The parties to the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh maintain that the principles of international law justify the basis of their positions.  Armenia and Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh claim the right to self-determination of its peoples.  Azerbaijan claims its right to territorial integrity of its land.  If the parties are justified in claiming international law as the foundation of their positions – how will the outcome be decided upon?

When considering the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, how were the borders of Nagorno Karabakh determined in the first place?  When considering self-determination of Nagorno Karabakh, who is considered to be a part of "the people of Nagorno Karabakh"? In reality, the parties have used the legal principles to justify why they are more entitled to Nagorno Karabakh than the other party, and this has led to each side further continuing to insist on their positions rather than thinking creatively about the conflict’s resolution.

Alternatively, the field of conflict resolution rejects the notion that it should be one or the other.  Most importantly, conflict resolution is not the same as finding a compromise solution.  In fact, proponents within the field argue compromise solutions are not sustainable (Pruitt & Kim, 2004; Fisher et al., 1991).  Conflict resolution seeks to take into account humans’ interests and needs that they want satisfied, or as John Burton referred to as Basic Human Needs (Burton, 1979).  Therefore, in order to resolve conflict and prevent violence, it is necessary to identify and address the root causes of human grievance and dissatisfaction (Jeong, 2008).  All parties’ interests and needs have to be taken into account in order to reach a resolution that is sustainable.  Without a sustainable resolution to conflict, the conflict will continue to re-emerge.

In the case of the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, there are proponents within the field that would argue resolution could be achieved by incorporating both self-determination and territorial integrity (Crowley, 1998; Kelman, 1997).  In other words, the people of Nagorno Karabakh would have self-determination and the highest form of autonomy, while remaining officially within Azerbaijan’s borders and maintaining its territorial integrity.  According to this particular approach[1], this type of resolution would satisfy all of the parties’ interests and basic human needs.

After considering the issues of how the parties use international legal principles to resolve the conflict, there is a question regarding who will help to determine the outcome of the resolution.  Prior to delving into the latter question, the article will first seek to address how the parties advocate their positions and to question and point out that there are weaknesses within their positions.  One might also question how one of the approaches within conflict resolution, which advocates the combination of both self-determination and territorial integrity, might actually lead to a more “outside of the box” thinking when it comes to the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.  If, as the article will seek to describe, there are contradictions within the argumentation of each of positions separately, then how might the combination of the international legal principles actually offer an alternative?  Finally, the article will then proceed to ask, who will be involved in determining the outcome and ultimately, how the resolution might come about.

Questioning the borders and status of Nagorno Karabakh determined under the Soviet Union

Conflict over the question of the status of Nagorno Karabakh emerged between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as the two independent states fought a war over the region between 1918-1920. In July 1921, Stalin and the Bolsheviks equivocated over the decision of how to draw the borders of Nagorno Karabakh and whether it would be placed under Soviet Armenia or Soviet Azerbaijan.  As Thomas de Waal (2010) elaborates, one day the decision about the status of Nagorno Karabakh was decided in favor of Soviet Armenia and then the next day, the decision was reversed and Nagorno Karabakh became a part of Soviet Azerbaijan.  “Two years later, the new Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous region was founded, with its borders drawn so as to give it a population that was 94 percent Armenian... Armenians say that Stalin ‘gave’ Karabakh to Azerbaijanis, while Azerbaijanis maintain that the decision merely recognize pre-existing reality.”  (de Waal 2010 Ch 4: Location 1815-1828) All throughout the Soviet era, Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh demonstrated on several occasions proclaiming their dissatisfaction with being under Soviet Azerbaijan and advocated for their autonomy and self-determination (Mooradian and Druckman, 1999).

By placing large populations of one under the rule of another, the Bolsheviks sought to experiment in the Caucasus on the nationalities question (de Waal 2010).  The experiment, at the very least, proved to be disastrous and what emerged as a result of the colonial power’s meddling is the basis for the emergence of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

As the colonial power determined the borders and the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the legitimacy of who has the right to draw these borders can be questioned.  Especially since the Soviet system has collapsed, one can question why these borders continue to remain legitimate?  Moreover, for the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians, the way in which the borders were drawn and the status was determined was unfair in the first place.  Technically, the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh were not determined by its people and were imposed by the colonialist power.  Since then, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh claim they have pursued and obtained their self-determination and thus, that should be the basis in which the conflict is resolved. Any solution otherwise might seem to be unfair to the people on the ground living on that land.

