Azerbaijan, noted by Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders as having a poor track record on human rights, has committed ethnic cleansing against a group of indigenous Armenians while the world has remained silent. Former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo reported that Baku’s siege of the former Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) is deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice, as being consistent with Article II (c) of the Genocide Convention:

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

Why should people care? Besides inflicting suffering on the innocent Armenians of Artsakh, this egregious act has also essentially undermined the so-called ‛rules-based international order’ and has emboldened dictators to use force to solve political conflicts. The Caucasus could now face a regional war, sucking in Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel while China is undoubtedly taking note with Taiwan in its sights.

The authoritarian Azerbaijani regime that invaded Armenia in 2021 and 2022, and which illegally holds Armenian Prisoners of War, has committed sadistic war crimes like beheadings and bombing of churches and inculcates state-sponsored racism against Armenians, is trying to justify its actions. It falsely portrays people subjected to a starvation-inducing blockade as akin to the 1930s Ukrainian Holodomor and the September 19, 2023 military attack as leaving lands where they lived for thousands of years “voluntarily.”

Until now, Azerbaijan has been able to control the narrative, using tools like the infamous Azerbaijan Laundromat bribery scheme of politicians and media, to avoid the West’s scrutiny of the fact that it is a Russian ally, and even helps Russia to avoid sanctions by re-selling Russian gas. Baku calls Armenians “separatists,” and “rebels.” Even Western media use inappropriate terms to describe Artsakh as “breakaway” or “separatist.” This is an injustice because Artsakh’s bid for democracy and freedom from Azerbaijan’s human rights abuse was not a case of separatism.

The First Republic of Armenia was established in 1918 during the Russian Empire’s collapse. Artsakh was part of the predominantly Christian nation Armenia, which was recognized as a de jure sovereign state by the Great Powers in 1920. Unlike Armenia, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic 1918-20 was not recognized as being sovereign (not even by the Ottoman Empire, nor by the League of Nations). As a self-declared de facto entity without recognized territory, Baku had no legal claim to Armenia or Artsakh.

Following the illegal Soviet invasion of sovereign Armenia in late 1920, in 1921 Stalin transferred Artsakh, populated 95% by Armenians, from the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) to the Azerbaijan SSR as an autonomous oblast. This is despite the fact that on November 30, 1920, the Azerbaijan SSR had already recognized Nagorno Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhichevan as being part of Soviet Armenia! Stalin’s “divide and rule” policy has caused conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan ever since. 

During Stalin’s reign, he ignored multiple racist-based pogroms and massacres, including the Armenian genocide-era 1920 Shushi massacre by Azerbaijanis that killed 20,000 Armenians and the ethnical cleansing of this Artsakh city. Armenia’s longstanding wariness of their eastern neighbor is therefore understandable. 

However, there are two critical points as to why Stalin’s decision to transfer Artsakh to Soviet Azerbaijan is irrelevant to Artsakh’s sovereign status: 

  1. The Azerbaijan SSR was only a non-sovereign province of the Soviet Union, and as such had no right to claim territory by itself under Westphalian sovereignty (no rule by another party); and
  2. Azerbaijan itself did not claim any sovereign rights from the Azerbaijan SSR period; instead on August 30th, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan enacted a Declaration On the Restoration of the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan on the basis of the unrecognized and non-sovereign Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-20!

The first time that Azerbaijan became a sovereign, de jure state able to claim internationally recognized “territorial integrity” was on December 26, 1991, at the fall of the Soviet Union. According to the UN Charter, “territorial integrity” is only relevant to external threats such as invasion and does not conflict with the self-determination rights of people. This was a pivotal moment in history, three years after Nagorno Karabakh had legally separated from the Azerbaijan SSR province by formal referendum. It was also after a vote of 99.9% in a 1991 referendum (82.1% voter turnout) to support an independence declaration for Artsakh (and the Shahumyan region) from the USSR itself on September 02, 1991, in accordance with USSR Secession Law (Articles 3 and 5).

When the Soviet Union and its laws were declared void on December 26, 1991, two legal entities emerged from the former Azerbaijan SSR’s territory. Both had “clean sheet” rights under Westphalian sovereignty, consistent with the Montevideo Convention. Thus, the territory and people that each controlled were a vital aspect prior to the final step before sovereignty – international recognition. 

Unfortunately, and despite the July 7th, 1988 European Parliament’s support for Artsakh’s reunification with Armenia due to ongoing pogroms and massacres against Armenians, the West ignored Article 1 of the ICCPR international law on self-determination that it has since granted to many others. This can only be explained as Western ignorance or self-interested geopolitics, as there can be no logical reason for denying the democratic Artsakh people their rights under international law while recognizing others such as Montenegro (recognized by Turkey and Azerbaijan), South Sudan (recognized by Azerbaijan), and Kosovo and Timor-Leste (Recognized by Turkey). 

With the exception of Montenegro, these are all cases of “separatism” from a parent sovereign state that still existed. As noted, Artsakh is not a case of separatism, as the parent state (the USSR) no longer existed when it attempted to reunify with Armenia. Therefore, Artsakh had exactly the same rights to declare independence as Azerbaijan, under the relevant former Soviet and international laws. 

Of course, Azerbaijan would have everyone believe that once a state is sovereign, then there can never be any changes to its internationally recognized borders. If that were the case, then Azerbaijan would not exist, as it was part of a sovereign Persian Empire (now Iran). Some might also assume that because the former Nagorno- Karabakh’s borders were within Azerbaijan’s borders, then it must be part of Baku’s territory, but they have obviously never seen a map of a sovereign Lesotho!

