Disparity in Condemnation
As Azerbaijan launched its invasion of Armenia in September 2022, the international community made no bones about its disapproval. EU officials, the UK, and France, among others, explicitly named Azerbaijan as the aggressor and called on Baku to cease hostilities and leave the territory of Armenia.
From the Armenian perspective, the international objection to the invasion in 2022 seemed like a divergence given the relative silence from the international community when Azerbaijan launched the 2020 Artsakh War. Both times Armenian civilians were subjected to unprovoked attacks, yet the international community only seemed to care about Armenians from the Republic of Armenia and not those from Nagorno-Karabakh, simply because the latter is an unrecognized territory.
From the international perspective, the behavior of the West was consistent. International actors were upholding the post-WWII norm of protecting the territorial integrity of states. Azerbaijan’s violent campaign to “restore” its territorial integrity in 2020 was thus met with tacit approval by international actors while its violation of the same principle when it invaded Armenia in 2022 was unwelcome, given the perceived threat of forced border changes to the global order.
Global consensus seems to hold that the principle of territorial integrity is necessary to maintain the post-Westphalian system, which preserves the international legal status quo and promotes interstate stability. This is logical, given the fact that the legal norm has protected the essential foundations of the sovereignty of states, especially in Europe and the broader West.
Western powers must understand, however, that intransigence or ad hoc flexibility on the issue presents considerable moral challenges. Forcibly incorporating a people into a political entity, for example, often does not improve their welfare or safety, and can leave them stranded in a country they do not identify with and under a government that abuses them. This is why border changes are allowed, but only under restrictive conditions and in dire circumstances. The international community has, in this context, emphasized human rights over territorial integrity in Kosovo, Timor-Leste, and South Sudan, deploying large international peacekeeping missions to protect civilians from ethnic cleansing and eventually granting these territories remedial rights.
Similarly, in Nagorno-Karabakh, the consequences of upholding Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is the imminent threat to the indigenous Armenian population that is no different than Kosovo, Timor-Leste or South Sudan –– the inevitability of ethnic cleaning and genocide.
Implications of Intransigence on Territorial Integrity
We already have proof of how Azerbaijan intends to “restore” this international legal norm. While it did not –– contrary to its aims –– take all of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 2020 war, the territories it did bring under its jurisdiction have been cleansed of Armenians. Armenian captives and civilians who fell into the hands of Azerbaijani forces were tortured, mutilated, and executed, and Armenian cultural heritage, including cemeteries and churches, have been destroyed or appropriated.
Azerbaijan’s political leadership is itself open about its vision for the restoration of territorial integrity. As the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war raged, Aliyev said, “… if they do not leave our lands of their own free will, we will chase them away like dogs and we are doing that.” Two years later, in May 2022, Aliyev stated, “Our primary duty was to expel the Armenians from our lands.” Baku’s rewarding of Azerbaijani war criminals who have mutilated the bodies of dead Armenian servicemembers is further evidence that this is not conventional warfare, but one of extermination.
Azerbaijan’s plans for how it will deal with the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, were it to take control of the territory, is clear by how it treats them right now. Despite Aliyev’s claims to the international community that it will protect ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, the continued terrorization of Armenian civilians by Azerbaijani forces tells another story. Azerbaijani soldiers have killed Armenian farmers working their fields and utility workers fixing water pipes; they shoot at civilian cars, firefighters, homes, and blast false messages warning of impending attack to Armenian civilians through loudspeakers –– part of an overall strategy of intimidation and terror to force the displacement of Armenians.
The international community, by prioritizing the concept of territorial integrity with the inchoate hope that it will contribute to long-term stability in the region, is not recognizing the inevitable by allowing or otherwise sanctioning Azerbaijan’s imposition of territorial integrity over the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Abusing the Concept of Territorial Integrity
The fundamental dispute at the heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not between the Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but rather between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh’s indigenous Armenians. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have made it clear to the world that they reject Azerbaijani rule and Azerbaijan has, for its part, repeatedly justified their collective fear of and decades-long struggle against submitting to Azerbaijani jurisdiction.
