Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, various ethnic conflicts emerged in the post-Soviet space, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. One of these unresolved conflicts is that between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, generally considered a ‘frozen conflict’.
However, there isgrowing evidence that this is not a frozen conflict as soldiers and civilians are dying on a daily basis I n the militarized zone along the front line, which culminated in the four-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the 2-5 April 2016. Following this war, never before has the international spotlight focused so much on this area and specifically on this conflict, which could cause future instability for the entire region of the South Caucasus.
It is the clash between the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination, which underlie the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Prior to this most recent war, the entire Azerbaijani population, numbering 40,000 from Nagorno-Karabakh and 560,000 from the seven occupied districts had fled Nagorno-Karabakh and lived as internally displaced persons (IDPs) distributed over Azerbaijan which is proving to be a huge obstacle to the peace settlement and international recognition.
This violation of human rights was expressed by Azerbaijan and the applicants in the Chiragov and Others v. Armenia case. Azerbaijan produced a number of facts and arguments in the Chiragov case demonstrating that Armenia clearly exercises full control over Nagorno-Karabakh and has stationed its soldiers in the occupied territories. The judgment on the Chiragov case and similarly the Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan case were only declared by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on the 16th June 2015.
The recent judgment on the case of Chiragov and Others v. Armenia has established that it was the Republic of Armenia and not ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’ (NKR) which is the party to the conflict. The initial dispute between Azerbaijan and its citizens of Armenian origin in Nagorno-Karabakh, but supported by Armenians living in what was then the Armenian SSR, can be defined as an internal armed conflict. As such, it was governed by the provisions of Art. 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions (GCs) of 1949. This common Art. 3 expressly binds all parties to the internal conflict including insurgents in Nagorno-Karabakh even though they do not have the legal right as private individuals within the national territory of a state party to sign the GC of 1949. Any occurrence of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan would trigger the definition of ‘international armed conflict’.
The judgment on 16th June 2015 of the ECtHR Grand Chamber in the Chiragov and Others v. Armenia case confirms the control of Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, which invalidates Armenia’s claim to the national liberation of the Karabakh Armenians. Armenia is thus deemed responsible for the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ECtHR decision has put an end to Armenia’s denial of its own responsibility for illegal occupation and the presence of armed forces in the territories of Azerbaijan. As such, the judgment confirms that the territories in question are ‘occupied’ rather than ‘liberated’ despite what Armenia says. International law does not outlaw a country to use force to liberate its territories occupied by another state. The judgment states:
Art. 42 of the Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, The Hague 18 October 1907 defines belligerent occupation as follows: “territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised”.
The case of Chiragov and Others v. Armenia concerns six Azerbaijani nationals who were forced to leave the district of Lachin in Azerbaijan by Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War and since then have been unable to return to their homes and denied control over their property. The Court judged that Armenia had violated Art. 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Art. 8 (right to respect for home and private and family life) and Art. 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the Convention. The crucial significance of this case is that the defendant is the Republic of Armenia and therefore NKR is not an independent or autonomous authority. The Court reaffirmed that from the outset of the conflict the Republic of Armenia has had a decisive influence over the NKR and the surrounding territories including the district of Lachin. Armenia is responsible for the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ECtHR decision has put an end to Armenia’s denial of its own responsibility for illegal occupation and military presence in the territories of Azerbaijan.
It should be noted that the applicants’ claim under Art. 14 (prohibition of discrimination) was rejected within the meaning of the Art. 14 of the Convention on the basis of ethnic and religious affiliation. On the other hand, on the same day, 16th June 2015, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR gave its ruling on the Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan case and ruled that Azerbaijan had violated Articles 1 (Protocol No. 1 to the Convention), 8 and 13 of the ECHR.
Sargsyan was an Armenian refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh who had been forced to flee his home in Gulistan in 1992 following the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. His claims that his rights to protection of property, to a family life, and to an effective remedy to the losses he had incurred, had all been violated, were all upheld by the ECtHR. The Court confirmed that although his village was in a disputed area, Azerbaijan had jurisdiction over it and had a duty to take alternative measures to secure Sargsyan’s rights. The Courtc onsidered that no separate issue arose under Art. 14, as Mr Sargsyan’s complaints under Art. 14 amounted essentially to the same complaints which the Court had examined under Articles 1 of the Protocol, 8 and 13 of the Convention. This is a successful precedent for Armenian refugees and IDPs to demand compensation from Azerbaijan. On the other hand, the compensation for the economically stretched Armenia would be a huge economic burden in the future compared to the more affluent Azerbaijan. However, the ECtHR’s decision was on the right of persons rather than on the conflict itself and thus can have no political influence in the final conflict settlement. The ECtHR’s verdicts do not solve the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh recognition nor refer to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, but demonstrate the importance of refugee rights and conflict resolution. Both cases are about persons displaced by the conflict and had lost their properties and how they must now receive compensation. Because Armenia and Azerbaijan both intervened as third parties in the case in which the other case was a respondent they could be called interstate cases by proxy. Both of these cases are an important addition to the Court’s jurisprudence as there are thousands of other applications pending before the Court with the same issues.
These judgments provide an unprecedented opportunity for the international community to attempt to ensure that the thousands of victims of the conflict (refugees and IDPs) can now receive immediate redress without waiting for the final resolution to the conflict. As the situation between the two states appears to have deteriorated since April 2016 there is a great urgency for the deadlock to be broken.
In addition to the above, it should be noted that Armenia is a party to both the GCs of 1949 and Additional Protocols (AP) whereas Azerbaijan only ratified the GCs but not the APs. Hence, Armenia should have been bound by these stricter rules than Azerbaijan. Some rules were breached by Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict such as the deportation and forcible transfer of civilians of an occupied territory. This first rule was breached by ethnic cleansing in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Secondly, Armenia arranged the continued mass settlement of its civilians to take up residence on occupied territory, which is contrary to Art. 85 (4) (a) of Protocol I. This was a grave breach of the Protocol as is discussed in the ‘Case of Major War Criminals’ in 1946 of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg.