Last week, I proposed a thought experiment to the readers of the Armenian Weekly. I argued that if Armenians are truly committed to the pursuit of justice for the Armenian Genocide on humanitarian grounds, our concerns should extend to all those placed in similar situations today.
This week, the Azerbaijani government provided me with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the true magnitude of self-serving cynicism that comes with selective humanitarian outrage.
The 26th of February marked 27 years since Armenian forces captured the strategic Azeri-held town of Khojali during the Karabakh War. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 161 Azeri civilians lost their lives during the assault. However, Armenian and Azeri sources greatly differ as to how.
Since the mid 2000s, the Azerbaijani government has ramped up efforts to exploit this tragedy to erode international sympathy for Armenia’s claim of Jus ad bellum in the war. This campaign, allegedly pursued in the name of human rights, could not have been more bizarre. Capitalizing on public ignorance of this obscure episode, Azerbaijan has spent a lot of treasure astroturfing an international awareness movement. Where “petro-diplomacy” or “caviar-diplomacy” failed, “stealth-diplomacy” kicked in. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation sponsored the construction of “Khojali Genocide” monuments under the noses of unsuspecting local officials under the guise of charitable city-park revitalization programs. This gamble rarely paid off.
The strategy’s second prong sprung on the internet. Dozens of websites dedicated to the tragedy have been flooding Google search algorithms with inflated accounts of atrocities, doctored photographs and calls to indict Armenian officials for war crimes.
Conspicuously missing from this well-funded, centrally-planned struggle for justice is the support from reputable human rights organizations. Lobbyists and petro-dollars are driving this human rights campaign.
Curiously, few of the passionate condemnations appearing on Twitter accounts tied to the Azerbaijani government spare a thought for the human element of the tragedy, only the geopolitical ramifications.
A tweet by Hikmet Hajiev, Azerbaijan’s head of Foreign Policy Affairs, perfectly illustrates the industrialized detachment with which this campaign is orchestrated. Without skipping a beat, Hajiev accuses Armenia of genocide, then calls for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Artsakh; as if the two were intrinsically linked.
The moment of silence. #Khojaly was a crime against humanity and act of #genocide against the innocent civilian population. #Armenia must reconcile with its own history and stop of policy of denying and finally withdraw its troops from all seized lands of #Azerbaijan. pic.twitter.com/oCFZFMb719
— Hikmet Hajiyev (@HikmetHajiyev) February 26, 2019
This sentiment betrays a sobering reality about this campaign. These activists are not concerned with justice for 161 innocent people. They’re interested in gaining a favorable position in the Karabakh settlement. Why accept a military defeat when you can condense the result of a brutal six-year war into the events of a six-hour long battle? The only cost is the memory of 161 victims (plus an additional 452 fictitious victims for good measure).
The use of the term “genocide” in this tweet is not incidental either. In the last decade, Baku’s propaganda has deliberately favored the “g-word” over “massacre” when referring to the incident.
The darker purpose of this nomenclatural shift is to imply false equivocation vis-à-vis the Armenian Genocide. Such a Tu quoque stance serves the double-objective of validating the Turkish government’s policy of denial while promoting a self-serving agenda. “What about the AZERI GENOCIDE?”
…[W]e fought a war to prove to ourselves that we are not like them.
Of course, there is a good reason why genocide scholars don’t take these claims seriously. Even if the most incongruous claims about the event were accepted as valid, it would still not meet the criteria for a genocide. Researchers have yet to uncover any evidence of clear “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Naturally, for Baku such pedantic taxonomic hindrances are inconsequential. As discussed last week, Turkish President Erdogan pioneered the reappropriation of the term “genocide” to mean “any violent act committed against any Turkic people regardless of magnitude, plausibility or intent.”
Indeed, the deafening silence coming from Baku over justice for the victims of the Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad pogroms sheds doubt on its commitment to the universal application justice. Despite frantic calls to bring Armenian officials to justice, no sentences have been passed on those who perpetrated Operation Ring or the gruesome massacre at Maraga (the victims of which, Baku considers to be its own citizens).
Disquietingly, the Azerbaijani government’s disregard for the memories of its own people in the pursuit of political gains attracts the unwitting complicity of Armenians as well. In refuting some of the wilder accusations over the tragedy or justifying certain actions, we run the risk of participating in the dehumanizing process of the real victims.
Most sources agree on a number of details about that fateful day. Azerbaijani forces had used the heights of Khojali to cruelly bombard Stepanakert making it a legitimate military target. Armenian forces offered ample warning to the civilian population about the impending assault and provided an evacuation corridor. Retreating Azeri forces may or may not have used civilians as human shields during the evacuation. Be it through deliberate fire or sheer carelessness, Armenian bullets cut down scores of unarmed civilians.
According to Human Rights Watch, one of only two reputable international organizations to investigate the event, despite the precautions, Armenian forces still bear some responsibility for what is effectively a war crime. “The attacking party [i.e., Karabakh Armenian forces] is still obliged to take precautionary measures to avoid or minimize civilian casualties,” they argued. Of course, Baku’s official recollection of the event tends to ignore the fact that Azeri forces’ use of human shields and deliberately keeping civilians in a conflict zone constitute an even more serious war crime.
In engaging in this political tit-for-tat, we participate in the undeserving dehumanization of the victims. They cease being real people and become statistics to be debated on internet forums.
In any event, the fact remains that scores of civilians saw their lives cut short during a vicious war in an act that replicated countless times across the numerous valleys of Artsakh far away from the judges in Geneva. Though it certainly doesn’t meet the definition of a “genocide,” it does meet that of a “tragedy” and should be commemorated as such.
In engaging in this political tit-for-tat, we participate in the undeserving dehumanization of the victims. They cease being real people and become statistics to be debated on internet forums. The tendency for government officials in Armenia to suggest false-flag conspiracy theories does little to boost sympathy for the Armenian position either.
This scenario would repeat itself decades later in 2017 when a little Azeri girl was killed by a stray artillery shell. When the Azerbaijani propaganda machine immediately went to work sharing photos of the child’s bloody body to milk the tragedy, Armenians took to pointing out that Azerbaijan deliberately placed artillery batteries in an inhabited village. Few spared a genuine thought for the life of a toddler, who became the latest victim of a war she was born 27 years too late to understand.
The Artsakh conflict was a just war. It was a necessary war. It brought redemption for a nation who suffered the greatest humiliation of all: genocide. Political strategists in Baku do not account for the human cost of their diplomatic calculations. They do not care about justice. If they truly did, they would agree to a joint commission with Armenia to re-investigate the Khojali tragedy AS WELL as those of Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad, Maraga, Kedashen and countless other tragedies. If they do not care about their own, then maybe Armenians should, or at the very least, not help them exploit it. After all, we fought a war to prove to ourselves that we are not like them.