Picture credit: ANTHONY PIZZOFERRATO/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Do not forget Armenia

Why has an act of blatant ethnic cleansing been widely ignored?

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Adolf Hitler, 22 August 1939

December 9th is the International Day of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Article II of that Convention defines the crime of genocide as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group”. Unfortunately, defining it has not prevented a single genocide since 1948.

The Article in international law that matters for current victims of genocidal projects in Europe (Armenia and Ukraine) is Article 5 of NATO membership — “each member state to consider an armed attack against one member state…to be an armed attack against them all” and not Article II of the Genocide Convention. 

When Hitler evoked the memory of the Turkish “atrocities” against the Armenians in his 1939 speech (the word genocide was not coined until 1944), he was highlighting that massacres in the East in times of war could be committed with impunity and the perpetrators would escape justice. 

Raphael Lemkin helped create the Genocide Convention to remove that impunity and so prevent acts of genocide. Since  some hopeful developments at the turn of the 21st century, this legal project to end genocide has entirely failed. The only thing that prevents genocide is collective security. 

The international human rights industry will use the 9th December to celebrate the elaborate legal processes that have grown up since 1948. There will rightly be much debate about if the Hamas attack on Israel was or was not part of an overall genocidal project: the annihilation of the state of Israel and the Jewish people that live from the River to the Sea. Short answer: it is and should be treated as such, but non-state actors are not covered by the Convention. 

There will be even more focus on if Israel’s response constitutes a programme of genocide against the Palestinian people of Gaza. Short answer: it doesn’t but the IDF is inevitably committing crimes against humanity and war crimes in the manner of its operations given the density of population and the way Hamas is embedded in civilian infrastructure, exactly as Hamas intended.

There will be little discussion of the most blatant genocidal acts committed over the last two years: the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the many crimes that occurred consequently, including the forced transferring of up to 20,000 Ukrainian Children to Russia from Ukraine, and the destruction “in whole or in part” of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh by the Azerbaijani state. 

Given the Crime of Aggression perpetrated in the original 2014 invasion, repeated in February 2022, states that are party to the convention have clearly not done what they can to defend Ukraine from Russian genocide as it has unfolded over nine years. Moreover, these acts have been accompanied by actions that meet the 5 Ds framework of incitement to acts of genocide — dehumanisation, demonisation, delegitimisation, disinformation, and the denial of past atrocities perpetrated against the target.

A similar case can be made for Nagorno-Karabakh. It has been a project that has taken place in stages, with military dimensions, cultural dimensions and finally the ethnic cleansing of 120,000 Armenians from their homes in September 2023. It is a war against the Armenian people in revenge for Armenia’s original seizure of contested territory. 

The origin of the conflict is hotly debated. There is little to debate about the actions of Azerbaijan in the war of 2020, the subsequent and previous destruction of Christian sites and the ethnic cleansing of 2023. Together they constitute genocide. The speeches of Aliyev and surrounding propaganda meet the test of the 5 Ds. 

Armenia’s ratification of the Rome Statute demonstrates its intention to make a referral of Azerbaijan to the ICC. 39 states have made that referral on behalf of Ukraine against Putin. The ICC and the Convention on Genocide having done nothing to prevent Aliyev or Putin, the purpose must now be punishment. The chances of punishment are less than zero. The most that might be achieved is that judgment will provide some kind of symbolic justice.

Both the perpetrating states and their dictators must be found guilty of the Crime of Aggression (for stating wars) and the Crimes of Genocide (Article II and the 5 Ds) so that the international legal judgment is unambiguous. Judgment matters to history but also shapes that which is possible in terms of collective and individual redress, supports the enactment of the ICC files already open and provides ballast to international political support for judicial processes. It is not therefore irrelevant. 

The recurrence of Genocide since 1948, with ever greater regularity, shows that the reality is that the Convention on the Prevention on Genocide does not prevent Genocide. The record of prosecution by courts and tribunals shows that it will not punish any sitting Head of State, though it might facilitate them being judged, and it will only ever bring to justice a fraction of the perpetrators who escape state level judicial processes. 

The fact is: the only thing that can prevent Genocide is collective security. The only guarantee of collective security in Europe is full NATO membership. The only thing that can punish Heads of State that perpetrate wars of aggression accompanied by acts of Genocide, is defeat.

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