WASHINGTON – This week, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered remarks on the Senate floor on the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, calling on the United States and the international community to respond and hold President Aliyev and his regime accountable for their actions in the region, which bear the hallmarks of genocide.
“Of course, to be an honest broker means we need to tell the truth about Azerbaijan’s atrocities,” Chairman Menendez said. “We need to call out those individuals perpetrating this campaign of ethnic cleansing. We need to target them—including President Aliyev—with sanctions. We need to be cutting off their access to the wealth and oil money they have stashed away at financial institutions around the world, to their yachts and mansions across Europe. The evidence is there and we must preserve it so that Aliyev can be held accountable for these atrocities.”
“Mr. President, I rise to speak about a horrific set of events that are taking place in a part of the world that we could do something about.
In this photo, this dead man’s body is completely emaciated. The skin, tight over his bones, barely covers his skeleton. Bruises and scars stretch across his chest. This is not a victim at the side of the road during the Ottoman Turk’s Armenian Genocide. It is not a Holocaust survivor laying on the ground as allies liberated Buchenwald. It is not a human carcass left in the wake of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or the Hutu in Rwanda or Serbian forces in Bosnia. Mr. President, it is from the Human Rights Defender’s Office in Nagorno-Karabakh. And it is from August. Only weeks ago.
Because Mr. President, right now—as you sit there in the dais, and I stand here in the chamber—the Aliyev government in Azerbaijan is carrying out a campaign of heinous atrocities that bear the hallmarks of genocide against the Armenians in Artsakh. They have purposefully and viciously trapped an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 Christian Armenians in the Karabakh Mountains. There is only one road out connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia for people, food, medicine, and basic supplies, and the Azerbaijanis have blocked it since December of last year.
Despite some reports yesterday, no aid has moved. They have tried to deny their role but make no mistake, the Azerbaijani government is now wholeheartedly embracing this brutal blockade, denying the Armenian community food and fuel and medicine.
Aliyev and his regime are trying to starve these people into death or into political submission.
‘There are no crematories and there are no machete attacks,’ wrote the former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, in a recent report. But he said, ‘starvation is the invisible genocide weapon. Without immediate dramatic change, this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks.’ This group of Armenians – talking about over 100,000 – will be destroyed in a few weeks. Not my observations, the observations of the former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
In Artsakh, the shelves of stores are empty. Children wait in lines for the chance of finding bread to feed their grandparents who are too weak to leave the house. There is no gas for ambulances. According to the head doctor at one maternity hospital, miscarriages have nearly tripled. And the BBC reports that one in three deaths in Nagorno-Karabakh is from malnutrition.
For months, Azerbaijan was just doing the bare minimum—allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross limited access. But in July, Aliyev blocked even the Red Cross. And in complete defiance of the Geneva Conventions, Azerbaijan detained medical patients the Red Cross was transporting through the corridor.
This is not only outrageous at face value but an insult to the international community and a threat to brave Red Cross workers around the world. In addition to arresting sick and elderly residents—a few weeks ago—Azerbaijan also detained university students who were trying to go to Armenia to start the school year.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry says there is nothing to worry about. These concerns are just the result of, ‘propaganda and political manipulations spread by Armenia.’
Really? You’re blaming Armenia for this? That is a flat out lie. It was Azerbaijan—with Turkish backing—that launched the war in 2020. A war that uprooted close to 100,000 Armenians from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh. A war that killed 6,500 people. Now Aliyev blocks the Lachin Corridor and says ‘I’m not organizing ethnic cleansing.’
The same Azerbaijani President has also threatened to ‘chase away’ Armenian separatists ‘like dogs.’ Whose government issued a commemorative postage stamp showing a worker in hazmat gear spraying disinfectant on the region. We have seen and heard this kind of propaganda throughout history. It is the work of a regime intent on destroying and erasing this ancient Armenian community’s history in Nagorno-Karabakh.
But Mr. President—right now—the United States is failing. The United States is not meeting the humanitarian needs or publicly putting enough pressure on Aliyev to stop this campaign of ethnic cleansing. And I sincerely hope the State Department is not considering renewing the 907 waiver, which allows for security assistance to go to Azerbaijan. I don’t know how the United States can justify spending any kind of support—security or otherwise—to the regime in Baku.
We’ve seen a video of Azerbaijani forces killing unarmed Armenian soldiers in cold-blood.
We have reports of Azerbaijani soldiers sexually assaulting and mutilating an Armenian female soldier. So to send them assistance makes a mockery of the FREEDOM Support Act. Section 907 of this act is meant to ban security assistance to Azerbaijan until it is ‘Taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.’
But still, the Department of State has waived section 907 over and over and over again. Suffice it to say, I am strongly opposed to having any aid go to a fighting force known for war crimes and the violation of human rights. I understand the dynamics of the broader region are complicated, but our fundamental principles underlying security assistance should not be.
