Do the Armenians Face a Second Genocide?
December 14, 2022
By Sheila Paylan
Since Monday, 120,000 ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave have been held under siege as Azerbaijan has blocked the humanitarian Lachin corridor, their only link to Armenia and the outside world, and cut off their gas supply as temperatures plummet to freezing levels.
This marks a dangerous new phase in the south Caucasus: recent events have put paid to the high hopes that existed when a Russian-brokered ceasefire ended the brutal six-week war launched by Azerbaijan in September 2020 (that included hell raining from drones in the sky).
A key stipulation of the ceasefire was a five-year renewable deployment of 1,960 Russian armed peacekeepers along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as in the Lachin corridor. Many believe this prevented the wholesale ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
But sadly, Azerbaijan's aggression has not ended (see here, here and here). Attacks on sovereign Armenian territory have so spread that the UN Security Council called an emergency meeting on Sept. 15, and the EU deployed a monitoring mission along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Gruesome videos of executions and mutilations of Armenians who fell into Azerbaijan's hands compelled Human Rights Watch to accuse Baku of war crimes.
The International Court of Justice has ordered urgent measures to protect Armenian captives and cultural heritage from destruction, as well as to curtail the regular incitement of racial hatred against Armenians by Azerbaijani public figures and government officials (also recently observed by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination).
Watchdogs such as Genocide Watch, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention are going so far as to sound the "genocide alarm."
This invites some pushback. The UN and many member states have long been averse to using the term, preferring to use labels such as "ethnic cleansing." One reason is a desire to avoid legal obligations under the UN Genocide Convention to prevent or punish genocidal acts.
But the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P)—a further commitment adopted by the UN in 2005—demands international action even in the face of ethnic cleansing—defined as "rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups." Indeed, in some cases this, too, falls under the definition of genocide.
I travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh in July 2022 to research how the population felt about the possibility of an eventual full Azerbaijani takeover of the enclave. The question is acute with only three years left on the Russian peacekeeping mandate, and the likelihood that Azerbaijan will terminate it at the earliest opportunity (while Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh would extend it for decades, or indefinitely).
I interviewed elected officials including ministers, mayors, the human rights defender, and clergy members, as well ordinary locals – and noticed a paradoxical consensus: most said they would never leave, but also that being handed over to Azerbaijan would mean certain death.
Now, with the corridor's blockade, they simply cannot flee. Others cannot get in. Deliveries of food and gas are disrupted, and normal life is coming to a standstill.
For Armenians, extermination, persecution, deportation and forced displacement are nothing new: indeed, one of the largest diasporas in the world resulted from the Armenian Genocide of the 20th century. Might their fears of extermination be the result of past trauma? That's a legitimate question that bears examination.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other officials have declared that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are citizens of Azerbaijan, seeming to back prior statements of Azerbaijani authorities pledging to guarantee the rights and security of ethnic Armenians.
But actions speak much louder. The First Nagorno-Karabakh War three decades ago arose following waves of anti-Armenian pogroms. Azerbaijan is now one of the most repressive and autocratic countries in the world, scoring among the lowest in the world on freedom and democracy indexes—in stark contrast to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aliyev (who inherited his post from his father) has confessed to having started the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, and proudly admitted that a generation of Azerbaijanis has been brought up to deeply despise Armenians (here and here). He denies the Armenian Genocide (alongside Turkey) and negates the existence of Armenians as a nation, including their history, culture, and right to be present anywhere in the region.
No Armenian, not even a foreign national of ethnic Armenian descent or anyone with an Armenian sounding name, is allowed to enter Azerbaijan.
The results are clear: nearly every Armenian who fell into Azerbaijani captivity after the 2020 war has been persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, mutilated, decapitated and/or murdered. None of these acts have ever been punished. To the contrary, those who kill Armenians receive medals and are glorified in Azerbaijan. It is no wonder that Armenians are petrified and cannot fathom living under Azerbaijan's authority.
At this point, the international community seems determined to press the sides toward a rush finalization of a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of this year. This, despite Azerbaijan having made it clear that the deal will involve no mention of any status, rights or security guarantees for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, deeming it an internal matter and refusing to discuss it.
The international community should take its R2P commitments more seriously or risk becoming silently complicit in the next Armenian genocide—or ethnic cleansing. There are meaningful responses that could be taken, up to and including sanctions.
The world's indifference and gullibility are emboldening the dictator in Baku.
Sheila Paylan is an international criminal lawyer and human rights expert who has served more than 15 years as legal advisor for the United Nations. She consults for a variety of international organizations.