EDITOR’S NOTE: Noted human rights attorney Karnig Kerkonian delivered a keynote address on April 22 at the Montebello Martyrs Monument during an Armenian Genocide commemoration event organized by the Los Angeles-based United Armenian Council for the Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, known as the UACLA. Kerkonian delivered similar remarks in Fresno and Cupertino, Calif. during commemorations events in those communities on April 23 and 24.
Below is the transcript of his powerful remarks, which we present in its entirety.
BY KARNIG KERKONIAN
Thank you for your kind introduction. And thank you to the committee for the warm invitation to speak here today. Hokevor Hayrer. Distinguished guests. Sireli hayrenagitsner.
Some of what I am going to talk about today will be difficult to hear. Some of it may be difficult to digest. Some of it may be difficult even to believe.
But, if there is one thing that I can assure each of you, it is that everything we are going to discuss today is true. It’s painfully true. Disgustingly true.
This is unquestionably one of the most dire moments in recent Armenian history—a moment of existential threat, of torment and trauma, of injustice and indignity. It’s a moment that delivers us back to a collective memory of unresolved injustice and, at the same time, pushes us forward into a sea of ominous uncertainty.
And the depravity is cemented. It’s cemented in my mind. And it’s cemented in many of your minds too. I’m absolutely certain of it.
The images of an old Armenian man struggling on his back in the grass and weeds, as his head is being sawed off with a serrated-edged military dagger. Armenian captives, crawling on their hands and knees, being prodded like animals by Azerbaijani soldiers with metal pipes.
A stamp issued by an actual government depicting an exterminator in a hazmat suit “cleansing” Nagorno-Karabakh of Armenians. A military trophy park in Baku showcasing the helmets of fallen Armenian soldiers, gruesome and bloody mannequins of Armenians, displayed in a public park, for Azerbaijani children to mock and degrade.
The president of a state, in this century, a century after the Genocide, referring to Armenians—to many of us—as dogs.
This is not “never again”. This is not “never again” at all.
Armenian POWs bound and brought to their knees, and Azerbaijani soldiers, in a sickening euphoria, unloading bullet after bullet after bullet into the heads and backs of young Armenian boys, teenagers, boys barely in their 20s. Then actually circulating the video on social media? A grotesque victory lap?
And it doesn’t stop. Her body was mutilated. Turkish words chiseled into her bare and exposed chest. Her eyes gouged out; stones jammed into her eye sockets in their place. Her fingers chopped off her hand and shoved into her mouth? A young Armenian mother, not much older than many of you here.
Coexistence? Coexistence and “integration” as a solution to the Artsakh question?
It shocks me when policymakers and think tanks in Europe and Washington—and even some in Yerevan—suggest that the best outcome for Nagorno-Karabakh would be some sort of “protected status” within Azerbaijan.
Really? Placing Armenians under the control and authority of Azerbaijan, right at the time when Genocide Watch has raised the genocide threat level facing Artsakh Armenians to levels 9 and 10.
When the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention has warned that Azerbaijan’s actions—and I am quoting here—“are part of a larger genocidal pattern, demonstrating Azerbaijan’s Armenophobia and genocidal intent [aimed at] the eradication of Armenia, Artsakh, and the Armenians.”
In this documented reality, the “solution” being pandered by sophisticated parties is actually placing Artsakh Armenians within Azerbaijan? That’s a workable solution for the fate of actual human beings?
“Integration” when 120,000 thousand Armenians remain under total blockade by Azerbaijan, now for more than 4 months? When Azerbaijan has orchestrated a pattern of measures unquestionably aimed at rendering living conditions unbearable for human beings: cutting off heating gas, severing electricity lines, blocking humanitarian aid, and sabotaging its internet and communications links with the outside world?
Coexistence where Azerbaijan is seeking to completely isolate and encircle Nagorno-Karabakh?
That we even allow this narrative is appalling.
We would never imagine subjecting a population of 120,000 Jews to the authority of a rabid Nazi regime—or any Nazi regime for that matter. Let’s give it another try? That would not only be an utterly ridiculous proposition—it would be patently inhumane, intellectually vapid, morally bankrupt . . . and it’s disgusting to even imagine.
The same is true here. You know, there’s a reason why Armenians have a natural aversion to the thought of subjecting Armenians to the authority of the Baku regime—actually, there are number of reasons: Sumgait, Kirovabad, Maragha, Nakhichevan.
There’s also Ramil Safarov—you may remember him, the Azerbaijani military officer participating in a NATO “peace program” in Hungary who broke into the dorm room of an Armenian solider in the middle of the night and then hacked the young Armenian to death in his sleep with an ax, before turning around to hunt his Armenian roommate.
