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Lawmaker, bishop urge action as 120,000 Armenians face ‘ethnic cleansing’

People visit a cemetery on the day of the Armenian nationwide mourning for those killed in a military conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Yerevan, Armenia, Dec. 19, 2020. (OSV News photo/Vahram Baghdasaryan, Photolure via Reuters)

(OSV News) — A U.S. lawmaker and a Catholic bishop are calling for action to end a months-long blockade that has left some 120,000 ethnic Armenians at risk of what he and other experts are calling “genocide by starvation.”

“It’s now a three-alarm fire that’s getting worse by the moment,” said Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, speaking as he chaired a Sept. 6 emergency hearing of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The session followed a similar one led by Smith on June 21.

For the past nine months, Azerbaijan has closed the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh (known in Armenian by its ancient name, Artsakh), a historic Armenian enclave located in southwestern Azerbaijan and internationally recognized as part of that nation.

The blockade of the three-mile (five-kilometer) Lachin Corridor, which connects the roughly 1,970 square mile enclave to Armenia, has deprived residents of food, baby formula, oil, medication, hygienic products and fuel — even as a convoy of trucks with an estimated 400 tons of aid is stalled at the single Azerbaijani checkpoint.

According to BBC News, local journalist Irina Hayrapetyan has reported that some residents have fainted from hunger while waiting in line for subsistence rations. Attempts by the International Red Cross to deliver aid have been rebuffed.

“It is a violation of every kind of law,” Bishop Mikael A. Mouradian of the California-based Armenian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg told OSV News in a recent interview, ahead of a Sept. 1 webinar presentation on the issue for the Institute of Catholic Culture.

That was the consensus among speakers at the Sept. 6 hearing, which was co-hosted by Democratic Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts and featured expert witnesses Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who served as the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court from 2003-2012; and David L. Phillips, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and director of Columbia University’s Artsakh Atrocities Project.

Smith blasted U.S. inaction on the Azerbaijani blockade, saying that a “response in bland bureaucratic language does not count, not when people are being subjected to genocide.”

He announced plans to introduce a bill for the “Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Act,” and opened the Sept. 6 session by noting his long-running concerns, dating back to at least 2013, about human rights abuses under Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev.

Moreno-Ocampo reiterated his conclusions from his Aug. 7 report, stating that the blockade violated Article II(c) of the 1948 Genocide Convention — to which the U.S. is a signatory — by “creating conditions to destroy people.”

He noted that declarations of genocide are often obscured, as “normally people believe genocide requires many persons dying, killings, gas chambers.”

In contrast, “one form (of genocide) requires zero victims,” said Moreno-Ocampo, since the terms of the Genocide Convention only require that one condition be deliberately violated before the signatories’ duty to prevent and punish genocide is invoked.

At the same time, “the issue, and normally the most difficult issue, is the intentions” of the offending nation, he said.

Moreno-Ocampo noted that President Aliyev’s reinforcement of the blockade after U.S. requests to end it indicated an intent to destroy those trapped in the enclave.

Most urgent is “to prevent the harm for these 120,000 people,” he said.

Echoing his Aug. 7 report, Moreno-Ocampo said that U.S. failure to recognize the situation as genocide and respond accordingly “could be considered complicity.”

“Stop the denial. Recognize the genocide,” he said.

In his testimony, Phillips documented a long list of atrocities by Azerbaijan against the region’s residents, describing them as “actions to erase the Armenian physical, religious and cultural presence in Artsakh and eventually the Republic of Armenia, which has now been whittled down to a fraction of all of its Christian population and churches.”

He pointed to satellite documentation of these efforts, which are chronicled by Cornell University’s Caucasus Heritage Watch initiative.

Phillips said the Artsakh Atrocities Project he leads has collected “information on Azerbaijan’s systematic effort to drive Armenians from their homeland through killings, ethnic cleansing and deportations,” thereby constituting “crimes against humanity.”

He noted the “numerous verified cases of Azeri soldiers mutilating dead bodies, beheading and executing both combatants and civilians, and using banned weapons such as cluster bombs and white phosphorus gas” during a 2020 war launched by Azerbaijan on the enclave.

That war — in which 3,000 Azerbaijani and 4,000 Armenian soldiers were killed — had been preceded by a 1992-1994 struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan for control of the region, which had declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Some 30,000 were killed and more than 1 million displaced in that conflict. Russia brokered a 1994 ceasefire, and in a 2017 referendum, voters approved a new constitution and a change in name to the Republic of Artsakh (although “Nagorno Karabakh Republic” also remains an official name).

Philips said Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor ultimately “constitutes a second Armenian genocide,” referencing the 1915-1916 slaughter and starvation of up to 1.2 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. The atrocities were the basis for lawyer Raphael Lemkin’s development of the term “genocide.”

He also noted Azerbaijan’s refusal to comply with a February 2022 order by the International Court of Justice to ensure “unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions,” as well as calls from “international leaders such as the U.N. Secretary General, the U.S. Secretary of State, and the President of France” to abide by the order.

“History shows that appeasement exacerbates consequences,” he warned. “A world order to which Americans aspire requires a response when crimes against humanity are committed, lest perpetrators conclude that they can escape criminal prosecution, asset freezes and travel bans.”

With the area surrounded by Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, the blockade amounts to “a pure and simple religious (and) ethnic cleansing,” Bishop Mouradian told OSV News in a Sept. 6 text message. “If the Armenians of Artsakh were Muslims, they wouldn’t be treated as they are now.”

Bishop Mouradian (who did not attend the hearing) said Congress “should without any delay put up a bipartisan human rights act … a law that should be put directly in practice to prevent yet another Armenian Genocide.

“That is inevitable if things continue like they are now,” he said.

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Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.

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