Khojaly: War Crimes PR in Washington DC


Riding the bus back and forth to work here in DC, I couldn’t fail to notice a starkly understated poster occupying prime ad space behind the driver’s seat.  KHOJALY, it reads:  A Human Tragedy Against Azerbaijan.  At the top are the following stats: 444 men, 106 women, 63 children; and then a date, February 26, 1992.  “20 years ago…”

A single red drop curls downward from the O in Khojaly.  The word in its huge font dominates the poster.

And then, the ad ends with a plea to the reader: “Honor the dead: learn the truth….help Armenia and Azerbaijan find peace”.  The fine print gives the website of the group behind the ad:   In and of itself the existence of such a group, let alone one able to mount any public awareness effort, is remarkable.   The large population of Armenian-Americans who rightly lobby for maintaining recognition of the Armenian genocide would seem to preclude much visibility for any lobby group for the other side in the much more recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Perhaps related to this, perhaps not: the poster actually understates the number of children killed — the official figure is 83.

NK is of course where Khojaly is located, geographically and within the broader narrative of the conflict over the majority ethnic Armenian territory surrounded and claimed by Azerbaijan.  The conflict became a shooting war just as the USSR was breaking up and Yugoslavia was unraveling into violence.   Reading about Khojaly — yes, Wikipedia has an article on the event — feels rather like reading about Bosnia a few years later.

Here is the AAA’s Youtube video about the massacre and the campaign:

So clearly this group got its symbolic timing right.   But while “helping [two still suspicious former adversaries] find peace” is admirable, one doesn’t need much of an international relations/conflict resolution background to suspect there is more to the contemporary story behind these ads.

Sure enough, the website given includes language urging web surfers to “Click here to learn about our campaign to urge Congress to rescind the unfair, irrational ban on direct aid to the Government of Azerbaijan (Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act)”.   The backbone of nearly all the U.S.’s “alliances” with non-Western countries is aid, whether military or economic.   In this post-9/11 world, of course, this legislation sounds like some counterterrorism measure George W. Bush put his signature to in the days after the attacks.  Ironically, a waiver to Section 907 was passed in October 2001.

Turns out that the legislation was actually signed by Bush the Elder, making it the same age as the Khojaly Massacre.   Its raison d’etre was promoting democratization in the former Soviet republics through US aid.  Section 907 of the Act apparently singled out Azerbaijan, prohibiting it from receiving aid without a congressional permission slip approving of its progress due to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Think about that.  There are at least two sides to every conflict, and both sides in this case were ex-Soviet republics.   Why single out the Azeris?

U.S. domestic politics is always a good place to search out answers to that kind of question.   The Armenian-American community is well-established, locally and nationally powerful, and lobbies continuously on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.  Could they have leveraged some of that influence in regards to this latest conflict? Especially considering that NK was at the time the conflict broke out approximately 90% ethnic Armenian, there was surely a sympathetic congressional audience for treating the war as a one-sided affair.

And thus the focus on Khojaly, where the roles of that narrative were reversed, Armenians the aggressors against Azeris, in what the forthrightly calls “a slaughter”. If our narrative frame is wrong, isn’t it at least possible our aid policy is too? Particularly if you’re just hearing about NK from these posters — if you don’t have a preconceived notion of the conflict. And so the cynic in me might be forgiven for thinking that plea to “help … find peace” is really for U.S. consumption.  We are allies with both these countries, after all, albeit not the warmest with the Azeris.  The campaign gets down to this basic psychology (forget context!):

Doesn’t everyone want to see their two friends get along?


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