Opinion by Lara Setrakian
(CNN) — Nothing about Luis Moreno Ocampo’s testimony to the US Congress last week was subtle. The legendary former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that there is reasonable basis to believe that a genocide is underway in Nagorno-Karabakh, where an estimated 120,000 Armenians have been deprived of food, fuel and medical supplies for more than eight months.
Nagorno-Karabakh — known as the Republic of Artsakh by local Armenians — a mountaintop region populated by ethnic Armenians, has been officially within the borders of Azerbaijan since the days of the Soviet Union. Local Armenian authorities have vied for independence from Azerbaijan for decades, leading to an ongoing political and military conflict.
Since December, the Lachin Corridor, the main road into the mountaintop enclave, has been blocked by Azeri protesters and government forces, who stopped the normal flow of goods. Since June, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been barred from using the road to bring food to the Armenian population, in what local residents see as a way of forcing them to capitulate to a series of political demands, including a complete surrender of their local autonomy.
This weekend, the two sides had appeared to reach a deal on aid deliveries, but by Monday the agreement had either stalled or broken down. As the political dispute drags on, residents are running out of time. Multiple monitoring groups say there is widespread food scarcity on the ground, with child and adult malnutrition setting in. (On Tuesday, a single Russian Red Cross truck with supplies arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh carrying food, blankets and hygiene supplies, according to the local authority, as reported by Reuters.)
Its precious cargo is sorely needed. In strangling the supply of food, Ocampo said, Azerbaijan’s government has crossed a critical line.
“This is an ongoing genocide. This is happening now,” he told the hearing. “Genocide under Article IIC requires just creating the conditions to destroy a people … blocking the Lachin Corridor with its life systems for the Nagorno-Karabakh people is exactly creating those conditions.” Moreover, he said the US risked being complicit in genocide, should it fail to call out what is happening on the ground and prevent further loss of life.
The US appears to be trying to lift the blockade, though its efforts to date have been limited. Last Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, voicing US concern over what he called “the deteriorating humanitarian situation” facing Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Since December, Blinken has repeatedly called on Aliyev to open the Lachin Corridor to humanitarian, commercial and passenger traffic.
The International Court of Justice said the same in February, ruling that Azerbaijan “shall ensure uninterrupted free movement of all persons, vehicles, and cargo.”
Azerbaijan insists it is not doing anything wrong. As an exercise of sovereign control over its territory, Azeri officials say that the checkpoints and restrictions it has put in place are an element of national security. It accused the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) of smuggling contraband goods through their aid deliveries and others of bringing in weapons to Nagorno-Karabakh. The ICRC said no unauthorized material had moved through any of its vehicles to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan also claims that Armenia continues to have a military presence in the Nagorno-Karabakh. In a statement to CNN, a spokesman of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that his government “rejects in the strongest terms any contention that it is committing or intends to commit ‘genocide.’”
In June — six months after the blockade began — Baku offered to bring in supplies through another road from the city of Aghdam, under the control of the Azeri government. But the US and EU have said it is no substitute for reopening the Lachin Corridor, which was meant to remain open as part of a ceasefire deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2020.
Armenians are also wary of becoming reliant on aid from Azeri authorities who have reportedly cut food, electricity, gas and internet to the population at various points since the start of the blockade. (Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the source of the power and internet cuts.)
A multi-decade cycle of painful loss
Perhaps surprisingly, Armenia and Azerbaijan were well into a round of peace talks when the blockade began. As it has dragged on, the deprivation and now starvation of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh have left an overtone of bitterness and distrust that is dampening the peace process. Armenians say Azerbaijan is strangling the population into submitting to oppressive demands. Azerbaijan says Armenians have been supporting criminal separatists trying to break away from the central state.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been an autonomous region run by Armenian authorities during the Soviet Union, has pursued its independence for decades. It falls officially within the borders of Azerbaijan, but has fought multiple wars to avoid integration with the country, fearful of its history of bloody massacres and cultural extinction of Armenians from different parts of its territory.
In one example captured in satellite photos from the region of Nakhichevan, Azeri authorities apparently demolished thousands of Armenian Christian monuments, known as khachkars, with an assessment showing the use of heavy machinery to raze the ground. (Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev denied having destroyed the site, saying the claims were “a lie and a provocation,” according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.)
Those episodes have left scars on all sides. Now Azerbaijan has the upper hand and conditions on the ground are deteriorating, with 30,000 children there potentially facing malnutrition and many more potentially dying of basic illness.
What comes next: 3 ways to turn around disaster
There is still time for a turnaround. There are at least three things that can be done to save lives and end a multi-decade cycle of painful loss. They would also renew the chance for an effective peace process.
First, food and medicine urgently need to reach the population in Nagorno-Karabakh. Civilians shouldn’t be held hostage to political and geopolitical contests for power. That is a basic principle of international humanitarian law. There needs to be humanitarian airlift, by plane or cargo drone, potentially with UN authorization of cross-border aid deliveries, as we have seen in Syria, Sarajevo and Darfur.
The fastest path would be for Azerbaijan to restore movement along the Lachin Corridor, letting in aid from the ICRC. If they are concerned about arms or other material seeping in, those concerns can be easily addressed. In addition to the ICRC already saying it undergoes customs clearance, international partners have offered to put incoming cargo through scanners to prevent weapons smuggling.
If the blockade isn’t lifted it will be time for a humanitarian intervention. Already, aid groups say fresh food is nearly impossible to find and bread lines last for hours, with food often running out. If the situation continues to devolve it will soon be too late to act, as people begin dying in large numbers because of a bitter political impasse.
If instead of feeding the ethnic Armenian population, they are offered an evacuation from Nagorno-Karabakh — Azerbaijan has already offered them a one-way ticket out — then it will constitute ethnic cleansing of the region. Like genocide, ethnic cleansing comes in more than one form; It can happen by removing people from their homes by making life practically unlivable. Thousands of people who otherwise had no intention of leaving their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh will flee out of desperation for food and sustenance.
Second, if President Aliyev is true to his word as a leader who champions tolerance and ethnic-religious harmony, he should treat the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh with dignity and a spirit of reconciliation. Rather than threaten Armenians with starvation, which poisons the well of co-existence, he should let aid move unimpeded into Nagorno-Karabakh.
He should also drop all state-sponsored hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric, which has included grotesque caricatures of Armenians in a controversial government-backed museum celebrating Azerbaijan’s victory in 2020. With leadership from the top, Aliyev and his government can create true space for interfaith and interethnic dialogue, including a pledge to maintain ancient Armenian churches and monasteries in Nagorno-Karabakh without the risk of desecration or destruction, which they have faced in the past.
Third, on the understanding that no one wants to see a new interstate war, the US, EU and Russia should put pressure on Azerbaijan’s main allies, Turkey and Israel, to discourage a military escalation in the region. Turkish and Israeli weapon supplies, as well as direct training, are vital to Azerbaijan’s military capacity. Those countries should be asked to help stabilize the situation, avoiding the threat of force or its actual use, particularly on a civilian population weakened by hunger.
There are many things that both Armenia and Azerbaijan can do to smooth the path toward peace. But in this crisis it must start with these urgent steps. What the final political outcome should be is not yet clear, but an imposed blockade and the starvation of civilians is no way to get to a good one.
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