The Legal History of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
Written by Kemal Kongar
On the 27th of September, the world started getting news of conflict in the Caucasus. Unfamiliar and distant to many people outside the region, the war between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan may appear confusing, or even random. However, this could not be further from the truth. These two states have long been at loggerheads over the mostly mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. As both sides ramp up their propaganda, for local and global audiences, it’s important to understand the conflict from the standpoint of international law and legal legitimacy.
The region has long been a hotbed of conflict and violence due to tensions between Armenian Christians and Turkic Muslims. Ruled by the Russian Empire until the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union tightened its grip on the Caucasus before significant independence movements could take root. Thus, with the official creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, the seeds of the current conflict were sown. Before the establishment of widely accepted international laws and customs, it was hard to determine if the acquisition of territory was, in a sense, ‘legal’. Without strong international institutions, the Great Powers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were free to conquer land as long as it was in their spheres of influence. This is how the Nagorno-Karabakh, along with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, fell into the Russian, and then Soviet, orbit.
Conflict started to simmer with the weakening of Soviet central authority over the various Soviet Socialist Republics. Ethnic conflict cost tens of thousands of people their lives and resulted in the Armenian population, already the majority before these events, taking decisive control of the region. The government of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence with the fall of the Soviet Union, starting a full-on war supported by the Armenian government against Azerbaijan. This is the point where one can rely on international law, and especially United Nations resolutions, to get a sense of the legal legitimacy of the conflict.
During the war, the United Nations Security Council passed four resolutions aimed at ending hostilities and bringing legal clarity to the conflict. The first, Resolution 822, condemned the seizure of Azerbaijani territory and demanded the withdrawal of all occupying troops from the region – a demand that was ignored by the autonomous government and Armenia. The second, Resolution 853, went even further. Alongside reaffirming the demands for the withdrawal of troops, it stated:
“Urges the Government of the Republic of Armenia to continue to exert its influence to achieve compliance by the Armenians of the Nagorny-Karabakh region of the Azerbaijani Republic with its resolution 822 (1993) and the present resolution…”
This is an important point as it reaffirms the internationally recognized status of Nagorno-Karabakh as territory belonging to Azerbaijan. In the following resolution, Resolution 874, this status was reaffirmed with further condemnation of the use of force for the purposes of violating the territorial integrity of states in the region. The final resolution on the matter, Resolution 884, emphasized the Council’s demand for the withdrawal of hostile troops from occupied Azerbaijani territory – a demand that was once again ignored. While the United Nations Security Council can hardly be considered an unbiased institution, as far as international law is concerned, they are one of the highest authorities. Thus, in accordance with international law, the Nagorno-Karabakh region belongs to Azerbaijan and hostile rebel activities in the region, which have taken place with overt Armenian backing, are illegal.
The humanitarian crisis had resulted in over a million people, mostly ethnic Azeris, fleeing their homes. With the situation worsening, the 1994 Russian-sponsored ceasefire between Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh government, and Azerbaijan was signed. Having lost control of the region along with a substantial amount of territory in the surrounding area, the Azerbaijani government and people were not satisfied with the treaty. There was immense political pressure and public support for the resumption of hostilities, thus it is no surprise that unofficial skirmishes continued. Throughout the next decades, both sides would break the ceasefire numerous times.
Up until 2016, the conflict seemed to mostly be confined to irregular border clashes and political posturing. The regional government of Nagorno-Karabakh continued legislating and governing the territory while Azerbaijan and Turkey used economic tools to limit Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh prosperity. In April of 2016, the conflict flared back up into all-out war for four days. Claiming a pre-emptive strike against Armenian shelling, the Azerbaijani forces attacked strategic hills in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding occupied territory. While there were no official declarations of war, the conflict was a clear breach of the ceasefire and against the previously set terms of de-escalation. Widely seen as an attempt at a quick land grab, one can reliably say that the Azerbaijani government was the culprit in the open breaking of terms. The events in 2020, however, would take a much more serious tone. With declarations of war and calls for total mobilization, only time will tell the extent of the human cost of such a conflict.
In conclusion, one might be inclined to argue that Azerbaijan is responsible for the resumption of hostilities in the region, both in 2020 and 2016. While this is true due to the breaking of ceasefire terms, one must also remember that, according to international law, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijani territory currently undergoing a violent uprising supported by the Armenian state. Thus, in the murky waters of international law, one is hard-pressed to find a state that bases its actions solely on multinational consensus.
Efron, Sonni. “Armenia, Azerbaijan Agree to a Cease-Fire: Caucasus: Moscow Brokers Truce in Former Soviet Union's Longest-Running Conflict. But Fighting Continues.,” May 17, 1994. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-05-17-mn-58811-story.html.
“Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict | Global Conflict Tracker.” Accessed October 3, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/nagorno-karabakh-conflict.
“Nagorno-Karabakh Profile,” April 6, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18270325.
U.N. Security Council Resolutions:
Resolution 822 (1993)
Resolution 853 (1993)
Resolution 874 (1993)
Resolution 884 (1993)