The United States and European Union are mediating an end to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan festering since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia sponsors separate talks. On 14 July, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan met in Brussels for another summit with European Council President Charles Michel. An agreement is expected by the year end, but thorny divergences remain.
Threats and use of force are coercing Armenia to accept Azerbaijan’s demands. If, as a result, an inequitable agreement is consummated, the ultimate outcome is likely to be more war, not peace. Considering Western, Russian, Turkish, Israeli and Iranian geopolitical interests in the region, the war between two small countries may indeed have global implications.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is mainly over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave with a majority Armenian population incorporated arbitrarily in Azerbaijan during the early Soviet years. Following independence in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992-1994 and 2020. Pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan, and mass displacement of over one million people in both countries continue to poison relations. On 2 September 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh seceded from Soviet Azerbaijan in an attempt to preserve its population’s right to life, formed democratic governance institutions, and continued to self-govern to date.
At an earlier Brussels summit, Pashinyan announced Armenia’s readiness to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity on the basis of reciprocity, and conceded that Nagorno-Karabakh could be part of Azerbaijan, provided the “rights and security” of 120,000 Armenians in the enclave are upheld. The Nagorno-Karabakh concession was unprecedented, but unnecessary under international law and a gratuitous addon to the mutual recognition of territorial integrity. The elected president of Nagorno-Karabakh rejected Pashinyan’s giveaway.
From a conflict resolution perspective, the prospect of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is indeed welcomed. However, there are grounds for skepticism: (1) Azerbaijan repeatedly violates international obligations; (2) the international community is unwilling to impose consequences for Azerbaijan’s breaches; and (3) Armenia is negotiating from a weak position and under pressure, in essence begging for peace.
Under such conditions, the first victims of an imprudent agreement would be the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, likely to be ethnically cleansed notwithstanding predictably toothless guarantees. Moreover, Azerbaijan is likely to continue its military incursions into Armenia proper, demanding baseless territorial concessions and endangering the very existence of the country.
Azerbaijan’s Repeated Violations of International Obligations
Since 12 December 2022, Azerbaijan has imposed a blockade on the only road connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin Corridor, a 5 Km lifeline. Food, medicine and other vital supplies in the enclave are depleting fast, the movement of civilians is blocked, and access for NGOs and reporters is barred. The blockade intends to intimidate the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and ultimately force them out – in essence this is the ethnic cleansing that Aliyev frequently threatens. The U.S., European states, and countless others have urged Azerbaijan to end the siege. In February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Azerbaijan to end the blockade [para 62], a binding decision under the UN Charter [Article 94]. But, Azerbaijan ignores the order.
In an alarming expert opinion, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo warned that imminent genocide by starvation awaits the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan is in breach of countless international obligations. The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s September 2021 resolution denounced Azerbaijan for deliberate damage during the 2020 war to Armenian cultural heritage, churches and cemeteries. Other reports also document the destruction of Armenian monuments. In December 2021, another ICJ ruling ordered Azerbaijan to stop the “vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage.” Yet, the vandalism continues unabated.
An article citing conclusive evidence catalogues the destruction of 89 Armenian churches, 5,840 stone crosses (khachkars), and 22,000 tombstones in Nakhichevan between 1964 and 1987. Nakhichevan is an exclave of Azerbaijan south-west of Armenia, also placed under Azerbaijan rule in early Soviet years. The 40% Armenian minority there was ethnically cleansed early on. Reports also detail violations of cultural, educational, and religious rights of the Lezghin, Talysh and Avar minorities in Azerbaijan.
The U.S.’s 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Azerbaijan documents violations of human rights writ large. Moreover, the ICJ noted with grave concern that Armenian prisoners of war are subjected to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment [para 87].
Since 2020, Azerbaijan’s military incursions are testing the defenses around Nagorno-Karabakh and borders of Armenia proper, risking broader conflict, and pursuing two goals: (1) create facts on the ground while discussions are underway about Armenia-Azerbaijan border delineation; and (2) gain the high ground around border areas still not delineated. In May, President Aliyev claimed: “the border will be where we say it should be.” Aliyev frequently voices such comments, even laying claim to parts of modern-day Armenia. Former U.S. ambassador to Armenia John Heffern notes, the 2020 victory has “whetted Azerbaijan’s appetite towards encroachments into southern Armenia, in ways that threaten regional stability.”
In January 2023, the EU deployed 50 (number doubled later) unarmed observers along the borders of Armenia, aiming to “contribute to stability”. The Observer Mission is the first tangible international measure beyond meaningless expressions of concern. Azerbaijan declined observers on its side of the border.
Might Makes Right?
Pashinyan’s gratuitous concession on the Nagorno-Karabakh status is no doubt the outcome of Azerbaijan bullying, but also U.S./E.U. arm-twisting diplomacy. The giveaway seems to have startled Moscow: the concession “radically change[s] the fundamental conditions under which … the Russian peacekeeping contingent [was] deployed in the region”, leaving open the possibility of their early withdrawal. Russia deployed 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh following the 2020 war. On July 26, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov bluntly said that the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh “need to accept Azerbaijani rule,” a radical change from Moscow’s previous position that aimed to freeze the enclave’s status.
