Inconsistency on int’l law, history underpin Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict

The complexity of the dispute has implications for many other similar conflicts • The Golan Heights is part of Syria not because of some ancient connection, but because France and the UK decided so.

People supporting Armenia protest against the military conflict with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Brussels, Belgium October 7, 2020 (photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
People supporting Armenia protest against the military conflict with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Brussels, Belgium October 7, 2020
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
Over the past week major countries, such as Russia and Iran, have indicated their desire for the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia to de-escalate. At the same time, both countries have said they stand by international law and that Azerbaijan’s claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, where most of the fighting is taking place, are legitimate.
The complexity of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh has implications for many other similar conflicts. However, the stances of the various countries involved are not consistent. It shows how countries use claims of international law when it benefits them, and disregard other parts of international law when it doesn’t.
Pro-Azerbaijan narratives insist that Nagorno-Karabakh has been illegally occupied by Armenia since the 1990s, that the UN supports Azerbaijan’s case and that Armenia should withdraw. The fighting is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, they say, and therefore there is no reason that Russia or others should intervene – because the battle is between Azerbaijan and “separatists” or “occupiers.” Not only are Armenians accused of this occupation, but also of occupying seven other areas around Nagorno-Karabakh that are part of Azerbaijan. Baku’s narrative is clear: Armenia must withdraw.
The inconsistency of international law in this respect is that Turkey claims to support Azerbaijan’s right to fight this war in order to return occupied territory, while Ankara supports Northern Cyprus, which it illegally occupied in 1974. Turkey has also invaded and illegally occupied parts of northern Syria, particularly areas where Kurds live, such as Afrin. In Ankara’s view therefore, international law regarding military occupation only seems to apply to some states but not to its own policies.
For instance Turkey opposes Israeli rule over Jerusalem, vowing to “liberate al-Aqsa” and claiming recently that Jerusalem is “ours.”
Yet, at the same time, Ankara recognized Northern Cyprus as a country. Why does Turkey think that Northern Cyprus should have rights to a country but not the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, who declared they are part of an independent Artsakh republic? The same logic underpins Armenia’s claim: It wants to defend ethnic Armenians who live in Nagorno-Karabakh.

THE DISPUTE in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia is historical and has its roots in Soviet rule. The area was in flux after the Russian Empire fell apart in the wake of the First World War and as the Ottoman Empire was also falling apart. Suddenly, the numerous countries and ethnic groups in the Caucasus could create their own countries, including the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic that was formed in 1918. It had disputes and conflict with the Republic of Armenia about similar areas that are being fought over today. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan eventually became Soviet socialist republics.
Like many things the Soviets did, the decision to include Nagorno-Karabakh, where many Armenians lived, in Azerbaijan was an accident of history. It may have been Joseph Stalin who made the move with a wider view to appeasing Turkey. The area became an autonomous “oblast.”
Another area attached to Azerbaijan was the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Azerbaijan abolished the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991, setting the stage for Armenians in the area to declare their own republic. Things have remained like that since, with calls for Armenian forces to withdraw and Armenians threatening to recognize Artsakh as a state.
The whole of the Caucasus was peppered with other small autonomous areas, such as Adjara in Georgia. Some of them have become breakaway areas and miniature states, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has tended to support these miniature states, even while saying it adheres to international law in how it views the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict.
Like Turkey, Russia tends to support international law in some areas and less so in others. For instance, Moscow has supported the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, which were declared in 2014 when they broke away from Ukraine after its pro-Russian president fled protests. Russia also seized and annexed Crimea.

