Lessons Learned from the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and an International Community of Bystanders
TORONTO, September 22, 2023: On September 19, 2023, the hostilities committed against civilians in the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh worsened as Azerbaijan launched direct armed conflict on the enclave. This comes after nearly nine months of blockading the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, and depriving Armenians, the indigenous peoples of the enclave, from basic life-sustaining resources. Most major powers and human rights organizations were aware of the 9-month long blockade, starting in December 2022, done with the intent of cleansing Armenians from the enclave. Major powers have also made public statements about the recent escalation in violence, without explicitly naming and shaming the crime. This is despite the fact that the Former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo states: “There is a reasonable basis to believe that a Genocide is being committed against Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023.” These statements made by major powers in respect to the blockade were merely paying lip service to the atrocities, the blockade and the plausible intent of genocide.
On Tuesday, as a reaction to the invasion of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, the United States released the following statement:
“…These actions are worsening an already dire humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and undermine prospects for peace. As we have previously made clear to Azerbaijan, the use of force to resolve disputes is unacceptable and runs counter to efforts to create conditions for a just and dignified peace in the region. We call for an immediate end to hostilities and for respectful dialogue between Baku and representatives of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
This statement comes after failing to take any punitive action against the Republic of Azerbaijan for the Lachin Corridor Blockade, which has caused serious bodily and mental harm to the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and that deliberately inflicted conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction to Armenians of the region. This is despite the International Court of Justice issuing a provisional measure for Azerbaijan to “take all measures to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions”. It is also worth noting that the United States did not oppose the sale of armaments to Azerbaijan by US’s ally Israel, knowing well that these weapons would be used in the conflict that has a potential of genocide.
While the international community and major powers acknowledged the fact that genocidal actions were taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh, they failed to introduce any real intervention, action, or preventative measures. This follows a very dangerous and concerning pattern of nation-states becoming bystanders, witnesses to a crime without putting forth any efforts to stop or intervene, to the ongoing genocides for political expediency. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue becomes particularly more critical when we look at the genocides that Armenian people have endured throughout contemporary history, which is set to repeat.
For example, the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916, Henry Morgenthau, referring to the massacres of Armenians of 1915, warned about the intentions of Ottoman Turkish authorities when he stated the following:
"When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact."
The “death warrant” referred to by Morgenthau in this quote is in essence “genocide” under the definition of the Genocide Convention. Morgenthau also wrote about a conversation he had with one of the main architects of the Armenian Genocide, Talat Paasha, who stated to him: “It is no use for you to argue. We have already disposed of three quarters of the Armenians … The hatred between the Turks and the Armenians is now so intense that we have got to finish with them. If we don’t, they will plan their revenge.” It is obvious that the trauma of survivors of the Armenian Genocide is passed on to their descendants, who are now alive today in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and throughout the world in Diaspora.
Today, we now have President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, whose actions against the indigenous peoples of Nagorno-Karabakh, are mirroring the steps of Talaat over 100 years later through the blockade of the Lachin Corridor and by depriving the Armenians of their land through attrition, forced deportation, the destruction of their homes and means of sustainability, and war as a means of forced capitulation of Nagorno-Karabakh. This continuum of violence and impunity for these crimes is very apparent when we look at how Azerbaijan is now backed with the tacit support of Turkey, the inheritor of the Ottoman government. Turkey went unpunished by the then major powers for its crimes in 1915 due to reasons of political expediency, and we are now seeing this same impunity given to Azerbaijan from the major powers of today: the United States, Britain, Russia, and the EU.
With the inaction to the crimes being perpetrated today in Nagorno-Karabakh, much like the role of Germany, Turkey’s ally in the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the major powers of today are essentially accomplices to the genocide that is taking place as we speak. The lip service that these powers are paying to the crimes today in Nagorno-Karabakh is reminiscent to the statement made by the major powers of 1915, France, Great Britain, and Russia, on May 24, 1915, condemning the Ottoman Government for their actions of crimes against humanity, by stating:
“...At the same time in Constantinople the Ottoman Government ill-treats the inoffensive [harmless] Armenian population. In view of those new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied governments announce publicly to the Sublime-Porte that they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated [involved] in such massacres...”
As a non-profit organization dedicated to the awareness and prevention of genocide, through education and scholarship, we wish to demonstrate how indifference and acts of political expediency by major powers embolden perpetrators of today and of the future. Below are some of the statements from the international community to drive the point of inaction and political expediency home:
RUSSIA: “Russia is "concerned" about tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a two-week-old blockade of the only road linking the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia…” - Dmitry Peskov, December 9, 2022
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: “It is Azerbaijan's obligation to ensure that the population in Nagorno-Karabakh is not denied access to food and other essential goods.” - Amnesty International, February 9, 2023
GERMANY: "Human lives cannot become geopolitical levers.” - Merle Spellerberg, Member of the Bundestag & Foreign Affairs Committee
UNITED KINGDOM: “The United Kingdom remains deeply concerned at the ongoing disruptions to the Lachin corridor, which threatens the supply of life-saving medication, health care, and other essential goods and services – resulting in humanitarian consequences for the local population.” - Ambassador James Kariuki, August 16, 2023
FRANCE: “I regret and condemn this blockade. We’ve always said that we support the sovereignty of peoples. France has unambiguously condemned the 2020 war and has organized numerous humanitarian actions…” - President Emmanuel Macron, August 25, 2023
All these statements, while fitting the definition of Article II of the Genocide Convention, are in essence dancing around using the term of “genocide” for the sake of political expediency. Impunity for past crimes continues to fuel present-day and future violence. The Institute is concerned that the international community is once again making hollow statements of condemnation of Azerbaijan’s crimes without providing any real tangible support and aid to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in the face of genocidal violence. This article is not written with the intent to become involved in the political affairs of Azerbaijan and Armenia, but rather to highlight the international community’s indifference when a genocide is taking place, thus becoming bystanders to the crime, and to call on major powers to action.
We, at the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (A Division of the Zoryan Institute) along with Genocide and Human Rights scholars around the world continue to invest our work and energy into the understanding and prevention of the crime of genocide. It is incredibly disheartening that despite the academic research and early warnings of the possibility of genocide in Nagorno-Karabakh, major powers as bystanders continued to serve their own geo-political interests at the expense of human lives as done in major genocides like the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, and the Genocide in Rwanda. We therefore urge the major powers and international community at large to no longer become bystanders to events that can be considered genocidal and taken profound preventive action when the very first sign of genocide becomes evident, as what should have been done in the case of the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.
We understand that the cause of the atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh are due to the clash of two UN principles of territorial integrity and self-determination. However, it is not too late for major powers to get involved and become catalysts for reconciliation between the two adversaries. The international community has the responsibility to ensure that Azerbaijan allows the indigenous peoples of Nagorno-Karabakh to live on their ancestral land and provide them with the right of self-rule, allowing them to flourish culturally, socially, and economically to their full potential. Such guarantees by major powers should be backed by punitive provisions to deter Azerbaijan from ever violating such an agreement, thus preventing genocide.