Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenian, Azerbaijani, or Artsakhi?

Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in the Caucuses that is de jure controlled by Azerbaijan and de facto by Armenia, has been a primary source of conflict between the two nations since their independence. Both maintain that they should exert their sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, albeit for two very separate reasons. Where Armenia sees the right to self-determination and the idea of the nation-state as their justification for rule, Azerbaijan maintains the right to territorial integrity. This classic divide between these two conflicting rights has marked international conflict since the start of decolonization. As a side note, I will be using the term Artsakhi to refer to Armenians and the many ethnic Armenians within Nagorno-Karabakh, who refer to the region as Artsakh. While I believe that Azerbaijan and the Azeri people have suffered deeply as the direct result of Armenian and Artsakhi actions, I cannot find reasonable justification for Azerbaijan to assert any control over Nagorno-Karabakh. 

It is first pertinent to acknowledge the atrocities which the Armenian state has committed. The First Nagorno-Karabakh War, lasting from 1988 to 1994, saw more than 500,000 Azeri civilians displaced and removed from Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian soldiers looted and burned Azeri homes, were extrajudicial and indiscriminate in their executions of civilians, and were generally oppressive and brutalizing towards those of Azeri descent within Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding Armenian-occupied provinces. This was all, of course, in complete violation of the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other well-established international laws of the sort. Armenia and the Artsakhi people are not innocent victims of Azeri oppression as they so often let on, but are instead just as guilty of crimes against humanity as those whom they lambast. 

Regardless of that fact, Azerbaijan has next to no reasonable claim over Nagorno-Karabakh and has also committed crimes against humanity in order to maintain their tenuous control. The right to territorial integrity that Azerbaijan invokes essentially means that the land within a nation’s borders is their own, and that nation has a right to defend that land. This is Azerbaijan’s only real claim to the region, and, as I see it, that claim is ultimately weak. Azerbaijan has only really had control over Nagorno-Karabakh for 100 years. It has very little history in the region as compared to the Armenian claim. Most importantly, the people do not desire Azeri rule, but this will be expanded upon later. All of these factors prove that Azeri rule of Nagorno-Karabakh is entirely nonsensical. It is a forced international settlement which fights to remain consistent with international laws that are vague in their meaning, varied in their application, and weak in their enforcement. If that wasn’t enough, Azeri rule of the region has been marked with both cultural and ethnic genocide. In the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020, Armenian monuments were destroyed, Armenian war trophies were displayed, the region was blockaded and starved, churches were destroyed, and Azerbaijani war tactics hinted that the purpose was the displacement, destruction, and murder of the Armenian people within the region. It was a war with the secondary goal of ridding the region of Armenians through genocidal means. I do not mean to scale or compare these egregious crimes, but the point is that neither side has a moral leg up given that both have perpetrated crimes against humanity. This only reinforces that the most fair way to judge the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is by comparing the strength of the claims that each party has — and in that comparison, Azerbaijan loses every time. 

Nagorno-Karabakh should either become an independent state or be unified with Armenia proper. If people have a right to self-determination, then let that be extended to the Artsakhi people. So long as it is pretended that Azerbaijan should control Nagorno-Karabakh,  the conflict will continue and thousands on both sides will perish. Varying polls display differing results, with some saying that an overwhelming majority want to join Armenia and others saying that most prefer union and a similar percentage prefers independence, but the overall message is clear: Azeri rule is out. A free and fair referendum would be easy to hold if backed by the United Nations and both nations in question. If Azerbaijan refuses a referendum, the implication is obvious. Why should Azerbaijan be allowed to govern a region which it won’t let speak for itself? There are only two reasonable outcomes to my mind: Armenian union or Artsakhi independence. Freedom from Azeri rule is what the Artsakhi people desire. We must give Nagorno-Karabakh and the Artsakhi people what they are owed: a voice, a vote, and perhaps even a de jure nation of their own. 

The Artsakhi people must be allowed to determine their fate, not some uncaring, domineering, arguably genocidal government in Baku. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh deserve the right to self-determination just as anyone else does, and they have shown that they will either fight for it or die in the process. So long as this conflict remains unresolved, the international community sees a pool of blood gather at its feet. I understand the reluctance of international observers to visibly place the right to self-determination over the right to territorial sovereignty given how that ruling might be abused in other cases (image the implications with Israel-Palestine or Russia-Ukraine), but when one thinks about that perspective critically, it becomes impossible to hold seriously. This ruling could set the precedent that cases of international law disputes can be decided on a case-by-case basis rather than claiming to follow some universal system which has proven to be broken. Of course, I can’t say that that system would be immune to abuse or even be substantially better than what exists today, but certainly, it would be a step in the right direction. Current international law is contradictory and deeply flawed. For conflict to be avoided, conflict resolution at the international level needs to be improved, streamlined, and clarified. There can be no peace so long as ambiguity in sovereignty exists — and although many might profit from that ambiguity, it is the everyman who suffers from it.