A Serious Humanitarian Crisis Leading to Genocide in Nagorno-Karabakh
It is already more than 270 days since the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, also known as the “road to life,” which connects the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia and the rest of the world. From December 12, 2022 Azerbaijani eco-activists had been blocking the road for approximately six months. Afterwards, since April 23, 2023, an Azerbaijani border checkpoint was installed at the entrance of the Lachin corridor and has continued to block the safe passage therethrough ever since. Following a military provocation near Hakari Bridge on June 15, 2023, Azerbaijan has completely halted all types of humanitarian transportation, including the movement of people and goods, in both directions at the installed checkpoint. As a result, over 120,000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh (including 30,000 children, 20,000 elderly individuals, and 9,000 persons with disabilities) are now confronted with existential threats, while the the pre-existing humanitarian crisis in the region has been exacerbated.
This article explores the nature and consequences of the blockade from an international law perspective and argues that Azerbaijan is internationally responsible for the violation of the residents’ rights to food and health, as well as that the Azerbaijani authorities’ actions fulfil the actus reus of genocide under Article II(c) of the Genocide Convention. Against this background and due to the peremptory character of the prohibition of genocide, the article eventually emphasizes the obligation of third States to intervene.
Decisions and Declarations Regarding the Blockade
Despite the European Court of Human Rights’ decision on December 21, 2022, which indicated interim measures for the “Lachin Corridor”, referring to Article 6 of the Trilateral Statement of November 9, 2020, and obliging Azerbaijani authorities to take all measures that are within their jurisdiction to ensure safe passage through the “Lachin Corridor,” the State has not complied with the decision.
Additionally, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its order on February 22, 2023, also referenced the Trilateral Statement and called on Azerbaijani authorities to “take all measures at their disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles, and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions”. It outlined that there is a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice due to the disruption of movement along the Lachin Corridor. The Court reaffirmed this position in its order of July 6, 2023. However, these orders have also not been executed.
Furthermore, the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a statement, calling on Azerbaijani authorities to implement without delay the measures addressed by the ICJ and urgently restore the freedom and security of movement of persons and goods along the Corridor. In addition, the European Parliament adopted a resolution with the same call.
Similarly, UN experts have urged Azerbaijan to lift Lachin corridor blockade and end the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. Subsequently, on August 16, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, where representatives from numerous States emphasized that the Lachin Corridor must be reopened immediately for humanitarian aid. However, the Azerbaijani authorities persist in the blockade. The following Section assesses the actions of Azerbaijani authorities in terms of international law.
The Blockade’s Nature and its Consequences in International Law
According to the 1856 Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law and Articles 1–22 of the 1909 London Declaration Concerning the Laws of Naval War, “blockades” are deemed acts of war. However, it is obligatory for states to allow the free passage of civilian populations through the blockaded area [Art. 23 of the Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (GCIV); Art. 70 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (API); and Art. 18 Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, relating to the Protection of Victims in Non-International Armed Conflicts (APII)].
Furthermore, even in cases of siege, which may be used as a method of warfare to encircle a locality or area and lead to its isolation, the use of starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited (APII Art. 14). Condemning civilian populations to suffer from undue hardship due to a lack of essential supplies for survival, including basic necessities such as food and medical supplies, constitutes a serious violation of international law. While Azerbaijan is not a State Party to APII, the rule enshrined in Article 14 has been accepted as a norm of customary international law, applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
Moreover, Azerbaijan has been a State-party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) since 13 August 1992. According to ICESCR Article 11, state-Parties have a positive obligation to ensure the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR Committee) has stated that States should take steps to respect the enjoyment of the right to food in other countries, to protect that right, to facilitate access to food and to provide the necessary aid when required.
In addition, under ICESCR Article 12, state-Parties have a positive obligation to create conditions for assurance to all medical service and medical attention. In this regard, the CESCR Committee has stated that State-Parties have to respect the enjoyment of the right to health in other countries, and to prevent third parties from violating the right in other countries, if they are able to influence these third parties by way of legal or political means.