Ramil Safarov is not crazy; Ramil Safarov is cultivated. He is a fascist murderer specifically cultivated by the Baku regime. He is a celebrated hero today in Azerbaijan. Aliyev extradited him from Hungary where he had been convicted of murder, welcomed him back to Baku with a bouquet of roses, and not only set him free—but awarded him medals, an apartment, and even back pay for his time incarcerated in Budapest.
Let’s not fool ourselves. We are facing an authoritarian dictatorship committed to destroying the Armenian people. This is not hyperbole. Ilham Aliyev said it himself: “We will destroy you” he told the Armenian prime minister.
Just this past September, Aliyev announced the creation of the Goycha-Zangezur Republic: a new republic spanning from Gyumri to Syunik—in Armenia itself. This new country even opened a representative office in Ankara, with Erdogan’s blessing of course.
And before you laugh it off as something silly, think about this: Azerbaijani soldiers carry maps of this new republic in their pockets—and Yerevan itself is on those maps. Unrealistic you think? Just last week, Azerbaijani soldiers were wandering around Syunik crowing about having executed and mutilated Armenian boys.
And just in case we missed the connection, I will remined you that, just two years ago, the Turkish president stood next to Aliyev at a military parade in Baku, and openly praised Nuri Pasha, the Ottoman leader who executed the eastern flank of the Armenian Genocide a century ago.
The message is clear—at least to us.
So what have we missed? How have we allowed this narrative of “coexistence”—this idea that Artsakh Armenians can somehow just be part of Azerbaijan as a minority with “security guarantees”—to even be entertained by the West? How have we allowed this minority rights narrative to grab hold, while the narrative of Artsakh self-determination has been neglected as “unrealistic” or the talk of “nationalists”?
How is it that Europe today can tell Armenia to “lower the bar” on Artsakh and speak about the Artsakh Armenians from the perspective of minority rights—not as a people with the right to self-determination?
How in the world did we get here?
This is not just power politics. Not simply might makes right. It is not simply the Azerbaijani lobby or caviar diplomacy. We Armenians, for more than a century, and for too long, have consoled ourselves with the idea that things are beyond our power; that the big powers dictate, and we must simply conform ourselves with the outcomes.
This is a cop out. It’s intellectually lazy. Saying it’s all about power politics is like saying that suffering a heart attack is just about genetics—that nothing else plays a roll. We know that’s not right. Of course, brute force and power have their place, but we know the international world order is a bit more complicated than that.
The truth is that states set policies, define state interests and seek outcomes based on narratives—stories of how they want to see the world. Stories of democracy, of free trade, of development, and other themes. There are also narratives that Western states fight against: dictatorship, authoritarianism, fascism, hatred, discrimination, just to name a few.
So, the way we tell our story, the language we use to tell our story, matters—and, in turns out, it matters a whole lot. How does our story fit within these prevailing narratives? How do we tell the story the right way?
The stories we tell others, and even the stories we tell ourselves, shape the thinking of interest groups, think tanks and capitals, and they are part of the conversations at negotiation tables—and even in the kitchens and living rooms of world leaders. How you tell the story matters, sometimes more than the story itself.
And in the world order, in the games played by states in war and peace, international law is one of these story-telling tools. It is one of the ways that states set their narratives in the global world order. It is how states tell other states their stories of what the world should look like and what the world should not look like.
And I don’t believe that we are powerless in this game, not at all. We have a role in contributing to the development of these international legal narratives. It’s our obligation to tell our story in a way that fits into the themes that states and their leaders actually care about.
Nobody’s going to do that for us. It’s our job to tell our story the right way—and to make it compelling.
So, while we endure the atrocious war crimes, the unending struggles of sovereignty and statehood, and the painful trials of human rights, we must bring ourselves to peer out of this repulsive pit and try, if even for a moment, to tell our story—not in tears or resignation—but in the language that the world speaks when they speak of the international world order.
And, in doing so, we will see that the very concepts, the very legal principles that underpin our own existential uncertainties, our human rights struggles, and even the very atrocities that I just spoke of—those very legal principles are themselves in a state of monumental flux, right now.
The scope of war crimes and even the definition of genocide has expanded in our lifetimes. The idea of “cultural genocide” did not even exist a century ago when Armenian churches, cemeteries and schools were being ransacked, looted and desecrated.
The term “ethnic cleansing” did not exist when my ancestors and those of many others here were being driven from their homes and herded into the Syrian desert. Today, it has a definition under international law: “The systematic forced removal of ethnic, racial and religious groups from a given area”.
And along with direct removal, extermination, or deportation of a people, ethnic cleansing even includes “indirect methods” aimed at forced migration, like rendering living conditions so severe, so austere, as to coerce a people to leave and to not return.
This should sound familiar—especially as Azerbaijan’s total blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh enters its 134th day. We must connect the dots; nobody will do that for us.
