United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination


  1. The Center for Truth and Justice (“CFTJ”) submits the following report in response to the call for input by the Working Group for the purposes of informing and preparing its country visit to Armenia. CFTJ is a US-based, non-governmental human rights organization documenting violations of international law perpetrated by Azerbaijan targeting Armenians in Nagorno- Karabakh and Armenia.[1] The purpose of this document is to provide eye-witness accounts of the premeditated and deliberate intent of Azerbaijan and Turkey to recruit, arm, and finance mercenaries for the sole purpose of slaughtering Armenians en masse. In response to these atrocities, we ask that you visit the region and hear the stories of victims and witnesses, including mercenaries. CFTJ implores this Working Group to condemn, in the strongest possible terms, Azerbaijan and Turkey’s conspiracy to kill Armenians with wanton disregard for the laws of armed conflict.


  1. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan committed grave violations of international law, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention, and destruction of civilian properties.[2] Through its recruitment of an estimated 2,580 mercenaries from Syria[3] to fight for Azerbaijan against Armenian nationals,[4] Turkey co-perpetrated these crimes. These mercenaries are responsible for committing crimes against Armenian nationals constituting violations of international humanitarian law (“IHL”) and international human rights law (“IHRL”). This Working Group has previously expressed serious concern about Turkey’s “large-scale recruitment and transfer of Syrian men to Azerbaijan,” emphasizing its troubling implications for IHRL.[5] The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe condemned “the use by Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s assistance, of Syrian mercenaries.”[6]
  2. Since the 2020 war, CFTJ has recorded over 350 testimonies from victims and witnesses of war crimes committed by Azerbaijan. CFTJ has summarized eyewitness testimonies of witnesses that specifically pertain to the recruitment, financing, and use of mercenaries by Azerbaijan and Turkey. These include an individual who translated the interrogations by Armenian authorities of two captured Syrian mercenaries, an Armenian prisoner of war (“POW”) and two combatants who encountered Syrian mercenaries during the 2020 war. Due to the highly sensitive nature of their accounts, and to protect their identities, CFTJ does not publish the names of witnesses but rather identifies them by their Key Card Numbers.