The abovementioned provisions and their commentaries by the CESCR Committee provide that under the Covenant, Azerbaijani authorities have positive obligations to ensure the rights to food and health even in territories located outside their borders. This implies that, without even discussing jurisdictional issues over the territory, it is the direct obligation of Azerbaijani authorities to ensure the proper implementation of these rights in Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, in the last 8 months, the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh have not had access to adequate medicine, healthcare services, and food supplies. Consequently, the right to protection from interference by third parties of the ethnic residents of Nagorno-Karabakh has been violated, resulting in starvation and death. There has already been a reported case of a person who died as a direct result of starvation.
Starvation as a Method of Genocide
Under Article II(c) of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the act of genocide is considered as the deliberate infliction on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. According to the travaux préparatoires of the Convention, this regulation implies conditions that cause the death of a group. In the case of Kayishema and Ruzindana, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda pointed out that the conditions referred to ‘circumstances which will lead to a slow death’. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, the ICJ analysed the details of massacre at Srebrenica and the starvation of its residents as a method of genocide. Therefore, considering that intentional starvation can lead to a slow death and the destruction of an ethnical group under the terminology of the Convention, it should be regarded as a method of genocide.
Historically the method of killing by starvation was also known as “Holodomor,” derived from the corresponding Ukrainian word, or referred to as the Terror-Famine or the Great Famine. The term emerged from a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine between 1932-1933 which killed millions of Ukrainians. Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution that officially declared Holodomor as an act of “genocide”. Before that, Germany’s Parliament also passed a resolution declaring the starvation of Ukrainians as a “genocide.” As of July 2023, 32 countries around the world recognise the Holodomor as an act of genocide (last being the house of representatives of the Netherlands on July 7, 2023).
The declarations of international actors condemning the heinous event of the Holodomor reaffirmed the explicit recognition of starvation as a method of genocide. Consequently, the absolute prohibition of using starvation as a method for deliberately killing an ethnic population was reasserted, establishing a red line against such actions. It is notable that the Azerbaijani delegation was one of the signatories of the 2018 UN declaration on Holodomor, which declared that “Holodomor should be a reminder for present and future generations to unconditionally respect human rights, including the right to life in order to prevent the repetition of such tragedies.”
Currently, the actions of Azerbaijani authorities, deliberately maintaining the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, are leading to the slow death and destruction of 120,000 ethnic residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. This allegation is also evident from the ICJ’s order on February 22, 2023, where the Court found a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice due to the disruption of movement along the Lachin Corridor. Therefore, the current actions of Azerbaijani authorities prima facie satisfy the actus reus of genocide under Article II(c) of the Genocide Convention.
Meanwhile, it is important to highlight that under Article 1 of the Genocide Convention, States have an obligation to prevent genocide. As emphasized by the ICJ in the aforementioned Srebrenica case, this obligation arises not only when genocide comes into being but also when there is a serious risk that genocide will be committed. It comes into effect the moment the State learns of or should have learned of such a risk (para 431). Therefore, considering that the ongoing blockade of this vital lifeline corridor is leading to the starvation of ethnic Armenians constitutes genocide under the Convention, third state-Parties have an obligation to intervene in this situation and prevent the ongoing genocide. As the absolute prohibition of genocide itself, this obligation to prevent is also a peremptory (jus cogens) norm that protects essential humanitarian values.
Numerous reputable international organizations, including the group Genocide Watch, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, the International Association of Genocide Scholars have already declared a situation in Nagorno-Karabakh a “genocide emergency” and issued an “active genocide alert”. Therefore, the international community should follow this collective recognition, which highlights the gravity and urgency of the humanitarian crisis occurring in the region. In this context, third States should intervene, while the UN Security Council should refer the situation to the ICC, fulfilling its mandate under the Rome Statute, as it has done in numerous cases throughout history. As in a recent expert opinion on the blockade of Lachin corridor, former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo stated, “Starvation is the invisible genocide weapon. Without immediate dramatic change, this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks”.
In the face of this humanitarian crisis, it is paramount for the international community to acknowledge and address the urgent circumstances in Nagorno-Karabakh. Timely intervention is not only a positive obligation but also a moral imperative to protect the lives and well-being of those facing the peril of starvation and death.