Sen. Chris Van Hollen

NEW YORK — On Wednesday, February 1, more than 500 virtual attendees logged on to a panel on the ongoing Artsakh crisis, hosted by Columbia University’s Program on Peace-Building and Human Rights (PBHR), which is part of Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

David L. Phillips, the director of PBHR, is a political and human rights expert who has worked with numerous independent and university-based human rights initiatives, notably the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. He has also held positions as a senior advisor and foreign affairs expert for the US State Department under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Human rights in the Middle East is one of his areas of expertise and in recent years he has focused on the relations between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey; as well as the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Phillips acted as moderator of the panel which included State Minister of the Republic of Artsakh Ruben Vardanyan, and the co-chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, Van Z. Krikorian. US Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), also offered introductory remarks expressing solidarity with the people of Artsakh.

Preventing a Second Armenian Genocide

The phrase “Second Armenian Genocide” has been encouraged by Phillips and others in order to gain the attention of the international community and to make the gravity of the situation understood. The purpose of the webinar was stated as to discuss practical suggestions of what can be done.

Although the practical solutions were perhaps a smaller segment of the discussion than some may have hoped, the panel gave an excellent summary of the situation on the ground in Artsakh (from Vardanyan) and the clear evidence of genocidal intent by the Azeri regime (from Krikorian). A question and answer session followed the main speakers, and Phillips moderated the questions as well as stressed some of the possible practical solutions. Overall, the speakers placed the crisis in the broader human rights context and gave background to the current situation tailored for a Western (particularly American), non-Armenian audience.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Van Hollen opened the discussion with remarks expressing his solidarity with the people of Artsakh. Calling it “the latest chapter in Azerbaijan’s aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh,” he likened the situation to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and called attention to the plight of children, the elderly, and the disabled. Referring to Aliyev’s “malign actions,” he called upon the Biden administration to work toward peace and mentioned that the US State Department called for “dialogue” last week. However, according to Van Hollen, the US needs to do more — it needs to be prepared to take action to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its aggression. Van Hollen thanked Columbia University for hosting the discussion and stated that he “looked forward” to working together on behalf of human rights.

The floor returned to Phillips, who gave a brief synopsis of the history of the conflict, beginning with the war of the early 1990s and the first ceasefire in 1994. Phillips stated that the blockade is in flagrant violation of the terms of the 2020 trilateral ceasefire between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, and also in violation of international law.

Phillips described the current crisis as a “systematic attempt by Azerbaijan to make Artsakh unlivable and to drive Armenians from their lands, which constitutes a second Armenian Genocide. He noted that Azerbaijan did not act alone but that the Republic of Turkey acted “in concert with their Turkic brethren,” pointing out that Turkey’s President Erdogan has vowed that “Nagorno-Karabakh will be returned to Azerbaijan,” and “we will support Azerbaijan to the end.”

Summing up that the 2020 ceasefire was mediated by Russia, yet the recent blockade (which Russia has not put a stop to) has set back prospects for peace, Phillips stressed that “we know from experience the importance of US engagement,” before introducing the main speakers, Ruben Vardanyan and Van Krikorian.

Ruben Vardanyan

Vardanyan Reports Situation on Ground

Vardanyan, who joined the talk virtually from Artsakh, began by reminding the audience that the Artsakh struggle did not begin with the fall of the Soviet Union, but dates back at least to February 1988, when the movement in support of Nagorno-Karabakh’s unification with Soviet Armenia began. After 2020, he said, “we are in a new reality, surrounded by the Azerbaijani state,” culminating in the blockade of the Lachin Corridor which began on December 12. The corridor, which is Artsakh’s only access point to Armenia and to the outside world, was blocked by protesters who claim to care about “mining” but are really hired by the Azerbaijani government, which has been confirmed by US journalists. Between the “protestors” and the Azerbaijani Army, there is pressure being created for the Russian peacekeepers who are stuck in the middle.

