During President Joe Biden‘s remarks commemorating the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, he told members of the world body, “If we abandon the core principles of the United Nations Charter to appease an aggressor, can any member state in this body feel confident that they are protected?” By answering his own question with an emphatic no, he then went on to say that, “We have to stand up to this naked aggression today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow.”
What Biden failed to mention in that same speech is that days before delivering it, Azerbaijan, a country led by one of the world’s leading autocrats, Ilham Aliyev, launched a military attack against ethnic Armenians living in their ancestral homeland of Nagorno-Karabakh in a final attempt to end their three decades of de facto self-rule as a burgeoning democracy. The offensive followed months of unprovoked attacks by Azerbaijan and a nine-month road blockade that Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, called a genocide.
For Armenian Americans like myself, Biden’s speech at the U.N. was a stark reminder that human rights and autocrats are not all created equal. For close to a year, Azerbaijan tried to force Armenians out of Nagorno-Karabakh by making living conditions unbearable by limiting access to food, medicine, gas, electricity, and other critical supplies through their illegal closure of the Lachin Corridor, which had been part of Baku’s campaign to ethnically cleanse the Armenian people from the region.
And for more than two years, Armenian American community and coalition leaders pleaded with the Biden administration to uphold Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which bans foreign aid to Azerbaijan. Instead of keeping Azerbaijan in check, Biden emboldened Baku to continue their reckless and vicious behavior toward Armenians by issuing feeble and empty statements calling for both sides to resolve all issues through direct dialogue.
While the U.S. State Department was working with European Union officials to negotiate a settlement, Biden’s words were not met with any action.
Biden has overlooked Aliyev’s rising authoritarianism and egregious behavior by turning to Azerbaijan’s vast oil resources and proximity to Iran as a geopolitical trade-off. This type of transactional diplomacy sends the wrong message to would-be aggressors and gives cover to despots like Aliyev who feel that they can say and do whatever they want with impunity.
The lack of accountability has led to one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises currently taking place, as more than 120,000 Armenians have fled their homes while upending a thousand-year-old culture and civilization overnight.
Since then, we have seen a barrage of diplomats express their concerns for the Armenian people but hardly a word about Azerbaijan’s role and responsibility in causing this human tragedy.
Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, recently visited Armenia where she continued to play the “bothsidesism” game and refused to condemn Azerbaijan. She embarked on a photo-op tour making stops at the Armenian Genocide Memorial (Tsitsernakaberd) after months of silence and inaction on the genocide happening today.
U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary Yuri Kim also accompanied Power on her trip, where she too avoided questions on sanctioning Azerbaijan despite Baku using military force days after testifying before Congress that such an attack would warrant punishment by the United States.
Make no mistake, Azerbaijan’s aggression will not stop with Nagorno-Karabakh.
In recent speeches and statements, President Aliyev has unequivocally claimed that Armenia is part of Azerbaijan’s historical lands, while calling Armenia “Western Azerbaijan.” He even said Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, belongs to his country.
This is the same leader who plants the seeds of hate to children by enacting a state policy that fuels animosity toward the Armenian people in schools across Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is promoting a culture of hate and fear and is breeding a whole new generation of anti-Armenian sentiment. It is dangerous. It is irresponsible. And it needs to stop.
And in an act of symbolism and defiance, Aliyev invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Azerbaijan’s cultural and ethnic ally, for a one-day-visit to Nakhchivan, another contested enclave in Azeri control that borders Armenia, days after the offensive for talks on bilateral ties and regional issues.
For a president who entered the White House claiming that human rights would be at the crux of his foreign policy, Biden has fallen short of that promise, particularly for Armenians. What he and others in his administration fail to understand is that this is a human rights issue and not a geopolitical one. Realpolitik should play no role in this discussion.
The United States has a long history of inaction on genocide. If Biden wants to change that narrative and live up to the principles of the U.N. Chater, then he will do what is right and hold Azerbaijan accountable.
Until then, we can expect more violence and hostility in the South Caucasus.
Stephan Pechdimaldji is a communications strategist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s a first-generation Armenian American and grandson to survivors of the Armenian genocide.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.