The 3-decade long tussle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh sparked up once again on September 27. However, this time, the clashes have reached the tipping point of becoming a full-fledged war with military and civilian casualties on both sides with the imposition of martial law.
Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (“NKAO”) is a self-proclaimed republic comprising 90% of ethnic Armenian-Christians. Although the territory lies inside the borders of Azerbaijan and is internationally recognized as a part of it, the region has been given substantial autonomy in terms of governance. The people and the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh have continually been inclined towards becoming a part of mainland Armenia, while the Armenian government has never officially recognised NKAO as an independent state, it has affirmed its tacit support by political and financial means. Furthermore, in 2019, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called for the unification of NKAO with Armenia in front of a mass gathering. Azerbaijan on the other hand is fighting the Armenian-separatists to establish de facto control of the NKAO region. For a more comprehensive understanding of the historical roots of the conflict, see here.
Negotiations and peace talks in the past have only served as a short-term solution to the intensifying problem. So far, the 1994 Bishkek Protocol and the efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group have proved to be feasible to some extent and have brought the two nations to the negotiation table by establishing an occasional ceasefire. Unfortunately, this time, both the nations have brushed off the scope of a ceasefire and have blamed the opponent for instigating and escalating the conflict. Thus, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, fuelled by nationalist fervour, are not willing to peacefully and amicably resolve this problem. Over the course of this piece, there will be a brief exploration of some issues concerning the NKAO conflict, specifically addressing statehood and certain concerns under international humanitarian law (“IHL”).
Nagorno-Karabakh is a territorial part of Azerbaijan and as per the Montevideo Convention, it cannot be considered as an independent nation, since it cannot enter into relations with other independent states. It should be noted that the Montevideo Convention offers some scope for interpretation and analysis, and does not provide a concrete answer on the NKAO situation, and yet, it has been used by both sides to solidify their stance.
Both Armenia and NKAO have countered these arguments with claims that the people of the region have the right to self-determination. This right, expounded in the UN General Assembly Resolution 1514, is being deprived to the NKAO people by Azerbaijan by means of force. They have also contended that since Nagorno-Karabakh has international relations with Armenia, the criteria under the Montevideo Convention has been fulfilled. NKAO has also cited ICJ’s advisory opinion on Kosovo which did not recognise Kosovo as an independent state but did acknowledge the fact that declaration of independence is not a violation of international law.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with NKAO since Kosovo enjoyed strong international support whereas NKAO does not. Nevertheless, the advisory opinion of the ICJ does hold a persuasive value which can be used to cement NKAO’s arguments. It should also be noted that diplomatic relations with only one nation would not suffice and there have to be a few more states offering their recognition. The authorities of NKAO have previously been invited to conferences, and while other states did not provide it with recognition, the mere invitation offers legitimacy to NKAO’s de facto statehood.
A viable option for NKAO/Armenia in this situation would be to pursue other countries to offer statehood. Russia, which enjoys friendly relations with Armenia, should be pushed to recognise NKAO as an independent state. Then with the help of Russia, the US could be approached for the same. Further, China might be a potential ally to Armenia given its recent and growing positive outlook which might offer diplomatic and military support to Nagorno-Karabakh. The de jure statehood recognition from such powerful nations will bolster NKAO’s chances of receiving recognition from other countries as well, and will draw the much-needed attention of human rights advocates and organisations, which presently are unable to offer aid because of the Azeri hegemony. Sadly, this is easier said than done. Turkey, which has been vehemently opposing Armenia’s stance on NKAO, through its dominance will most likely pressurise other Islamic states to not recognise NKAO and thus create further impediments in terms of gaining economic and territorial liberation.
It would not be wrong to say that Armenia holds a better claim on the region since it has historically belonged to the ethnic-Armenians. The people of NKAO should not bear the brunt of the Soviet Union’s appeasement policies and indecisiveness. They share a feeling of association with the people of Armenia and unification with them would assure peaceful co-existence among Azerbaijan & Armenia. Sadly, Azerbaijan has stronger legal backing to support its claim, however, this can be challenged by mounting pressure from the international community.
Potential Issues Concerning International Humanitarian Law
The constant state of conflict and bloodshed in the region has taken a toll on people of both countries. Several people have lost their lives and as many as a million have fled the region from the fear of ethnic cleansing, creating a refugee crisis. Armies from both sides have ruthlessly participated in killings (including civilians), and as per the latest data, the recent clash (since 27th September) has cost more than 200 lives. In this context, it is necessary to analyse the conflict from the framework of IHL.
Principles of distinction and proportionality are at the core of IHL. Distinction aims to protect civilians from enemy attacks, which requires parties of a conflict to distinguish between combatants and civilians. Unfortunately, in the present case, both the forces have side-lined these principles and have started to target cities outside the conflict-zone, violating their obligations under IHL. If the situation further escalates, the chances of armies targeting more civilians is a dangerous possibility. On September 28, Armenia requested the European Court of Human Rights to issue an interim order asking Azerbaijan to suspend the military attacks over the civilian population, although Armenia itself has not refrained from attacking the civilians.
The war has had detrimental effects on the culture and traditions of both the countries, particularly affecting the people of NKAO who are ethnically Armenian. Their culture is currently being suppressed by the Azeris, their native language is not being taught in schools, they are not allowed to celebrate their religious functions, and are being forcefully converted to Islam. As per Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by both countries), provides for concrete recognition and protection of the right to culture. Further, these clashes may go on to have a long-lasting impact on the cultural heritage of the region, which is granted protection by Rules 38 and 40 of Customary IHL.
Considering that both the countries are party to the Geneva Convention, they must respect human rights and realize their obligations under IHL because if the attacks are not contained within the warzone, the human and cultural loss would be costly and irreparable.
The Way Forward
The conflict has created an unfavourable economic environment in the NKAO region which has not seen diversified foreign investments. Thus, it is imperative that the nations avoid attacking each other’s resources and trade routes (especially Azerbaijan with its BTC and South Caucasus Pipeline) at a time when the economy is already stressed. The proclamation of a ceasefire and de-escalation will have to be the first step as the countries should keep in mind the aftermaths of violence. However, one needs to consider longevity, in that the next step should be constructive debates to reach a long-term agreement that suits both the nations and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh as well.
Azerbaijan’s all-weather friend, Turkey has promised its support in case the conflict amplifies. Turkey has openly demonstrated its abhorrence towards Armenia and has the potential to terminate Armenia’s relations with other Islamic countries by influencing the OIC. However, Turkey must refrain from actively getting involved in the issue since it is already under the European radar for its dispute with Greece & Cyprus. Becoming a part of another regional conflict may worsen the situation for Turkey.
Russia on the other hand appears to play a more neutral role, having called for an immediate cease-fire since it has economic ties with both the nations and supplies them with artillery. But on analysing the diplomatic history, it can be said that Russia will support Armenia if the need arises, as Turkey (which supports Azerbaijan) and Russia have been at loggerheads since the Syrian war.
At a time when the world is going through an international health crisis, conversion of a conflict into a full-blown war will have serious repercussions on the economy, environment, human rights and international diplomacy, the impact of which shall be felt beyond Eurasia. Thus, analysts claim that the most optimistic outcome, for now, would be a return to the status quo before this episode, and avoiding an escalation into war which may draw in Turkey and Russia. Other countries have shown their concern and have offered a helping hand to both the nations, but have not been able to present a lasting solution. Russia along with the USA and other nations should mount pressure and bring Armenia and Azerbaijan to the negotiating table. And in reaching any permanent solution, the NKAO people’s wish to be directly represented in such talks, unlike in the past, must be honoured.
Siddharth Jain is a third-year student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab.
Image: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto