A report I issued this week concluded that a genocide is underway against 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto autonomous region located in Azerbaijan also known as Artsakh. This genocide does not feature crematories or machete attacks. Rather, the blockade of food, oil, medicine, and other essential goods to a protected group should be considered a genocide under Article II (c) of the Genocide Convention, which addresses “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.”
It is time for the United States and other world powers to act. There are avenues available both to halt the current situation and to pursue justice and accountability.
Background on the Lachin Corridor Blockade
On the morning of Dec. 12, 2022, individuals without formal ties to Azerbaijan’s state apparatus blocked the Lachin Corridor, a 5-kilometer mountain road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, restricting access to food, medical supplies, and other essentials for the 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Subsequently, on Feb. 22, 2023, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is currently considering the case Armenia v. Azerbaijan related to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, granted Armenia’s request for the indication of provisional measures and ordered Azerbaijan to “take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles, and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”
In response, on April 23, Azerbaijan security forces installed a checkpoint partially blocking the Lachin corridor, claiming that it was implementing the Court’s order. However, on June 15, Azerbaijan escalated the situation, completely sealing off the Lachin Corridor — the only access between the region’s capital, Stepanakert, and Armenia. Since then, Azerbaijan has banned the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Russian peacekeeping forces from delivering humanitarian relief. On July 6, the Court reaffirmed its Feb. 22 order, but Azerbaijan has failed to comply.
Genocide under Article II (c) of the Genocide Convention
Many might not think of deprivation of food and essential supplies or of a blockade alone as crossing the threshold of genocide, but such actions most certainly can qualify as “conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction” of a group, as required by Article II of the Genocide Convention. Recently, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan pointed to starvation techniques as a possible indication of genocide.
Some also might not think that an attempt to bring about those conditions for only part of a group (i.e., only the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, not the entire Armenian population) constitutes genocide, but the Genocide Convention answers that, too. Article II of the Convention clearly defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” (emphasis added).
Though predicated on a different set of State obligations, the ICJ decision in February confirmed the occurrence of the material elements of genocide that are set out in Article II (c) of the Genocide Convention: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.” The Court’s preliminary findings considered “plausible” that the Lachin corridor blockade produced “a real and imminent risk” to the “health and life” of an ethnic group, “the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Genocidal intent in Nagorno-Karabakh can be further deduced from the actions of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan. President Aliyev has knowingly, willingly, and voluntarily blockaded the Lachin Corridor, even after having been placed on notice for the consequences of his actions by the ICJ. In doing so, he has deliberately blocked the provision of life’s essentials to the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, and openly disobeyed the legally binding orders of the Court.
Azerbaijan’s leadership dangerously denies the facts on the ground. Hikmet Hajiyev, an assistant to Aliyev, told the Associated Press that my report “is biased and distorts the real situation on the ground and represents serious factual, legal and substantive errors.”
The blockade is recognized by President Aliyev, and, credible reports indicate that Nagorno-Karabakh is running out of food, and that essential goods and services such as fuel and medication are becoming — if they are not already — inaccessible. A group of four U.N. experts, including three Special Rapporteurs, on Aug. 7 issued an appeal to the government of Azerbaijan to lift the blockade. “The blockade, obstructing the sole road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia for the past seven months, has left the population facing acute shortages of food staples, medication, and hygiene products, impacted the functioning of medical and educational institutions, and placed the lives of the residents – especially children, persons with disabilities, older persons, pregnant women, and the sick – at significant risk.”
The Obligation of State Parties to the Genocide Convention to Prevent Atrocities
The International Court of Justice ruled in February 2007 in the case Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro that State parties to the Genocide Convention have the duty to prevent and to punish the crime of genocide. In this case, the ICJ decided that states must not wait until the perpetration of genocide commences: the point of the obligation is to prevent or attempt to prevent the act before it actually occurs.
Notably, the blockade has been discussed by political leaders – and even the U.N. experts — only as a “humanitarian problem,” without analyzing genocidal circumstances that may surround the event. For instance, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with Aliyev on July 29 and expressed “deep concern for the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh,” stressing “the need for all parties to keep up positive momentum on peace negotiations.”
Yet, the duty to prevent genocide does not require proof that the Lachin blockade produced the actual “physical destruction” of the members of the protected group. Under Article II (c) the Genocide Convention, the creation of the conditions is the material element of the crime. A similar conclusion on the war crime of starvation was reached in 2020 by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, which stated that “[t]he crime of starvation does not require that victims die from starvation, only that they should intentionally be deprived of objects indispensable to their survival.”
Instead, the duty to prevent requires that states take immediate action to stop a blockade that may lead to or itself constitute genocide — in this situation, to reestablish the provision of essentials goods and services to Nagorno-Karabakh.
There are no central international authorities competent to adopt such measures. And as we have seen to date, an ICJ ruling on genocide, or targeted sanctions and other classic diplomatic tools, will not be quick or forceful enough to alter Azerbaijan’s conduct or the physical circumstances of Armenians at risk.
In the short term, implementing the duty to prevent will depend on the political will of States already working to manage and resolve the conflict. Russia, which is responsible for peacekeeping in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the United States, which is promoting negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, are State parties to the Genocide Convention, as are all members of the European Union. They are uniquely equipped with diplomatic and material resources to compel Azerbaijan to lift the blockade. Furthermore, tensions over the war in Ukraine should not result in Armenians becoming collateral victims.
In her magisterial book, “A Problem from Hell,” Samantha Power described how U.S. policymakers have, time and again, evaded their responsibility to prevent or stop genocides because America’s “vital interests” were not considered imperiled. It took 106 years, but President Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to label the 1915 events perpetrated by Ottoman authorities, when 1.5 million Armenians “were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination,” as the “Armenian genocide.” Now, a genocide is underway against 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, and fortunately they are still alive. It is time for the United States and other world powers to act. There are avenues available to both halt the genocidal conditions being imposed, and to pursue justice and accountability.
Secretary of State Blinken, in particular, has the power and authority to spearhead a collective response. In 2022, he explained at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that one of his responsibilities “is determining, on behalf of the United States, whether atrocities have been committed. It’s an immense responsibility that I take very seriously, particularly given my family’s history.” He also identified intent to destroy a group and hate speech as part of a path to genocide in the situation of the Rohingya in Burma/Myanmar, stating that it “mirror[s] in so many ways the path to the Holocaust and other genocides.”
With a similar path to genocide against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh clearly evident, it is time for Blinken to put words into action. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed his deep concern at the deteriorating situation, and called for urgent steps to facilitate access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The United States, Russia, EU members, other State parties to the Genocide Convention — and all U.N. member States, for that matter — are presented with a historic opportunity to do so, and to stop the tragic cycle of the Armenian people’s destruction. The window for implementing effective prevention measures is rapidly closing. States must act now.