Armenians Deserve the Right to Return to Nagorno-Karabakh | Opinion

Nov 7 2023

For months, Western mediators seemed satisfied to sponsor sham "peace talks" between Armenia and Azerbaijan—while on the ground, ethnic Armenians in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh were being starved by an Azerbaijani blockade. In late September, Azerbaijan attacked and killed scores of people, beginning an ethnic cleansing in which essentially the entire population of more than 100,000 Armenians fled.

Since then, in a reflection of our benighted times, an even deadlier war has erupted in the Middle East, sparked by a bigger massacre. The world is riveted, just as for most of the past year it was occupied with Russia's assault on Ukraine. Azerbaijan's dictator, President Ilham Aliyev, is surely expecting to get away with his crimes.

As things stand, the United States and the European Union were essentially bystanders, indifferent or impotent, to one of the largest expulsions of a civilian population since World War II. This kind of impotence will have devastating effects next time the United States or the Europeans expect endangered people to place their faith in world institutions or Western power and ideals.

But there is still a way forward that salvages something from the situation.

As a foundation, Western nations should own up to the futility of appeasing a dictatorship and accept that allowing Azerbaijan to escape unchastised will encourage more crimes by bad-faith actors elsewhere.

They should categorically demand that the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh should have a right of return to the properties and land that the Azerbaijanis now doubtless plan to plunder. Those who don't return should receive full compensation for their lost property, with international arbitration to determine fair value.

As the stick, the West should put Azerbaijan on notice that the attack on and exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh are being investigated—which will mean visits by fact-finding teams lasting more than the few hours a United Nations mission devoted in September.

Following the precedents set in the trials of Serb warlords and ultranationalists in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Azerbaijan will likely be found liable for the war crime of ethnic cleansing.

Even before the final attack in September, the blockade caused widespread malnutrition and school closures, endangered hospital patients and brought normal life to a halt in a region ethnic Armenians call Artsakh. The scarcity of wheat reached critical levels, forcing families to subsist on a single slice of bread per day. Baby formula was in such short supply that new-borns were forced to drink animal milk without proper sanitary treatment.

Several experts and organizations have declared this abomination a genocide attempt. The former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, issued a report in August determining that Azerbaijan's actions qualify as genocide under Article II(c) of the Genocide Convention—and on Sept. 6 he warned in testimony to the U.S. Congress that state actors who are signatories to the pact, including the U.S., risk complicity by virtue of inaction.

Incredibly, there continues to be a peace process, although it is on life-support. In any new talks, mediators must assertively hold Azerbaijan accountable for its actions, and stand up for the rights of the people of Artsakh. And economic sanctions against Azerbaijan must be considered unless it agrees to end its outrageous behavior, including ongoing threats against Armenia.

A sustainable peace must be a just peace. It cannot be imposed through starvation and displacement. It cannot ignore what happened to more than 100,000 people while the world averted its gaze.

Western mediators would do well to set aside timidity before a despot and deploy the leverage they most certainly possess. That's because tomorrow's oppressors are not distracted by the Hamas war. They know that what happened in the South Caucasus is a far more classic case of the democratic world abandoning an ally for fear of upsetting a dictator and losing access to Azerbaijan's oil and gas resources. Don't let that lesson stand.

Karena Avedissian, Ph.D., is senior analyst at the Regional Center for Democracy and Security.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.