When the United States untethers our security assistance from human rights and American values to focus on short-term tactical military assistance, it not only damages long-term American national security interests, it flies in the face of our duty to honor the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide and our duty to ensure history does not repeat itself. We cannot look away from a systematic attempt to eradicate and erase an entire people from the face of the earth.
In 2021, as my colleagues witnessed here on the Senate Floor, I was overcome with emotion to see President Biden join us in recognizing—for the first time by an American president—the Armenian Genocide. More than a century ago, Ottoman Turks perpetrated a systematic campaign to exterminate the Armenian populations. Through killings, through forced deportation, and yes, through starvation.
What the Turks did is an irrefutable, historical fact. The recognition of this fact was a huge step forward and I am proud to have played a role in that effort. Proud that I spoke up even as many American leaders stayed silent. Proud that I pressured State Department nominees and officials to acknowledge this historical reality. Proud that I introduced or co-sponsored resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide since before I came to the Senate in 2006. But Mr. President, make no mistake—fighting the denial of Armenian Genocide is not only about the past. It is also about the present.
That is why I’m calling on Aliyev to immediately release the Armenian prisoners of war. It is why I have been working on legislation to address the current humanitarian crisis in Artsakh. And it is why—when USAID Administrator Power came before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year—I pushed her to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.
I believe that the United States can—and must—play an active role in addressing this conflict. Because the so-called Russian ‘peacekeepers’ who have supposedly been enforcing a ceasefire following Azerbaijan’s 2020 invasion have been—to no one’s surprise—wholly ineffective. As Azerbaijani forces began an incursion in September 2022, these Russian forces stood idly by. Moscow will no doubt seek to exploit any instability to its advantage, but they have also proved their lack of worth. Which is all the more reason that the United States must continue to play role.
We have been facilitating talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but we need to change our approach. We cannot continue to simply ‘facilitate’ talks. We have a responsibility to mediate, to pursue a meaningful—enforceable—agreement with the guaranteed rights, security, and dignity of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh as a central tenet. We must also encourage and—if necessary—broker direct discussions between political leaders in Stepanakert and Baku.
Of course, to be an honest broker means we need to tell the truth about Azerbaijan’s atrocities. We need to call out those individuals perpetrating this campaign of ethnic cleansing. We need to target them—including President Aliyev—with sanctions. We need to be cutting off their access to the wealth and oil money they have stashed away at financial institutions around the world, to their yachts and mansions across Europe.
The evidence is there and we must preserve it so that Aliyev can be held accountable for these atrocities. I have called on the United States Ambassador to the United Nations to introduce a resolution at the UN Security Council enforcing an end to Aliyev’s blockade. I am pleased to see that Secretary Blinken is personally engaging in the crisis now, but the message must be crystal clear. At the same time, the EU needs to step up too.
I was pleased to see High Representative Borell’s statement in July that the EU is ‘deeply concerned about the serious humanitarian [situation]’ in Nagorno-Karabakh… but I hope that actions accompany those words. Instead of just taking Azerbaijani gas and praising the country as a ‘crucial energy partner,’ they must also bring pressure to end the blockade.
How many leaders have somberly promised to learn history’s lessons and prevent future genocides? How many people have come to the floor of the Senate and said, ‘Never, never, again.’ How many people will have to die of starvation before we act? With Aliyev potentially moving troops along the border, we cannot say we didn’t see it coming.
This time must be different. In the past, plans to carry out genocide were clouded by distance or geography. But this time, we know. We know Aliyev is doing it right now, and we must not only hold him accountable for his actions, we must stop him from succeeding in erasing this Armenian community. We must stop him from starving these Armenians to death….or imposing political control by opening only the Agdam Corridor. This is not a substitution for opening the Lachin Corridor. It is not upholding the commitments of the 2020 agreement. Using basic humanitarian, food, and medical supplies as a political weapon is not acceptable.
And we have the power to do it—if we act now. Given the chance, who here among us would not go back and stop the Turks from rounding up the first Armenians victims of the genocide who were hung in the streets of Istanbul? Or the Serb forces who gave Bosnian Muslims a 24-hour ultimatum to surrender? Or the Rwandan radio broadcasts inciting violence?
Unlike those crimes of the past, we are living on the brink, right now. And so to the Biden administration, I would say, now is the time to step up and protect this vulnerable population. To the international community, now is the time to work together to bring pressure to stop this tragedy from unfolding in front of our eyes. And to the Armenian people, trapped in this blockade, with no food, know that you have friends and allies, here in the United States Senate and around the world, who will not rest until you are safe and secure. Hang on, hang on.
And to the men organizing and carrying out this brutal campaign, we will hold you accountable for your crimes, even if it takes a life time.
You will pay a price.
You will face justice.
And I certainly will not rest until you do so.”