Dire shortages of basic food and medical supplies, ongoing collective psychological terror, along with gas and electricity supply disruptions under subzero temperatures have been the norm in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) for over a month now where the humanitarian crisis promises to spiral into a humanitarian catastrophe. A group of Azerbaijanis, supported by the Aliyev regime, have disguised themselves as environmental activists and kept the only mountain road, also known as the Lachin Corridor, connecting Artsakh and its 120,000 ethnic Armenian population with the outside world, under blockade. The orchestrated nature of the blockade and the legitimacy of the proposed grievances immediately come under question considering the status of Azerbaijan as an authoritarian regime where power “is heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev” and where crackdowns on protesters is the norm. But perhaps more importantly, the blockade raises questions about guarantees that vulnerable groups facing the threat of ethnic cleansing and genocide should be afforded by the international community, regardless of their geographic location, be it in Syria, Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo or Nagorno-Karabakh.
Sovereignty as Responsibility
It was against the backdrop of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, which was largely viewed as controversial, and failure to intervene in the case of Rwanda, that saw one million people killed, that Responsibility to Protect (R2P), an emerging international norm and a political principle, was developed. The doctrine of R2P was first articulated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, which was tasked by the Canadian Government to find a solution for the prevention of human rights catastrophes that would at the same time not be perceived as a threat to state sovereignty. In other words, the Commission was challenged to find a balance between national sovereignty from external intervention, as guaranteed by the United Nations (UN) Charter, and prevention of mass atrocity crimes. In fact, Article 2(4) stipulates that member states shall refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” The only two exceptions to this rule can be observed in Article 51, which states that every state has an inherent right to collective or individual self-defense and Chapter VII, which authorizes the use of force by the Security Council in order to maintain international peace and security.
The thrust of the R2P is that sovereign states have a responsibility to safeguard their populations from atrocity crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, while failure to do so triggers a responsibility for the larger community of states to take collective action in compliance with the UN Charter and with authorization from the Security Council. It is worth underlining that the doctrine of R2P is premised on the implication that sovereignty is not absolute and legitimacy of authority is contingent upon the protection provided to populations at risk and not merely control over a territory. It is worth mentioning that although R2P is not a legally binding framework (until utilized by the UN Security Council), the crimes that it seeks to prevent are prohibited under international law through the Genocide Convention, Geneva Conventions and the additional protocols, as well as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The institutionalization of R2P began with the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly and defined the parameters of the doctrine. The section concerning R2P is reflected in paragraphs 138 and 139, which underscore the role of the international community in both encouraging states to act in accordance with the responsibility to protect their populations at risk as well as use “diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means,” in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the UN Charter when states are “manifestly failing” to comply with that responsibility.
Since its inception in 2005, the doctrine was further reinforced by UN Security Council Resolutions 1674 and 1894 and has consistently been referenced in resolutions by the UN Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council. Besides being viewed as endorsements of the doctrine, the two resolutions also signify that the role of the Security Council is not limited to prevention of threats to international peace and security but also prevention of atrocity crimes.
Ongoing Ethnic Cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh
The initial demand that triggered the blockade of the Lachin Corridor revolved around access to mining sites in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the so-called Azerbaijani protesters claimed were being exploited by local authorities, with the extracted minerals being transferred to Armenia. Although official Stepanakert has expressed willingness to let international environmental experts into the mines, the road remains under blockade and protesters have further expanded their demands and now call for setting up an official Azerbaijani checkpoint along the corridor. Failure to end the blockade is a clear violation of the November 9, 2020 trilateral statement that ended the 2020 Artsakh War and requires Azerbaijan to ensure the secure movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo through the Lachin Corridor. More importantly, the blockade and its subsequent consequences fall within the scope of crimes that the doctrine of R2P was established to prevent.