THE CAUCASUS have other disputed areas or formerly restive ones. Chechnya fought two wars with Russia but is now loyal to Moscow. There have been similar troubles in North Ossetia and Dagestan. There are many legacies of the Soviet era here, such as the Soviet decision to deport Chechens.
Similarly, the Soviets even created their own mini-Kurdistan in the Caucasus between 1923 and 1929, and then deported the poor Kurds from the area. The small statelet was carved out between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, an area today occupied by Armenia.
The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh also has parallels with disputes in the Balkans that led to bloody fighting in the 1990s. Like in Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo demanded a state in the 1990s. They eventually got one, although it is not recognized by several countries.
Here again, questions of “international law” bedevil the observer. Why did Kosovars’ demands merit a state and not Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh?; why not the Kurds in Afrin? Most of the reasons for who gets a state and who does not boil down either to the legacy of European colonialism or the Soviet era – or more recently, to which countries have powerful states on their side.
There have been very few new countries formed since the 1990s. International law is ostensibly a set of rules for a rules-based world order, but it often ends up as a kind of prison that sets in stone whatever European mapmakers made of the world in 1960.
For instance, British Somaliland was a protectorate of the British Empire, governed from India and linked to Aden until it was invaded by the Italians in 1940 and then returned to the British before getting independence in 1960. It joined, willingly, with the rest of what is now Somalia in 1960 to form Somalia. However in 1991 it sought independence again after brutal rule and a civil war in Somalia.
To this day, despite the fact that Somalia was largely a failed state and has been held hostage by Islamist extremists, Somaliland is not recognized by other countries. Yet it is self-governing. The international community gave more favor to East Timor and South Sudan, both allowed to become new countries after bloody conflicts. Why them and not Somaliland? Why them and not Biafra or Katanga in the Congo?

HISTORY DEMONSTRATES little justice for why “international law” says that the European colonialists could illegally occupy swaths of Africa and create little anomalies like the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, a slice of land that stretches to Zambia, without the say of locals – and then say that countries can never redraw these borders ever again. The same was done to Israel and India by British partitioning.
The same is true of the Wakhan Corridor, created as a mapmaking anomaly in 1893 to divide the Russian and British empires by using Afghanistan as a buffer. Locals had no say; it was drawn on the map, called the Durand Line at the time, at the whim of a British diplomat. So many of the borders in the world are similar to that: set in stone for a hundred years based on a few minutes of drawing by colonizers in the 20th or late 19th century.
The Golan Heights is part of Syria not because of some ancient connection, but because France and the UK decided it would be. And that can never be changed, even if Israel will run it for much longer than the British or French mandates even existed.
In only rare circumstances were referendums allowed to determine whether areas like Alexandretta, now Iskenderun, would be part of Syria or Turkey. It became part of Turkey in 1939. Mosul in Iraq was also almost part of Turkey. Meanwhile, European promises to groups like the Armenians, or even Arabs, Kurds, Jews and others, evaporated in the 1920s. Treaties such as Sèvres were abrogated or never reflected reality.
This leaves the Middle East with countless disputes and numerous examples of peoples and groups shoehorned into areas that they had no say in being forced into. An arbitrary census in Syria in 1962, for instance, left 120,000 Kurds stateless. Today’s conflict in eastern Syria can partly be understood in that context. Yet the same people who assert that Kurds should not have rights to a referendum or an independent state would be hard pressed to explain why many other smaller countries were created by colonial powers, often at a whim or to act as a coaling station or local ally.

INTERNATIONAL LAW and its contradictions – such as its tendency to sometimes encourage states toward ethnic-cleansing to erase minorities who want independence or rights rather than to compromise – is often a burden and a hypocrisy as much as it appears to be a rules-based order.
That is clear from the contradictory logic that underpins why countries seem to support one type of laws for places like Northern Cyprus or Kosovo or Abkhazia and Crimea, but another set of rules for Afrin or Nagorno-Karabakh, Somaliland or Kashmir.
It’s easy to blame the states currently fighting over the areas, such as Israel and Syria disputing the Golan, but deeper questions should be asked of the assumptions behind the notion that international law appears to come into being only after the colonial regimes or Soviets have drawn their lines on the map in the 20th century.
Nowhere are tribes or peoples from the 19th century allowed to have their say and assert that what was done arbitrarily in 1960, should not be the be all and end all. For instance, the partition of Palestine in 1947 created an arbitrary area of Jerusalem that was to be an “international zone” with no input of the residents, solely based on mapmakers who sought to create a largely Christian canton including Bethlehem and Ein Kerem in the borders of Jerusalem. Unsurprisingly, it did not last long, but international law still has ties to it, just as it plagues the conflict in the Caucasus and elsewhere.