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Failure of international humanitarian law in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

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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.

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International Law

Undemocratic United Nations and Global Peace

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War is not the solution to any problem rather war is a problem itself. Many countries believe in diplomacy and peaceful means of problem-solving and conflict resolution. But, unfortunately, many nations still seek solutions of problems and continuity of politics in wars.

If we look at any newspaper, we find too many armed conflicts going on around the globe. To name a few would include a catastrophic war between Russian Federation and Ukraine which has caused tens of thousands of casualties, with millions displaced. Decades-long civil wars and subsequent US-led NATO intervention and withdrawal has brought Afghanistan to the brink of famine and hunger. The whole Middle Eastern region is unstable and striving with civil wars for long. The Arab -Israel conflict and Kashmir Dispute have been there for more than seven decades.

Above-mentioned and many others examples of armed conflicts prove that there is no durable peace in the world. Here one thing that needs to be noted is that conflict is always inevitable among individuals, societies and nations, because the interests of individuals, societies and nations do not always converge. When there is divergence of interests, conflict arises.

What is needed to be done is the resolution of these conflicts. There are two ways to resolve conflicts: one is violent way (use of force) and the other is peaceful way (diplomacy and negotiations). More than seven decades ago, after World War 2, nations realized that war is not solution to any problem and they established United Nations Organization (UNO). Primary objective of UN was and is the maintenance of peace and security in the world.

But, if we look at history, it seems the UN has failed to achieve international peace and security. UN may have had role in preventing the outbreak of another world war, but it could not stop a series of conflicts from Korea, Vietnam to Afghanistan (during Cold War), and from Africa, Middle East to ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict.

This is a question mark on the credibility of UN, that why the UN despite being guardian of international peace and security cannot stop wars.

UN has six principal organs and many Specialized Agencies and Funds for different tasks.  Among them Security Council is the most powerful Organ and is mandated with enforcing international peace and security. UNSC uses two tools to enforce its decisions, one is applications of sanctions and the other is use of force (intervention).

However the concentration of power in the hands of five permanent states of Security Council, namely the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia have been problematic. These five countries use veto power whenever they perceive any resolution to be against their national interest or against the interests of their allies. Throughout the Cold War, US and USSR had paralyzed UN by vetoing resolutions. Same happened with any other conflict including when US drafted a resolution to stop the war in Ukraine.

So, it is crystal clear that if UN (specifically Security Council) is not reformed, UN can not achieve its primary goal i.e. maintenance of peace and security. UN members and experts have talked about reform in Security Council. Experts have also given suggestions and proposals to make UN more democratic and representative. One of those proposals is abandoning veto and doubling the size of SC members. This can make UN more democratic and representative to some extent. But this is not an easy job. Firstly, because P5 are reluctant to abandon this privileged position (veto power). Secondly, countries hoping for permanent membership are opposed by other countries. For example, many European countries object Germany’s membership. Pakistan objects to India’s membership.

 Experts believe the solutions could be the democratization of UN system (particularly UNSC). This is done by involving General Assembly in the decision making regarding international peace and security. General Assembly is a symbol of democracy, representing almost all the states on the globe. Simple or two-third majority must be mandatory to make any decision regarding international peace and security. This could stop any powerful state to use UN as a tool for its own vested national interest , and the decision of majority will prevail. All the states, big and small, powerful and weak will have equal say in the UN. Otherwise the possibility of wars, violence, genocide and injustice will further increase.

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United States thinks it’s ‘the exception to the rules of war’

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The architects of those Nuremberg trials—representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France fully expected that the new United Nations would establish a permanent court where war criminals who couldn’t be tried in their home countries might be brought to justice. In the end, it took more than half a century to establish the International Criminal Court (ICC). Only in 1998 did 60 nations adopt the ICC’s founding document, the Rome Statute. Today, 123 countries have signed.

Guess what superpower has never signed the ICC? Here are a few hints? – writes Rebecca Gordon in an article at “The Nation”:

Its 2021 military budget dwarfed that of the next nine countries combined and was 1.5 times the size of what the world’s other 144 countries with such budgets spent on defense that year.

Its president has just signed a $1.7 trillion spending bill for 2023, more than half of which is devoted to “defense” (and that, in turn, is only part of that country’s full national security budget).

It operates roughly 750 publicly acknowledged military bases in at least 80 countries.

In 2003, it began an aggressive, unprovoked (and disastrous) war by invading a country 6,900 miles away.

Yes! The United States is that Great Exception to the rules of war.

