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Leading human rights experts this week urged President Biden and other top U.S. officials to do more to stop the starvation of more than 120,000 ethnic Armenians or risk becoming complicit in a second genocide of this long-persecuted West Asian and mainly Christian population.
Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and longtime human rights champion, convened an emergency hearing Wednesday on the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in the heart of a disputed territory in the South Caucasus. The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but Armenians have governed it since 1994. It was Smith’s second hearing on the topic in three months.
The Azerbaijani government has been trying to take control of the disputed region by force and last month completely blocked access to the Lachin corridor – the lone road from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, sealing it off from any outside food, water, medicine, and fuel.
Media reports from the region show empty store shelves and women, children, and the elderly standing in long lines to buy food. Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said economic activity in the area has reached a standstill with tens of thousands of people unemployed. In addition, he has accused Azerbaijan of disrupting the electricity supply through the only high-voltage line between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh since Jan. 9.
During WWI, Armenians, who trace their Christian heritage back to the fourth century and the establishment of the Armenian Apostolic Church, were targeted by the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey for mass murder. Around 1 million Armenians were killed during death marches to the Syrian Desert, and others, primarily women and children, were forced to convert to Islam. On April 24, 2021, the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, President Joe Biden formally recognized the atrocities as genocide.
Now history could repeat itself despite Biden’s international obligations to prevent genocide, human rights experts warn. Luis Moreno Ocampo, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, on Wednesday testified that the situation is so dire in Nagorno-Karabakh that the blockade constitutes genocide under the Genocide Convention, an international treaty adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
“There is no doubt that genocide intentions are there,” said Ocampo, who issued a dire report on the humanitarian crises in early August. “It’s time to be stronger. We are sending this [warning] to the executive branch. Look, this is happening now. You have to know this.”
In Ocampo’s report, he calls starvation “the invisible genocide weapon” and warns that “without immediate dramatic change, this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks.”
“The U.S. should openly inform the Azerbaijan government that without the immediate and unconditional removal of the Lachin corridor blockade, the U.S. would consider Azerbaijan to be committing genocide,” Ocampo said at Wednesday’s hearing.
Smith, who co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, called the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh a “three-alarm fire” and pressed the Biden administration to declare the Lachin corridor blockade an act of genocide and take action to try to stop it through sanctions or other means. The government of Azerbaijan, led by President Ilham Aliyev, “planned, tested and imposed” this “crime of genocide,” Smith testified.
“Delay is denial,” Smith stated, noting that the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development did not respond to his invitation to testify at the hearing.
“The Biden administration must wake up, recognize the absolutely grave responsibility it has here, and focus on finding and implementing a humane solution,” Smith said. “And this must mean that the blockade is lifted, and the people continue to live in their ancient homeland — and not subject to violence and threats.”
State Department spokesman Vedant Patel earlier this week told reporters that the administration is “deeply concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh resulting from the continued blockage of food, medicine and other essential goods.”
“The U.S. has worked continuously with the side over the past several weeks to allow humanitarian assistance to reach the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, and we reiterate our call to immediately reopen the Lachin corridor to humanitarian, commercial and passenger traffic,” Patel said.
A State Department spokesperson told RealClearPolitics that Secretary Antony Blinken has been personally engaged with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan and spoke with Azerbaijani President Aliyev most recently on Sept. 1.
“Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations Lou Bono has been in constant discussions with the leaders toward resolution of the humanitarian situation and of this long-standing conflict,” the spokesperson said. “And we are working, as always, bilaterally, with partners including the [European Union], and through multilateral organizations, toward resolution on all outstanding issues.”
“We continue to urge the government of Azerbaijan to fully restore free transit of commercial, humanitarian, and passenger vehicles both in and out of the Lachin corridor expeditiously,” the spokesperson added.
The Azerbaijani government has defended the blockade as necessary to safeguard its sovereignty and security to prevent Armenia from using the route for “illegal military and other activities,” including rotating its 10,000 military personnel “illegally stationed” in Azerbaijani territory and transferring weapons and munitions, as well as unlawfully extracted natural resources.
Any genocide allegations are false, Aliyev maintains, arguing that his government has offered to supply food and goods through the town of Aghdam.
Yet, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only international humanitarian body with access to the area, has been unable to get supplies into the region. The organization reported on July 25 that it had been unable to transport food through the Lachin corridor since June 15 and medicine since July 7.
Smith said USAID has not responded to his inquiries about when the agency last delivered into the region and cited reports that it was last delivered in 2020.
“This is a very significant signal – not a good one,” Smith argued. “The president of the Azerbaijan government is testing the will of the U.S. government. The [Biden administration] having failed so many tests, it will now be difficult to reverse.”
Members of the European Union Parliament also are pressing for immediate action. Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the disputed territory, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has warned that a new war is likely if the blockade continues. Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government views the blockade as a violation of the Moscow-brokered 2020 ceasefire agreement that placed the 5-kilometer-wide strip of land under the control of Russian peacekeepers.
David Phillips, the director of Columbia University’s Artsakh Atrocities Project, also testified during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, pressing the State Department to impose severe sanctions against Azerbaijani individuals responsible for the “atrocities” in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The international community failed to sanction individuals who committed crimes after the war in 2016 and 2020,” said Phillips, who provided a list of perpetrators. “Its failure sent a message to the Government of Azerbaijan that it can act with impunity and escape repercussions for its crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and acts of genocide.”
Smith, who chaired a hearing on the same topic two months ago in June, argued that the situation is much more desperate now.
“Two-and-a-half more months of inaction raises the question whether there is, within our own government, any will to help,” he said.
In August, when the United Nations Security Council met in a special session to discuss the crisis, neither the U.S. nor any other member took action to refer this matter to the International Criminal Court. The Security Council did not issue a statement, but U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who chaired the meeting, told the Associated Press afterward that “there were strong statements in the council from everyone that the Lachin Corridor needed to be reopened.”
“That was the main accomplishment” of the meeting, she said.
A State Department spokesperson told RCP that Thomas-Greenfield “underscored the need for the immediate resumption of humanitarian, private, and commercial traffic along the Lachin corridor while acknowledging the deepening humanitarian impact on residents of Nagorno-Karabakh as a result of Azerbaijan’s continued blockage.”
Thomas-Greenfield also highlighted the need for continued dialogue and the possibility of compromise on additional routes for humanitarian supplies.
“We will continue to engage on this matter as appropriate and work constructively with fellow [Security Council] member states,” the spokesperson said.
Human rights activists argue that time is running out to stop the mass starvation. The Azerbaijani government is responding to this inaction with growing impunity, Smith warned.
President Aliyev recently justified the blockade by arguing it’s necessary to deal with attempts by humanitarian aid organizations, including the Red Cross, to smuggle in cigarettes, iPhones, and gasoline. Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United Nations refuted allegations of genocide and held up photos of purported Karabakh residents celebrating weddings and birthdays, what Smith said the Azerbaijani government was falsely trying to depict as “partying and enjoying the high life.”
The Biden administration has dismissed Aliyev’s claims and urges the government to “fully restore free transit of commercial, humanitarian, and passenger vehicles both in and out of the Lachin corridor expeditiously.”
“The United States is deeply concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh resulting from the continued blockage of food, medicine, and other essential goods,” the State Department spokesperson told RCP. “Access to food, medicine, baby formula, and energy should never be held hostage.”