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Canada names new ambassador to Armenia amid Nagorno-Karabakh tensions


Canada's government has announced the ambassador who is to helm a new embassy in Armenia at a time of escalating military conflict in neighbouring Azerbaijan.

Career diplomat Andrew Turner will be posted to Yerevan, where Canada is set to open an embassy as soon as next month, as the Liberals try to form closer ties with countries moving away from Russia's orbit.

Turner's background primarily involves postings in the Middle East, though he has also helped shape Ottawa's response to tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Canada has a large Armenian diaspora, and the Liberals have made a point of raising issues related to Armenia in the House of Commons.

In April 2022, ambassador to the European Union Stephane Dion, who is also a former foreign affairs minister, issued a report on how Canada can better support Armenia's "fragile" democracy.

The report, weeks after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, argued the country's commitment to democracy is an example for other former Soviet states.

"Supporting Ukraine also means stepping up our efforts to advance democracy in the region. This is precisely how our allies are responding," his report reads.

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly announced in June 2022 that Canada would eventually open a new embassy, with her office saying it will help build up Ottawa's knowledge of the Caucasus region, "guide Canada's response to evolving security threats" and also help foreigners with visas and Canadians with passport services.

The news comes as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, says Azerbaijan might be undertaking "ethnic cleansing" of Armenians in its Nagorno-Karabakh region.

That region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is populated by roughly 120,000 ethnic Armenians, and both Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought for control of the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Tensions rose in the area a year ago when the region's main access road was blocked, leading to months of shortages of food and medicine that groups such as Human Rights Watch blame on Azerbaijan.

Last week, Azerbaijan unleashed heavy artillery fire on separatist militias and reportedly killed scores of people, raising concerns of all-out war. But a ceasefire was declared within 24 hours, and Azerbaijan says it wants to integrate Armenians into its country as "equal citizens."

A mass evacuation is currently underway, with thousands of ethnic Armenians fleeing to Armenia. Some are telling media they fear another military escalation in the area or political repression if they move to other parts of Azerbaijan, which is Freedom House qualifies as a corrupt authoritarian regime.

Rae said Monday on Twitter that the evacuation represents "a complete failure of global diplomacy in the face of ethnic cleansing."

Joly has issued statements calling on Azerbaijan to stop escalating tensions, but the NDP has asked her to start imposing sanctions on officials in that country who are responsible for violating human and international rights.

"Canada must make it unequivocally clear that the international community will not tolerate this conduct," reads a French-language letter signed by MPs Heather McPherson and Alexandre Boulerice last Friday.

Canada does not currently have an embassy in either country, with issues in Azerbaijan handled by diplomats posted to Turkey, and a consulate opened in Armenia last year that reports to diplomats in Moscow.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.



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