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Երեքշաբթի, 06 Դեկտեմբերի 2016 23:34

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and the Paradox Between Two Main Concepts of International Law

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The last escalation in the connection lines in early April and subsequent activation on peace-talks, have brought the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into the middle of consideration. The movement initially begun in the end of 1988 with peaceful protests, was followed by massacres and ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population organized by Azeri authorities and a war which was temporarily ended by a cease fire in 1994. During the past twenty years, the cease fire has constantly been broken, but the last escalation showed that as the sword of Damocles, the shadow of war has still hung over this part of South Caucasus.

The historical paradox between The Right of nations to self-determination and The principle of territorial integrity, the two most significant concepts of International Law, forms the base and foundation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  The majority Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence according to the right of nations to self-determination based on the results of a free referendum on December 10, 1991. Azerbaijan rejected the results of the free referendum and unleashed a war against Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming violation against its territorial integrity.  

As an Armenian my opinion about the above-mentioned paradox is clear. Yet, as a law graduate expert who is familiar with International Law, the contradiction between two main concepts of International Law could be explainable.

A Historical approach

It is a fact that until the beginning of 1990’s the principle of territorial integrity had more priority over the right of self-determination, yet the collapse of Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc leading to the subsequent replenishment of the international community by new republics has hinted a change in attitude towards the right of self-determination.

During recent decades, the independence and the establishment of more than 20 countries, including East Timor, Kosovo and South Sudan, have reinforced the importance and the priority of the right of nations to self-determination.

Right and Principle

When we discuss about (and also in legal documentations) the self-determination, we mention it as the right of the nations; whereas, the territorial integrity is indicated by the principle. Since the terminology has a significant role in legislation, the usage of Right and Principle couldn’t be incidental and there must be a logical explanation.

Logically there is a little difference between rights and principles. Right is “a power, privilege, demand, or claim possessed by a particular person by virtue of law” and it can’t be limited by any legal rule or code. Yet the principle which is mostly a legal rule or code written by legislatures could be limited or even ignored if it will be in conflict with rights (for example, Human rights can’t be limited by any principle).

It means that in the confrontation of two main concepts of International Law, the right of nations to self-determination is in an even more dominant position.  

Legal aspect

The Charter of the United Nations (Article 2, paragraph 4) serves as a main reference for the supporters of The principle of territorial integrity. The prohibition of using force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state is emphasized in this paragraph. But in fact it can’t be extended to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The independence of Karabakh occurred as the result of a peaceful procedure without using force or threat. Indeed, the Republic of Azerbaijan was (and still is) the aggressor due to violation and using force against “the political independence of a state (Nagorno-Karabakh)”.

Could Nagorno-Karabakh be called “a state”?

The definition, rights and duties of a state are enshrined in The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (December 26, 1933). According to the Article 1 of this convention “The state as a person of International Law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states”.

There is no doubt that during past 25 years Nagorno-Karabakh has had “a permanent population”, “a defined territory”, and a stable “government” with the highest level of freedom and democracy. The fourth condition refers to “capacity” to enter into relations with other states but not the “existence” of that relations. Although the independence of Karabakh isn’t recognized by international community, Nagorno-Karabakh possesses such a capacity because of its stable governance structures and institutes. Furthermore, according to the Article 3 of the same convention “The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states”.

Taking into account what was said above, the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh hasn’t been recognized by the international community; nevertheless, according to The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States it has existed as a state since the declaration of its independence on December 10, 1991. As a result, the aggression of the Republic of Azerbaijan against Nagorno-Karabakh should be recognized as a violation against the territorial integrity and political independence of a state which is prohibited based on The Charter of the United Nations (Article 2, paragraph 4). In other word in this particular case, not only there is no contradiction between The Right of self-determination and The principle of territorial integrity, but also this two main concepts of International Law completely support the rights and the sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.   

Author’s Short Bio

Born in Tehran, Iran, Robert Markarian graduated from Tehran University with a degree in physics and law. Robert Markarian has published several political articles about Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenian and Persian newspapers and political webpages, such as Alik, Iranian Diplomacy, IRAS (The Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies), IPSC (International Peace Studies Center) and The California Courier. His Armenian, Farsi and English articles are available on his personal webpage ( He participated in several conferences in Armenia, Iran and Lebanon. In the Pan-Armenian Conference of Political Scientists and International Relations Experts (November, 2012) he presented the positions of the Iranian government and scientific-research centers on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the views of the masses.         

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