Another decisive factor for Pashinyan’s concession is Armenia’s weak military hand following the 2020 war and the aggressive posture of Azerbaijan since. Two additional contributing factors: Azerbaijan demands that the self-defense forces of Nagorno-Karabakh disarm forthwith; and in July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey demanded the Russian peacekeeping force to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh by 2025.
Thus, vague assurances that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh can enjoy rights and security under Azerbaijan’s rule are not convincing. As former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested, there is “need to have a kind of international mechanism to monitor, control and guarantee those rights and security for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Otherwise, “any negotiated outcomes risk being discredited as the result of coerced agreement under duress. A peace that is extorted today will unravel tomorrow.”
Mediators’ Responsibility to Protect, or at the Very Least Do No Harm
Unless a sustainable agreement is framed, the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh will remain on Azerbaijan’s agenda. The U.S., French and Russian cochairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, charged with the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations since 1992, managed such a feat in 2007. The Madrid Principles, proposed the following compromise provisions: (1) an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh preserving its de facto independence (and right to exist); (2) future determination of the final legal status through a referendum; (3) a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh; (4) the right of displaced persons to return; and (5) international security guarantees including peacekeepers. A sixth provision, the return of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh seized by Armenian forces as security buffer, was rendered moot by the Azerbaijani victory in 2020.
The Madrid Principles are grounded in the UN Charter and Helsinki Final Act of 1975, namely non-use of force, territorial integrity, and equal rights and self-determination. The proposal should not be dismissed offhand relying on outdated notions of international law.
In a seminal opinion (2010) regarding Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the ICJ ruled that, since the eighteenth century, “there were numerous instances of declarations of independence, often strenuously opposed by the State from which independence was being declared…. State practice … points clearly to the conclusion that international law contained no prohibition of declarations of independence. During the second half of the twentieth century, the international law of self-determination developed … to create a right to independence for the peoples of non-self-governing territories and peoples subject to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation” [para 79].
The ICJ also ruled that the principle of territorial integrity, enshrined in the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act, “is confined to the sphere of relations between States” and not to the right to self-determination [para 80]. In statements submitted to the ICJ, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Denmark, U.S., Finland, Norway, Netherlands, and U.K. supported the court’s subsequent conclusion on the right to self-determination.
Moreover, scholars have concluded that self-determination in the form of unilateral secession may be a remedy if a state violates its obligation to grant equal rights to all peoples within its territory. An eminent proponent of this theory, Antonio Cassese, recognized a “right to remedial secession”: if a state does not represent the whole population, in that it denies equal access to the political decision-making process and political institutions to any group and in particular on the ground of race, creed and color, then groups denied those rights are entitled to claim self-determination and to secede from the state [page 112].
Additionally, at the UN’s 2005 World Summit, Member States agreed (A/RES/60/1) to a “Responsibility to Protect”: “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it.” [para 138].
Fearing for good reason that ethnic cleansing threatened their fundamental right to life, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally declared independence on 2 September 1991 and managed a successful self-defense against the full-scale war that Azerbaijan unleashed on them. This act of self-preservation, to live in peace and security, was in full compliance with the accepted international law of self-determination and the OSCE Madrid Principles. Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union on 18 October 1991 when Nagorno-Karabakh was no longer part of the country.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan mediators must not dismiss the contemporary interpretation of the international law principles of self-determination and territorial integrity. The mediators have the responsibility to protect the very survival of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Urgent dialogue under three separate international negotiation tracks is essential: between the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan; Armenia and Azerbaijan; and Armenia and Turkey. Long-term mechanisms are needed for the Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Turks to unburden themselves from the weight of wrongs committed, and to ensure cooperation going forward. Incentives and disincentives can compel good faith implementation of commitments undertaken.
Mediators have a range of options for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The upper end option, recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan, seems off the mediation agenda. While the absolute minimum benchmark must be the enclave’s Soviet era status as an autonomous region, Azerbaijan’s racist rhetoric and genocidal conduct precludes this option without external safeguards.
A compromise could be a status akin to the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland (1998), which would: (1) grant Nagorno-Karabakh the highest-level autonomy within Azerbaijan with complete powers over the population’s rights and security; (2) grant Armenia and Azerbaijan joint governance authority for certain powers not reserved for the autonomous authority; and (3) confirm Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination as a guarantee should Azerbaijan continue its genocidal policies. Initially, an international peacekeeping presence would be a must.
Once an outcome is agreed for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, more rational discussions could resolve the remaining disputes between the two countries: (1) border delimitation; (2) unblocking transport links; and (3) missing persons, detainees and prisoners of war.
The geopolitical interests of the West in Azerbaijan’s oil and gas supplies and pipelines should not trump the mediators’ and the international community’s responsibility to protect a people under imminent threat.