Groningen Journal of International Law

International Law Under Construction

Genocide Risk in Nagorno-Karabakh


Dr Melanie O’Brien and Dr Suren Manukyan

Atrocity Risk Factors

Multiple risk factors lead to the commission of atrocity crimes, including genocide. Many of these risk factors can be observed in the Nagorno-Karabakh situation with regards to the Armenian population of that entity. This post will draw on several crucial sources of genocide risk factors: the United Nations Framework Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, and the work of several genocide scholars such as Barbara Harff. While the UN Framework lists 14 risk factors of atrocity crimes, scholars over the years have presented anywhere from four to seven risk factors for genocide.

Many of these are present in the Nagorno-Karabakh situation, including but not limited to: political upheaval; prior genocide; exclusionary, discriminatory, identity-based ideologies; autocratic rule; ethnic and religious divisions; situation of armed conflict; record of serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law (IHL); and capacity to commit atrocity crimes. While a blog post does not allow for a comprehensive analysis of all the factors (and a full academic analysis is certainly needed), some will be touched upon here.

Armed Conflict and Political Upheaval

The first and most obvious risk factor present is the existence of a situation of armed conflict and political upheaval, enmeshed with the issue of self-determination. There have been several armed conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, with the most recent in 2020. Moreover, the governance of the territory is disputed. In this context, two other risk factors can be observed: namely, that Azerbaijan has the capacity to commit atrocity crimes, and has committed serious violations of human rights and IHL. Allegations have mounted about unlawful strikes and other atrocities carried out by Azerbaijan against civilian populations in Nagorno-Karabakh. This all shows past commission and capacity. Furthermore, Azerbaijan possesses and has used an extensive range of weaponry, including UAVs and long-range missiles, supplied by Israel and Turkey. An Azerbaijani Defence Ministry spokesperson has stated that their weapons ‘are capable of hitting the Metzamur Atomic Energy Station with high accuracy, which will turn into a catastrophe for Armenia’.

Prior Genocide

The risk arising from the prior genocide of ethnic Armenians in 1915 by the (then soon-to-be) country of Turkey is also present. Relations between Turkey and Armenia remain troubled, as Turkey continues to deny that genocide took place. Turkey has been supporting Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with Turkish President Erdoğan referring to the Armenians as ‘occupiers’. However, this is not the only time Turkey supported Azerbaijan; it has a long history of doing so. In 1914-15, the Turks carried out operations against Christians in Azerbaijan, as part of the first acts of a continuum of violence and genocide against Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire (including Armenians). In 1920, the period in which the Armenian Genocide was lingering, Turkey sought to disarm the Armenians and arm the Azerbaijanis, and there was conflict, Armenian exodus, and atrocities against Armenians in an Azerbaijani offensive.

Identity-based Ideology and Cultural Destruction

Azerbaijan exists under autocratic rule, which includes identity-based ideologies through ethnic, national and religious divisions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians (Armenian-Azerbaijani, Christian-Muslim). A large amount of animosity exists between the two groups, and is connected to a history of atrocities committed against each other. In the 2020 conflict, allegations of crimes committed by Armenia have also been made, including unlawful strikes, as well as displacement of Azerbaijani citizens in the 1990s conflict. Furthermore, pogroms were perpetrated by the Azeris against the Armenians in the 1980s.

Within this division and conflict, there is also a history of cultural destruction on both sides, leading to a significant fear from Armenians that after the peace deal, (which will see the return of Armenian-held land to Azerbaijan), Armenian sites will be neglected, desecrated or destroyed. Some of the Armenian monuments and churches are hundreds of years old, such as the Dadivank church and khatchkars in cemeteries, dating as far back as the 12th and 13th Centuries.It is already common for Azerbaijan to present ‘alternative’ histories for Armenian churches, claiming they are ‘Caucasian Albanian’ and were ‘Armenianised’ only in the 19th Century (claims that have all been denied outside of Azerbaijan). Rewriting of history and cultural destruction are key hallmarks of genocide. The goal of génocidaires is to destroy, in whole or in part, the targeted group, and one way the perpetrators carry out this destruction is through cultural destruction: eliminating the very essence of the group’s identity, and any trace that they existed in that location.

