“A clash between the desire to uphold the law of territorial integrity for Azerbaijan and the right to self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh are the main drivers of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”. Discuss. | HART Prize for Human Rights

5 May 2016


This essay, by Suzie McCarthy, received second prize in the 2016 HART Prize for Human Rights, Senior Essay Category.


The right to self-determination and the law of territorial integrity are arguably two contradictory principles within international law. The resolution of this conflict of principles has been a challenge in many countries around the world, particularly affecting former soviet states as they seek to cement territorial boundaries and form new democracies. This challenge must also be overcome by the states of Azerbaijan and Armenia, as they dispute the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Though international authorities recognise the contradictory nature of these two principles as the main driving force of the Karabakh dispute, the ‘zero-sum’ nature of this conflict means that both sides see any compromise of these principles as a gain to the other, and therefore a loss for themselves (Whittaker, 2016). Continuing to frame the conflict in these terms does little to forward a peaceful resolution, and it is therefore necessary to consider a more holistic picture that places civilians at the heart of the solution.

The struggle for Nagorno-Karabakh has roots dating back to the fourth century, when Turkic tribes (ancestors of the Azeri population) settled in the lower grasslands of Karabakh, with Armenian mountaineers settling in upper Karabakh. These divides, turned to hostilities following centuries of conflict, remain in place to the current day. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw tensions boil over into war following the abolishing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomy and boycotting of the 1991 referendum by Azerbaijan (HART, 2016). In 1994 a ceasefire was brokered, by which time not just Nagorno-Karabakh, but large portions of the surrounding Azerbaijan territory were under Armenian occupation (Rasizade, 2011). Over twenty years later, the land remains occupied, with a number of ceasefire violations from both sides. Instances of violence particularly increased during 2014, with heavy Azeri losses provoking hostile comments from Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev that imply a thirst for continued war (Anon, 2014). With Azerbaijan investing heavily in arms and experts warning of a ‘war by miscalculation’ (Khojovan, 2015), faith in the potential for resolution needs renewing to prevent further violence.

The Guardian
The Guardian

To understand current explanations of the conflict, it is therefore necessary to clearly define these two principles.  Article 2 of the UN charter states:

“All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” (UN, 1945).


Azerbaijan argues that Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh and the surrounding areas violates the law of territorial integrity, using it to form the basis of leadership over the region and pushing for the withdrawal of Armenian troops. President Aliyev emphasises in his speeches instances of violations of the law by Armenia in occupying Azerbaijan territory, destroying infrastructure and displacing Azeri populations (Aliyev, 2013). Meanwhile, Armenia forwards the right to self-determination to justify its occupation of the land. This principle appears several times within the UN charter, following the values recognised within the Atlantic charter (Thurer and Burri, 2008). The right to self-determination forwards the notion of governance of a state as chosen by its people (UN, 1945). It is broadly accepted that the Nagorno-Karabakh’s people desire is an autonomous state, partly due to the 1991 referendum in which they voted for independence (NKR Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2008). The main political obstacle to resolution is that Azerbaijan refuses to permit a vote for autonomy whilst Armenian forces remain in their territory, whereas Armenia refuses to remove forces until Nagorno-Karabakh’s future is secured.

However, some suggest that a solution may be foreseeable should the conflict be entirely reframed (Hopmann, 2010). Though self-determination versus territorial independence is a broadly accurate political and legal definition of the situation, such terms neglect the historical, cultural and ethical foundations of the conflict. These foundations span centuries, in which the building and later collapse of the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empire destabilised recognised boundaries of states in the region. Further, the definite identity of the region as Christian prevented the province falling under Islamic rule during the Arab conquest during the eight century. Religious tensions remain today, with Armenian partisans arguing that Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, cannot inherit the land of Christian heritage (Rasizade, 2011). The accuracy of many historical arguments are disputed, with both sides seeking to undermine the truth of the others’ version of events (Avdoyan, 1995), and employing historical propaganda to gain public support (Klevler, 2013).

In addition to historical complications of boundary disputes, there are equally historic and contemporary ethnic tensions between Azeri and Armenian populations. Actions by both parties involving the deliberate displacement, killings and abuses of human rights of opposing ethnic groups have left ‘deep and painful imprints’ upon civilians (Ghaplanyan, 2009), obscuring the pathway to peace. Deliberate targeting of civilians continues, despite the ceasefire, exacerbating tensions and serving to ‘un-freeze’ the conflict (Walter, 2015). Summarising the conflict in terms of legal and political principles therefore obscures the level of civilian involvement in the dispute and marginalises them from the peace process. This construction of the situation must change in order to find a lasting solution, and indeed many argue that the inclusion of civil society in decreasing tensions is vital in order to stimulate any shift in the status quo at a political level (Ghaplanyan, 2009).

