The West Must Be Consistent on Human Rights

Zaatari, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan; modified, cc DFID - UK Department for In -

The Global South has not supported the West in imposing sanctions against Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine. A major disappointment in this regard is India, the biggest democracy in the world. The South’s position on sanctions has remained steadfast despite Russia’s massive war crimes in Ukraine and Russian blocking, until recently, of the export of Ukrainian grain, the bulk of which is delivered to the South.

The South, including India, is unwilling to stand with the West against what is a brazen attack on international law because it views the West as hypocritical in its discourse on championing human rights. After all, the West did not intervene to halt genocide in Rwanda in 1994 which killed upwards of 800,000 people. Meanwhile, only five years later NATO, bombed Serbia to halt far relatively small acts of genocide against 14,000 Kosovar Albanians. Similarly, the West backed away from intervening to halt the murder by Syria, Russia, and Iran of 400,000 civilians in the Syrian civil war. Although then President Barack Obama laid out ‘red lines,’ the US never intervened when Syria and Russia continued to use chemical weapons against civilians.

The West has also been unable to express an objective approach towards conflict in the South Caucasus, and has often taken Armenia’s side in its three decade-long conflict with Azerbaijan.  Unlike Russia in 2014 and especially 2022, the West never imposed sanctions against Armenia for occupying a fifth of Azerbaijani territory. The West did though impose tough and wide-ranging sanctions against Russia in response to its occupation of twenty percent of Ukrainian territory.

Is this a case of Western double standards that the South points to?

Yes, and unfortunately, the West’s bias towards Christian Armenia goes much further. In both Karabakh Wars in the early 1990s and in 2020, Armenia undertook five actions that Russia is undertaking in Ukraine. But only Russia is being punished with sanctions and its leaders warned they will be charged with crimes by the ICC (International Criminal Court).

Armenia and Russia have executed and disappeared thousands of people. In the early 1990s, 4,000 Azerbaijani civilians and POWs went missing and their remains are only now, after the territory where the crimes took place was liberated, being uncovered.  Graves of civilians and POWs have been found who have been tortured and murdered in every region of Ukraine that Russia has occupied.

Human Rights Watch reported that in the Second Karabakh War, Armenia fired 18 ballistic missiles, unguided artillery rockets, and large caliber artillery projectiles against Azerbaijani civilian targets in what it described as ‘apparent indiscriminate attacks.’ Armenia’s unlawful attacks against civilians and populated villages and cities are in ‘violation of the laws of war,’ Human Rights Watch reported. These 18 attacks killed 98 Azerbaijani civilians and wounded 414, as well as destroying or damaging 3,000 homes.

Armenia fired Smerch artillery rockets and SCUD-B ballistic missiles against civilian targets in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja during the Second Karabakh War, killing 32 people and destroying houses, businesses, schools, and clinics. Human Rights Watch reported that these two military systems are indiscriminate and, because their projectiles strike a wide area, do not therefore distinguish between military and civilian targets.

Russia has fired 3,000 missiles at civilian residencies and infrastructure in Ukraine, and is now coupling these with Iranian drone attacks against energy and utilities installations. Although the number of Russian attacks is larger, the West should adhere to a consistent principle of condemning as war crimes all deliberate missile attacks against non-military targets. Unfortunately, the West did not follow in these two cases a principle of consistency in human rights, and while condemning Russian missile attacks as war crimes has never condemned the same use of Armenian missile attacks against Azerbaijani civilians.

Armenia and Russia have both laid thousands of mines in occupied territories which primarily kill civilians and prevent a return to peaceful life after hostilities have ended. There has though been little attention and practically no condemnation of Armenia for laying thousands of mines in Azerbaijani territory it occupied from 1994 until 2020. After Ukraine has liberated areas, it has also found that Russia laid countless mines that sadly kill civilians returning to their homes.

Armenia’s occupation of a fifth of Azerbaijani land led to the expulsion of approximately three quarters of a million Azerbaijani civilians who became IDPs. In many cases the fleeing Azerbaijani’s constituted ethnic cleansing because they were threatened with, or witnessed, random violence and their homes were destroyed and looted by Armenian forces.

Russia, with far larger security forces, has undertaken forced deportations of upwards of three million Ukrainians, including half a million children and orphans.  Legal experts describe these deportations through Stalinist style filtration camps as constituting genocide.

Finally, both Armenia and Russia have sought to alter the cultural and historical landscape of the areas of Azerbaijan and Ukraine they have respectively occupied. Armenian occupation forces destroyed hundreds of mosques, cultural objects, historical sites and cemeteries because these showed that the region they had occupied had long-established ties to Azerbaijani history.

Russia is destroying museums, cultural artefacts, monuments, and libraries because they were promoting an independent Ukrainian national identity. Russian imperial nationalism denies the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians, and has promoted a discourse of Russians and Ukrainians as being ‘one people’ in new billboards and monuments, school curriculums, and by only allowing the transmission of Russian state-controlled media and access to the internet through Russian servers.

Denying the identity of Azerbaijanis by portraying them as simply ‘Turks’ or Ukrainians as basically ‘Russians’ constitutes acts of genocide.  As we know from the Holodomor and Holocaust, long periods of dehumanisation of peoples always precedes acts of genocide by their occupiers.

The Global South will come round to aligning with the West’s discourse on human rights when it is consistently applied to all cases where human rights are abused and war crimes are undertaken. There should be no difference in the West’s approach to war crimes committed against Christians and Muslims. A first step in changing the West’s approach could be to condemn Armenia’s pursuit of criminal acts in two Karabakh Wars by describing them in the same manner as war crimes which are being currently undertaken by Russia in Ukraine.


The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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