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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 866


Senator BACK (Western Australia) (19:20): In two weeks time the people of Azerbaijan will remember the 25th anniversary of what has been one of the more bloody events in their country's history, when more than 600 civilians, including women and children, were killed. It is true that throughout history bad things happen—innocent people are abused and killed. Many atrocities are known to us but most are not. That is because they may be a long way away, they might have happened a long time ago or they were not as publicised in our region as they might have been elsewhere. However, tonight provides an opportunity to reflect on this event and to acknowledge that such events come at massive costs and that their impact will be felt in families for generations to come.

I take the opportunity to speak this evening to the events that occurred in the town of Khojaly in the now occupied territory of Azerbaijan, called Nagorno-Karabakh. This event took place on 25 and 26 February 1992, when the forces of the Armenian side, with the support of troops of the then-USSR, seized the town, a town of some 23,000 people. According to the Azerbaijanis, people were shot dead by Armenian soldiers or they froze to death. Armenia disputes the account and the number of deaths, and it says that Azeri soldiers were also involved in the violence that night, and accuses Azerbaijan's authorities of failing to move civilian population out of the area in time.

Events of this nature are tragic, they are horrific, and of course they do no country any good in terms of its future and in terms of its relations with its neighbours or indeed with the wider community as represented through the United Nations. There have been disputes in the area over Nagorno-Karabakh going back way back to 1918. Soviet rule was imposed in 1921. War broke out in 1991. A ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 1994, and it is estimated now that the population of this region is 100,000 ethnic Armenians. As one would expect, very few ethnic Azeris remain. The 1990s war, as we all came to expect, had catastrophic effects, which continue today. Up to 30,000 people on both sides were killed, and up to one million people were forced to leave their homes before a tenuous ceasefire was agreed.

This is a humanitarian crisis of the worst form. We know that without successful mediation ceasefire violations and renewed tensions will continue to threaten to reignite a military conflict in this place, as it will in others, between these countries and in this particular case that will only serve to destabilise the Caucasus region. Of course, critically important to Azerbaijan, and indeed to Western Europe, would be the interruption of supplies of essential oil and gas from that region. Azerbaijan is a significant producer—the first in the world to be known to produce oil and of course the first in the world in the Caspian Sea region to exploit subsea oil and now gas.

Peace talks have been mediated by Russia, by France and by the United States. They have stalled. Both sides are adamant that they should control this region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Neither party to date has shown any willingness to compromise. The disputed border region between Armenia and Azerbaijan faces an increasing risk of renewed hostilities due to the failure of mediation because of escalating militarisation and frequent ceasefire violations. The area is now controlled by Armenia, and obviously ethnic Azerbaijanis believe they should have the opportunity to reside in this place. The deaths that occurred were desperately unfortunate—children, women, elderly people—and people were taken hostage. It behoves all of us through the UN and other agencies to try and stop events of this type.