The Right of Nagorno-Karabakh to Self-determination and Statehood

17 August 2017

A more in-depth version of this article will be published soon, alongside our Nagorno-Karabakh 2017 visit report. 

Baroness Cox and her delegation meet with Artsakh Foreign Minister Karen Mirzoyan (Asbarez)


Baroness Cox and other HART delegates last week visited Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the south of the Caucuses that is the backdrop of Europe’s largely forgotten conflict. An ethnically Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan, it exists in a perpetual state of ‘no war, no peace’ with its host country. Regular skirmishes and sniper fire result in around 50-60 casualties each year.

The violence started when, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan suppressed calls by the region to unify with Armenia. When both countries gained independence in 1991, the conflict erupted into war.

The competing claims of both sides of the conflict, and the issues of framing the conflict in such a way, have been previously introduced here. This blog, however, shall focus on the central claim of Nagorno-Karabakh: the right to self-determination (SD) and statehood (SH).


What is Self-determination?

Self-determination is the right of all peoples to freely determine their political status and to pursue economic, social and cultural development. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh easily qualify as a people given their ethnic, linguistic, and religious hegemony, and potentially even due to abuses perpetrated by Azerbaijan.

Its status as a principle of international law was cemented in the United Nations Charter, Article 1(2) of which establishes the democratic right as one of the purposes of the UN. It was invoked heavily during the decolonisation period, and was used to strengthen otherwise weak claims to statehood by countries such as Congo.

Though part of international law, the right to ‘determine the destiny of the territory’ is inherently ambiguous, and it is often distinguished between external and internal self-determination. External SD is the independence of the state in the international community; i.e., the attainment of statehood. On the other hand, internal SD is the right to participate within a state’s political process. This distinction is evidenced by the UN Colonial Declaration 1541 (1960), which suggests three manifestations of the right to SD:

  1. the achievement of statehood (External),
  2. integration with another state,
  3. or associating with the state it is already a part of (Internal).

This blog focuses on the first and third manifestations.


Internal Self-determination within Azerbaijan

Focussing on the latter, the most basic form of self-determination is the ability to participate in the political process of the current state. The right to freely determine political status is contained in Article 1(1) of the ICCPR (1966), and the UN Human Rights Committee has called on states to publicly describe how they implement it in practice.

Azerbaijan does little to accommodate this right. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region’s demonstrations of wishing to join Armenia resulted in conflict in a matter of days, and the Soviet Union’s attempts to give more autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh were rejected by Azerbaijan. More recently, Azerbaijan refuses to engage in discussion about the region’s political future until Armenian troops are withdrawn. Worryingly, it has also been accused by the Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman of spreading ‘Armenophobia’, including in school textbooks.

This all suggests that Azerbaijan is doing little to accommodate the right to internal self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan should cease practices of ‘Armenophobia’, and encourage the interaction of Azeri and Artsakh civil society groups. Building ties between the two helps to improve the involvement of Nagorno-Karabakh in the country’s social and cultural processes, thus accommodating their right to internal self-determination.


Why is Nagorno-Karabakh not officially a state?

Perhaps the most liberating form of self-determination is the attainment of full external independence, which is central to the Nagorno-Karabakh’s main goals. Along with advocacy organisations such as HART, it continues to campaign for statehood, with the Armenian Parliament’s Vice-Speaker recently saying that is ‘just a matter of time’ until it is recognised.

Unfortunately, the realities of geopolitics mean exactly how much time until it is recognised is unknown. Encouragingly, delegations from the territory have been invited to take part in international conferences on human rights by the governments of Hungary and Switzerland, yet it is currently recognised by no established state, including Armenia itself. This begs the question: if Nagorno-Karabakh is de facto independent, how can it not be officially a state?

It is broadly accepted that a state must satisfy 4 criteria under international law to attain Statehood.  Known as the Montevideo Criteria, they require: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. As the latter is interpreted by most as simply ‘independence’, Nagorno-Karabakh would appear to satisfy the criteria given its de facto statehood. The history of its population and territory is centuries old, and it has a functioning, democratic government.

Unfortunately, independence relying upon the Montevideo Criteria alone is rare as it does not consider the realities of international relations. A more realistic approach is adopted by  international law, highlighting that if a state is not recognised by any other country it cannot function as a state in the international community, and therefore cannot be said to truly be one. This would explain why Nagorno-Karabakh is not a state under international law; it satisfies the criteria, yet its lack of recognition means it is not a state, and is thus denied this form of self-determination.


Self-determination as a path to statehood?

Since self-determination is, in one sense, the right to statehood, it would therefore follow that international law (and the geopolitics of state recognition) should take it into account when determining if a new state has been established.

A government considering self-determination when choosing to recognise new states is nothing new. During its decolonisation, Congo was recognised by the international community despite the fact that it did not have a fully functioning government that exercised control, and Kosovo was being administered by the international community in the form of a UN mandate. In both cases, the right of self-determination aided an otherwise weak claim to statehood. Nagorno-Karabakh satisfies the statehood criteria and has the right of self-determination, yet remains unrecognised.

There is also some scope for the existence of a ‘remedial’ right to self-determination leading to statehood. In the cases of Eritrea and Bangladesh, both fought a war of independence in response to repression faced by Ethiopia and Pakistan respectively, experiencing ‘approximated colonial rule’. In the case of Kosovo, some states explicitly highlighted abuses perpetrated by Serbia as a reason for their recognition.

The solution requires Governments, particularly that of the UK, to meaningfully respect the right of self-determination and reconsider their positions on the statehood of Nagorno-Karabakh. The international community should also use its influence to call on Azerbaijan to uphold both their internal and external right of self-determination.


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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