Peter Oborne: The remarkable Baroness Cox – loathed by Azerbaijan, loved in Armenia. And back there as war rages.

2 Dec

Baroness Cox at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in front of the eternal flame

Peter Oborne is a columnist for Middle East Eye. His books include Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan.

Ali Kemal was a Turkish journalist and politician noted for his pro-British views. He came to an unpleasant though courageous end when he was murdered by a mob after condemning the mass killings of Armenians in what has become known as the Armenian genocide.

After his lynching, the mob inscribed the phrase Artin Kemal in blood on his chest. “Artin” was a common Armenian name.

Today, Ali Kemal would probably be rolling in his grave at the inertia of his great grandson, Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister has said and done nothing to help Armenia in its latest conflict with Turkish-backed Azerbaijan.

Johnson has solid reasons. Azerbaijan has oil. Armenia does not. Total trade in goods and services between the UK and Azerbaijan was £1.1 billion in 2019. Turkey is a fellow member of NATO and important ally.

And even if the Prime Minister had followed his great-grandfather’s example, it would have made little or no difference. Britain does not have the capacity to come to the aid of a tiny landlocked nation squeezed between Russia, Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s geographical predicament does not just explain Britain’s silence in the 44 day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia which ended three weeks ago.

It also accounts for the shameful fact that Britain has never acknowledged the Turkish genocide of more than a million Armenians just over a century ago.

The United States, Israel and many other countries won’t do so either.

No wonder the Armenians feel so friendless and bereft. And no wonder Britain – and much of the West – is becoming unpopular in Armenia.

When I reported on an anti-government demonstration in Yerevan two weeks ago, I was unwelcome among sections of the crowd.

One protester shouted “Fuck Britain!” at me as I interviewed local people. Another repeatedly harassed me to explain in no uncertain terms that “Britain has let Armenia down”.

My Armenian companion felt the need to tell numerous protesters that I was a journalist reporting on events, and not a representative of the British state.

But there is one British politician who has indeed stuck up for Armenia through thick and thin.

She is the remarkable 83-year-old Baroness Cox. The Baroness was awarded her peerage by Margaret Thatcher 40 years ago, for her brave role in taking on Marxist agitators as a sociology lecturer at the Polytechnic of North London.

On one occasion, Baroness Cox was aggressively manhandled in the classroom. “I was standing on a table refusing to stop a seminar. I told them they’d have to carry me out, which they did.”

This principled stand brought her to national attention. The legendary Times newspaper columnist, Bernard Levin, devoted no less than three consecutive columns to her fight for academic freedom.

Since then, the doughty Baroness has made no less than 88 visits to Nagorno-Karabkh.

I saw for myself how she was loved in Armenia, when I accompanied her on her most recent trip last month, made at the invitation of the Armenian government which paid some of our costs. (For a part of the time, we were accompanied by an Armenian official.)

The Baroness is revered. She is a nationally known figure who has done more for Anglo-Armenian relations than any other British politician.

During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, she flew in many times under artillery fire to deliver aid. Today, her charity supports a rehabilitation centre in Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city, Stepanakert. Originally founded to cater for the many injured veterans of the first war, the centre provides support for all kinds of disabilities – and had to quit Stepanakert in a hurry after it was shelled. We met her committed team of approximately 30 medics and physiotherapists in the Armenian capital of Yerevan instead.

Here’s one episode which illustrates the love – affection is too weak a word – with which Caroline Cox is held.

Stopping off at a restaurant for lunch, we were met by a man who had heard by chance that the Baroness was in Yerevan. He had come specifically to talk to her.

Visibly emotional, he explained that they had met almost three decades ago on the 30 July 1992, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were engaged in their first war. The man was then a second year student and soldier who had been wounded in the fighting. The Baroness, who has trained and practised as a nurse, visited him and other soldiers in a basement in Stepanakert.

“You hugged me and you held my hands. They were covered in dirt and blood,” he said Badoyan, tears in his eyes. “When everyone abandoned us, toy arrived to help. You gave us all a lot of hope. I’ve waited 28 years to say thank you.”

It was humbling to watch the two embrace.

The Baroness has been agitating in the House of Lords for Britain to take a much more robust stance on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

At present, her burning priority is the release of prisoners of war. “We have watched video evidence of horrible brutality inflicted on prisoners, including torture, beheadings and mutliations”, she says.

The Baroness is also calling for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious sites that have come under Azerbaijan’s control following the ceasefire agreement, as well as increased humanitarian aid.

“More than 14,000 civilian structures – homes, schools, hospitals – have been damaged during the conflict. We need an urgent plan of economic support,” she says.

There are two sides to every conflict, and it’s important to stress I did not visit Azerbaijan and hear its side of the story. According to reports from Human Rights Watch, there is evidence of both Azerbaijaniand Armenianforces using illegal cluster munitions against civilians.

According to Azerbaijan, Armenia “resorted to the brutal tactic of terror by deliberately targeting large civilian settlements of Azerbaijan … with heavy artillery and missiles, including ballistic and cluster munitions.”

It says that evidence of “reckless attacks of Armenia on civilians and civilian infrastructure” amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Baroness Cox’s support for Armenia has not gone unnoticed by Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijan Ambassador to the UK, Tahir Taghizade,sent a letter to Baroness Cox shortly before the latest conflict broke out stating that her language reminded him of the “inflammatory rhetoric used by the Armenian propaganda”.

Shortly after the ceasefire was agreed, the embassy released a statement regarding the Baroness’ trip last month.

It accused her of supporting “the separatist puppet regime illegally established by Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan” and called her visit “disturbing”, “disruptive in nature” and not in line with the UK government’s official position “which recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and welcomes the signing of the document ending the fighting

Baroness Cox’s response said: “members of the House of Lords reserve the right to hold conversations with interested parties in any given conflict, and also reserve the right to hold opinions that differ from those of the official UK government position.”

And that: “Members concerned with the actions and history of Azerbaijan towards Armenians will continue to monitor the situation and, where applicable, support the internationally recognised precedent for self-determination.”

In a victory speech, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, referred to Armenians as “savages”. He describes his victory in the one-sided conflict against the under-equipped Armenian army as the destruction of “Armenian facism”.

Such pronouncements will do little to assuage concerns for Armenians that their latest defeat is not an end to trouble in the region whose security is currently in the hands of Russian peacekeepers.

Baroness Cox is adamant that the only way to secure the long-term future for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is to recognise its independence. But with Azerbaijan securing vast swathes of territory in the region, and little international support for Armenia, this looks unlikely.

It’s easy to dismiss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a far away war with which Britain has no reason to get involved. But whichever side you take, there’s no question that Baroness Cox’s long involvement in this troubled area has served as witness to the terrible troubles faced by the beleaguered Armenian people. She has helped keep their story alive during a time when few others in the west have done so.

I can’t help feeling that Boris Johnson’s great grandfather, Ali Kemal, would approve.

The Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, of which Baroness Cox is director, covered a substantial proportion of my expenses.