collapsed and fallen to the ground outside.
“There is no military, nothing strategic here, how can you target a church?” one resident, Simeon, said.
Cluster bombs are banned under the convention on cluster munitions (CCM), a treaty signed by more than 100 states, but neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan. The indiscriminate nature of the scattering of the bomblets, some of which can fail to explode on impact, can pose a threat to civilians long after conflicts have ended.
Officials from Azerbaijan deny their forces are using the weapons in Nagorno-Karabakh and have instead alleged that Armenian forces used them in an attack on a pipeline.
“Armenia fired a cluster rocket at the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. In the vicinity of Yevlakh region, a rocket landed 10 metres away from the pipeline,” said Hikmet Hajivev, the aide of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, in a tweet late on Tuesday.
The use of the cluster munitions has so far been mostly documented in Stepanakert which has come under bombardment by the Azeris’ arsenal, including Russia-made BM-30 Smerch multiple-rocket launcher systems.
The BM-30 can fire a warhead capable of carrying cluster bombs and Azerbaijan also has in its possession two rocket systems built by Israel’s IMI Systems.
“The use of cluster bombs in any circumstances is banned under international humanitarian law, so their use to attack civilian areas is particularly dangerous and will only lead to further deaths and injuries,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s acting head of research for eastern Europe and central Asia.
“Cluster bombs are inherently indiscriminate weapons, and their deployment in residential areas is absolutely appalling and unacceptable. As fighting continues to escalate, civilians must be protected, not deliberately targeted or recklessly endangered.”
While neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are signatories to the CCM, indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas is illegal under international humanitarian law.
The use of the weapons in the conflict was described as “deeply alarming” by the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC).
“To avoid harming more civilians, Armenia and Azerbaijan should commit not to use cluster munitions and take steps to join the convention on cluster munitions without delay,” the CMC director, Hector Guerra, said.
Cluster munitions were used in Nagorno-Karabakh in the last round of fighting in 2016 and both sides have said they cannot join the treaty until the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is resolved.