The United States has a long history of inaction on genocide, while offering hollow statements like “Never Again.” It is time for that to change.
“Million Armenians Killed Or Exile.” “Tell Horror Done in Armenia.” “Armenians Are Sent To Perish In Desert.”
These are just some of the headlines from The New York Times in 1915 that described the first genocide of the 20th century, when more than 1.5 million Armenians were systemically exterminated by the Ottoman Turks, an event the Turkish government denies to this day. Despite the overwhelming evidence at the time, the world stood idly by and did nothing.
In his most recent project, Ken Burns, the celebrated American documentary filmmaker, looked at America’s response (or lack thereof) to the Holocaust and its indifference in preventing one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century by asking if the nation lived up to its principles and ideals.
The United States has a long history of failing to prevent or halt genocide, though it has a rich history of offering hollow statements like “Never Again.” Whether it was President Bill Clinton’s mea culpa for failing to intervene the 1994 Rwandan genocide, or the Trump administration’s loud but feckless accusation of genocide by China against the Uyghurs, U.S. foreign policy has been big on words but small on action.
That is why the current crisis taking place in the South Caucasus, where Azerbaijan is currently committing war crimes and atrocities against Armenians, offers the Biden administration an opportunity to change that narrative.
Since the fall of 2020, Azerbaijan, a country led by the petro-dictator Ilham Aliyev, has escalated tensions with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabagh by launching an illegal war and unprovoked attacks.
Armenians, like myself, see these latest acts of aggression by Azerbaijan as a continuation of the 1915 genocide and a threat to their existence.
I grew up hearing stories of how my grandparents survived the Armenian genocide. I heard how, at the age of 15, my grandfather hid in a haystack during the day to avoid being taken away by Turkish soldiers. And I heard how his own father and brother were taken away, never to be seen or heard from again. I’ll never forget the story of how he fled through the deserts of Syria and made his way to Aleppo, where he worked as a welder to make enough money to eventually settle in Cairo.
But his story could have been prevented had powerful nations intervened. Tragically, that history is repeating itself.
Taking a page out of the Ottoman Empire’s playbook, Azerbaijan has embarked on a campaign to wipe out any existence of Armenians in the region. Aliyev’s anti-Armenian rhetoric has fostered a climate of hate that has permeated throughout Azeri society and on the battlefield.
That animosity has been evidenced by the way Azeri troops have treated Armenian prisoners of war. For example, video evidence recently emerged showing Azerbaijani troops executing a small group of captured Armenian soldiers.
And there continue to be reports of Armenian historical and cultural sites in Nagorno-Karabagh—including churches and monasteries that have stood for hundreds of years—being defaced, vandalized, and destroyed.
Genocide Watch, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocacy group, recently issued a genocide warning against Azerbaijan, and called for sanctions if attacks continue. And unlike Ukraine, where Russian aggression has been met with worldwide condemnation and stifling sanctions, Azerbaijan’s government has gotten a free pass from Western governments. If anything, it has been rewarded for its actions.
“Armenians, like myself, see these latest acts of aggression by Azerbaijan as a continuation of the 1915 genocide and a threat to their existence.”
Over the summer, the European Union signed an agreement with Azerbaijan to double gas imports by 2027—with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, calling Aliyev a “reliable partner.” This is the same “reliable partner” that is regularly on the lists of international human rights abusers, and who commissioned a Military Trophies Park in the capital city of Baku last year, that features a display of hundreds of helmets taken from Armenian soldiers killed during the war.
The park also features wax mannequins of captured soldiers portrayed through exaggerated caricatures based on Armenian stereotypes and tropes like crooked noses and bushy eyebrows. Many of these mannequins are shown in their dying moments or chained to jail cells.
President Biden came into office stating that human rights would be at the crux of his foreign policy, and yet he has done next to nothing in holding Azerbaijan accountable. What he has done is provide Azerbaijan with more resources, by waiving Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act which bans military aid to Baku. Instead of keeping Azerbaijan in check, Biden has emboldened Aliyev to continue his reckless and vicious behavior towards Armenia.
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