Does Nagorno-Karabakh have the right to self-determination?

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

The disagreement between the parties to the conflict was the main obstacle to the conflict settlement. Both parties claimed that any solution to the problem should be based on the principles of international law, as respected by the international community. It should be stated that the right to “self-determination” and respect for “territorial integrity” are two fundamental principles of international law that all peace-loving states must follow. Therefore, to understand the parties’ position 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.

The idea of self-determination was based on the ideology of “nationalism,” which came into existence, particularly after the French revolution.[3] However, it was first proposed by 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 First World War, European empires, such as the Russian Tsarist, 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 that identify the main understandings of 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 be noted that it is a term with several 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 crucial to consider that according to international law, “self-determination” is not a secession right.[8]

In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian argumentation was that the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic declared its independence under the provisions of the Soviet legislature and existing norms of international law, which permitted it self-determination right in the form of full independence.[9] Thus, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians organized a referendum on secession from Azerbaijan in 1991 and declared its independence in 1992, according to the result of the referendum. Although it had not been recognized de jure by any independent state, not even by Armenia, it existed as a de facto independent state until the Second Karabakh War. In order to justify their position, Armenia and the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic insisted that Nagorno-Karabakh had 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 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 Union states’ consent and the USSR’s adoption.[13] However, Azerbaijan has never consented to the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian SSR, nor to its seceding from Azerbaijan, and there are, indeed, 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 to people in colonies. Moreover, it is known in practice that self-determination with independence might be granted to ethnic groups that face discrimination by a titular nation. However, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians were not under Azerbaijani colonial rule but one of the ethnic minorities within the Azerbaijan SSR that enjoyed autonomy status within the Union state.[14] Regarding this, the Armenian side puts forward the discrimination of the ethnic Armenians in NKAO. However, there is not any real evidence proving the discrimination facts. Additionally, since Azerbaijan is a party to international conventions on the protection of human rights and the rights of minorities, it also incorporated these provisions into its constitution, which was adopted in 1995. The constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic recognizes the equality of its citizens. It 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 accepted the rights to self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians based on the internal dimension of this principle. In this regard, official Azerbaijan proclaimed that it is ready to grant the region the highest autonomy status that exists in international practice.[16]

Considering that “self-determination” is not secession right under international law is crucial. Moreover, the UN Security Council also denies the right to self-determination as a right to secession.[17] Since international law protects the territorial integrity of states recognized by the international community, the self-determination claims of ethnic groups must be met within the borders of those states. Azerbaijan was recognized, in fact, 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 Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians was possible only within the borders of Azerbaijan. However, this notion lost its credibility with the outbreak of the Second Karabakh War, which was the direct result of the destructive approach of Armenia to the settlement of the conflict peacefully.

[1] “Azerbaijan has neither legal, nor political, nor moral grounds for its claims over NK,” Panaroma | Armenian News, December 2, 2010; Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[2] Izzet, I, “Head of State Committee: After solving Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Armenians can become Azerbaijani equal citizens,” Trend, September 6, 2013; Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[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 December 5, 2022.

[8] Borgen, Christopher J., “Is Kosovo a precedent? Secession, Self-determination, and Conflict Resolution,” Wilson Center; Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[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, “Is Kosovo a precedent?”.

[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.