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Call what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh by its proper name

In an image from a video, a Russian guard stands near the gate into a camp near Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh. [Russian Defense Ministry Press Service | AP]

In 2021, President Biden recognized the 1915 removal of Armenians from their lands in Anatolia, in today’s Turkey, as genocide. The United States had been silent on the issue for more than a century, and its silence had grievous consequences.

Today, Armenians need global leaders, including Biden, to stop a new genocide — one that started this past winter and is now evolving into a more brutal phase.

On Tuesday, after a months-long blockade and military buildup along the border of the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan’s military launched an attack. Within a day, Azerbaijani forces quickly overwhelmed local defenses, killing more than 200 people, including civilians. In short order, a shaky cease-fire was announced.

In return for stopping the bombing, Azerbaijan demanded the surrender of Nagorno-Karabakh’s top leaders and the disarmament of all the armed forces of the Karabakh authorities.

As Azerbaijan’s victory became more apparent, scores of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian civilians gathered around the airport in Stepanakert (the enclave’s biggest city) looking to flee their ancestral lands.

They have every right to fear the next steps Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev might take. Since December 2022, Azerbaijan has blocked the Lachin Corridor, the only connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. On Feb. 22, the International Court of Justice, after hearing arguments from both sides, ruled that the blockade produced a “real and imminent risk” to the “health and life” of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population.

Rather than comply with the court’s binding order to end the blockade, Azerbaijan security forces doubled down in June, sealing off the enclave entirely, preventing even the transfer of food, medical supplies and other essentials. Since then, Aliyev has repeatedly ignored calls from the U.N. secretary general and the U.S. secretary of state to comply with the court’s ruling. He correctly understood that Azerbaijan would bear no serious costs from the international community for its actions.

Azerbaijan’s defiance is ominous. In international law, the Genocide Convention of 1948 makes it clear that one way to commit the crime is by “deliberately inflicting on [a] group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” (Article II c). By blocking the Lachin Corridor, Aliyev turned Nagorno-Karabakh into a vast concentration camp for 120,000 Armenians. This week’s military intervention added killing (Article II a) and causing serious bodily and mental harm (Article II b) to the ledger.

What happens next? Because Nagorno-Karabakh authorities surrendered, the international community has urged Aliyev to guarantee the full rights of his Armenian citizens in the enclave. Aliyev’s government has said it is not committing ethnic cleansing and assured the world that “reintegration” will bring prosperity to the region.

But this rhetoric rings hollow given what has already been done. And Azerbaijan’s ambitions extend beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. Since 2010, Aliyev has regularly talked about Armenia itself as “Western Azerbaijan,” echoing long-standing Azerbaijani claims that Armenia as a whole is an illegitimate state. As recently as December, he said that“present-day Armenia is our land.”

The world must call the crime by its proper name. Resistance to using the term “genocide” has been a long-standing problem in international affairs. In April 1994, most U.N. Security Council members refused to label the mass killings in Rwanda as genocide. Little has changed in 30 years.

The last time the U.N. Security Council discussed the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev’s blockade was repeatedly called a “humanitarian situation,” and continued negotiations were proposed. One is reminded of the heroic intervention by the Czech ambassador, Karel Kovanda, during the U.N. debates on Rwanda: When most leaders backed negotiating a truce, he likened the idea to “persuading Hitler to reach a ceasefire with the Jews.”

Today, as always, geopolitics explain the world’s reticence. Azerbaijan is an ally with the West against Iran; it provides energy to Europe and it spends millions on sophisticated Israeli weapons. But such exigencies must not get in the way of the world’s responsibility to stop what is happening before its very eyes: the Armenian genocide of 2023.

Biden did the right thing in 2021. Today, he needs to help prevent history from repeating itself.


(c) 2023, Washington Post


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