Determining who are the “People of Nagorno Karabakh”
Upon further consideration of Armenians’ claim to self-determination by the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, one can also question the basis of this argument as well.  More often than not, when Armenians refer to the “people of Nagorno-Karabakh,” there is an underlying assumption that they are all Armenian. Yet there are also 50,000 Azerbaijani displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh  (Gamaghelyan, 2010: 42) who claim the right to return to their homes and land.  When considering the status question, how does the Armenian position define “the people of Nagorno-Karabakh”?  Do they take into account that the Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijanis would also be considered a part of this population?

Furthermore, there is another concern when considering this question of who is considered to be “the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.”  The Armenian government is actively pursuing a policy to encourage Armenians to live in Nagorno-Karabakh and to cultivate the lands and economy there.  The government of Armenia is also taking steps to provide incentives for Armenians to live in Nagorno-Karabakh by implementing policies such as subsidizing the cost of products and groceries so that it is only half the amount they would pay in comparison to living in Yerevan.

It is clear that there is a settlement policy in place to ensure a stronghold of the Armenian population within Nagorno-Karabakh.  When considering this and the prospect of Azerbaijani displaced persons being allowed to return to their homes based on the basic principles within the OSCE Minsk Group negotiations, one can begin to wonder whether or not co-existence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis of Nagorno-Karabakh would even be possible.  If the structural conditions in Nagorno Karabakh are clearly favoring the power of one ethnic group over another, how can there be any g-arantee that the rights of Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijanis will be respected and upheld as well?

Who decides?

The question should not be about whether or not the resolution of the conflict will be based on territorial integrity or self-determination nor a combination of both. Alternatively, the conflict resolution approach described earlier -which advocates for the combination of both self-determination and territorial integrity - is not different either as it accepts that the combination of these two will somehow determine the outcome of the resolution.  The question that really should be asked is – how and who will determine the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?  While the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk group seeks to remain “impartial” mediators in this process, it will be virtually impossible for the OSCE to do so.[2]

According to the parties, both of their legal claims to international law are justified.  This article has sought to show otherwise and there are loopholes within the positions’ claims.  The outcome can only be determined by the negotiation process and by the parties involved in the process.  There is a shift that will take place when the decision is no longer in the hands of the conflicting parties themselves but rather the OSCE will influence the outcome.  In other words, if the current format of negotiations and way of resolving the format with OSCE mediation continues, Armenia and Azerbaijan will not have much influence on the determination of the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.  The fate of the resolution of the conflict lies in the hands of the OSCE Minsk Group and the national interests of United States, France and Russia as actors within the negotiation process will influence the outcome of the peace talks.  Turkey may also become a key actor in this process, as the OSCE is considering its role within this process. Given the current conflict between Turkey and Armenia and its alliance with Azerbaijan, this would certainly go against the interests and wishes of the Armenians, as they believe Turkey will only be involved to uphold the position of Azerbaijan.

While the OSCE Minsk Group seeks to mediate this negotiation, the reality is that these countries, which have different interests in the region, will seek to satisfy their own geo-political interests in the region during the process.  Therefore, the mediation efforts and process is tainted and not impartial.  In other words, neither of the international legal principles of self-determination or territorial integrity will be the basis of the outcome of the resolution.  Nor will the conflicting parties themselves decide upon the resolution.  The outcome of the resolution will be influenced by the interests of the OSCE Minsk group countries themselves.

Upon considering the viewpoint presented in this article, one might consider it to be from a “Realist” perspective, which considers national interests as the basis of all international politics.  As opposed to the Realist worldview, however, the argument presented here does not wish to dismiss international legal principles as the basis of the outcome of the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.  In fact, these international legal principles will be fundamental to the conflict’s outcome.  It does, however, seek to raise questions about how the OSCE utilizes and couches the language of international law as the basis of the Karabakh conflict’s resolution.


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[1] While this might be one approach, there are a variety of approaches within the conflict resolution field that would disagree with this particular formulation of the resolution.

[2] OSCE mediators’ lack of impartiality regarding the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict has also been suggested by Wendy Betts in the article, “Third party mediation: an obstacle to peace in Nagorno Karabakh,” SAIS Review, v. 19 no. 2 (Summer/Fall 1999) p. 161-83.