Evidence of the use of Syrian Mercenaries by Azerbaijan

Testimonial Evidence of Witness 22LC-0016

  1. Witness 22LC-0016 is a Syrian-Armenian, grandchild of survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. He relocated his family to Nagorno-Karabakh during the Syrian Civil War in 2012. Witness 22LC-0016 speaks Armenian, Arabic and English fluently. His Arabic is particularly excellent – he can distinguish Arabic dialects and can identify them geographically due to his education and work experience growing up in Syria. Because of his language skills, he was asked by the Armenian military to translate for two detainees who were suspected of being Syrian mercenaries. The following detailed account reflects Witness 22LC-0016’s translation during the above-mentioned detainees’ interrogations by Armenian authorities.
  2. The two detained mercenaries said recruiting was conducted in central locations, like mosques, in Idlib, Syria by members of the Mojahedin, a jihadist militant group allied with Turkey that occupied Idlib at the time. The recruiters were proxies of an individual named Abu Hamzah, originally from Idlib, who lived in Azerbaijan. The recruiters told the detainees that they must travel to Azerbaijan to do “jihad against kefirs (infidels),” and that they had “blessings from Turkey.” They were also told they would be “liberating Islamic lands” and would be paid between $1,500 to $2,000, in addition to bonuses to be detailed once they arrived in Azerbaijan.
  3. The mercenaries were also informed that they were being sent to Azerbaijan to also protect oil fields in Baku. Witness 22LC-0016 recognized this justification as similar to the information provided by Syrian mercenaries sent by Turkey to Libya in recent years,[7] who claimed to be guarding oil refineries. Witness 22LC-0016 stated that he knew this information because he lived in Syria during the war in Libya and this information was public knowledge.
  4. Based on the Arabic dialect spoken by the mercenaries, syntax, and grammar, Witness 22LC-0016 could assess that they were from a lower socioeconomic group – a group whose members tend to be more religiously zealous. The majority of Syrian mercenaries are extremist Sunni Muslims, in contrast to predominantly Shi’ite Azerbaijanis. Aware of the deep animosity held by Syrian Sunnis against Shi’ites, Witness 22LC-0016 inquired as to why the mercenaries would fight alongside Shi’ites. One detainee responded, “I have 8 children and need money. They promised money. And on top of that, they told us there are bonuses over there.” The other detainee stated that he had 3 children and was similarly financially motivated. Both men admitted to Witness 22LC-0016 that the promised $1,500 to $2,000 a month, in addition to a bonus based on their performance, was the primary motivation for their combatancy.
  5. Once recruited, the mercenaries were immediately loaded onto buses and told not to bring any identifying documents with them. The buses transported them to a point on the border of Syria and Turkey under Mojahedin control, where they were met by Turkish intelligence officers. After crossing the border, the mercenaries were checked to ensure they carried no identifying documents. The buses then transported them to a Turkish military airport, from which they were transported on planes, each carrying 250 mercenaries, to a military airport in Azerbaijan.
  6. At the Azerbaijani airport, they were given uniforms that would distinguish them from Azerbaijani soldiers.[8] A group was kept at the airport, while another group was shipped immediately to Jabrayil. One of the detainees Witness 22LC-0016 spoke to was part of the former group, while the other was part of the latter. One detainee told Witness 22LC-0016 that he personally saw over 2,000 Syrian mercenaries during his time in Azerbaijan.
  7. The mercenaries were split into groups of 75 to 150, each coordinated by a Turkish and Azerbaijani soldier, as well as an Arab translator who would relay orders to the mercenaries in Arabic. When they reached Jabrayil, the mercenaries were handed weapons – mostly AK-style assault rifles and anti-tank weapons. One or two mercenaries in each group were given radio equipment to communicate with the Arab translator who, along with the Azerbaijani and Turkish soldiers, would relay orders to the groups from a distance. It was in Jabrayil that the mercenaries were given operational training.
  8. The detained mercenaries told Witness 22LC-0016 that they learned of the nature of their bonuses only after they arrived in Azerbaijan. At first, the detainees were hesitant about detailing their bonuses to Witness 22LC-0016, claiming they had no motivation for the ill-treatment of Armenian soldiers or civilians. However, Witness 22LC-0016 showed the detainees a video circulated online of a Syrian mercenary beheading an Armenian civilian and victoriously holding their severed head. At that point, the detainees admitted the nature of their bonuses.
  9. One remarked to Witness 22LC-0016: “We were ordered absolutely not to take any POWs, neither soldier nor civilian.” One of the detainees elaborated, “And absolutely, we were ordered to kill civilians and soldiers alike … behead those killed and take the photos of the decapitated heads to show it to them. There couldn’t be any POWs.” They were offered a bonus of $100 for killing an Armenian civilian and $200 for killing an Armenian soldier. They were required to behead their victims in order to claim their bonuses.
  10. Based on his conversations with the detainees, Witness 22LC-0016 stated that Azerbaijan was acutely aware that if Armenians were taken captive by the Syrian mercenaries, and later released, they would become an eyewitness to the presence and involvement of Syrian mercenaries in the war. Thus, the policy to kill all Armenians, civilians or otherwise, was to avoid such evidence being made public.

Testimonial Evidence of Witness A0086

  1. Witness A0086 was visiting Armenia when the 2020 war broke out and he volunteered to fight. He states that there were many Syrians fighting alongside Azerbaijani soldiers. Witness A0086 acquired injuries to his head, legs, and arms during combat in Füzuli. He says, “the enemy appeared in front of me screaming Allahu Akbar.” After that attack, Witness A0086 was left behind, presumed to be dead. When he awoke, he dragged his body, losing a lot of blood as a result, for five days without food or water while trying to get to safety. He fell asleep in the fields outside of a village. He was awakened by 10 Turkish soldiers with guns in their hands. Witness A0086 states, “They were calling me a Syrian. I told them I wasn’t Syrian but Armenian. But nobody understood and they kept saying Syria, Syria, Syria until they realized I was the enemy.” One of the Turkish soldiers spoke Russian and communicated to Witness A0086 that they were Turks and that they would be handing him over to Azerbaijan. During his detention in Azerbaijan, Witness A0086 was frequently beaten and ill-treated.

