The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
and its Humanitarian Crisis

by Francisca Pereira
reviewed by Ana Grolli

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a complex and long-standing dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Understand why the humanitarian situation in the region is dire and why many Armenians are fearing potential genocide.

@CC Peace News

Historical Context

The Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh in Armenian, is a region in the middle of Azerbaijan disputed for more than 400 years between ethnic Aermenians and Azerbaijan. To better understand what has been happening since then, we need to contextualise the conflict, not only because the dispute over this territory is one of the oldest and most complex in Eurasia, but also because the persecution of Armenians dates back to 1915. Between 1915 and 1923, it is estimated that between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and that another 817,873 fled, particularly to Nagorno Karabakh (NK) [1]. Many of these refugees have settled and established a life in NK, fleeing the massacre they were subjected to, only to be faced with yet another massacre, becoming a kind of “hereditary refugees”[2].

NK is a mountainous region in the South Caucasus and is located within the territory of Azerbaijan, making it an enclave: a territory with political, social and cultural distinctions whose geographical borders lie entirely within the boundaries of another territory. The conflict arises essentially because while Azerbaijan wanted to reintegrate the territory under its full control, Armenia, although not considering itself a direct party to the conflict, wanted to support the separatist Armenians who, until September 2023, have de facto dominated NK for the last 30 years. Although there could be some tension due to multiculturalism, i.e. the coexistence between the Armenians, who are mostly Christians, and the Azeris, a Turkish ethnic group, who are mostly Muslims, this would not be the only factor, as this conflict has arisen from a complex geopolitical truth, subject of countless disputes over the years [3].

After the Soviet Union’s emergence and the subsequent occupation of Azerbaijan and Armenia, the unresolved conflicts of 1920 resurfaced in NK, which came under Azerbaijani control. Following the USSR’s dissolution, tensions escalated as protests in Yerevan called for the unification of Armenia and NK, ultimately realised through a referendum boycotted by Azerbaijan. Uprisings erupted, and military equipment left by the USSR vanished. In 1991, “Operation Ring” forcibly removed Armenians from the Shayuman region, exacerbating the conflict. The dissolution of the USSR and Operation Ring intensified the strife, resulting in Susha city fall in 1991 and subsequent Armenian victories. In 1994, Azerbaijan made gains during the Goranboy operation, but a ceasefire was brokered after six years of fighting. Despite NK’s aspirations for independence and potential unification with Armenia, Azerbaijan never accepted, leading to renewed conflict in 2020. The long-standing dispute reached a climax on September 19, resulting in the dissolution of all state institutions [4].

 

Right to self-determination

The principle of self-determination, rooted in international custom and formalised with the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, aims to safeguard the independence, freedom, and organisational rights of peoples. Tied to the dismantling of imperialist and colonialist systems, it grants states subjected to these systems the right to determine their political future, encompassing choices regarding government, cultural identity, and economic structures. The means through which self-determination can be exercised include self government, autonomy, free association, and secession. The legitimacy of secessionist movements, such as the one in Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), becomes a focal point of contention. The complex case prompts questions about the legitimacy of claims, with public international law offering no unanimous or entirely satisfactory solutions to the matter [5].

In the realm of international law, perspectives on NK’s right to secede from Azerbaijan vary among jurists. The intricate nature of this issue necessitates an overview, shedding light on why the international community did not recognise NK as a state. Fundamental to the discourse are principles like territorial sovereignty, the right to self-determination, and remedial secession. Azerbaijan’s key argument rests on territorial sovereignty, asserting that NK legally belongs to Azerbaijan, and any external intervention would be an infringement on this sovereignty. While the right to self-determination, enshrined in international instruments, played a significant role in decolonisation, jurists debate its applicability in cases like NK, questioning whether the Armenian population’s rights fall under the category of external self determination through secession. The nuanced discussion incorporates distinctions between “people” and “minorities,” highlighting the complexities of determining the legitimacy of secessionist movements within the framework of international law. The external expression of self-determination, involving separation from the “mother state,” is regarded with caution by the international community, yet the concept of remedial secession, as exemplified by the Aaland Islands case, introduces the possibility under specific conditions, emphasising the need for peaceful negotiations and respect for fundamental rights in such scenarios [6].

 

 

Humanitarian Crisis

Samvel Shahramanyan, the internationally unrecognised president of NK, decided to dissolve all state institutions as of January 1, 2024, due to “the difficult political and military situation”. In September this year, Azerbaijan regained control of NK and it is estimated that around 100,437 (out of 120,000) ethnic Armenians have moved from Azerbaijan to Armenia [7]. The Azerbaijani authorities offered the chance for the Armenian population to be reintegrated into Azerbaijan or to flee to Armenia via the Lachin corridor (the corridor linking Armenia and NK) and, moreover, guaranteed that the rights of the Armenian population would be respected. However, this corridor, which is essential for the passage of people, medicines and food, has been blocked by Azerbaijan since December 2022, making the population more isolated and vulnerable. The agreement to reopen the canal was only reached on September 10 this year, after serious humanitarian problems arose due to the blockade of the canal (from December 2022 until September 2023) [8].

