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U.S. rewards Azerbaijan with climate leadership role

U.S.Rewards AzerbaijanI Aggression with Climate Leadership

Having conquered one Armenian community, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev is now threatening another.

A damaged icon painting is pictured on October 13, 2020 inside the Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha, some 15 kilometers from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh province's capital Stepanakert, that was hit by a bomb during the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region. (photo: Aris Messinis / Getty)

Nina Shea

National Catholic Register

March 20, 2024

Armenia may be the next European country to suffer military incursion and brutal conquest. If so, the Biden administration’s choice of Azerbaijan to lead one of the administration’s top foreign policy priorities, a high-level global climate conference, can share the blame. 

President Biden is emboldening Azerbaijan as its authoritarian government solidifies control over the Armenian Christian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, which it seized only months ago in an unprovoked military invasion, and as it now threatens the Republic of Armenia.

The State Department has given unconditional U.S. endorsement for Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev to lead COP29, the name of the climate negotiations next November. On Feb. 17, in Berlin, with Aliyev, by his side, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared it is “important” that “Azerbaijan tak[e] on the leadership of COP,” and pledged America’s “strong support.”

He made no mention of Aliyev having spent most of last year violating the rules-based international order and human rights norms without consequence. Mr. Blinken did not even manage to get Aliyev to sign a peace agreement with Armenia. 

The administration expressed relief that a stalemate over leadership had been overcome (it’s Europe’s turn to lead and Russia had blocked any European Union candidate). It may also be sympathetic to Aliyev’s preposterous claim that Azerbaijan invaded to protect Azeri eco-activists, demonstrating against gold mining in Nagorno Karabakh.

No matter its rationale, the decision to gratuitously honor Aliyev on the global stage betrays America’s most fundamental foreign policy principles on national sovereignty, religious freedom and other human rights. 

A brief review of the facts is in order. In December 2022, Azerbaijan began a nine-month blockade of Nagorno Karabakh, with which it has had longstanding border disputes. Called Artsakh in Armenian, the territory for two millennia was home to a community of mostly Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical Armenians, and, for the last 30 years, existed as a de facto independent state within Turkic Muslim Azerbaijan.

The blockade choked off Lachin Corridor, the only route to Armenia, the source of the enclave’s food and medicine. On Aug. 2, 2023, Luis Moreno Ocampo, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, issued a dire “expert opinion” about impending mass starvation due to the blockade, declaring it “an ongoing Genocide against 120,000 Armenians,” and warning, “Without immediate dramatic change, this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks.” 

On Sept. 19, Azerbaijan’s military invaded Nagorno Karabakh and seized it the next day. Russian peacekeepers protecting the corridor under a 2020 peace agreement (concluded after another Azerbaijan incursion) had abandoned their posts.

When the corridor reopened on Sept. 24, some 100,000 Nagorno Karabakh residents fled to Armenia practically overnight, leaving behind their ancestral homeland, property and livelihoods. They also left the churches of their baptism and marriages, with some sites dating from the Middle Ages and containing graves and relics from the time of the apostles and from 301, when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted Armenia into the first Christian country. 

Religion is undeniably a factor in Aliyev’s aggression. On Jan. 31, at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, I spoke with Artak Beglaryan, the former Minister of State of Nagorno Karabakh. As to why the population left when Azerbaijan assured its safety, he answered that Aliyev’s taking them to the brink of starvation was starkly reminiscent of the early stages of Turkey’s ethno-religious genocide against their people. Starvation was one of the main “weapons of genocide” of an estimated one million ethnic Armenians in 1915, as Moreno Ocampo noted. The Nagorno Karabakh community felt compelled to run for their lives.

Beglaryan also shared photos of Nagorno Karabakh churches hit by Azerbaijan’s guided munitions, and others vandalized, looted or damaged with their domes and bell towers torn down. Thousands of stone crosses marking graves have been destroyed. Azerbaijan’s Cultural Minister boasted of filing off Armenian inscriptions from church walls, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Azerbaijan is erasing all traces of Armenian Christianity from Nagorno Karabakh.  

Having conquered one Armenian community, Aliyev is now threatening another. In 2020, he began demanding a new trade route through Armenia’s southern Syunik territory. According to Radio Free Europe: “He called the route Zangezur Corridor (using an alternative name for Syunik) and said Armenians would have no jurisdiction over it.

Aliyev followed up with a thinly veiled threat to seize the land for the corridor by force if Armenia didn’t comply.” Last month, a border incident in Syunik that killed four Armenian soldiers caused fears, including among American officials, that Aliyev may be preparing to escalate with a full-scale military offensive. He has begun calling Armenian territory “Western Azerbaijan.”

On Feb. 23, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that, because Russia "hasn’t fulfilled its security obligations," Armenia is “freezing” its two-decade military alliance in the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Armenia now desperately seeks to realign with the West. Defense policy analysts at RAND advise that the United States won’t be willing to secure Armenian borders but it could help by providing arms. Large Armenian-American grassroots organizations are supporting legislation to end Azerbaijan’s U.S. military aid. Both proposals face uphill battles in Washington, given competing strategic demands, including the need for Azerbaijan’s oil and strategic airbases.  

Before diplomats leave for Baku next November, President Biden should demand that Azerbaijan’s president sign a permanent peace agreement with Armenia and block his taking the lead at COP if he refuses. This could delay climate negotiations but neither they, nor American interests, would be helped by having at their helm a rogue dictator unwilling to negotiate peace and all too willing to erase the Armenian Christian presence.


Nina Shea is the director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

Copyright © 2024 EWTN News, Inc. All rights reserved. EIN 27-4581132


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