Testimonial Evidence of Witness A0154

  1. Witness A0154 is a 49-year-old man who used to live in Nagorno-Karabakh. He had fought during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 1990s, and his house was destroyed. But they rebuilt and continued to live there peacefully until the 44-Day War when he volunteered to fight again.
  2. According to Witness A0154, “this war was different from the 90s war, a lot of Arabs were involved.” He goes on to say that during the 2020 war, “I did not fight against the Azerbaijanis. Mostly mercenaries and some from Turkey. There were a few Azeribaijnis, but most were not. I speak Azerbaijani very well and none of them spoke Azerbaijani.” Witness A0154 describes the mercenaries: “Whomever I came across from their side [Azerbaijan’s], they behaved like zombies … if you shot the person next to them, they didn’t care or pay attention. It’s typically impossible to not care about the person that you are serving with. They didn’t turn to help or pay attention. Complete zombies.” This behavior helped Witness A0154 identify that such fighters were foreign mercenaries rather than Azerbaijani soldiers.

Testimonial Evidence of Witness AUA0084

  1. Witness AUA0084 also used to live in Nagorno-Karabakh since he was 10 years old. He volunteered to fight in the 2020 war. He now lives in Armenia after moving his family to safety due to the 2020 war.
  2. Witness AUA0084 remarked that mercenaries from Syria participated in the hostilities and that he personally saw Syrian mercenaries in Jabrayil. He said “I could tell that he was a Syrian mercenary because of his identification documents and from his manner of speaking. The mercenary mentioned that he lives in Syria and that [his recruiters] lied to him, as they did not say that they were taking him to a particular place to fight. He was transferred and immediately placed into battle. According to the mercenary, they were lied to.”
  3. Witness AUA0084 further stated, “[The mercenaries] were definitely paid $1,000, which later was changed to $4,000. According to the mercenaries, this is how much they were paid.” He also personally saw the mercenaries carrying “syringes and medication” which they would use during combat, allowing them to continue fighting despite injuries.

Legal Framework

  1. The Syrian mercenaries hired by Turkey and Azerbaijan fit the criteria for the classification of mercenaries per Article 47 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (“AP I”). The mercenaries were recruited in Syria to take part in an armed conflict in Azerbaijan, took an active part in hostilities, their primary motivation for participation was financial payments, they were either Syrian nationals or residents, did not reside in or are residents of Armenia or Azerbaijan, and were not sent by a neutral State as part of official military activities.
  2. Article 91 of AP I and Article 3 of the Fourth Hague Convention furnish the liability of the Azerbaijani State for offenses committed by its armed forces as State organs.[9] Through the actions detailed in this report and publicly available information, members of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces committed offenses under Article 2 of the Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries. Moreover, these actions constitute a breach by Azerbaijan of its obligations under Article 5 of the Convention to refrain from the recruitment, use, financing, and training of mercenaries.
  3. Available evidence provides that Syrian mercenaries were placed at the disposal of Azerbaijan by Turkey and that they were under the direct command of State military organs. This attribution of the conduct detailed in this report furnishes the responsibility of Azerbaijan for violations of IHL and IHRL.[10]
  4. Furthermore, Turkey’s recruitment of mercenaries constitutes a breach of its obligation under Article 4 of the Fifth Hague Convention to refrain from recruiting combatants in an armed conflict on the territory of a neutral State.
  5. Lastly, Azerbaijan’s use of mercenaries in Nagorno-Karabakh underscores a broader campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s indigenous Armenian population. This violence, including that at the hands of mercenaries, has forced hundreds of thousands of indigenous Armenians to flee Nagorno-Karabakh and seek refuge in Armenia. This displacement has and continues to severely impede the right of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, a fundamental human right[11] enshrined in Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”).
  6. Mercenaries are also still required to follow all applicable IHL as well as fundamental non-derogable principles of IHRL that remain operative during armed conflict. Based on the information attested to by witnesses, and publicly available evidence, Syrian mercenaries fighting for Azerbaijan are responsible for war crimes, including the wilful killing and cruel treatment of Armenian civilians and POWs, in violation of common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions, Articles 13 and 130 of the Third Geneva Convention, Articles 27, 32, and 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and Articles 75(2)(a) and 85(3) of AP I. These actions, violating Article 6(1) of the ICCPR, may amount to crimes against humanity of murder and torture.
  7. As a result of their participation and crimes committed during the 2020 war, and pursuant to its obligation under Article 12 of the Mercenary Convention, Armenia prosecuted and convicted two captured Syrian mercenaries, Muhrab al-Shkheri and Yusef al-Haji. They were charged with serving as mercenaries, war crimes, and terrorism. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life in prison.[12] Al-Hajji testified that they had been ordered “to slaughter every Armenian in the village.”[13]