Hate Crimes and Speech

An extreme example of this identity-based ideology is the 2004 murder of Armenian soldier Gurgen Margaryan by Azerbaijani soldier Ramil Safarov, when they were both attending a NATO English-language training course in Budapest. Safarov bought an axe and murdered Margaryan, intending to also murder another Armenian soldier before he was stopped. Safarov targeted Margaryan because he was Armenian. Safarov was sentenced to prison in Hungary, but a transfer deal saw him back in Azerbaijan in 2012, where he was pardoned, promoted, and given a free apartment and back pay for the eight years he spent in jail. This clearly demonstrates that Safarov’s targeted killing has received the approval of the Azeri government. In May 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Azerbaijan had violated the European Convention on Human Rights through their failure to enforce the punishment and for instead effectively granting Safarov impunity (Makuchyan and Minasyan v Azerbaijan and Hungary, App. No. 17247/13). The Court referred to the murder as an ‘ethnic hate crime’, confirming the existence of a causal link with the Armenian ethnicity. Armenia has appealed the decision.

This is part of a broader context of hate speech from Azeri authorities, a clear risk factor for genocide: acts of incitement or hate propaganda have targeted Armenians, exacerbating the ethnic divisions in the region. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has specifically noted that the following acts are risk factors for genocide:

‘Systematic and widespread use and acceptance of speech or propaganda promoting hatred and/or inciting violence against minority groups, particularly in the media’; and

‘Grave statements by political leaders/prominent people that express support for affirmation of superiority of a race or an ethnic group, dehumanize and demonize minorities, or condone or justify violence against a minority.’

Thomas de Waal observes that ‘President Ilham Aliyev routinely uses public speeches not only to talk up the achievements of Azerbaijan but also to denigrate Armenia in all possible ways.’ He also notes a hardening of attitudes on both sides.

Anti-Armenian discourse and propaganda are part of Azerbaijan’s state policy, and are found in government speeches and the media. Indoctrination demonising Armenians is carried out from schools to state media. Azerbaijani President Aliyev makes openly xenophobic remarks, including an address in which he referred to the ‘hypocritical global Armenian conspiracy and western politicians, who are embroiled in corruption and bribery ’. Professor Ilgar Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences, declared that ‘Armenianhood is a unique, evil, and hateful phenomenon’. Journalists have made statements such as 

‘[t]he definition, the concept of the word ‘Armenian’ is clear for everyone, except the Armenians themselves of course. It is vileness, cowardice and betrayal. Probably, when God was creating them, he was not in the mood and endowed them with the lowest human qualities.’

The content of these comments echoes too well with statements in past genocides. These are only some examples of hate speech from government officials, academics and journalists, but they clearly demonstrate the existence of a risk of genocide, and may amount to incitement to genocide and possibly other international crimes.

A Peace Deal Ignoring Underlying Hatred

While other risk factors are at play, this brief analysis already reveals the risk of a genocide being perpetrated by Azerbaijan against Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The peace deal may go some way towards reducing this risk, eliminating the conflict and possibly political upheaval factors (time will tell, but the peace deal does not seem to be holding). However, other crucial risk factors remain and are not being addressed: cultural destruction, identity-based ideology, as well as hate crime and speech. The international community needs to not only seek to end the conflict by focusing on the territorial dispute, but also address the deeper identity-based hatred that exists and is being perpetuated by the Azerbaijani government, academics and the media.

Dr. Melanie O’Brien is Senior Lecturer in International Law at the University of Western Australia, an award-winning teacher of International Humanitarian Law, Public International Law, and Legal Research. Melanie is 2nd Vice-President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) and co-convened the 2017 IAGS conference at University of Queensland. Her research examines the connection between human rights and the genocide process, and she has conducted fieldwork and research across six continents. Melanie is an admitted legal practitioner; and tweets @DrMelOB.

Dr. Suren Manukyan is Head of the UNESCO Chair on Education and Prevention of Genocide and Other Atrocity Crimes at Yerevan State University. He is on the Advisory Board of the International Association of Genocide Studies, and is head of Dadrian chair of Comparative Genocide Studies Department of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.

Thanks to Professor Armen Marsoobian for providing some of the sources used in this blog post.

8 thoughts on “Genocide Risk in Nagorno-Karabakh

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