A further complication in framing the conflict as self-determination against territorial integrity is the involvement of international mediators. In particular, many have questioned Russia’s motivations for involvement in the peace process, suggesting that Presidents Yeltsin and Putin have had interests in using the conflict to enforce degrees of control over the region (Daskalova, 2015). Some further emphasise the geopolitical factors that encourage Western and Russian powers to prolong the conflict to prove their influence over the wider region which is significant for military and economic interests for both forces (Torosyan and Vardanyan, 2015).

On the other hand, such ‘Great Game’ narratives have been criticised for representing the conflict as inevitable and portraying countries such as Azerbaijan and Armenia as mere ‘pawns’ in a wider global conflict, that do not hold their own agency or themselves manipulate external actors for their own gains. Specifically in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it may appear that both external elites and the ruling powers in the region benefit from maintaining the ‘no war, no peace’ situation. International forces use the conflict to further economic gains and display their influence as world powers, whereas the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia are able to create insecurities and fear surrounding the conflict, thereby promoting their regime as legitimate in the eyes of their citizens (Özkan, 2008).


Overall, legal and political considerations have inhibited any course for resolution of the conflict and have removed civilian involvement in resolution. By reducing the problem to two contradictory principles of self-determination and territorial integrity, the current framework fails to improve the lives of citizens in Nagorno-Karabakh, reduce ethnic discrimination or promote peaceful democracy in the region. What is needed to move forward is engagement of civil society in the peace process, a recognition of the motivations of international mediators involved in the conflict and a framework for discussion that enables the region to move forward from its violent past to one of mutual benefit for both the Armenian and Azeri people.


Works Cited

Anon. (2014) ‘Nagorno-Karabakh a Mountainous Conflict’, The Economist

Aliyev, S. (2013) ‘Azerbaijani Presdient: Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution possible only based on territorial integrity principles’ McClatchy – Tribune Business News, Tribune Content Agency LLC, Washington. accessed [26/02/16]

Avdoyan, L. (1995) ‘Nagorno Karabakh: an historical perspective’, International Perspectives on Group Rights 3: 161-167

Burri, T. Thürer, D.  (2008) ‘Self-determination’, Oxford Public International Law [accessed 26/02/2016]

Daskalova, A. (2015), ‘Problem or Solution? Russia’s Role in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’, E-International Relations, [accessed 26/02/2016]

Ghaplanyan, I. (2009) ‘Empowering and Engaging Civil Society in Conflict Resolution: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh’, International Negotiation Vol. 15, No. 1, 81-106

Khojoyan, S. (2015) ‘Frozen War Thaws in Russian Backyard as Karabakh Flares’, Bloomberg [accessed 26/02/2016]

Klevler, E. (2013) ‘The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan: An overview of the current situation’, European Movement International

Özkan, B. (2008) ‘Who Gains from the “No War No Peace” Situation?

A Critical Analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’, Geopolitics, 13:3, 572-599

Nagorno-Katabakh Republic Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2008) ‘Referendum Report’, [accessed 26/02/16]

Rasizade, A. (2011) ‘Azerbaijan’s Prospects in Nagorno-Karabakh’, Mediterranean Quarterly, Vol. 22, No.3, 72-94

Terrance Hopmann, P. and William Zartman, I. (2010) ‘Overcoming the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate’, International Negotiation Vol. 15, No. 1, 1-6

Torosyan, T. and Vardanyan, A. (2015) ‘The South Caucasus Conflicts

in the Context of Struggle for the Eurasian Heartland’, Geopolitics, 20:3, 559-582

United Nations, (1945) Chapter 1, Article 2. Charter of the United Nations, 1 UNTS XVI, [accessed 26/02/2016]

United Nations, (1945) Chapter 1, Article 1. Charter of the United Nations, 1 UNTS XVI, [accessed 26/02/2016]

Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (2016), ‘Prize for Human Rights Fact Sheet – Nagorno-Karabakh’ HART, [accessed 26/02/16]

Walter, R. (2015) ‘Escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and the other occupied territories of Azerbaijan’, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, Doc. 13930

Whittaker, J. (2016) ‘Four obstacles to a Nagorno-Karabakh peace’, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, [accessed 26/02/16]

Wood, M. ‘Territorial Integrity’, Encyclopedia Princetoniensis [accessed 26/02/2016]


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