Nicholas Kristof

Another Ethnic Cleansing Could Be Underway — and We’re Not Paying Attention


By Nicholas Kristof

With its Russian torture chambers and slaughter of civilians, the war in Ukraine is horrifying enough. But what if another country is taking advantage of the distraction to commit its own crimes against humanity?

Meet Azerbaijan.

You probably haven’t heard of Azerbaijan’s brutality toward an ethnic Armenian enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh, but it deserves scrutiny. The former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, whom I got to know years ago when he sought accountability for the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, now describes what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh in a similar fashion.

“There is an ongoing genocide against 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh,” he wrote in a recent report.

We tend to think of genocide as the slaughter of an ethnic group. But the legal definition in the 1948 Genocide Convention is broader and doesn’t require mass killing, so long as there are certain “acts committed with intent to destroy” a particular ethnic, racial or religious group.

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That is what Azerbaijan is doing, Moreno Ocampo argued, by blockading Nagorno-Karabakh so that people die or flee, thus destroying an ancient community.

“Starvation is the invisible genocide weapon,” he wrote. “Without immediate dramatic change, this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks.”

“It is critically important to label this as genocide,” Moreno Ocampo told me, and also crucial that the United States and other world powers — including Britain, which has been too quiet — step up pressure on Azerbaijan.

The concept of genocide was developed in part as a reaction to the Ottoman Empire’s mass killing of Armenians in 1915 and 1916, so Azerbaijan’s starvation of Armenians today suggests that history risks coming full circle. The group Genocide Watch has declared a “genocide emergency,” the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention recently issued an “active genocide alert,” and the International Association of Genocide Scholars warned of “the risk of genocide” and called for Azerbaijan to be held accountable for crimes against humanity.

The current crisis began late last year, when Azerbaijanis began blockading the only road into Nagorno-Karabakh, the Lachin corridor to Armenia, on which the territory depends for food and medicine.

The International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to remove the blockade. Instead, the Azerbaijani government established a checkpoint on the road and began blocking even humanitarian aid carried by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“People are fainting in the bread queues,” the BBC quoted a local journalist as saying from Nagorno-Karabakh. The report added that the Halo Trust, a nonprofit that works to clear minefields, has had to suspend operations “because its staff are too exhausted to work after queuing for bread all night and returning home empty-handed.”

A third of deaths in Nagorno-Karabakh are attributed by the local authorities to malnutrition, the BBC said. I have no way of verifying these reports, but every indication is that the situation is dire — and getting worse by the day.

Yet I fear that the West is fatigued and looking inward, for it has likewise paid little attention to other global crises other than Ukraine, from horrendous atrocities in Ethiopia to Sudan’s warlords’ slaughtering of civilians. For dictators, tragically, this isn’t a bad time to commit war crimes.

The backdrop is that authoritarian Azerbaijan has a mostly Muslim population speaking a Turkic language, while Nagorno-Karabakh has a mostly Christian population that speaks Armenian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh sought independence; a war ended with a stalemate in which the enclave operated autonomously but with close links to neighboring Armenia. In 2020, Azerbaijan fought a brief war in which it reclaimed most of the enclave, and it now wants to recover the rest — and, I suspect, to push out much of the ethnic Armenian population.

The world, including Armenia’s prime minister, acknowledges that sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan feels it has a right to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh politically and economically with the rest of the country. Though this is not integration but starvation, and the one point even countries as far apart as the United States and Russia agree on is that Azerbaijan should reopen the Lachin corridor and end the suffering.

One possible compromise to end the looming catastrophe is outlined by Benyamin Poghosyan of the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia: Azerbaijan would open the Lachin road and Nagorno-Karabakh would simultaneously open one or more roads into Azerbaijan (which Azerbaijan seeks). The U.S. State Department hinted at this approach in a statement denouncing the blockade. As part of that compromise, Azerbaijan would guarantee the freedom of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This would be unsatisfying, for it rewards Azerbaijan for starving civilians, and no one could much trust promises from Azerbaijan. But the sad job of diplomats is to devise flawed, much-hated agreements that are better than any alternative outcome, and in this case a defective deal is preferable to the mass starvation and ethnic cleansing of Armenians, again.

(This commentary originally appeared in the New York Times on September 2.)


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