While, in 2000, during the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton did sign the Rome Statute, the Senate never ratified it. Then, in 2002, as the Bush administration was ramping up its Global War on Terror, including its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan and an illegal CIA global torture program, the United States simply withdrew its signature entirely. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (photo) then explained why this way:

“The ICC provisions claim the authority to detain and try American citizens — U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, as well as current and future officials — even though the United States has not given its consent to be bound by the treaty. When the ICC treaty enters into force, U.S. citizens will be exposed to the risk of prosecution by a court that is unaccountable to the American people, and that has no obligation to respect the Constitutional rights of our citizens.”

The assumption built into Rumsfeld’s explanation was that there was something special — even exceptional — about US citizens. Unlike the rest of the world, we have “Constitutional rights,” which apparently include the right to commit war crimes with impunity.

Even if a citizen is convicted of such a crime in a US court, he or she has a good chance of receiving a presidential pardon. And were such a person to turn out to be one of the “current and future officials” Rumsfeld mentioned, his or her chance of being hauled into court would be about the same as mine of someday being appointed secretary of defense.

The United States is not a member of the ICC, but, as it happens, Afghanistan is. In 2018, the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, formally requested that a case be opened for war crimes committed in that country. ‘The New York Times’ reported that Bensouda’s “inquiry would mostly focus on large-scale crimes against civilians attributed to the Taliban and Afghan government forces.” However, it would also examine “alleged C.I.A. and American military abuse in detention centers in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, and at sites in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, putting the court directly at odds with the United States.”

Bensouda planned an evidence-gathering trip to the United States, but in April 2019, the Trump administration revoked her visa, preventing her from interviewing any witnesses here. It then followed up with financial sanctions on Bensouda and another ICC prosecutor, Phakiso Mochochoko.

So where do those potential Afghan cases stand today? A new prosecutor, Karim Khan, took over as 2021 ended. He announced that the investigation would indeed go forward, but that acts of the United States and allies like the United Kingdom would not be examined. He would instead focus on actions of the Taliban and the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State.

When it comes to potential war crimes, the United States remains the Great Exception. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were just a little less exceptional?

If, for instance, in this new year, we were to transfer some of those hundreds of billions of dollars Congress and the Biden administration have just committed to enriching corporate weapons makers, while propping up an ultimately unsustainable military apparatus, to the actual needs of Americans?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if just a little of that money were put into a new child tax credit? – asks Rebecca Gordon.

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International Law

Selective Standards: Fight Against Oppression or Just a Geopolitical Showdown for Global Supremacy?

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The karma of destiny is perhaps the most patent representation of natural balance one could witness in a lifetime. The global divide between democracy and autocracy has been a mainstay of western diplomacy since the days of the Cold War. ‘Rule-based International Order’ has been the de facto foreign policy of subsequent western administrations – the United States, in particular. One would assume that the virtue of such an altruistic agenda would extend universally regardless of caste, creed, and ethnicity. But unfortunately, while nature could prove occasionally unfair, each successive American regime sets new records of cant and hypocrisy, as if trying to remind us of its duplicitous existence and deviant machinations.

The war in Ukraine was the grotesque highlight of the year 2022. But what notably garnered considerable spotlight was the western unity against Russian maneuvers. Placing crippling sanctions on the Kremlin – done. Cutting energy imports from Russia – mission accomplished. Military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine – $65 billion have already been appropriated to Kyiv, while an additional $47 billion got approved in a $1.7 trillion government funding bill signed by President Biden. What else? Oh, yes! Sanctions on Iran for supplying military drones to Russia, allegedly used in surveillance and targeted attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Russia got ejected from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), ridiculed in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), and suspended from the Group of Eight (G8) in 2014 for annexing Crimea. All in the name of, and I quote the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “defense of the UN Charter and in resolute opposition to Russia’s devastating war of aggression against Ukraine and its people.” Well, is the defense of the UN Charter absolute or subject to the selective judgment of the United States? Is all aggression against any innocent civilians culpable, or just Russian predation against innocent denizens of Ukraine? The answer was pretty evident on (ironically) the last day of the year that would remain earmarked in history as the year of the notorious Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The UNGA voted on a resolution calling on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to opine on the legal consequences of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. Today, Israel colonizes swathes of Palestinian land beyond the borders established under the 1947 UN Partition Plan (contentious in itself to begin with). Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, this illegal occupation also includes Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. The resolution passed 87 to 26 with 53 abstentions. Unsurprisingly, the typical states opposing the resolution were the United States and Britain – the flag-bearers of justice in the Russian war in Ukraine. The same standard-bearers of international law that applauded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for dragging Russia to the ICJ before Russian forces even fully penetrated the Ukrainian borders. It is another rueful example of a shameless display of hypocrisy on the geopolitical canvas. And it would’ve been tragicomical had it not been par for the course – a historical cliche!