According to Vardanyan, the only access now to the outside world is through the Russian peacekeepers and the Red Cross. There are a couple of hundred kids and a couple of thousand adults that are stuck outside Artsakh, in Armenia, who were not able to return home. Although the Artsakh government was able to get a group of kids returned so they could spend time with their families, the youngsters were stopped at a checkpoint by the Azerbaijani military and subjected to a “psychological attack” according to Vardanyan, resulting in traumatic experience that deeply disturbed these children.

Vardanyan also mentioned other issues, such as the natives of Artsakh who died outside the territory and whose bodies could not be brought in for burial. Electricity and natural gas, both of which come from Armenia but pass through Azerbaijan, are cut off from time to time by the latter. Due to this, Vardanyan says, the schools have been mostly closed. He focused on children’s rights in much of his speech, referring to Azerbaijan violating children’s “right to an education” and even the “right to have a normal life.”

Though the people of Artsakh are not yet starving since they have a minimal amount of food and medicine brought in by the Red Cross and the Russian peacekeepers, “it’s all under not normal conditions,” he said. The blockade has caused much more serious, and deeper problems, such as difficulties posed for agriculture, he added.

Vardanyan sees hope in the people of Artsakh. “I am amazed by the people who live here, despite all the difficulties. They continue to stay very strong,” in their determination to hold onto the right to stay in their homeland, he stated.

He also expressed his feeling that “people feel more connected to each other, they feel more emotionally engaged with each other because of the situation.”

Vardanyan also expressed gratitude for the support Artsakh has received from the government of Armenia, as well as the advocates arguing on behalf of Armenia at the Hague and other international institutions, and finally the Armenian Diaspora, especially in large countries such as Russia, the US, and France. “We feel that we are not alone,” he said. Stressing the importance of the US, France, and Russia, who are the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, tasked with settling the issue of Karabakh’s status, and who also each host a large Armenian Diaspora population, Vardanyan stated that “it’s very important for us to get support from these three major countries, despite the conflict they have about Ukraine.” Vardanyan drove the point home that the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is not a religious conflict or even an ethnic conflict.

“It’s a conflict between democracy and autocracy,” he said. “We [Artsakh] have developed a democratic system in the last 35 years, of a civilized society.” Meanwhile, Azerbaijan “is controlled by one family who doesn’t give rights to their own people.”

Bringing up the “ecological protestors,” as an example of Azerbaijan’s hypocrisy Vardanyan stated that Artsakh has no problem allowing in international experts to actually assess the environmental damage of the mines. But pointing out that the protestors were actually sent by the Azerbaijani government, he stated “it would be interesting for any academic researcher to check how many protests happened about ecological or other issues in Azerbaijan, or whether the government has allowed its citizenry to take to the streets in protest at all. The point is that Azerbaijan is an autocracy, and the Armenians of Artsakh “have a right to live in our own homeland with our own [democratic] values,” stating that Artsakh is “ready for negotiations with Azerbaijan,” but that they are willing to “live side by side, but not under one state.”

Such a demand was absolutely not acceptable Aliyev, Vardanyan stated, since the Azerbaijani leader has stated that he “would rather have Artsakh without Armenians.” The principle of Self-Determination as well as other Free, Democratic principles are the only way to decide the outcome of the conflict, according to Vardanyan.

David Phillips

Krikorian Makes Case for Genocidal Intent

Krikorian responded to the situation in Artsakh with his own thoughts. Considering that the question at hand is how to take practical steps to end the crisis, Krikorian said he feels that if viewed within the context of genocide, the ways in which to approach international organizations and major world powers, such as the US, should become apparent.

Krikorian stated that Azerbaijan’s attempt to commit genocide in Artsakh has been well established over the years, and if looked at through this lens, it is much easier to dismiss some of the “specious arguments” that Azerbaijan in making in behalf of their case.

According to Krikorian, some of these arguments revolve around false statements about Vardanyan; some revolve around “both-sider-ism,” and some focus on “faulty historical issues.” But the most common arguments revolve around the “absolute corruption which is endemic to the Aliyev Regime,” which has been participated in by large corporations such as British Petroleum, Anglo Asian Mining, and others, including major PR firms.

“We have a clear record going back many years and established with corresponding acts that the intent of the Azerbaijani regime is to solve the NK problem by eliminating the Armenians.”

Krikorian then recited a list of quotations depicting this genocidal intent, some chilling. In 2005, the mayor of Baku told a German delegation to the city that “our goal is the complete elimination of the Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and ’40s, right? You should be able to understand us.”

In 2004, the Azerbaijani Defense Minister stated, “within 25 years there will be no state called Armenia in the South Caucasus.” (i.e. calling for the complete destruction of Armenia, and not just the re-annexation of Karabakh). In 2015, the Azerbaijani dictator, Ilham Aliyev, stated “Armenia is not even a colony, it is not even worthy of being a servant.”

In November 2020, an Azerbaijani soccer press agent stated “We [Azerbaijanis] must kill all Armenians — children, women and the elderly. We need to kill them without making a distinction. No regrets. No compassion.” In 2013, Aliyev stated “Our historical lands are Irevan [Yerevan] khanate, Goyce [Lake Sevan] and Zangezur regions. There will be times; we will live in these lands. I believe it, I am sure. Everyone should put their efforts in order to achieve it.” Krikorian also noted a recording that was made of President Erdogan’s wife suggesting to Aliyev that he not send Armenian POWs back to Armenia in compliance with the ceasefire, but “keep them as bargaining chips.”

Krikorian concluded that there are “piles and piles of evidence” of genocidal intent. He stated that “this is not empty rhetoric” and it’s “not just a blockade of the Lachin Corridor.” “This is the cutting off of the gas supplies. The cutting off of electricity. The cutting off of internet… and increasingly…water resources were cut off.”

Van Krikorian

Next Steps

Krikorian noted that “within the coming days” members of the House of Representatives will be introducing legislation to sanction Azerbaijani officials for these actions. He also noted that Aliyev and Erdogan are preparing the people of Azerbaijan for more war, for example with the “absolute racist museum” set up after the 2020 war, and the way Azerbaijan educates its children, which is “pure racism.”

He called on people of good will, saying that “you cannot be against racism in other parts of the world, and turn a blind eye to the racism that is being exhibited here, regardless of companies’ profit margin.”

Krikorian noted that around the world it is considered important to preserve cultural heritage, noting the outcry when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. Therefore, the international community should also be paying attention to the destruction of Armenian cultural monuments by Azerbaijan. He also displayed a pamphlet from Anglo Asian Mining in which he says the company was “marketing” its ability to mine “around” the monastery of Dadivank.

“It is exactly what everyone is supposed to be against, and we’re watching it happen,” Krikorian concluded. Vardanyan stressed the need to keep the story of Artsakh before the international press, expressing pride that 40,000 stories have been published in world media outlets on the subject of the current crisis. “We definitely believe that keeping this pressure is very important” said Vardanyan.

The Minister further stated that he wanted to make it clear to the international community “from a state level,” that the aggression against Artsakh and treatment of Armenians is unacceptable from any point of view. Legal issues (as to which country the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh should belong) are irrelevant, because the blockade has caused human rights issues which are unacceptable by any standard.

Vardanyan also reiterated the need to airlift goods to Artsakh and strengthen the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers. He feels that the political situation should be resolved by international organizations, and that especially Russia, France, and the US, as co-chairs of the Minsk group, need to put away their differences at least for this one goal, and find a way to cooperate to save Artsakh, a fledgling democracy representing an ancient people and civilization. Telling the story of his grandmother, a tough Artsakh native, Vardanyan expressed pride in his (re)adopted homeland. “It’s a privilege to live in Artsakh for me,” the minister stated.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: