Past Promises Ring Hollow for Ethnic Armenians in Artsakh
Nearly the entire ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh – known to Armenians as the Republic of Artsakh – has fled the region after Azerbaijan’s brutal military offensive in late September. Artsakh is a disputed territory: while currently recognized by the international community as part of Azerbaijan, it has historically been part of Armenia and inhabited by indigenous Armenians. Now, over 100,000 Armenians have fled this homeland, many without anything but the clothes on their backs.
The crisis began on September 19, when Azerbaijan launched a ruthless attack on a vulnerable population, killing hundreds of people, including children and civilians. After Azerbaijan’s use of force overpowered the far less-resourced defenses of Artsakh, ethnic Armenians fled in fear of once again being targeted.
The Azerbaijani dictatorship has a history of committing human rights abuses against ethnic Armenians. While the people of Artsakh have always advocated for the right to self-determination and to be recognized as an independent state, conflict over Artsakh’s sovereignty intensified after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 1988, Azerbaijan executed a series of pogroms in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku, Sumgait, and several other cities. Hundreds of Armenians were murdered and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee from Azerbaijan and Artsakh. The First Artsakh War lasted until 1994 and claimed the lives of over 30,000 people.
The Second Artsakh War began on September 27, 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a military offensive on Artsakh. At the height of the pandemic, Azerbaijan used cluster munitions to shell civilian areas, tortured prisoners of war, and destroyed sacred cultural monuments. Videos circulated on social media of Azerbaijani military officials murdering, torturing, and subjecting Armenian civilians and prisoners of war to cruel and inhumane treatment.
In that war, 5,000 people were killed and 90,000 Armenians were displaced. Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, left no doubt about his intentions: “Our primary duty was to expel the Armenians from our lands, and our children… succeeded in doing that.” This statement promoting ethnic cleansing is part of the discriminatory and hateful rhetoric that is routinely espoused by the Azerbaijani government.
On December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan initiated a blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only pathway linking Artsakh to the rest of the world. In the ten months since, food supplies dwindled, grocery shelves emptied, and supermarkets shut down. The blockade prevented lifesaving medical supplies from entering the region. As a result, residents were unable to receive vital medical care. Children, elderly people, and people with disabilities endured unique challenges to basic everyday survival. Schools closed and fuel shortages left residents without heat in the middle of a freezing winter. The blockade has been devastating for the people in Artsakh. The over 100,000 Armenians who fled after Azerbaijan’s September 19 attack had already been suffering from starvation and illness for nearly a year.
When President Biden officially recognized the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Armenian diaspora hoped that the administration would honor its commitment to human rights, and that other states would follow suit. Instead, the U.S. government’s response to the escalating humanitarian crisis has been dismal. Late last month, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced a plan to provide approximately $11.5 million in assistance to Artsakh – less than $100 per person. Worse, the United States appears not to have ruled out continuing to provide military assistance to Azerbaijan, despite its denunciation of the authoritarian regime’s use of force. Advocates have argued that the mass displacement of ethnic Armenians in Artsakh was entirely foreseeable, and that the U.S. government’s refusal to take a firmer stance against human rights abuses in the region emboldened perpetrators.
The ethnic Armenians of Artsakh feel forgotten by the United States, and that the international community has turned its back on them when support and solidarity is crucial for their survival. The consequences have been horrifying. While finally responding to atrocities of the past, the U.S. and other governments are failing to acknowledge the atrocities of the present.