Last month, two US lawmakers: namely House Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, introduced a bipartisan congressional resolution calling on President Biden to boot Russia from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for its “flagrant violations” of the UN Charter, including its illegal naturalization of four Ukrainian oblasts and committing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. While the expulsion proceedings of a permanent member of the UNSC are both obscure and (frankly) unrealistic without Russian consent, this scenario is spectacularly ironic.

In November 1967, the members of the UNSC voted unanimously for Resolution 242: calling out Israel to withdraw from the annexed territories seized in the Six-Day War. Yet 55 years later, Israel not only continues to violate the resolution, it also proceeds to expand settlements on expropriated Palestinian land with impunity. In the last five decades, the Israeli regime has demolished over 28,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territory; spawned more than 200 settlements and outposts. And between 600,000 and 750,000 Jewish settlers have been transferred to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The violence against Palestinians has never ceased.

According to the data from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a total of 424 children have been killed in Ukraine by Russian barbarity. Apartment blocks razed mercilessly; the electricity grid battered to the brink of collapse. The United States has termed it a ’systemic’ assault on humanity, and President Biden even called it a “genocide.” The same department (OHCHR) reported in May 2021 that the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip killed 242 Palestinian children. Was Israel punished for its war crimes? Far from it. President Biden recently congratulated the incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the architect of the 11-day war in 2021, on forming the government – terming him as his “friend for decades” while conspicuously ignoring concerns regarding the inclusion of far-right racist politicians in the new cabinet.

The US officials have always maintained a programmed PR narrative of “Israel’s right to defend itself.” From what, children? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Israeli aggression in Gaza displaced more than 74,000 Palestinians, including 7,000 children without a roof, scant food supplies, and virtually no access to medical assistance. The WHO also reported the decimation of 30 health facilities in Gaza due to Israeli airstrikes. Yet, annualized military aid to the tune of $3.8 billion continues to flow to Israel from the United States. What more to explain other than the absolute mockery of international law; the farce of diplomacy of human rights and equitable justice at the behest of the apparently puritanical United States of America.

History is riddled with numerous examples of American duplicity. The American acquiescence to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which eventually galvanized the Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah. The United States vetoed the UNSC resolution – one of its 53 vetoes time and again used to shield Israel from global denunciation – calling for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from southern Lebanon. An estimated 49,600 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians died during the occupation. And then there are glaring examples of American interventions. Its outright support to the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union and the subsequent provenance of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. How can one forget the devastating invasion of Iraq on the utterly bogus canard of Saddam Hussein wielding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Between 2003 and 2006, the US-led assault resulted in over 655,000 Iraqi civilian casualties, primarily due to the indiscriminate aerial bombardment by the US forces on Iraqi towns and cities. And the civil vacuum engendered in wake of the Iraq War served as a breeding ground for radical offshoots of Al-Qaeda – later accreting under the banner of the Islamic State (IS). How can a country such as America still enjoy a moral high ground when its historical scroll stands emblazoned with unilateral aggression, illegal intervention, and unabashed prevention of justice against its genocidal allies?

The war in Ukraine is a blood-strewn conflict but a rendition of complex realpolitik import and balance of regional power dynamics. Opposing Russian cruelty should not implicitly spell out support for American rhetoric. One could still stand with Ukrainians while denouncing its backers in the name of universal covenants of justice. All humans are entitled to the right to life, security, freedom, and dignity. These fundamental rights should not waver based on alliances – political, ideological, ethnic, or otherwise.

While the passage of this UNGA resolution is a promising sign of growing global consciousness, it won’t yield any significant, policy-altering outcomes. In 2004, the ICJ weighed on the issue of Israeli occupation and ruled that the wall in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem was illegal. In response, Israel termed The Hague ‘politically motivated’ and rejected the ruling. Similarly, the Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, speaking ahead of the vote, characterized this resolution as “a moral stain on the UN,” further arguing that “no international body can decide that the Jewish people are occupiers of their own homeland.” Russia makes an eerily similar argument about Ukraine; Russian President Vladimir Putin aspires to ‘Reunify the Soviet Motherland.’ Even China’s President Xi Jinping posits a parallel assertion regarding the ‘reunification’ of Taiwan with the Chinese motherland. The resemblance is uncanny. But while the US continues to support Ukraine to wrestle back lost territory from Russian troops; continues to arm Taiwan to defend against a potential amphibious invasion from China, plans are effectively underway to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – a tacit nod to Donald Trump’s aberrant recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – despite the city’s disputed status under the international law. I reckon the words of Ms. Tirana Hassan, the acting executive director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), in her introductory essay in the HRW World Report 2023 aptly bewail these double standards: “[In] a world in which power has shifted, it is no longer possible to rely on a small group of mostly Global North governments to defend human rights.

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