Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Deal: Internal Armenian Turmoil and Prospects for Peace
By Maya Garner
On Sunday November 29th, the President of Armenia called on the government to resign in the wake of the ceasefire agreement signed twenty days earlier by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia to end months-long fighting over the contested mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh. President Sarkissian Armen called for new elections to be held within a year, for the Armenian government to resign, and for the formation of an interim technocratic government for the next six to 12 months. He described the peace agreement signed by Prime Minister’s Nikol Pashinyan as a “great tragedy.” President Sarkissan further called for constitutional amendments, such as letting the Presidency be elected through the popular vote rather than parliamentary appointment, and reconfiguring the balance of power between the Parliament, the government, and the Presidency.
The ceasefire agreement itself consisted of a full ceasefire, which took immediate effect from the hour 00:00 on the next day after the signing; returning several districts of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan; new infrastructure and restricted economic transport links from the territories to Azerbaijan; deploying Russian peacekeepers to replace Armenian forces and to be stationed on the frontlines; arrangements for the exchange of prisoners of war; the return of refugees and displaced persons under the UN Office for the High Commander of Refugees. The Russian-language version of the agreement can be found on the website of the Russian government. Prime Minister Pashinyan stated that the deal was “the best solution in the situation.” Protests had broken out in Armenia shortly after the announcement of the deal.
Nestled between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, this region in the southern Caucus is the site of interest of greater political powers. A small-scale war, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is likely to have bigger implications. The region was under Soviet rule prior to the break-up of the U.S.S.R., after which it came to belong to Azerbaijan based on borders drawn by the Soviet Union. The region had declared independence prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the area’s population consists primarily of ethnic Armenians. From 1988 until 1994, a war took place between Azerbaijan and Armenian-backed separatists in the region. The conflict saw the displacement of 300,000 Armenians and 800,000 Azerbaijanis. A ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 1994. Attrition-type tensions have since followed. The escalation of conflict in late September has claimed the lives of a reported death toll of 2,425 Armenians. The Azerbaijani number was initially withheld, though the Russian government stated that there had been casualties of more than 4,000 killed from each side. In the years of occupying the territory, Armenia had not allowed for the return of displaced Azerbaijanis, as called for in UN resolutions. The recent ceasefire will allow for the return of Azerbaijani refugees. Media outlets around the world displayed the poignant images of Armenians burning their homes as they vacated the area.
Prior to the peace agreement, there had been a previous ceasefire agreed upon in Moscow on October 10th, later confirmed on October 17th and 25th. United Nations Secretary António Guterres supported the call for a “humanitarian ceasefire.” At the time, he remained “deeply concerned” over reports of “continued hostilities.” A few days after the November 9 ceasefire agreement, the Russian government stated that the United Nations would be involved in humanitarian issues related to Russia’s peacekeeping mission in light of the deal. In the middle of its Presidential elections, the United States had only played a minor role in the recent conflict-resolution.
The conflict and resulting ceasefire has sparked an intellectual debate surrounding international law. That is, does a state have the right to claim self-defence when using force to reclaim a territory illegally occupied by another nation for a prolonged period? The right to self-defence is outlined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Much of this comes down to whether an unlawful occupation constitutes a continuous armed attack. One side of the debate argues that the continuous nature of an occupation does not necessarily equal continuous armed attack; that reclaiming a territory by force undermines UN values and the pursuit of a peaceful settlements; and that Azerbaijan in this case did not have a right to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh with force, as that this right had been lost over time with a status quo lasting for a quarter of a century. Another side argues for a rewiring of the main question, asking instead “whether any occupation that is the direct consequence of an armed attack constitutes a continuing armed attack.” This side argues that international law does not define a time limit or expiration date for the use of self-defence in the case of an armed occupation. Instead, this side separates the issue of right to self-defence and the issue of the necessity to use force to resolve a conflict, stating that the passing of time could hint at either force no longer being necessary or force being the only “reasonable” option to end an occupation.
This side refers to passing of time, and the assumption of a time limit, to not running in favor of the aggressor, but rather against the aggressor, if actions of aggressions or occupation are meant to be temporary in character. It refers to UN General Assembly Resolution 2625, which states “Every State likewise has the duty to refrain from the threat or use of force to violate international lines of demarcation, such as armistice lines, established by or pursuant to an international agreement to which it is a party or which it is otherwise bound to respect. Nothing in the foregoing shall be construed as prejudicing the positions of the parties concerned with regard to the status and effects of such lines under their special regimes or as affecting their temporary character.” That is to say, this side of the debate’s argument highlight the issue of a temporary armistice line becoming permanent, indicating that all other means but force have been exhausted. This debate rests primarily on international law and state-level relations rather than demographic or rights concerns, and the degree to which these considerations apply to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is worth evaluating.