The US has long offered unconditional military assistance to Azerbaijan even as it carries out ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s consistent with Washington’s support for brutal human rights violators from Saudia Arabia to Israel.

A military parade with the participation of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev in Khankendi, Azerbaijan, on November 8, 2023. (Azerbaijani Presidency / Anadolu via Getty Images)

The other week, Azerbaijan’s president scolded US secretary of state Antony Blinken over efforts to curtail military assistance to the Caspian dictatorship in the wake of its assault on the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. While US arms and assistance to Azerbaijan have largely been overlooked, they are representative of how Washington’s security assistance has facilitated war crimes and perpetuated a global system built on the selective application of human rights and international law. In the case of Azerbaijan, US assistance enabled ethnic cleansing on a shocking scale.

However, amid public outcry over the nonenforcement and rollback of human rights conditions on military assistance to US allies from Turkey to Saudi Arabia to Israel — a recent decision by the Senate to suspend military assistance to Azerbaijan marks an unprecedented step toward the enforcement of human rights standards and congressional oversight long absent from US foreign policy.

Last month, Azerbaijan invaded Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh), forcibly expelling its entire indigenous Armenian population, aided by US security assistance. As a direct consequence of the impunity Washington has granted Baku, Azerbaijan, is now threatening further military action against Armenia — a risk recently acknowledged by Secretary Blinken.

Rolling Back Conditions on Military Aid

Azerbaijan hasn’t always enjoyed the kind of impunity other recipients of US military assistance do. In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan was prohibited from receiving US aid pursuant to Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act, which suspended all forms of aid to Azerbaijan in light of its aggression against Armenian civilians during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War.

While this prohibition is still in effect, following the September 11 attacks it has been subject to a national security waiver — an all-too-familiar tool that has granted the US president far-reaching discretion over military assistance, unbeholden to congressional oversight and the long-ignored human rights conditions mandated under the Leahy Laws and Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act.

In an attempt to garner Azerbaijan’s support for the United States’ 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the waiver of Section 907 saw hundreds of millions of dollars funneled to the government through lucrative defense contracts and security assistance. This has only escalated in recent years as Washington now justifies its uncritical support for Azerbaijan as necessary to secure its role as an alternative energy supplier for Europe and a regional bulwark against Russia and Iran.

Despite President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to cut military aid to Azerbaijan after its assault on Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, his administration has twice reauthorized assistance to Baku, even in the face of strong congressional opposition. These waivers have continued despite the Azerbaijani government’s torture and execution of Armenian prisoners of war, human rights abuses, and war crimes against civilians, and a humanitarian blockade that precipitated the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh. Washington had every opportunity to prevent this unfolding humanitarian and security crisis but instead chose to embolden Azerbaijan by rewarding its behavior with security assistance.

Azerbaijan is an instructive case in the abject failure of current US policy. Not only did unconditional assistance to Azerbaijan grant the United States little-to-no ability to influence or constrain Baku’s behavior — the lack of conditions on assistance to Azerbaijan sent a green light to its government that it would face no material repercussions for its human rights abuses, emboldening its behavior. US arms sales haven’t even deterred Azerbaijan from engaging with US rivals, as Baku continues to expand its energy partnerships with Russia and Iran.

Dangerous Consequences

Washington’s support of Azerbaijan will signal to other recipients of US military assistance that they will continue to face zero accountability for their actions, despite Biden’s pledge to ensure autocrats “pay the price” for their aggression. Furthermore, Washington’s reckless policy threatens to destabilize the region further by encouraging war profiteers to take a page from Washington’s playbook, with Turkey closing a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia in July, and Israel selling weapons to Azerbaijan used to perpetrate horrific human rights abuses against Armenians in Artsakh at the same time it perpetrates unconscionable war crimes of its own in Gaza.

Immediately before Azerbaijan’s assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, US officials affirmed that they “would not countenance any attempt at ethnic cleansing” by Azerbaijan. Washington’s failure to hold Azerbaijan accountable after it breached this red line will only embolden further aggression as Baku eyes Armenia’s sovereign territory. It will also undermine whatever confidence anyone might still have had in Washington’s willingness to uphold human rights. It sends a clear signal to other recipients of US military assistance engaged in human rights abuses, from Turkey’s relentless assault on Kurdish communities in Northern Syria and Iraq, to Saudi Arabia’s crackdowns at home and its mass murder of refugees and destruction of Yemen, to Israel’s indiscriminate attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza — heightening the risk of conflicts that could engulf the entire region.

Facing considerable congressional and public pressure, the Biden administration has now publicly stated that it does not intend to waive restrictions on military assistance to Azerbaijan. But the unanimous passage of the Armenian Protection Act by the Senate last month takes that one step further, prohibiting the executive from exercising its waiver authority for a two-year window. If enacted by the House of Representatives, this would mark an unprecedented step toward enforcing human rights standards and congressional oversight of US security assistance in a rare rebuke of US foreign policy, driven by grassroots action.

Washington’s Faustian bargain with some of the world’s most abusive governments has produced the very outcomes it purportedly seeks to avoid and recklessly enables the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh’s Armenians. The unanimous Senate vote to enforce human rights conditions on assistance to Azerbaijan is not just a step toward justice for the victims of Azerbaijan’s genocidal aggression — it marks an important victory in the effort to curb executive overreach, end the practice of fueling raging regional fires, and stop material US support for war crimes.

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