The concept of sovereignty itself has never been as fashionable a subject as it is right now—not since the Treaty of Westphalia. Today, the principle of sovereignty underpins the discourse of military confrontation in Europe, the narratives of economic sanctions pitting East and West, the limits of cyber warfare. And the question of sovereignty grips Armenia by the jugular.
Even the principle of self-determination has literally transformed in our lifetimes. It’s no longer the simple tool of decolonization. Within the last three decades alone, the United States, NATO, Russia, Europe and Africa have all spoken and acted in its name——and at the most consequential times in their history.
In fact, self-determination is how the number of states in the United Nations grew from only 60 in 1950 to more than 190 today.
Self-determination is not dead. Self-determination is an expanding legal right at international law, richer today than it has ever been before. And, of course, it is one of the essential themes that will define the most uncertain and perilous corner of the Armenian experience today: Artsakh.
So how does our story actually fit into this constantly evolving legal framework? And what does a century-old genocide have to teach us in this regard? How do we tell the story of Artsakh, and define the future of Artsakh, consistent with the legal narratives that matter?
On the one hand, there are the fundamental facts: Artsakh was never part of any independent Azerbaijani state. Let’s get that out of the way. During the Soviet period, the sovereign state was the Soviet Union—not the Azerbaijani SSR. NK seceded from the Soviet Union, the sovereign state at the time, consistent with the Soviet Law on Secession. Azerbaijani knows this law very well: it used the same law when declaring its own independence.
But Azerbaijan writes that story right out of the books. And the West—especially Europe—is all too eager to help it do so. Europe openly pressures Yerevan to accept Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan. “Don’t worry”, it tells Yerevan, we’ll make sure that the Artsakh Armenians have “security guarantees”, perhaps even a “protected status” within Azerbaijan.
This is a colossal sham. It’s a false narrative. Europe is purposely turning the law of self-determination flat on its head in order to placate Azerbaijan. What Europe is doing is insulting, it is treacherous—and if this deceitful narrative is allowed to continue, humans will suffer the unspeakable.
Let me explain the game they’re playing. Self-determination today comes in two accepted variants: internal self-determination (a protected status within a state) and external self-determination (an independent status, separate from a state).
The rule as to whether internal or external self-determination applies has become established in the three decades since Artsakh’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
This idea of internal self-determination is best exemplified by the case of Quebec. As many of you may know, Quebec exercised its right to self-determination and sought to secede from Canada in the mid-1990s.
Quebec wanted to be independent of Canada, noting its distinct French heritage, its cultural and linguistic differences, its religious and historical ties to France. It was culturally, linguistically and historically different than the rest of Canada. Quebec wanted to be independent.
Now, what’s absolutely important to remember is that, when Quebec exercised its right to self-determination, the Canadian Army was not assembled at the gates of Montreal with weapons, tanks, and soldiers, clamoring to exterminate the Quebecois or force them into the Atlantic.
In fact, at no point during the Quebec secessionist movement did the Canadian government seek to exterminate the people of Quebec, to destroy their churches and scrape away the French language from the buildings, to chase the Quebecois out of Quebec like dogs.
When the case reached the Canadian Supreme Court, the outcome was clear: Quebec did not have the right to secede from Canada. In other words, it did not have the right to external self-determination.
The Canadian Supreme Court specifically held that the need to protect Quebec’s cultural, linguistic or religious character could be realized through internal self-determination—a “protected status” within Canada.
Canada is a multi-ethnic state, the Court reasoned, and the democratic and constitutional guaranties provided by Canada could encompass and protect these cultural and linguistic preferences.
Internal self-determination in the Canadian context would not open the door to the ethnic cleansing or genocide of the Quebecois.
The context here, of course, is profoundly different.
Azerbaijan has already engaged—and is actively engaged right now—in the ethnic cleansing of the Artsakh Armenians. The blockade itself is evidence of that campaign.
The Azerbaijani president, parliamentarians and many cultural figures openly espouse hatred, dehumanization, removal and extermination of the Artsakh Armenians. Armenophobia has been intentionally—and strategically—institutionalized in Azerbaijani society.
The backstory is unavoidable too. Azerbaijan has already ethnically cleansed Armenians from every city that has fallen under its authority and control. There are no more Armenians in Baku, Sumgait, Kirovabad, Nakhichevan—and, since 2020, there are none in Shushi and Hadrut either.
And there is more. Azerbaijan even labors to cleanse the land itself of any evidence of Armenians—destroying Armenian churches, unearthing entire Armenian cemeteries, scraping away ancient Armenian biblical inscriptions, and claiming that Armenian churches are actually “Albanian” churches.
Just four months ago, the Azerbaijani Ambassador actually told the United Nations Security Council that even the word “Nagorno-Karabakh” does not exist anymore. The Azerbaijani president himself said the same thing just a month ago.