CFTJ urges this Working Group, during its visit to Armenia, to meet with victims, witnesses and mercenaries and once the unequivocal evidence becomes apparent, to send Azerbaijan and Turkey an allegation letter as well as an urgent appeal. Azerbaijan, with backing from Turkey, continues to attack and threaten Armenians in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. No steps have been taken to curtail and bring to justice Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s actions. The concern is that they will repeat recruiting and involving mercenaries in their attempt to ethnically cleanse Armenians from their indigenous lands and impede their exercise of the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to sovereignty and self-determination based on international law.

[1] See Annex A for CFTJ’s full methodology of collecting and documenting testimonial evidence.

[2] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding observations on the combined tenth to twelfth reports of Azerbaijan, ¶ 4, U.N. Doc. CERD/C/AZE/CO/10-12 (2022).

[3] Syrians for Truth & Justice, Turkey Recruited 2580 Syrian Fighters to Azerbaijan—293 Died There (Apr. 19, 2021).

[4] The presence of such armed fighters and their use by Azerbaijan has been extensively documented by international media. See Annex B for a bibliography of international media coverage.

[5] Mercenaries in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone must be withdrawn – UN experts, OHCHR (Nov. 11, 2020).

[6] Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 2391, Humanitarian consequences of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan / Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, ¶ 8.5 (Sept. 27, 2021).

[7] Cf. Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya, ¶ 37, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/48/83 (2021); US Department of Defense, Office of Inspector General, Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, at 39 (July 16, 2020); Libya: Violations related to mercenary activities must be investigated – UN experts, OHCHR (June 17, 2020).

[8] Uniforms of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces were khaki, while the mercenaries were given blue uniforms.

[9] Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Dem. Rep. Congo v. Uganda), Judgment, 2005 I.C.J. 168, ¶¶ 213–14; Difference Relating to Immunity from Legal Process of a Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, Advisory Opinion, 1999 I.C.J. 62, ¶ 62.

[10] See also Sharmagh Mardi, The Doctrine of Command Responsibility and its Attribution to War Crimes Committed by Azerbaijan and Turkey, Center for Truth and Justice (Sept. 12, 2022).

[11] East Timor (Portugal v. Australia), Judgment, 1995 I.C.J. 90, ¶ 29 (June 30); Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965, Advisory Opinion, 2019 I.C.J. 95, ¶ 185 (Feb. 25).

[12] Ani Mejlumyan, Armenia convicts two Syrians for fighting for Azerbaijan, Eurasianet (May 6, 2021).

[13] “We were ordered to slaughter every Armenian in the village”, captured Syrian mercenary says, Armenpress (Nov. 4, 2020).

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