Although ethnic cleansing is not a separate crime under international law, similar to genocide or crimes against humanity, the literature references the definition provided by the UN Commission of Experts mandated to look into the international humanitarian law violations committed in the territory of former Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing is defined as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” The blockade of the Lachin Corridor has essentially halted the free movement of the population in and out the region, exposing them to the threat of starvation, while “intimidating” the inhabitants through collective punishment. Over 400 tons of essential goods used to be imported from Armenia to Artsakh on a daily basis. Since the blockade on December 12, however, only 10 tons of humanitarian aid have been sent from Armenia through the mediation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Only 46 patients, who were in critical condition, were transferred to medical institutions in Armenia with the help of the ICRC, while 19 children out of 270 who were separated from their families due to the blockade were returned to Nagorno-Karabakh. While the children were being transported from Goris to Stepanakert, they were harassed and terrorized by masked Azerbaijanis. During a recent interview, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said that “whoever does not want to become our citizen, the road is not closed; it is open. They can leave whenever they want,” further underscoring the true intentions behind the blockade.
Over a dozen non-governmental organizations have issued a stark warning that Azerbaijan’s ongoing blockade of the corridor is designed to “deliberately inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about the end of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group in whole or in part.” They have further concluded that 14 risk factors for atrocity crimes identified by the current UN Secretary General’s Office on Genocide Prevention are present in the current situation. Under the guise of environmental grievances, the blockade is carefully designed to ethnically cleanse the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh by intimidating and psychologically terrorizing the population. The ongoing blockade, however, is not an isolated incident but rather a strategic and logical continuation of the long standing trajectory of ethnically motivated human rights abuses and discriminatory policies against Armenians.
Treatment of civilians during the 2020 Artsakh War is particularly illustrative of Azerbaijan’s complete disregard for the lives of ethnic Armenians within the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Expansive empirical data confirms that “inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions and artillery rockets” were employed in residential areas, which do not distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects as is required under international humanitarian law. Because of indiscriminate shelling, vital infrastructures, including electrical power stations and communications networks, were damaged, exposing civilians to long-term wartime suffering. Human Rights Watch also gathered evidence confirming the use of cluster munitions and Smerch and Grad rockets which are not capable of precision targeting. At least two hospitals, residential buildings, businesses and schools were severely damaged or completely destroyed. Considering the impact on civilians, it is not surprising that over half of Artsakh’s population fled to Armenia during the war. Aliyev’s rhetoric following the 2020 Artsakh War is also reminiscent of his intentions to ethnically cleanse the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. His remarks during a televised address immediately after the signing of the November 9 statement, where he references the Armenians who were displaced after territories were handed over to Azerbaijan, is one such example. “We chased them out of our lands like dogs […] No-one can stop us. Everyone sees our strength, everyone understands what our iron fist is like. That is why we have driven them out and are perfectly right in doing that.” A similar pattern of behavior has continued to be observed after the signing of the November 9 statement as well. Following Azerbaijan’s attack on sovereign Armenian territory in September, 2022, international human rights monitoring organizations, including the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, Genocide Watch and Interntaional Association of Genocide Scholars have similarly expressed concern about the risk of genocide against the Armenian population.
It is the 43rd day of the blockade and despite calls by the European Parliament, UN Secretary General and over a dozen countries to unblock the road, concrete efforts for ending the blockade are nowhere in sight. It is important to acknowledge that the doctrine of R2P is not a perfect solution for the prevention of atrocity crimes and as critics rightly point out, it can potentially be misused by powerful states  or pose a challenge to sovereignty. At the same time, it is equipped to build an international community that is “less tolerant to mass atrocities and more predisposed to preventing them.” As the humanitarian crisis deepens and essential goods and services in Nagorno-Karabakh become scarce, educational institutions have closed indefinitely, power cuts have become more frequent and the population is allocated only a very limited amount of food products through food stamps. There is an imminent risk of ethnic cleansing if world powers choose not to respond to Azerbaijan’s strategically orchestrated agenda. In more simple terms, Azerbaijan’s behavior meets all of the criteria that triggers the implementation of the R2P principle, and the international community must resolutely raise this issue in order to deter the Aliyev regime from continuing its predatory policies.
 Zifcak, S. (2018). The Responsibility to Protect. In International Law (5th edn) (pp. 484–518). Oxford University Press.
 Alvarez, J. E. (2008). The Schizophrenias of R2P. In Human rights, intervention, and the use of Force (pp. 275–284). Oxford University Press.
 Luck, E. C. (2011). Sovereignty, Choice and the Responsibility to Protect. In The responsibility to protect and international law (pp. 13–24). Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
 Bellamy, A. J. (2015). The responsibility to protect: A defense. (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.