The Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

On September 19, President Joe Biden addressed the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. While Biden called out human rights atrocities in Tehran, Xinjiang, and Darfur, he failed to call out the devastating conflict occurring in Nagorno-Karabakh. Just before Biden took to the podium, Azerbaijani troops attacked the Armenian enclave with heavy artillery fire and killed more than two dozen people, including two civilians, in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Known to Armenians as Artsakh, Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the South Caucasus that is home to a population of nearly 120,000 Armenian Christians. Though Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, both the Christian Armenians and the Turkic Muslims of Azerbaijan assert historical claims to this disputed territory.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, control over this mountainous territory has led to periods of violent conflict and war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the last three decades, tens of thousands of people have been killed, and more than one million refugees have been driven from their homes. 

The First Karabakh War, which ended in a ceasefire agreement known as the Bishkek Protocol in 1994, gave Armenia control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas. Nagorno-Karabakh became a de facto independent state and established its own government with close ties to Armenia.

Though intermittent periods of escalations and skirmishes occurred over the next few decades, the ceasefire remained in place until 2020, when the Second Karabakh War erupted. The war ended in Azerbaijan’s favor, with the country taking control of approximately one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts. Another negotiated ceasefire established the Lachin Corridor – a transit route that serves as the artery and lifeline connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia – and installed more than 1,000 Russian peacekeepers to keep it open. 

Following a series of cross-border attacks in September 2022, self-proclaimed environmental activists from Azerbaijan – reportedly backed by Baku – occupied and blocked off the Lachin Corridor highway, only permitting Red Cross and Russian convoy vehicles to pass. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Russian peacekeepers “were unwilling or unable to secure and reopen the highway,” leading to severe shortages and rationing.

In the following months, despite ongoing diplomatic efforts toward a peace agreement, Azerbaijan established an official checkpoint and tightened its blockade, causing the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh to escalate drastically. Ninety percent of Nagorno-Karabakh’s food came from Armenia through the Lachin Corridor. With this critical supply route for food, fuel, and medicine essentially cut off between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, empty shelves and hours-long queues for bread became prevalent. 

By August 15, 2023, officials reported the first death in Nagorno-Karabakh from malnutrition.

Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, issued a statement that concluded, “There is a reasonable basis to believe that a Genocide is being committed against Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023.”

Ocampo added, “The blockade of the Lachin Corridor by the Azerbaijani security forces impeding access to any food, medical supplies, and other essentials should be considered a Genocide under Article II, (c) of the Genocide Convention. … There are no crematories, and there are no machete attacks. Starvation is the invisible Genocide weapon.” 

Successful diplomatic efforts allowed for shipments of essential humanitarian supplies to be delivered to Nagorno-Karabakh. However, in the wake of Tuesday’s attack, it is clear the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh is not over. The lives of Armenians in the enclave are still at risk, and their future remains uncertain. 

“Now more than ever, President Biden must immediately push the United Nations Security Council to establish a mandate and peacekeeping mission to protect the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh,” U.S. Representative Chris Smith said. 

Moreover, as the ceasefire agreement required the disarmament of Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces and the withdrawal of remaining Armenian troops, Congressman Smith said, “The people of Nagorno-Karabakh are in a moment of grave danger. They have been forced to disarm and surrender their independence to a ruthless dictator whose government has repeatedly committed horrific abuses against them over many years, expressed its will to ethnically cleanse them, and even initiated a genocide by starvation with the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.”

It is unclear whether diplomatic efforts will evade a full-scale conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, it is imperative that the fundamental rights of Armenian Christians are protected in Nagorno-Karabakh.