By Sinisa Pekevski
Social media in Armenia and Azerbaijan became an information war zone over recordings of purported war crimes allegedly committed during the military clashes between two countries. One video shows Armenian soldiers degrading the bodies of fallen Azerbaijani soldiers, and the other shows a group of unarmed Armenian soldiers being executed in combat. The disparities in the responses to these two crimes are unexpected, despite the fact that both recordings depict violations of the very fundamentals of international humanitarian law, particularly the Geneva Conventions.
Toivo Klaar, the special envoy of the European Union to the South Caucasus, said that “the fighting has left profound wounds on all sides” in response to the raging war crimes discussions on social media. However, Ned Price, the spokesperson for the US Secretary of State, expressed regret only for the suffering of the Armenian side in his remarks. The State Department held back from requesting Armenia to undertake its own probe while urging Azerbaijan to do so.
However, it is not the first time that war crimes have gone unpunished in this region. The number and severity of war crimes, particularly those committed by Armenia, were far higher during the terrible war between Armenia and Azerbaijan 30 years ago in Karabakh. There have been many different types of war crimes, such as besieging Azerbaijani settlements and killing or torturing inhabitants, as well as executions carried out after ‘kangaroo tribunals’. After looking into war crimes committed during the First Karabakh War, Human Rights Watch came to the conclusion that the Armenian government was behind the execution of Azerbaijani POWs who had been captured.
“A crime that goes unpunished leads to a new crime”, said many. The Armenian side ignored calls for an investigation for nearly 30 years, and those responsible for atrocities against Azerbaijanis even rose to power in Armenia. For nearly 20 years, Armenia’s leaders were Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan, who are on the wanted list for crimes they committed against the civilian population of Azerbaijan. Seyran Ohanyan, who directly oversaw the slaughter of civilians, served as Armenia’s minister of defense for a number of years.
A few days ago, this public taboo reappeared. Hundreds of individuals, including well-known Armenian figures, started demeaning the European diplomat after his tweet regarding the war crime committed by Armenia. This was in response to Toivo Klaar, a special representative of the European Union. Even Edmon Marukyan, who was given the rank of ambassador by Prime Minister Pashinyan, blatantly attempted to refute the case of war crimes that had been meticulously documented by a number of international organizations, declaring, “Armenia would not commit war crimes.”
However, particularly during the Second Karabakh War in 2020, Armenian social media channels proudly shared videos of the Armenian army cutting the throat of a wounded Azerbaijan soldier while he was still alive and digging up the bodies of Azerbaijani soldiers and throwing them into a pit with animal corpses. Alen Simonyan, the Speaker of the Armenian Parliament, contributed to the pleasure of this nationalist mob by uploading more heinous crime videos. The majority of the feedback left for Simonyan, who posted the video of Azerbaijani servicemen’s corpses being fed to pigs on his official account, was filled with pleasure and satisfaction.
Despite the war having been over for two years, it appears that the dynamics of Armenian society have not changed. A few days ago, the video showing an Armenian soldier severing the ears of dead Azerbaijani soldiers was not denounced by Armenian society. However, the civil society of Azerbaijan has frequently voiced its objection to the war crimes committed by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani activists signed a public petition urging the government to look into all war crimes and prosecute the perpetrators even during the war when tensions were at an all-time high.
In Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia, war crimes have been investigated and criminals have been punished, albeit not to the best of standards. Four Azerbaijani soldiers were detained immediately following the end of the Second Karabakh War for transgressing the rules of international humanitarian law. In a statement addressing the footage that was made public recently, the Azerbaijani prosecutor general’s office vowed to look into the incident and pursue those accountable. Regardless of how well the rule of law is upheld in Azerbaijan, it should be emphasized that no one has ever been brought to trial or had a similar investigation done in the Republic of Armenia.
It is a well-known reality that Western diplomats’ silence in the face of Armenia’s war crimes is neither a result of a lack of knowledge or a dearth of efficient tools for punishing war criminals. Bosnia, Rwanda, and Ukraine serve as examples of how Western nations, which claim to be the herald of the liberal world order, can prosecute war criminals. A problem in and of itself is shown by the fact that the same political line, attitude, and principle are not applied to the war crimes committed against Azerbaijanis.
In other words, these states show that they do not pay any heed to the suffering of Azerbaijanis. Or, to put it more gently, those nations do not prioritize “accusing” Armenia of committing a war crime. This alone is proof that in practice, universal human rights are selective and institutionalized racism inhibits the naming of criminal. When Azerbaijanis see this systematic bias and selective approach, their initial reaction is to develop an irreparable mistrust for the Western nations, which claim to be friends of Azerbaijan.