The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently found that Azerbaijan violated the European Convention on Human Rights for pardoning, promoting, and honoring an Azerbaijani officer who murdered an Armenian colleague in his sleep during a NATO Partnership for Peace training program in Budapest in 2004.
The court judgement laid bare the deep-rooted institutionalization of anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan. It also showed how the country’s practice of state-sponsored discrimination consumes the regime so much that it directly contravened international law to uphold its national narrative depicting “Armenians of the world” as the main enemy of the state. For the Armenian people, and keen observers of history, this feels all too familiar.
One hundred and five years ago, the Ottoman Empire engaged in the deliberate and systematic eradication of its indigenous Christian population, resulting in the first modern-day genocide. This event took the lives of 1.5 million Armenians and a further 1.5 million from other minority communities, including Greeks and Assyrians, during the First World War.
Often viewed through a historical lens, embattled Christian communities throughout the Middle East still feel the reverberations of the Armenian Genocide. Middle East observers give much attention to the genocidal campaign of extremist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS)—which contributed to the exponential decline of Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. But a gap remains in reporting into the ongoing harassment, intimidation, and incitement of violence directed toward Armenian Christian communities in countries such as Turkey and Azerbaijan, where the legacy of the Ottoman Empire’s eradication of Christian minorities remains central to modern nation-building.
Turkey and Azerbaijan have long struggled to come to terms with the enduring legacy of genocide. A mantra of “one nation, two states” unites the two countries, and a pan-Turkic philosophy born out of the machinations of the Young Turk perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide guides them.
Turkey, for over a century, has institutionalized a pernicious form of genocide denial that has penetrated all aspects of Turkish society, resulting in not only an erasure of Christian suffering, but also an ongoing atomization and forced assimilation of Christian communities who remain in the country today.
The Armenian National Committee of America estimates that of the over 2,000 Armenian churches that existed in the early 1900s, less than 40 remain open and active today—and that number continues to decline. Additionally, Greek and Armenian patriarchates cannot formally own or transfer property, contributing to the precipitous decline of Christian communities in the country. The Turkish government has also played an intrusive role in the affairs of the Armenian patriarchate, undermining what little autonomy the Armenian community in the country had left for cultural and spiritual representation.
The situation in Azerbaijan is even more dire. Being Armenian in Azerbaijan is tantamount to committing a criminal act. In its reporting on Azerbaijan, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found that hateful Armenophobic propaganda has become so deeply institutionalized since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 that many Azerbaijanis have grown up hearing nothing but discriminatory rhetoric against the Armenian people.
Azerbaijan’s president and government officials routinely refer to Armenians as enemies of the state and use the incitement of violence against Armenian communities as a political tool. This has manifested itself in incredibly destructive ways, not only for the region’s Armenian population but also for the people of Azerbaijan. Authorities have used the Armenian scapegoat rhetoric to justify crackdowns on free speech and political opposition, while routinely harassing opponents of the petro-dictatorship and imprisoning them for their alleged sympathy for the Armenian cause. In its most extreme form, incitement has resulted in murder—as in the case of Ramil Safarov.
Armenophobic rhetoric and the incitement of hatred, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Between 1997 and 2006, Azerbaijan engaged in the destruction of 89 medieval Armenian churches, 5,840 khachkars (UNESCO-protected Armenian cross stones), and 22,000 tombstones in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan—a historically Armenian territory the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin separated from Armenia’s control after the USSR occupied the Armenian Republic.
This cultural genocide, which the international community overlooks, is part of a concerted campaign to cleanse the region of its ancient Armenian Christian civilization—and the Azerbaijani government is not shy about this fact. Azerbaijan’s president has routinely called for the destruction of the Armenian nation—and sees the ongoing conflict with Republic of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh) as a central piece to that puzzle.
Artsakh—a cultural and spiritual capital of Armenian civilization for thousands of years—has been under assault by Azerbaijan since at least the 1920s, and more recently since the 1980s. Stalin placed this region, known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, under the administrative control of Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s to appease an ascendant Turkey under the rule of Kemal Ataturk. Seeking self-determination in the face of Soviet Azerbaijan’s suffocation of their cultural, economic, and political rights, Armenians later petitioned extensively for the region’s autonomy in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Known as the Artsakh Liberation Movement, the mass mobilization of Armenians throughout the region in pursuit of freedom, democracy, and cultural autonomy was in many ways the spark that lit the fuse of the USSR’s ultimate collapse. In response, Azerbaijani authorities engaged in pogroms, massacres, and the siege of civilian populations in Nagorno-Karabakh. A protracted conflict followed and saw the Armenians of Artsakh fend off Azerbaijani expansionism and establish self-governance following a tenuous ceasefire in 1994.
Azerbaijan never lost sight of its goal to capture Artsakh and isolate Armenia, and has frequently reignited the conflict to galvanize public support and distract from its socioeconomic problems—from the regime’s egregious track record on human rights, to rampant corruption that has crippled the nation’s development.
Despite gaining sympathy from great powers like the United States in the 1990s—seen through declassified CIA reports and the successful legislative efforts to prevent the sale of weapons to Azerbaijan—the appetite for resolving this crisis has waned as Azerbaijan positioned itself as an indispensable regional power.
Today the Trump administration is preparing to end its humanitarian assistance to the people of Artsakh, who still suffer the consequences of both the 1990s war and Azerbaijan’s ongoing aggression. The US also pledged a further $100 million in military assistance to Azerbaijan under the guise of combatting terrorism. However, those close to the situation on the ground know that this will deepen the disparity between Azerbaijan and Artsakh, as well as Armenia (as Artsakh’s security guarantor). This aid therefore threatens one of the world’s oldest and most vibrant Christian communities in a region where the Christian faith has been under assault on a number of fronts.
The legacy of the Ottoman-era genocide is very much alive today, and continues to inform the destruction and decline of Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, and other Christian minorities throughout the region. Moreover, the impunity afforded to countries such as Turkey and their proxies such as Azerbaijan has set a dangerous precedent for the status of minority communities, not only throughout the region but across the world. Emboldened autocracies and fundamentalists from China to Iran have learned that there is a threshold of violence the international community is willing to overlook for the sake of geopolitical pragmatism.
For communities like the Armenians who suffer the consequences of historic injustice today, the rhetoric and posturing of great powers that claim to have their best interests at heart do little to build trust in the international institutions designed to safeguard global peace. While the ECHR ruling offers some hope by exposing an “intractable” conflict in an otherwise overlooked corner of the world, the court’s reluctance to hold Azerbaijan directly accountable for the incitement of violence against Armenians demonstrates international human rights law’s limitations in protecting ethnic and religious minorities.