Azerbaijan’s allegations that Armenia’s support for Nagorno-Karabakh equates to a territorial claim are unfounded –– it is not a territorial dispute between the two countries but rather one of the right to self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Armenia does not represent Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and official positions of Armenia and Artsakh are often at odds. The subject of territorial integrity between Armenia and Azerbaijan is moot. If anything, the Azerbaijani leadership’s territorial claims on almost the entirety of Armenia’s territory, including its capital Yerevan, and its periodic incursions, and the 2022 invasion and occupation of Armenian territory constitute threats to Armenia’s territorial integrity –– not Azerbaijan’s.
The international community is falling into a trap –– one of believing the issue is about territorial integrity when it is in essence about the vulnerable indigenous population of Nagorno-Karabakh. This misunderstanding lies at the foundation of the international community’s failure in contributing to substantive peace in the region.
If international actors think accepting Azerbaijan’s claims over Nagorno-Karabakh will appease Baku and contribute to regional peace, they are mistaken there too. Azerbaijan’s belligerence towards the Republic of Armenia would likely continue even if it gets its maximalist demands met –– full control over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh as a functioning political entity, disarmament of the Artsakh Defence Army, and the denial of a special status for ethnic Armenians living under its jurisdiction. Azerbaijan’s demands for sovereign control over a road cutting straight through Armenia and its threats of Armenia’s water security have raised fears in Armenia about its national security should Azerbaijan increase its already immensely asymmetric power in the region.
A Just Peace
Sustainable peace is just peace and peace that does not benefit diverse groups of people is not sustainable. While Azerbaijan inflicted large scale violence, death, and displacement in the 2020 Artsakh War, justifying it as a means to right a past wrong, two years on and there is little evidence that Azerbaijan has used its territorial gains in ways that address its historical grievances in any meaningful way, like ensuring the inclusive participation of IDPs themselves in decision-making around resettlement. What’s more, the military victory is being used to strengthen Aliyev’s regime resilience and personal wealth. Lands conquered by Azerbaijani forces are being developed through giving contracts for agricultural development to companies connected to top government officials, including those owned by Ilham Aliyev’s daughters. A full takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh would only see the same practices expanded.
The Republic of Artsakh enjoys legitimacy as a political entity by its population. While the contradiction between the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination institutionalized in the UN Charter is a significant dilemma in international law, there are precedents for protecting communities under existential threat from genocidal governments. States have a responsibility to protect their civilian population, ensure their rights, and not conduct ethnic cleansing through extermination, armed conflict, or expulsion. The concept of territorial integrity has never given assent to any state to oppress an ethnic group under its jurisdiction.
Throughout the history of the conflict, however, Azerbaijan has made clear it wants Nagorno-Karabakh without its native Armenian population. It is what it has enacted in the territories it took through violence. It is also ultimately what we can expect on a much broader scale if the legal norm is upheld in this context.
The security context for the month of November demonstrates observable decline for Armenia as Azerbaijan intensified and amplified its hybrid warfare activities, attempting to neutralize Armenia’s growing attempts at the diplomatization of its deterrence capabilities.Read more
This concept paper undertakes a reconfiguration of Armenia’s doctrinal policy on Nagorno-Karabakh, thus formulating the empirical and legal basis to develop a grand strategy on the concept of remedial sovereignty.Read more
In Part 1 of a three-part series, Sossi Tatikyan analyzes the uncertainties and possible scenarios for Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenia’s leadership goes ahead with the recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.Read more
In order to understand what may happen to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh if appropriate international guarantees for security and human rights are not put in place for them, Sossi Tatikyan presents the evolution of several comparable conflicts.Read more
In this next installment of a series on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Sossi Tatikyan presents a way forward given the current situation to ensure security guarantees for the Artsakh Armenians and mark progress in the conflict’s resolution.Read more