Lawmaker accuses Azerbaijan of ‘genocide,’ seeks answers on Biden administration’s plan

Chris Smith In a Sept. 6, 2023, hearing, Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, accused the government of Azerbaijan of committing genocide against Armenian Christians in disputed territory in the country. | Credit: Office of Rep. Chris Smith

In a Sept. 6 hearing, Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, accused the government of Azerbaijan of committing genocide against Armenian Christians in disputed territory in the country.

During the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission meeting, Smith criticized the Azerbaijani government for continuing its blockade of the Lachin corridor, which is the only road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Although the blockade was initiated by self-proclaimed environmentalist activists, it is currently enforced by Azerbaijan’s military, which is blocking food and other resources from entering the region.

Nagorno-Karabakh, known to locals as Artsakh, is home to about 120,000 people. More than 95% of the population is ethnically Armenian and belongs to the Oriental Orthodox Armenian Apostolic Church. Although the locals have claimed independence from the predominantly Muslim country of Azerbaijan, the region is still internationally recognized as being within Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction.

Smith said during the hearing that the blockade already fits the definition of genocide, and he criticized the “inaction” of President Joe Biden’s administration and pondered “whether there is, in our own government, any true will to help.”

“Whatever we think of the goal of integration into Azerbaijan, what is totally and absolutely unacceptable is to achieve that through genocide,” Smith said. “The government of Azerbaijan has never worked toward a solution that would address the fears of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh that integration really meant that they would be genocided or ethnically cleansed.”

One of Smith’s witnesses, David L. Phillips, adjunct professor for conflict resolution and mediation at Georgetown University, said during the hearing that there is “no question” that Azerbaijan’s blockade of resources into Nagorno-Karabakh is intended to be genocidal.

“[These] actions [are meant] 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 its historical size and seen the elimination of all of its Christian population and churches,” Phillips said.

Another witness, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo, seconded that opinion, stating that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has a right to defend his actions in a criminal court but that “at this stage, there is no doubt that [genocidal] intentions are there.”

Ocampo said genocide takes many forms and does not require “many persons dying, killings, [or] gas chambers” but that international law recognizes “creating conditions to destroy the people” as genocide and that blockading the Lachin corridor “is exactly the conditions” that will do that. 

“The first step is to remove the denial,” Ocampo added. 

Ocampo also warned that states should act as soon as there are early warning signs of a genocide and that the United States is already late in acting. He said the United States risks being complicit in genocide if it refuses to treat the situation as such. 

“In this particular case, [the] U.S. is deeply involved in a negotiation, but … the negotiation is between a genocider and his victims,” Ocampo said. “...You cannot be involved in a negotiation when President Aliyev uses genocide as a method of the negotiation.”

Smith requested that the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) send representatives to testify at the hearing. However, he said neither agency responded to his request or answered his inquiries about how the administration is handling the crisis. 

“This is a unique case of absolute nonresponse,” Smith said. 

CNA reached out to the State Department and USAID but did not receive a response from either agency by the time of publication. 

On Sept. 1, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Aliyev to “express the United States’ concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh,” according to a Sept. 6 statement from the Department of State. He urged the government to open the corridor to “humanitarian, commercial, and passenger traffic” and encouraged “dialogue and compromise.”

Ocampo encouraged the commission to “send information to the executive branch, telling them … this is happening now [and] you have to know this because that is something critically important for you.”

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Smith said that Congress needs to ask the executive branch several questions: “One, whether this is a genocide. Two, what is the U.S. government’s duty to prevent, as provided in the genocide convention? Three, does the U.S. have an additional level of responsibility in the duty to prevent that comes with undertaking a mediating role so that it does not become guilty of the complicity of genocide under Article 3E of the convention?”

Some of the possible responses to the blockade discussed by Smith and the witnesses were to sanction Azerbaijan and to deny visas.

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