"People are standing in queues for hours to get minimal food rations. People are fainting in the bread queues"… these were the words of a local journalist from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in one of her recorded voice messages sent to the BBC last week.
In June 2023, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian accused Azerbaijan of "ethnic cleansing" with its continued blockade of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan's blockade of the only road linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh has created a shortage of food, water, medicine and other essential items in the region which has 1,20,000 inhabitants.
Baku's installation of an illegal checkpoint in the Lachin Corridor and its ongoing blockade are "actions that once again substantiate our fear that Azerbaijan is conducting a policy of ethnic cleansing", PM Pashinian said in Parliament in June.
For almost two years, the focus of the entire world and its leaders has been on the Russia-Ukraine war. Almost at the same time, another country on the same continent took advantage of the situation to ethnically cleanse a community.
Azerbaijan however has claimed that it had created conditions for the safe and efficient transit of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin checkpoint.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked region, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but most of it is governed by the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) since the first Nagorno-Karabakh War.
The region has been at the centre of a decades-long conflict between the two countries which have fought two wars for control of the region — in the 1990s and in 2020 — that have claimed thousands of lives from both sides.
The conflict started after the fall of the Soviet Union in the '90s when both Muslim-majority Azerbaijan and Christian-majority Armenia wanted Nagorno-Karabakh whose population largely comprises ethnic-majority Armenians to be part of both republics.
The second Nagorno-Karabakh war started in 2020 after Azerbaijan launched an offensive that recaptured territory around Karabakh. Some 3,000 Azerbaijani soldiers and 4,000 Armenian soldiers were killed in six weeks of fighting.
A Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement in 2020 saw Armenia cede swathes of territories it had controlled for some three decades to Azerbaijan. As per the deal, Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey and its military, would hold on to areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that it had taken during the conflict.
Moscow also deployed peacekeepers to the Lachin corridor to ensure free passage between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Recently, Azerbaijan has been using this corridor to control and starve the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to death.
Former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo recently quoted an observation of the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court of Justice: "The 1,20,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are now entirely encircled by Azerbaijan, completely cut off from the access to the outside world."
"They are effectively under siege," he said.
CNN reported that shortages of food, fuel, and medicines caused by the months-long blockade have taken an increasing toll on the region’s population.
Gegham Stepanyan, the ombudsman of the NKR, on August 15 confirmed that officials reported the first death from malnutrition in the region.
Is it a genocide?
In a conservative sense, we describe genocide as the slaughtering of people belonging to a particular community. But according to the UN Genocide Convention, "Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
And genocide is exactly what has been happening in Nagorno-Karabakh as found in investigations by the International Court of Justice.
The top court found the occurrence of several elements of Genocide as per the UN Genocide Convention including "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction."
They reached the conclusion that the rights of ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region are affected by the blockade of the Lachin Corridor which was put in force in December 2022.
In his report, Ocampo said, "As has happened in previous cases, Genocide, in particular, when committed by starvation, is neglected."
Lachin corridor, the only road connecting the Armenian-majority Nagorno Karabakh to the outside world, has been blockaded by Azerbaijan since December 2022 for "environmental reasons."
The corridor is important for the supply of goods like food and medicines to the breakaway region in Azerbaijan.
In February this year, the International Criminal Court of Justice ordered the Azerbaijan government to lift the blockade and allow free passage of goods and services through the corridor.
The top UN court said, "Baku (Azerbaijan) must take all measures at its disposal to ensure the unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles, and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions,".
However, the Azerbaijan government responded to the order by establishing a checkpoint and blocking humanitarian aid carried by various human rights bodies including the Red Cross.
Who is responsible?
When it is established that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are facing genocide, the next question is who is responsible? One of the most obvious reasons pointed out by multiple political analysts and lawyers like Ocampo is the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, the supreme commander of these security forces in Azerbaijan.
It was under his command the Lachin Corridor was blockaded by the security border personnel of the country.
Aliyev, who accepted the Russian peacemakers after the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020 and agreed to keep the Lachin corridor open for free passage of goods and services, went back on the agreement the moment Russia invaded Ukraine.
According to Ocampo, "Instead of negotiating the autonomy of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, he systematically took steps through a series of decisions to eliminate the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh."
For starters, Aliyev allowed a civilian group to block the Lachin Corridor, which he was supposed to keep open, according to the pact after 2020.
Second, following the order from the International Court of Justice to lift the blockade, he put checkpoints in place on the border with Armenia, stopping humanitarian aid from getting to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Following global criticism of the blockade, in one of his interviews with Euronews, Azerbaijan President Aliyev justified his move, saying the blockade was to avoid the alleged smuggling of arms, gasoline and other illegal substances from Armenia as well as the alleged illegal excavation of natural resources in the region.
He further said that the checkpoint was established to implement the International Court of Justice's decision.
“Actually the International Court of Justice actually addressed its message to us to communicate with civil society activists and not to disrupt any kind of movement. And we did it. And as soon as we established a border checkpoint on our border with Armenia, which is our legitimate right…We communicated through my representative here in Shusha (a city in the disputed region) with NGOs’ representatives for them (civil society groups) to stop, and they stopped. They left. So now, freedom of movement is not blocked.”
The President also said that his motive is to put an end to separatism. Besides, he claims that "he is not organizing ethnic cleansing."