Armenia is now struggling to house all the sudden refugees from NK, with 40,000 expected to be in temporary accommodation such as hotels and schools. Although the refugees are in a safe place, an uncertain future lies ahead [9]. What is known for now is that Armenia and Azerbaijan are expected to sign a peace agreement, after years of hostility between the two countries [10]. However, many international law experts are concerned about the situation and warn that the ethnic Armenians who have remained in NK could be facing potential genocide [11]. In an interview for the JURIST, Baroness Caroline Cox said that “although Artsakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan by the international community, its commitment to its Armenian and Christian traditions has been widely recognized, and the enforced ethnic cleansing of the Armenians who have lived there for centuries has been designated a “war crime”. There must be no impunity for these brutal policies and the perpetrators must be held to account” [12].

In the meantime, judges of the International Court of Justice have ordered Azerbaijan to, in accordance with its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, (i) ensure that persons who have left Nagorno-Karabakh after 19 September 2023 and who wish to return to Nagorno-Karabakh are able to do so in a safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner; (ii) ensure that persons who remained in NagornoKarabakh after 19 September 2023 and who wish to depart are able to do so in a safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner; and (iii) ensure that persons who remained in NagornoKarabakh after 19 September 2023 or returned to Nagorno-Karabakh and who wish to stay are free from the use of force or intimidation that may cause them to flee. The court warns that Azerbaijan is obliged to comply with the provisions of the international convention on all forms of discrimination (as it is one of the signatory states) [13].

 

 

References

[1] O Genocídio Arménio. Available in: <https://ensina.rtp.pt/artigo/o-genocidio-armenio/. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[2] Prime Video: Architects of Denial. Available in:
https://www.primevideo.com/gp/video/detail/Architects-ofDenial/0N4OXO8I3DL5REH6KFSL4QZNWM/ref=atv_nb_lcl_pt_PT?language=pt_PT&ie=UTF8&linkCode=
xm2&persistLanguage=1&tag=justwatch0a20&token=g37dzGkr2qgNa7aSUPa3lZ3zhUcgzZFGAVaEtN7JfiuWAAAADAAAAABfJN8xcmF3AAAAABVX8C
wXqz4nuL9RKX%2F%2F%2Fw%3D%3D. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[3] ERTL, M. Nagorno-Karabakh: Conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenians explained. BBC News, 19th September 2023.
[4] European Parliament Resolution on the blockade of Armenia and the human rights situation there, 14 March 1991 | NKR. Available in:
https://www.nkr.am/en/documents/1991-03-14-europarl-resolution-on-blockade-of-armenia. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[5] ENGAGEDSCHOLARSHIP@CSU, E.; NAGORNO-KARABAKH, N.-K.; STERIO, M. Self-Determination and Secession under International Law. [s.l: s.n.]. Available in: https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1937&context=fac_articles. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[6] STERIO, M. On the Right to External Self-Determination: “Selfistans,” Succession, and the Great Powers’ Rule +. [s.l: s.n.]. Available in:
https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1335&context=mjil. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[7] Expresso PT. “Nagorno-Karabakh: mais de 100 mil pessoas abandonaram o território.” Available in: Nagorno-Karabakh: mais de 100 mil pessoas abandonaram o território – Expresso. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[8] The Guardian. “Nagorno-Karabakh routes reopen in Lachin corridor deal, say Azeri and Armenian sides.” 10th September. 2023.
[9] ONU News. “Armênia recebe 100 mil refugiados de Karabakh com apoio da OIM”. Available in: https://news.un.org/pt/story/2023/10/1821767. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[10] Expresso PT. “Nagorno-Karabakh: Arménia vai assinar acordo de paz com o Azerbaijão dentro de alguns meses.” Available in:
https://expresso.pt/internacional/2023-10-26-Nagorno-Karabakh-Armenia-vai-assinar-acordo-de-pazcom-o-Azerbaijao-dentro-de-alguns-meses-f8497b7f. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[11] ICJ: “Azerbaijan must allow the return of ethnic Armenians who fled Nagorno-Karabakh and protect Armenians in the territory.” Available in:
https://www.jurist.org/news/2023/11/world-court-azerbaijan-must-allow-return-of-ethnic-armenianswho-fled-nagorno-karabakh-and-protect-armenians-in-the-territory/. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[12] Baroness Caroline Cox on Nagorno-Karbakh for JURIST: “No Nation Should Put Oil Before Humanitarian Concerns”. Available in:
https://www.jurist.org/features/2023/10/23/baroness-caroline-cox-on-nagorno-karbakh-no-nationshould-put-oil-before-humanitarian-concerns. Accessed on 21st November 2023.
[13] ICJ. Summary of the Order of 17 November 2023. Available in:
https://www.icj-cij.org/node/203317. Accessed on 21st November 2023.

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