Occupied territories and international law

26 October 2020

The world has been alarmed by the recent flare-up of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. It stems from the 1988-94 Armenian-Azerbaijan war, when ethnic Armenian separatists gained control of the area.

These and adjoining appropriated lands are recognised under international law as being within Azerbaijan’s borders. Not a single UN member state legally recognises these lands as anything other than an integral part of Azerbaijan. The Council of Europe, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe all adopt the same position. Even Armenia itself has stopped short of recognition, well aware that to do so would contradict established international law.

The separatists claim it is a case of a people seeking to rule themselves, to protect their culture and rights. This may make for fine-sounding ‘moral’ argument – but it is unfounded when held against both international law and historical and modern-day fact.

It is true that the occupied territories are today largely ethnically Armenian. But this came about by force – almost one million Azerbaijanis were ejected from their homes and now live as internally displaced persons across Azerbaijan. And then, after the separatists had taken control, further Armenians were resettled there from Armenia itself. A decisive ethnic majority, especially one secured through war, is not a justification for statehood.

Neither is there any requirement under international law for the occupied territories to be recognised as an independent state, in order to protect ethnicity, heritage and religion. Such protections exist under the national laws of Azerbaijan and its international human rights obligations including the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no legal basis for creating a second Armenian state within Azerbaijan.

The lasting solution would be for those Azerbaijanis who were displaced between 1988 and 1994 during the Armenian-Azerbaijan war to be allowed to return to their homes, as is their lawful right, and, together with ethnic Armenians, to find a way to live there together as part of the territory of Azerbaijan.

Essential for doing this will be to strip away the distortions that surround the ‘territorial integrity versus self-determination’ debate, and to understand both the applicable international law and the factual realities. This may be hard to achieve but it is vital for upholding international law and for an enduring peace.

Rodney Dixon QC

Temple Garden Chambers, London and The Hague