Over the past ten months, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have been encircled by Azerbaijan troops and endured a food, fuel and medical blockade. This was already a form of “ethnic cleansing” by attrition. Now, following a full-scale military attack by Azerbaijani troops, we are witnessing the forced mass exodus of the ethnic Armenians from their ancestral lands. Is a new Armenian genocide taking place in plain sight?
Philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan, who had served as prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, was abducted crossing the border into Armenia this week, fleeing the Lachin corridor like thousands of others. President Ilham Aliyev has indicated that the Syunik region of Armenia is the next target.
This is ethnic cleansing of the most brutal kind, with women, children, and older people having to escape along a difficult mountain road without sufficient food and water. It is a winding column of desperate civilians who fear for their lives and loved ones, and the flow of refugees is not diminishing. As I write, it is already substantially over 50 per cent. “We should not confuse elite targeting for arrest with the continuing flow of refugees,” says Professor Alan Whitehorn, emeritus professor of the Royal Military College of Canada and Armenian Genocide scholar.
The war, mass starvation, and indiscriminate targeting of civilians are the signs of yet another genocide occurring now. Several countries on the Genocide Watch list are in peril. But where are the different religious leaders of the world? Why have they been largely silent? And why is it important for them to speak up and be historical witnesses to these mass atrocities?
Righteous religious leaders must speak up because religion is often a catalyst for genocide. After all, the targets are often religious minorities, which was certainly the case during the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Russia’s President Putin is conducting a genocidal war in Ukraine. President Aliyev has steadily targeted the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Baku dictator is on track to obliterate all traces of the Armenian population in Azerbaijan, Karabakh, and, some believe, elsewhere in the South Caucasus.
Genocide is often triggered during wartime, when dictatorial leaders can alarm the public that these are perilous times, as Hitler once did and Aliyev is doing now. Like the Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the Armenians are portrayed as a seemingly troublesome minority, by their demands for their democratic rights, language, culture and autonomy.
These perceived threats to an autocratic regime sow several root causes of genocide. These include an intolerant and aggressive nationalism, a charismatic leader targeting scapegoats, and the advocacy of a radical restructuring and ethnic cleansing of society by force. Meanwhile, the largely unaware, indifferent or powerless world acts as bystanders. Just as the Khmer Rouge shut down Kampuchea in 1975, Azerbaijan has done the same, barring journalists and blocking much of the news from being reported.
We see recurring aspects of genocide:
- Ethnic stereotyping
- Violently targeting perceived enemies
- Expulsion of families
- Killing of innocent civilians
- Later, the renaming of historic places, destruction of the victims’ monuments and religious landmarks
Like the Christian Church leaders during the Holocaust and the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, religious spokespeople have failed today’s victims of genocide. Where are the religious leaders speaking up for the Armenians of Karabakh? What about the Islamic clerics who might carry some weight in Muslim Azerbaijan? Why is Pope Francis silent about his fellow Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh? Does he wish to be compared to Pius XII, the wartime Pontiff who said nothing about the Nazi death camps?
Even Jewish leaders have failed to protest. The 1915 Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks was the high watermark of horror before the Holocaust, and there are many similarities between the two genocides. Yet dozens of Chabad (Hasidic) rabbis have condemned Armenian leaders for using Holocaust rhetoric.
“Expressions such as ‘ghetto’, ‘genocide’, ‘holocaust’ and others are (…) inappropriate to be part of the jargon used in any kind of political disagreement”, say the rabbis in the letter, addressed to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Vahagn Garniki Khachaturyan. Israel’s right-wing government is even supporting Aliyev’s Azerbaijan with military drones and equipment.
My book, Genocide – Fear Greed Propaganda, which will be published on 27 January 2024, looks at 20th and 21st century genocides. Every genocide is different, each is unique, and they are all terrible.
The sad reality is that the world is preoccupied with Ukraine; domestically, many nations are focused on illegal immigration. Still, it begs the question of what we are doing about four genocides happening now — Ukrainians, Uyghurs, Rohingya and Armenians? Will the world’s indifference and inaction ever change?
During the Second World War, the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide”, spurred on by the horrors of the Armenian Genocide and above all the Holocaust. Lemkin believed that the world’s nations were collective building blocks of a pluralist global civilisation. The diversity enlightened us. But every time a candle was extinguished, the world was a bit darker and a little less radiant.
The world did not intervene during the 1915 Armenian Genocide or the Holocaust. We even watched the 1994 genocide in Rwanda unfold in real time. In this case, it is surely the duty of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders to protest. However, only political leaders can ultimately stop genocide once it is happening — and it may already be too late for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
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