Posted: 30/01/2013 12:00

Another week, another round of talks aimed at reaching a peace deal
between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this time with both their foreign
ministers meeting in Paris. The two countries have been locked
in a territorial conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and
seven other surrounding regions for over 20 years. Despite four UN
Security Council Resolutions, Armenia has steadfastly refused to
end its military occupation of the territory or allow hundreds of
thousands of displaced refugees to return home.

While the peace talks under the auspices of the OSCE continue, there
have recently been suggestions that the Armenian authorities in the
breakaway region plan to re-open the airport at Khojaly, just outside
the region's capital of Khankendi.

At first glance this might not appear to be a hugely provocative move.

However, most experts suggest that the potential opening violates
international law, including several provisions of the Chicago
Convention - in particular, articles 1, 2, 5, 6, 10-16, 24 and 68.

Legally, Khojaly airport cannot operate, as unauthorised flights
through Azerbaijani airspace are not permitted without that
government's sanction, and any violations could have unpredictable
consequences. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO),
a specialised UN agency, is also strongly supportive of Azerbaijan
on this issue.

But leaving all the legal implications aside, such a step could
only undermine precisely what the international community is
working hard for - slow and steady progress through peace talks
and confidence building measures. So it is not surprising that the
international reaction to the proposed re-opening was unequivocal in
its condemnation.

The American envoy to the Azeri capital Baku, Richard Morningstar,
appealed against the move by saying that: "The Minsk Group co-chairs
said that the parties need to abstain from steps that may affect
the peace process. The opening of the airport in Khojaly may create
tensions in peace talks"

Mr Morningstar was referring to an earlier statement by the OSCE Minsk
Group, made up of the US, France and Russia, which is charged with
leading peace negotiations. In their statement, the co-chairs expressed
caution about the operation of flights to and from the Khojaly airport,
saying they could not be used to support any claim of a change in
the current status of Nagorno-Karabakh under international law.

A statement from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
said Armenia's actions could damage the negotiated process on peaceful
settlement, thus straining the tense situation in the region. The
Norwegian foreign minister, who visited the region recently, was even
more forthright in his warning: "Norway condemns carrying out flights
from this airport. Armenia must not resort to provocative action."

The proposal to open the airport may have as much to do with low
politics as high principle: Armenian President Serge Sarkisian
is running for re-election in February and the announcement will
certainly make for good headlines in Yerevan.

But Azerbaijan's indignant reaction, and the ensuing war of words,
has only reignited existing tensions in the region. And as a member of
the Commons Energy Select Committee I know how important Azerbaijan is
to Europe's energy security, especially in the wake of the infamous
Russo-Ukrainian gas rows. Should these latest tensions spiral into
full-scale conflict, the consequences will be felt not just by the
Caucasus region, but by the whole of Europe. And as we live in a world
of complex economic interconnections, those consequences could easily
wash up on British shores.

There is, however, another reason why Azerbaijan feels hurt at
Armenia's plans. The airport in question is located at the site of the
most notorious massacre in the 1988-1994 conflict when, on the 26th
February 1992, 613 civilians of the town of Khojaly were massacred
by Armenian forces.

No one disputes the right of civilians to free movement. But surely
the right time to start talking about re-opening the airport is once
the hostilities are over, and when the people who were expelled from
their homes and who currently languish in displaced person camps are
given the chance to return to their homes. Only then can normality,
and freedom, return to this troubled region.

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Chris Pincher

Conservative MP, Energy and Climate Change Select Committee member
and chair of the Azerbaijan All-Party Parliamentary Group