Last Friday, Minnesota nearly became the first state in the country to recognize the Khojaly Massacre as a genocide. A last-second amendment from Governor Walz’s office, however, changed the language in the declaration to massacre, mirroring language found in an earlier declaration Minnesota passed in 2016. In all, 24 states have passed resolutions recognizing the Khojaly events as a massacre. 

In February 1992, in the midst of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, Armenian forces took the Azeri-held town of Khojaly. Human Rights Watch chronicled the killings of Azeri civilians, with estimates between 200 and 1,000 Azeris being murdered by Armenian forces. While there is a general consensus of war crimes committed against the citizens of Khojaly, scholars stopped short of calling it genocide outside Azerbaijan or its close ally, Turkey (Armenia, for its part, continues to deny wrongdoing in Khojaly, blaming Azeri militia embedded with civilians). 

Billboards in Minnesota commemorating the events in Khojaly (via)

Therein lies the greatest challenge with labeling events as genocide: We’re often quick to apply the term in spite of a lack of supporting evidence. At best, applying the term genocide is meant to generate increased awareness and support for victims. At worst, it’s a term applied to denigrate enemies. As Mahmood Mamdani writes, “It seems that genocide has become a label to be stuck on your worst enemy, a perverse version of the Nobel Prize, part of a rhetorical arsenal that helps you vilify your adversaries while ensuring impunity for your allies.” The label of genocide applied by the governor’s declaration would have oversimplified a complicated historical event and eliminated the scholarly impetus for critical examination.

While the events in Khojaly nearly three decades ago are clearly heinous, dig a little deeper and you can find bigger issues at play. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been in conflict for decades, well before the massacre, over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Beyond that, Azerbaijan is one of two nations to outlaw recognition of the Armenian genocide, an event with unanimous academic consensus. It’s uncomfortable to see Minnesota playing the part of the pawn in a global blame game involving the push for recognition of crimes as genocide. 

For more than two decades now, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has been raising awareness and supporting academic work exploring the crime of genocide. The next time legislators wish to delve into the topic, I encourage them to reach out – there’s a lot to learn.

Joe Eggers is the Assistant Director for the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies.