Diaspora organizations and their members can often offer insights into international conflicts occurring around the world to policy makers and the public in general in the countries where they live. We sat down with Anar Jahangirli, the Associate Director of the Network of Azerbaijani Canadians, who also has extensive diplomatic and international relations experience, to talk about the advocacy that his organization is engaged in right now surrounding the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Anar, please tell us about yourself and your journey?
By training, I am an expert in international affairs and international law. I started my career in diplomatic service in Azerbaijan, where I worked for 10 years. After receiving an MPA degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston, I went into the private sector in Baku, leading the communications department of Azercell, the largest telecom operator in Azerbaijan. Later I worked as an independent communications and public affairs consultant for different government agencies and some private organizations. I spent two years at Georgia Tech as a research fellow focusing on the geopolitics of the region – Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – as well as energy and related issues. I was hired in 2017 by the World Bank as a consultant and spent a year in Afghanistan setting up a one stop shop for government services. I served as Adviser to the Minister of Communications and IT of Afghanistan and helped the Afghan government establish an agency for public services. When I returned from Afghanistan, my family and I moved to Canada. I am now based in Toronto, where I work as a public policy and communications advisor to the Canadian regional government. Canada has three layers of government: federal, provincial and regional. It is city level – three cities united in one region.
How difficult was that year in Afghanistan?
When I first arrived there, I had very different expectations, but after a month, once you make friends, especially in a country like Afghanistan, you have no time to be bored. It is an incredible country, with warm-hearted people and delicious food. It was incredible to be able to make an impact, and contribute to building something.
You have had a dynamic international career; how have you been staying connected to what’s happening in Azerbaijan?
I have been following what’s happening in the region and in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh very closely. I am the Associate Director of the Network of Azerbaijani Canadians, linking up Azerbaijanis living in Canada. We are working hard to ensure that our side of the story is heard in Canadian society. Our community members are active – we write articles, and have been making live appearances on TV and radio to explain about the situation from our perspective.
What gives you a unique insight into the current situation?
First of all, my education – my background is in international relations and law. Secondly, my 10 years of experience at the Ministry of International Affairs, where I worked exclusively on this conflict. I participated in negotiations in multilateral fora with the European Union, the Council of Europe, and OSCE. Ever since then naturally I’ve been closely following the conflict. And adding my experience around the world, in the US, Canada, and Afghanistan, I feel that as an expert my point of view is valuable, and I have a broad perspective on what’s going on.
Do Canadians know what’s going on in Nagorno-Karabakh, and what do you tell folks when asked about the current situation?
In Canada, just like in many other parts of the Western world, people do not want war, which is actually the same as what the people of Azerbaijan want. Azerbaijan was negotiating and committed to peace for 26 years. In general, people who follow news are informed about what’s going on, but they of course don’t understand the legal aspects of the conflict, or what’s been happening in the last three decades. We truly believe that people will benefit by being informed about both sides of the story. We try to reach out to politicians and educate them. We try to tell them about how it is not just about the land, although the UN security resolutions stipulate that these territories belong to Azerbaijan. It’s about the human side of the story. More than 600,000 people who had to leave their homes decades ago have a right to go back to their homes. It’s their home, it’s their property, it’s their land, their ancestors lived there. I am talking about Nagorno-Karabakh and 7 adjacent regions where Armenians never lived. The message we have for Canadian society is that Azerbaijan does not object to Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, or any other Azerbaijani lands. We can live together. There are many other nationalities living in Azerbaijan. We are one of the few Muslim majority countries around the world where Muslims and Jews live together side by side in peace.
What specifically have you done to engage with the Canadian public, and politicians?
We have been reaching out to politicians across the board, in both parties in the Canadian parliament. We have been writing articles for local newspapers. A few days ago we had a few articles come out in Russian speaking newspapers, and we also had articles in a French language publication. There was an article in the Globe and Mail that we contributed to. And I was on CTVnews a couple of days ago to inform the public about what’s going on and talk about the legal aspects of the conflict.
What’s Azerbaijan’s message?
Our message is not militaristic. We are not propagating war. We want to promote peace. But we tell people that it’s Armenia’s responsibility, since they occupied Azerbaijani territories 28 years ago. We were committed to peace. They just kept dragging out the negotiations for 3 decades. But this can’t go on forever. Azerbaijan never tried to hide its position that, if peace talks failed, we would have to go in and enforce peace on our terms, in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolutions. Under UN charter article 51, Azerbaijan has every right to use any means for self-defense. Well, this is self-defense, and we are using all the available means.
What can Canada do to support Azerbaijan’s legal claim to its territory?
Canada has always supported Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. But although this is the official government position, politicians tend to listen to influential lobby groups. And the Armenian lobby is quite influential. We try to ensure that politicians understand the details. We want the Canadian government to continue supporting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, but also to help convince both sides that peace is possible. By the way, the president of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, during an interview with foreign TV several days ago, said loud and clear that we have nothing against Armenians. They can continue living in Azerbaijan. Their property, their places of worship, their dignity will be respected. Azerbaijan wants cohabitation and co-existence, and this position should be supported by Canada, and other governments.