Moreover, when post-Soviet leaders agreed to the December 21, 1991 Alma-Ata Protocol’s (non-binding) Preamble that recognized the ‟…territorial integrity of each other and inviolability of the existing borders” the “existing borders” must, by definition, include the legally established borders of Artsakh!

The failure of the world to recognize Artsakh in 1991, and to take Responsibility to Protect action (R2P), led directly to the First Artsakh War. Tens of thousands needlessly lost their lives after Baku’s invasion, aided by Soviets during the first years of the war. Azerbaijan committed multiple war crimes and spread disinformation during this war, including, as the evidence strongly indicates, the massacre of its own Khojaly citizens near the Azeri-held city of Aghdam, so it could falsely blame Armenians.

UN Security Council resolutions did not address the status of Nagorno-Karabakh or even determine the extent of the territory concerned, as the UN Security Council had mandated the OSCE Minsk Group to facilitate a peaceful settlement of the conflict in this officially disputed territory. Azerbaijan has repeatedly ignored its responsibilities under these Resolutions and the 1994 Ceasefire, including cessation of blockade, rendering them virtually redundant. It seems that nothing has changed. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh authorities were officially signatories for all ceasefire agreements, which means Azerbaijan de facto recognized Artsakh as an entity – a key step to sovereignty. 

Azerbaijani President Aliyev had agreed to the Lachin Corridor allowing unhindered access in both directions as part of the Russian-brokered November 9th, 2020 ceasefire. However, Russian “peacekeepers” empowered by the ceasefire effectively became jailers, supporting Azerbaijan’s genocidal blockade by not intervening to ensure Baku’s compliance. Refugees interviewed by the author even confirmed that Russia was given a day’s notice of Azerbaijan’s September 19th, 2023 invasion, while the Kremlin misinformed the world that they only had a few minute’s notice!

Of deep concern are allegations of possible mass executions of civilians by the Azerbaijani Army in four villages on September 19, 2023, which may have been witnessed by Russian peacekeepers at Dzhanyatag. The Russians were reportedly killed, for reasons that have been downplayed by the Kremlin. These Bucha massacre-like war crime allegations must be fully investigated by an independent body.

Azerbaijan’s goal is not just the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh, but the occupation of Armenia. Azerbaijani authorities have openly communicated this for decades. For example, in 2005 the mayor of Baku at a meeting with German officials stated: “Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, right? You should be able to understand us.” In 2004, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister’s spokesperson stated: “Within the next 25 years there will be no state of Armenia in the South Caucasus.” President Aliyev has also been consistently vocal about his genocidal intentions against Armenians. 

The 2020 Artsakh War had significant geopolitical implications and affected regional stability, even drawing Syrian mercenaries transported by Turkey. Emboldened with their victory in 2020, Azerbaijan now seeks to force, by military means, a sovereign corridor through southern Armenia, with regional war implications, as this would cut off a vital trade route for India and Iran. 

The proclamation by an unelected Artsakh authority that Artsakh would cease to exist on January 1st, 2024, was made under duress without the democratic will of its people and is therefore illegal. Artsakh had a stronger legal case to be recognized as independent than separatist examples like Kosovo. However, the international community’s cynical silence on the genocide by starvation for nearly ten  months followed by the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh Armenians and its tacit support of Azerbaijan’s genocidal dictatorship for its polluting oil and gas money as well as transferring Russian gas to Europe is testimony to the failure of the “international order.” Even the UN and the Vatican were shamefully silent.

The world’s R2P failure has also allowed the Kremlin to treat Armenians as pawns in its geopolitical games once again. In response, Armenia ratified the Rome Convention that created the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is clear that Russia is no longer an ally of Armenia; quite the reverse, in fact.

As the “Leader of the Free World,” the United States has shamefully done no better than the Kremlin. It has funded Azerbaijan to support a proxy war with Iran, while successive presidential administrations have presented these actions to Congress as preventing terrorism in order to justify a Section 907 waiver, opening the door to direct US aid to Azerbaijan where previously Azerbaijan was ineligible. The United States and its allies must now protect Armenia against the consequences of its actions, which effectively supported ethnic cleansing and coerced a naïve Armenian government to abandon Armenians of Artsakh. 

Magnitsky-style sanctions must be imposed on Azerbaijani officials in charge of orchestrating war crimes and genocide against Armenians to signal the unacceptability of ethnic cleansing, as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Yuri Kim said just five days before Azerbaijan ethnically cleansed Artsakh. Internationally experienced lawyers should immediately work on the case of investigating and prosecuting Azerbaijan’s dictator Aliyev for committing genocide at the International Criminal Court.

In order to undo the grave injustice perpetrated against Artsakh’s Armenians, the civilized world must first recognize their immense loss of life, economic viability, and irreplaceable cultural heritage. Crimes such as these demand substantial compensation and a pathway to restoration. 

Azerbaijan is a corrupt and unstable dictatorship that oppresses its own people and is potentially threatened by both Iran and Russia, with Russia having lost influence in the region due to Turkish infiltration into the South Caucasus. Artsakh met all legal provisions for international recognition, given what should have been Azerbaijan’s actual legally claimable territory at the USSR’s fall. 

Therefore, Artsakh’s people should never give up the hope of returning to their ancient homeland as a free and independent nation with international peacekeepers, if the opportunity permits, by establishing a government-in-exile. The West must restore confidence in the international order by recognizing the egregious error committed by allowing Azerbaijan’s illegal annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Otherwise, the world will stand on the abyss of a global conflict, where the law of the jungle prevails.