Imagine, for a moment, a Canadian Ambassador telling the U.N. Security Council that the word “Quebec” does not exist anymore. Imagine Justin Trudeau saying that the word “Quebec” does not exist.
The Quebec model—this idea of a “protected status” within another state—may work in the Great White North, but it simply does not fit the facts here. Azerbaijan is not Canada.
Azerbaijan right now is holding Artsakh Armenians—including women, children, the disabled, and the elderly—hostage in a total blockade that is targeting and starving actual human beings in complete isolation and in utter darkness.
What comes next has played out like clockwork from the Armenian Genocide to the Holocaust, from the Rohingyas to Darfur, and from Cambodia to Kosovo.
And this is where international law gets interesting.
It turns out that, in the face of ethnic cleansing and the risk of genocide——which is clearly what we have here—it is external self-determination that is legally required.
External self-determination in the face of ethnic cleansing or genocide is the Kosovo variant. It is what the West, led by the US and NATO, demanded in the Kosovo crisis: that recognition of Kosovo’s right to self-determination and independence of Kosovo as outside of Serbia was necessary to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide.
The case went to the International Court of Justice. The Court rendered a decision which underpinned the recognition of Kosovo’s independent statehood outside of Serbia. And the decision is quite revealing here: the Court actually identified what triggers external self-determination.
The Court held that, and I quote, “the international law of self-determination [has] developed in such a way as to create a right of independence for . . . peoples subject to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation.” The ICJ recognized when external self-determination is appropriate: when a people faces subjugation, domination and exploitation.
And this makes sense. When a people faces ethnic cleansing and genocide, the solution cannot be to push those people into the authority and control of the state seeking to exterminate them. That would be absurd.
Fast forward to Azerbaijan’s blockade of that distant mountain road. There is no question that the Artsakh Armenians stand before the cliff of death or displacement.
Under international law, this is precisely where external self-determination is triggered. International law provides external self-determination as a final stop-gap measure to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide, to prevent mass death and displacement.
External self-determination is the proper step here. Anything else is empty semantics, uninformed naivety or, simply the greenlighting of the ethnic cleansing and extermination of a people—again.
While ancient and storied, the Armenian nation is still a living nation. We are a living nation with stories yet to tell, concertos yet to compose, and epics yet to write.
We must recognize—especially as we commemorate the Genocide today—that Artsakh is the heart of that living nation. It’s the place where Mesrob Mashtots, over 1600 years ago, created our alphabet and the place that, 35 years ago, sparked the Armenian independence movement itself.
Most importantly, Artsakh is the place where 120,000 of our people, our Armenian people, stand on their native land against all odds, surrounded by Azerbaijani forces intent on their elimination.
Artsakh is our story. Many of you know this story. It’s the story of Van; it’s the story of Musa Ler; it is the story of Armenian national dignity in the face of conquest and subjugation.
Allowing the freefall collapse of this foundational pillar of the Armenian nation will have irreparable consequences—and, I assure you, that peace is not one of them.
It will only embolden that fascist upstart in Baku—one who has thrived in a distracted world order–to finish the horrendous objective that every leading human rights organization from Amnesty International to the International Association of Genocide Scholars has red flagged is underway.
Genocide is not simply what happened to us. It is what is happening to us now. Ethnic cleansing against the Armenian people is sport. It’s been a sport for nearly two centuries. The Genocide was simply its Super Bowl. And make no mistake: this is what impunity tastes like.
As my colleague, Garo Ghazarian, said to me in Shushi during one of our many working trips there: Narratives matter. Stories matter. They are powerful, and they change realities.
Getting the self-determination story right paves the road toward genuine security and peace in a manner consistent with the ideals and principles upon which a law-based world order should be founded.
Getting the self-determination story wrong only opens the door to abject subjugation—policies that will exacerbate the conflict inhumanely and, quite literally, lead human beings to their slaughter.
There are no “security guarantees” or any “protected status” that can mask the lingering odor of Genocide committed, that revolting smell of Genocide left unpunished . . . and that sickening stench of Genocide pounding and pushing at the gates.
Artsakh is Kosovo, not Quebec. Understanding this, and insisting upon this, may be just enough—and just in time—to prevent another ungodly and gruesome chapter in our recent human history.
Karnig Kerkonian is a distinguished international and appellate lawyer who leads the international law and federal practice groups at Kerkonian Dajani LLP, an international law firm with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and, opening this year, in Yerevan. Mr. Kerkonian holds an A.B. magna cum laude in Government from Harvard University and two law degrees—a juris doctorate from the University of Chicago, where he served on the Law Review, as well as a post-graduate degree in International Law from Cambridge University, England, where he studied under James R. Crawford, a former Judge on the International Court of Justice.