At an emergency congressional hearing chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) today, a leading international legal expert warned the United States is at risk of becoming complicit in an ongoing genocide in Nagorno-Karabakh, where 120,000 ethnic Armenians have been sealed off from food and medicine and are being starved to death by the government of Azerbaijan.
The grave warning from Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), comes just weeks after he issued a dire report that the Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin Corridor—the lone road from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh—constitutes genocide under Article II (c) of the Genocide Convention.
“The Biden Administration must say immediately that this is genocide—and put a stop to it,” said Rep. Smith, Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, who noted that both the US State Department and USAID did not respond to his invitation to testify at the hearing. “Delay is denial.”
“This crime—it is the crime of genocide—was planned, tested, and imposed by the government of Azerbaijan, that is to say by President Ilham Aliyev, who rules Azerbaijan as a dictator,” said Smith, who met with Aliyev twice—in 2013 and again in 2014—to discuss his human rights abuses and later authored the Azerbaijan Democracy Act in 2015.
“The Biden Administration must wake up, recognize the absolutely grave responsibility it has here, and focus on finding and implementing a humane solution,” said Smith. “And this must mean that the blockade is lifted and the people continue to live in their ancient homeland—and not be subject to violence and threats. This situation is now a three-alarm fire.”
In addition to Ocampo’s compelling testimony, Smith’s hearing also included testimony from David Phillips, the Director of Columbia University’s Artsakh Atrocities Project and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
“The language used by President Aliyev and his officials leaves no question about their genocidal intent,” said Phillips, who provided extensive evidence as part of his testimony, including a list of perpetrators who are responsible for the atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The international community failed to sanction individuals who committed crimes after the war in 2016 and 2020,” Phillips said. “Its failure sent a message to the Government of Azerbaijan that it can act with impunity and escape repercussions for its crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide.”
Smith, who chaired a hearing on the unfolding crisis two months ago in June, said “the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is much more desperate now, and two-and-a-half more months of inaction raises the question whether there is, within our own government, any will to help. In August, when the Security Council met in special session to discuss the crisis, neither the US nor any other member took action to refer this matter to the International Criminal Court.”
“Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government taunts the very people it is starving, as when President Aliyev said his blockade is necessary to deal with the smuggling of cigarettes and iPhones, and Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the UN held up photos of supposed Karabakh residents partying and enjoying the high life,” Smith added.
“Of course we know the Biden administration does not want this genocide to advance to a horrible consummation in the death of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh or to their ethnic cleansing, but that is exactly where events are headed,” said Smith.
“The US should openly inform the Azerbaijan government that without the immediate and unconditional removal of the Lachin Corridor blockade, the US would consider Azerbaijan to be committing genocide,” Ocampo said.