Baku Dialogues: UK Foreign Policy towards the South Caucasus

Thank you very much for the invitation. It is a great pleasure to be at ADA today, and a pleasure to be in Baku, my second visit to the city. I think that as every visitor who comes to Baku infrequently, I am astonished by the pace of change that I’ve seen. A number of magnificent new buildings are now being rated as leading international examples of architecture, and I am glad to say that the British-designed Heydar Aliyev Center is breathtaking. So, it is good to be back, and it is good to be giving a speech at the Diplomatic Academy.

UK diplomats have an excellent relationship with their Azerbaijani counterparts based on trust, respect, and honesty. I think this was particularly evident after Azerbaijan’s election to the UN Security Council, when Azerbaijan and the UK cooperated very closely on a number of key decisions in New York. In the last year I have seen your professional diplomats, and Simon Crease visited your academy and delivered a speech on leadership. I am pleased to say that leadership is a quality that Azerbaijani diplomats clearly possess in abundance, starting from the line of the first-rate ambassadors that your country has sent to the UK. I had the pleasure of working with H.E. Amb. Gurbanov for four years, and I am glad to continue this partnership with the newly appointed H.E. Amb. Taghizada.
When I was in Baku in 2010, I spoke at the Foreign Languages University about the long history of trade and travel between Azerbaijan and the UK. I emphasized then how important it was for the UK to have a close relationship with a strong and prosperous Azerbaijan. I am glad to say that in the last four years that relationship continued to remain strong; the UK remains the biggest single foreign investor in Azerbaijan, with Britain accounting for around half of all foreign investments in this country.  Last year our exports to Azerbaijan reached almost 1 billion USD. And in return, Britain is the top destination for Azerbaijani students studying overseas. So we already have strong and vibrant relationships, which I am looking forward to developing further over the coming years. In 2010 I also talked about the UK’s hope for peaceful settlement for the terrible tragedy in Nagorno-Karabakh. But Russia’s interference this year in Eastern Ukraine, and its illegal annexation of Crimea, have brought back into short focus the continued unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus, both here and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We are reminded of the continuous need to resolve the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is a matter for deep regret that four years on, on the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire, we seem to be a long way from a sustainable and agreed political settlement.
In fact, there have been more deaths this year than in any other since 1994. This is a conflict with great costs: lost opportunities, 20 years of continuous hostility, hatred and suffering. Every year both Azerbaijanis and Armenians die on the line of contact as a result of this ongoing conflict. Every year those who fled from their homes at the time of the war continue to suffer the anguish of living in exile. Many continue to live in very difficult conditions; hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis remain in internally displaced person camps, which I visited earlier today. The suffering of the displaced and dispossessed is a continuing reminder of the human cost. The divisions and the differences between the two countries and the two peoples seem to grow, and the opportunities for contact and exchange of views, building of barriers across national lines seems to diminish further. Every year the possibilities to build a brighter future for this region seem to come yet more distant. A peace deal is not without the possibility of hundreds of thousands of displaced people being able to return to their homes. A peaceful resolution will be transformative for the South Caucasus as a whole, enabling the region to develop its full economic potential as a bridge between Europe and Asia at just one very simple practical level. The fact that you cannot have direct flights between Baku and Yerevan is an obstacle to international trade and commercial contact. Diplomats will appreciate that only diplomacy can bring about peace, and diplomacy can only succeed if those who disagree meet to resolve their differences. It is something of a commonplace in diplomacy, but commonplaces are true. You have to talk to your enemies to bring about peace; there is no point in just talking to your friends. So, we welcome the recent meetings between President Aliyev and President Sargsyan in Sochi, at the NATO Summits in Newport and in Paris. Regular high-level meetings are one vital step towards building a long-term peace. And, of course, I personally, and the British government strongly support the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in trying to achieve a long-lasting peace.
The Madrid Principles set out in 2007 provide the basis for a deal, but they involve difficult decisions and compromises for both sides. So, it is important that these principles are discussed more openly, both in Azerbaijan and in Armenia. The principles include the return of the occupied territories, surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control. There can be no settlement without respect for Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, and the recognition of the sovereignty over these territories must be restored. The enduring settlement will also have to recognize the right of all IDPs and refugees to return to their former places of residence. The Madrid Principles also set out that in any agreement the sides should also commit to determining Nagorno-Karabakh’s legal status through a mutually agreed and legally binding expression of will in the future. In the meantime, under the Madrid agreement Nagorno-Karabakh should be accorded interim status, that at the minimum provides security and self-governance. This interim status would be temporary, and there should also be a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno -Karabakh, wide enough to provide safe transit, but not encompassing the whole Lachin district. Finally, the Madrid Principles make it clear that the settlement will need to include international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation. There is no scenario where peace can be assured without a peacekeeping operation that enjoys the confidence of all sides. These are the elements of a deal, but the Minsk Group co-chairs and the broader international community can only go so far; they cannot impose a solution.
Peace won’t be possible if Armenia and Azerbaijan don’t share the political will needed to reach an agreement. For as long as the conflict continues, Azerbaijani lands will continue to be occupied, Armenians in Karabakh will continue to live in an environment of uncertainty and insecurity, an inevitable result of living on a contested territory. And all the while the old Azerbaijani neighbors, colleagues and friends will remain displaced, and young soldiers and civilians on both sides will continue to die needlessly. I believe the time is long overdue for both sides to engage in serious efforts to reach a peace agreement. I am concerned that neither the government of Azerbaijan nor the government of Armenia is at the moment creating a situation in which a peace agreement would be acceptable to their populations. There is now a generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis that have had no contact with anyone from the other country. This is even more regrettable given that throughout much of this region’s history, the two communities lived peacefully alongside one another, as indeed they continue to do only a few hundred kilometers away both in Georgia and in Iran. As time passes the danger also grows that the territories occupied around Nagorno-Karabakh are increasingly seen as integral parts of Nagorno-Karabakh with the boundary line becoming increasingly blurred, making a future peace deal even more difficult.  Unfortunately, the perceptions that many citizens of both countries now have of their close neighbors are based upon negative stereotypes and aggressive rhetoric. Neither government has yet done enough to prevent this image, and at times have actively encouraged these perceptions. This will not bring about peace or alleviate the suffering caused by the conflict; it only stocks further hostility between the two peoples, and discredits them among the international community. If the two sides are truly committed to finding a resolution, they should open up rather than close down communication and exchange between the communities on both sides. As a friend of Azerbaijan and Armenia this is the message I delivered in both capitals this week. I believe it is only when both sides are prepared to look at one another as potential partners, rather than inveterate foes, that this conflict can be resolved.
Over the last three years the UK has invested almost € 2 million, and the EU a further € 6 million, in projects which try to break down walls and develop an understanding between the communities affected by the conflict. We believe that people-to-people interactions and the peace builders who sustain these links are an essential element of any peace and reconciliation process. We believe that this is the lesson to be learnt from other conflicts elsewhere in the world, including from our own in Northern Ireland. I think it is vital that international NGOs and local people continue to be able to work together on peace without fear of intimidation or harassment. The dialogues between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, between Karabakh Azerbaijanis and Karabakh Armenians, are crucial building blocks for a durable peace once the conflict is eventually resolved and these people are once again neighbors. We need to put people at the heart of the solution in Nagorno-Karabakh. I know that compromise is not easy and I recognize that finding a solution to this conflict will require courage from all sides. But as I said in 2010, some of the keys to future stability and prosperity include difficult decisions right now. I believe that now is the time to invest in peace. Thank you very much for listening!