Christians Suffer under Blockade, ‘Genocide” in Artsakh
By Linda Burkle, Ph.D., ICC Fellow
With many conflicts globally, most prominently the Russian war on Ukraine, there has been little attention given to the present plight of Armenian Christians living in a disputed region referred to as the Republic of Artsakh.
Decades long fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in ethnic Armenians being in control of this breakaway region and seven surrounding districts within Azerbaijan. During the 2020 war, however, Azerbaijan regained control of all adjacent districts and territory within Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
In November 2020, Russia brokered a peace deal that included having 2,000 Russian peacekeepers patrolling the area, which is jointly monitored with Turkey, a longtime Azerbaijani ally.
Since December 12, 2022, government supported Azerbaijani protestors posing as environmentalists, have blocked the Lachin Corridor, the sole Nagorno-Karabakh land link vital to providing supplies to 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in the mountainous region.
Only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Russian peacekeepers have been allowed to pass. However, Azerbaijani has installed military checkpoints making it difficult for even the ICRC to transport patients needing medical care.
The protestors, called “ecoactivists” include civilian workers, students, and disguised military. The Azerbaijani government supplies tents, food, and incentives for taking part in the blockade. Some are paid and flown from other areas. They contend that the Armenians are running “illegal” ore mines in Karabakh and demand access for inspection.
The Armenian authorities “have rejected the protesters’ demands as a gross violation of the Russian-brokered agreement from November 2020 that suspended more than a month of intense fighting in the decades-old Armenian-Azerbaijani war over the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts”.
The ongoing blockade has created a humanitarian crisis, denying basic needs such as food, energy, access to medical care, school, and internet services to the those living in the region. Grocery shelves are bare, food is rationed, and medical conditions are not being treated.
In addition, since the blockade began, Azerbaijan has cut off the only gas supply intermittently and damaged infrastructure. Since March 22, 2023, Artsakh has been without a gas supply. The region has also been forced to rely on its own limited production of electricity. The only power line supplying Artsakh was damaged, and Azerbaijan has prevented its repair. Artsakh authorities have resorted to daily 6-hour blackouts to rationing the remaining supply of electricity production.
As the months wear on, the Armenian government has accused the Azerbaijani government of genocide due to starvation. “Azerbaijan has now cut off all shipments of food, fuel, and other critical supplies to the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia.” . . . “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.”
To end the blockade, Azerbaijan has presented two options to Artsakh: submit to Baku (Azerbaijan’s Capitol) government rule or the blockade continues, causing continued untold deprivation and suffering. The Armenians have flatly rejected the proposal. “How can we accept humanitarian aid from the country that has led us to this disaster? It is using one hand to strangle us and the other hand to feed us,” said the territory’s de facto president, Arayik Harutyunyan, in a July 24 live-streamed press conference.
Threat of Genocide
On July 28, 2023, Armenian Ambassador to the UN Mher Margaryan sent a letter to the UN Security Council asking for an emergency meeting, saying the situation was “on the verge of a full-fledged humanitarian catastrophe” and urging international intervention to prevent genocide. He accused Azerbaijan of blocking the Lachin Corridor where trucks carrying 400 tons of humanitarian aid were denied passage. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan leaders insist that the road is open for humanitarian cargo, emergency services, and peacekeepers.
Thomas Becker, a Senior Clinical Supervisor at the University Network for Human Rights, has made three fact-finding trips to Armenia within the last year. He and his team from Yale and Harvard documented bombings of buildings, homes, and other sites. He said, “Perhaps most unsettling were the videos we were shown by a woman who fled her village of Azerbaijani soldiers beheading and mutilating the bodies of her neighbors. Azerbaijan’s preparation, persecution, dehumanization, and denial—each considered a “stage” of genocide—has prompted Genocide Watch to issue a genocide warning about Armenians under attack by Azerbaijan. Others in the global community, including the United States, have also expressed alarm.”
Becker noted that the Armenians have endured “decapitations, sexual mutilation, cultural destruction, dehumanizing statements by authorities, and a constant threat of attacks—all coming from Azerbaijan, with direct military and economic support from Turkey, the successor nation of the Ottoman Empire”… “what concerned me most on my recent fact-finding trip to Armenia, my third in the last year, is that the rights abuses I had previously witnessed in Nagorno-Karabakh—including indiscriminate killings, torture, and arbitrary detention—are now being carried out by Azerbaijan in sovereign Armenian territory with impunity.”
The threat of genocide is very real. “Over the past decade, Azerbaijani officials have invoked language used in the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust, referring to Armenians as a ‘cancer tumor’ and a ‘disease” to be “treated.’ More recently, the country’s authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev has threatened to ‘drive [Armenians] away like’ dogs’ and ‘treat’ Armenians because they are ‘sick’ with ‘a virus’ [that] has permeated them.” The Baku government even issued a 2020 commemorative stamp depicting a person in a hazmat suit ‘cleansing’ Nagorno-Karabakh.” Furthermore, Aliyev said the goal is total elimination of Armenians in the region.
A group of non-governmental and humanitarian organizations, including International Christian Concern (ICC), issued an urgent plea to the international community saying that genocide is a present danger.
“The current Azerbaijani aggression against the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh conforms to a long pattern of ethnic and religious cleansing of Armenian and other Christian communities in the region by the government of Azerbaijan, the Republic of Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, and their partisans. We call on all contracting parties to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation, to fulfill their obligations, through the UN Security Council, to prevent another chapter of the Armenian Genocide.”
On January 18, 2023, the European Parliament issued a resolution condemning the blockade and urging Azerbaijan at once “reopen the Lachin corridor to enable free movement and ensure access to essential goods and services, thus guaranteeing security in the region and safeguarding residents’ livelihoods.” The resolution also called for the unimpeded access of international organizations and the UN to assess the situation and supply necessary humanitarian aid. In addition, it asserted the need for a comprehensive peace agreement, as well as replacement of Russian peacekeepers with international peacekeepers under UN mandate, given the Russian peacekeepers cooperation with the protesters.
The International Court of Justice and the U.S. Department of State also condemned the blockade. In a written statement, the U.S. diplomats warned that the Azerbaijani blockade “sets back the peace process and undermines international confidence” as well as creates “a grave humanitarian situation.” The United States has stopped, however, short of imposing any sanctions on Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is trying to address the needs of displaced Armenians.
On June 29, 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to come to an agreement. The talks are to continue but have made little progress.
On August 16, 2023, the UN Security Council met with representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Without issuing a formal statement, all 15 members called for the reopening of the Lachin Corridor. U.N. humanitarian coordinator Edem Wosornu reported to the council that the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been blocked from transporting food since June 14 and medicine since July 7, in violation of international humanitarian law, requiring all parties to rapidly deliver aid.
Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan warned the council that starvation is imminent without “without immediate dramatic change this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks.” He said it was the duty of the Security Council to prevent another genocide. Azerbaijan’s U.N. Ambassador Yashar Aliyev responded by “categorically rejecting all unfounded and groundless allegations on (a) blockade or humanitarian crisis propagated by Armenia against my country,” accusing the Armenians of provoking a political campaign to undermine Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.
Unless there is immediate reopening of the Lachin Corridor and restoration of essential goods and services, undoubtedly more Armenian Christians living in the Republic of Artsakh will die. This is a travesty that cannot be ignored. The international community must impose sanctions and treat this blockade as an act of genocide. Meanwhile, International Christian Concern implores all Christians to pray for those suffering and contact their respective government officials to urge action.