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Do Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have the right to self-determination?

Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians believe that a settlement of the conflict must be based on the principle of people’s right to self-determination, which should be in the form of full independence. Regarding this, they insist that “Azerbaijan has neither legal nor political or moral grounds to claim over Nagorno-Karabakh”.[1] On the other hand, Azerbaijan claims that the problem should be resolved on the principle of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and insist that it is ready to give the highest autonomy status to Nagorno-Karabakh under its sovereignty, which is exist in the international practice.[2]

Obviously, the existing disagreement between the parties to the conflict over the future status of the disputed region is the main obstacle to any settlement of the conflict. Both parties claim that any solution to the problem should be based on the principles of international law, as respected by the international community. The right to “self-determination” and respect for “territorial integrity” are two very important principles of international law that must be followed by all peace-loving states. In order to understand the position of the parties on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is necessary to analyze how the “self-determination” principle has been implemented, in historical, legal, and practical terms.

However, the idea of self-determination was based on the ideology of “nationalism”, particularly after the French revolution.[3] It was first proposed by the US President Woodrow Wilson[4] and discussed at the Paris Peace Conference, which was organized to settle disputed issues after the end of the First World War. As a result of the war, European empires, such as Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed, and various European nations declared independence, based on the principle of self-determination.

However, legalizing self-determination and incorporating it into the provisions of international law came later, after the Second World War, with the establishment of the UN. Although, the UN charter places little emphasis on the principle of “self-determination”,[5] the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was drawn up by the General Assembly and adopted in 1966, included articles, which identify the main understandings on this principle.[6] In order to regulate the decolonization process after the Second World War, in 1960 the UN General Assembly adopted its Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which also included issues relating to understanding and implementing the right to “self-determination”.[7] From the perspective of implementing the principle of “self-determination”, it should obviously be noted that it is a term that has a number of meanings. Indeed, self-determination has also been referred to as “internal self-determination”, “self-determination for peoples of dependent territories” and “self-determination of minorities”. It is important to take into account that according to international law, “self-determination” is not a secession right.[8]

In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia claims that the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic declared its independence under the provisions of the Soviet legislature and existing norms of international law permits the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic self-determination in the form of full independence.[9] In 1991, the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh organized a referendum on secession from Azerbaijan, and when the results were known, it declared its independence in 1992. Nagorno-Karabakh has thus existed as a de facto independent state for more than two decades, yet it has not been recognized de jure by any independent state, not even by Armenia. In order to justify their position, Armenia and the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic insist that Nagorno-Karabakh has never been within the territorial integrity of independent Azerbaijan. However, it is a fact that in 1918, when General V. Thomson, who represented the Allied Powers, entered Baku, he recognized Karabakh and Zangazur as part of the administrative structure of Azerbaijan.[10] Moreover, in 1919 the Armenian Assembly in Karabakh also recognized the authority of Azerbaijan.[11] The other argument put forward by Armenia is that the provisions stipulated in the law of the USSR “On the Procedures for Resolving Questions Related to the Secession of Union Republics from the USSR”, dated April 3, 1990, allowed the Armenian population of NKAO to proclaim independence.[12] However, Article 78 in the Soviet Constitution stated that the boundaries of the union republics might be altered only with the consent of the union states and the adoption of USSR.[13] Indeed, Azerbaijan has never consented to the annexing of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, nor to it seceding from Azerbaijan, and there are therefore no legal grounds for Armenia’s claims.

Existing provisions in international law also do not allow the Armenian population the right to self-determination with full independence from Azerbaijan. As mentioned above, the self-determination right with respect to independence was granted for people in colonies. However, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh were not under Azerbaijani colonial rule, but rather enjoyed autonomy status within the union state. Moreover, it is known that self-determination with independence might, in practice, be granted to ethnic groups faced with discrimination by a titular nation.[14] Regarding this, Armenian side puts forward the discrimination of the ethnic Armenians in NKAO. However, there are not any real evidences proving the discrimination facts. Additionally, since Azerbaijan is party to international conventions on the protection of human rights and the rights of minorities, it also incorporated these provisions into its constitution that was adopted in 1995. The constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic recognizes the equality of its citizens and states that the rights and liberties of a person who is a citizen cannot be restricted due to race, nationality, religion, language, sex, origin, conviction, or political or social belonging.[15] On the other hand, Azerbaijan does not reject the rights to self-determination of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, which are based on the internal dimension of this principle, and it has proclaimed that it is ready to grant the region the highest autonomy status that exists in international practice.[16]

It is important to take into account that “self-determination” is not secession right under international law. Moreover, the UN Security Council also denies that the right to self-determination is a right to secession.[17] Since international law protects the territorial integrity of states that are recognized by the international community, the self-determination claims of ethnic groups must be met within the borders of those states. In fact, Azerbaijan was recognized by the international community as being within the former administrative borders of the Azerbaijan SSR, which also included the NKAO. Moreover, UN Security Council resolutions regarding the occupation of Azerbaijan territories and other miscellaneous international documents also confirmed the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Therefore, the right to self-determination of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is possible only within the borders of Azerbaijan.

[1] “Azerbaijan has neither legal, nor political, nor moral grounds for its claims over NK”, Panaroma | Armenian News, December 2, 2010; Accessed on October 5, 2020.

[2] Izzet, I, “Head of State Committee: After solving Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Armenians can become Azerbaijani equal citizens”, Trend, September 6, 2013; Accessed on October 4, 2020.

[3] Hroch, Miroslav, “National Self-Determination from a Historical Perspective”, Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, Vol. 37, No. 3-4, 1995, p. 283.

[4] Van Dyke, Vernon, “Self-Determination and Minority Rights”, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1969, p. 223.

[5] Van Dyke, “Self-Determination and Minority Rights”, p. 223.

[6] “Article 1”, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, December 16, 1966.

[7] Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, December 14, 1960; Accessed on October 5, 2020.

[8] Borgen, Christopher J., “Is Kosovo a precedent? Secession, Self-determination, and Conflict Resolution”, Wilson Center; Accessed on October 5, 2020.

[9] Avakian, Shahen, Nagorno-Karabakh: Legal Aspect (TIGRAN METS Publishing House, 2010), p. 25.

[10] Cornell, Svante E., Azerbaijan Since Independence (M. E. Sharpe, 2011), p. 27.

[11] Swietochowski, Tadeusz, Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 75-76.

[12] “Law on Procedures for Resolving Questions Related to the Secession of Union Republics from the USSR (3 April 1990)”, in Hannum, Hurst (ed.), Basic Documents on Autonomy and Minority Rights (Martinus Nijhoff Press, 1993), pp. 753-760.

[13] “Article 78”, The Constitution of USSR, 1977.

[14] Borgen, Christopher J., “Is Kosovo a precedent? Secession, Self-determination, and Conflict Resolution”, Wilson Center; Accessed on October 5, 2020.

[15] “Article 24”, The Constitution of Azerbaijan Republic.

[16] Tchilingirian, Hratch, “Nagorno Karabakh: transition and the elite”, Central Asian Survey, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1999.

[17] Van Dyke, “Self-Determination and Minority Rights”, p. 236.