America is historically widely known and recognized as a safe heaven, for refugees, migrants and all those moving from the “Old World” and elsewhere in pursuit of justice, stable legal and political environment and greater economic opportunities. After all, the majority of people do not just venture far and abroad out of good life.
One of the calamities that led to generations of people to emigrate to America in search of a better life is war and fighting in their birthplace — including war crimes, massacres, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. One such horror, the biggest war crime at the time in all of Europe, the Khojaly Massacre, happened on the night of Feb. 25, 1992, when the armed forces of Armenia, led by its current president and defense minister, committed a crime against humanity in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly, massacring nearly 800 of mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis as well as Meskheti (Ahiska) Turks, Kurds and others.
It is precisely this crime against humanity that is annually commemorated by the politically growing Azerbaijani-American community, who hold a multitude of events throughout the country to honor those innocent civilians, increase awareness of the major injustices that happen when international law is not enforced or respected, and help their more lucky brethren and other natural-born American friends, relatives and colleagues to better appreciate the life they have here.
On Jan. 26 of this year, the U.S. Azeris Network, a leading nationwide organization of the Azerbaijani-Americans, drafted and initiated a Khojaly Massacre commemoration petition at the White House’s “We the People” website, gathering a staggering 125,000 signatures in less than 30 days, making this petition the second biggest White House petition of all time. It was impressive to see how the petition “went viral,” with thousands of people sharing it through their social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as more traditional email, to spread awareness. Some received dozens of reminders from as many people. Signers included not only Azerbaijani-Americans, but many of their friends, relatives and even total strangers — including state politicians who signed it after being moved by this relatively recent tragedy. The White House petition, which can be found at http://obama.usazeris.org, calls on the Obama administration to commemorate the war crime of Khojaly.
What are the incentives for President Obama to do it? For starters, the U.S. views itself, and is recognized, as having high moral and ethical standards, historically making human rights and democracy promotion one of its main pillars and foreign policy’s objectives. What can promote human rights and democracy more than showing, at least in words, care for the nearly 800 massacred and thousands wounded and hostage of Khojaly, and more broadly, 800,000 Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), which account for 10 percent of that country’s population?
Second, U.S. Congress has passed the Genocide Accountability Act, as well as introduced the Crimes Against Humanity Act of 2010, showing care and dedication to these issues. Additionally, the U.S. became the only country to deport an Armenian lieutenant, Vigen Patatanyan, for his — according to Department of Homeland Security statement — “crimes against humanity” towards Azerbaijani civilians.
Third, Azerbaijan is a long-standing ally of the U.S. that served shoulder-to-shoulder in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also one of the few predominantly Shia Muslim nations in a very tough, but strategically and geoeconomically important, area.
Fourth, a growing number of countries, including such as diverse mix as the Czech Republic, Germany, Pakistan, Columbia and Mexico, have officially recognized and commemorated Khojaly on a legislative level. Moreover, eight U.S. states have recognized and commemorated the Khojaly Massacre in one way or another since 2010, including Massachusetts, Texas, Maine, New Jersey, Arkansas and New Mexico.
Furthermore, just recently Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) presented a memorial urging that the 21st anniversary of the Khojaly tragedy be commemorated, to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Additionally, Washington, D.C., and New York will see, for the second year in the row, an ad blitz of Khojaly posters on hundreds of buses and subway stations for the next week, educating an ever-larger number of people about this genocidal act.
All this testifies to the determination by the Azerbaijani-Americans, as well as Azerbaijanis worldwide, to see that Khojaly is not thought of as an obscure event in a far-away land, but a major war crime that demands a just and fair investigation and closure.
Adil Baguirov, Ph.D., is the co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Azeris Network (USAN).