Jurisdiction Over the Post-Ceasefire
Nagorno-Karabakh Under the ECHR
The end of the Second War in Nagorno-Karabakh and the signing of the ceasefire agreement by the Azerbaijan President, the Armenian Prime Minister, and the Russian President on the night of 9 November 2020 (here) fundamentally transformed the existing status quo in the region. For the previous 26 years, the territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast (NKAO), with its majority of Karabakh Armenians, and seven surrounding districts – all internationally recognized as the part of the Republic of Azerbaijan – was under the control of Armenia-backed separatists. These rebels declared the area the “Republic of Artsakh”, also known as the “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh”. No member of the United Nations, including Armenia, has ever recognized this self-declared entity as a sovereign State. In Chiragov, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) held that Armenia exercised “effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories” in view of the “military, political, financial and other support” given to Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia (Chiragov, para. 186).
After the war and ceasefire agreement in 2020, seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh were either captured or handed over to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also took over part of the former NKAO, but the secessionist entity itself continues to exist within a circumscribed territory. The only available connection between post-ceasefire Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia is the 5-km wide Lachin Corridor through Azerbaijan’s territory. Under the ceasefire deal, 1.960 Russian peacekeepers have been deployed “along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin Corridor” (Art. 3).
Three inter-State applications have been lodged with the ECtHR in connection to the hostilities; Azerbaijan also alleges that Armenia has committed violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1992 (Azerbaijan v. Armenia; Armenia v. Azerbaijan and Armenia v. Turkey). The issue of jurisdiction during hostilities will not be examined here; rather, this blog asks which State exercises spatial jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh in the post-ceasefire period.
While the issue is fact- and case-specific, in this blog I outline some basic considerations. I argue that a complex factual situation in the post-ceasefire Nagorno-Karabakh sheds light on the limits of the criteria defining the notion of “effective control” developed by the ECtHR, particularly with respect to the importance attached to the military presence on the ground.
Prior to the 2020 war, Azerbaijan was internationally recognized as a dispossessed territorial sovereign with respect to Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding districts (S/RES/853, para. 9; A/RES/62/243, paras. 2 and 4). Thus, after the recapture of theses districts and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and their incorporation within the Republic of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction has taken the form of territorial jurisdiction (see Ukraine v Russia (re Crimea), paras. 341 and 345).
At this stage, no post-ceasefire development seems to affect the conclusion that the remaining part of Nagorno-Karabakh is outside of Azerbaijan’s de facto control. Azerbaijan, as a territorial State, therefore retains only positive obligations relating to measures needed to re-establish control and ensure respect for the rights of victims of human rights violations (see Ilașcu, para. 339).
To assess Armenia’s extra-territorial jurisdiction on the basis of the “effective control” test, several factors must be taken into account. In particular, the ECtHR “will primarily have reference to the strength of the State’s military presence in the area” (Al-Skeini, para. 139). However, this criterion covers a variety of scenarios, from 30.000 Turkish troops in Northern Cyprus (Loizidou, paras. 16 and 56) to around 1.000 Russian troops in Transnistria (Ilașcu, para. 387; Catan, paras. 117-118). In Chiragov, the ECtHR did not establish the exact number of Armenian Armed Forces servicemen stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh. Instead, from multiple factors – including the Armenia-Nagorno-Karabakh agreement allowing the service of Armenian conscripts in Nagorno-Karabakh – it found it established that Armenian military was present there (Chiragov, paras. 175-180).
Under the ceasefire deal, the Russian peacekeepers “shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops” (Art. 4). The meaning of this provision is in dispute between the two sides, but it seems that the Russian version of the deal (Art. 4 in connection with Art. 3) is arguably more precise requiring the withdrawal of the Armenian Armed Forces from the zones of deployment for peacekeepers, i.e., Nagorno-Karabakh itself. For several months, it was not clear whether the Armenian troops had withdrawn from the breakaway entity. Even very recently, Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of building up its presence there. The reports seem to suggest that either the Armenian troops have left or their presence was significantly scaled down. According to an International Crisis Group (ICG) report in June, “Armenia withdrew almost all its troops and stopped sending weaponry to the conflict zone. The local troops were thus left to their own devices” (p. 1, ftn 4). In addition, according to de facto officials, Armenian conscripts are not being called to do their service in Nagorno-Karabakh anymore.
Apart from Armenia’s military presence, “[o]ther indicators may also be relevant, such as the extent to which its military, economic and political support for the local subordinate administration provides it with influence and control over the region” (Al-Skeini, para. 139).
The rebel army (Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army) continues to operate. There have been reports of plans to professionalize this army, including through the hiring of contractors. In Chiragov, the ECtHR asserted that the Armenian Army and Nagorno-Karabakh are “highly integrated” and highlighted the significant military support provided to rebels (Chiragov, para. 180). Today, as mentioned, it seems that Armenia’s logistical ability to supply weapons and equipment to Nagorno-Karabakh has been significantly hampered, because the Lachin Corridor – the only available land route connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh – is under Russian peacekeepers’ control (see ICG, p. 7). Stepanakert airport is being used exclusively by the Russian military. However, the two armies are reportedly in regular command-level contact (ICG, p. 1, ftn 4). Presumably, Armenia would also likely provide the funds to pay the salaries of professional soldiers in the separatist army.
Without Armenia’s involvement in the war on the side of separatists, it is unlikely that the entity would have survived (see Ilașcu, para. 380; Chiragov, paras. 173-174). On a political level, Armenia’s ties to Nagorno-Karabakh are impossible to deny – as exemplified by the ceasefire agreement’s being signed by the Armenian PM (see Ilașcu, para. 381). Financially and economically, Armenia continues to be a “sponsor State”. There are reports (here and here) on Armenia’s significant post-war economic assistance and budgetary and financial inputs (see Ilașcu, para. 390; Chiragov, para. 183).
As mentioned, to establish the existence of effective control over an area, the ECtHR has primarily taken into account the extent of the third State’s military presence. In fact, it has not yet found such control established beyond the third State’s troop presence on the ground (see Milanović, p. 141). Post-ceasefire Nagorno-Karabakh challenges this premise; it requires a more nuanced approach in line with the Court’s effort “to avoid vacuum in the Convention protection” (see Sargsyan, para. 148). Given the importance of Armenia’s support for Nagorno-Karabakh, it should be considered as exercising effective control over its territory even without a direct military presence.
Russia would have extra-territorial personal jurisdiction in situations where Russian peacekeepers would exercise control and authority over individuals in Nagorno-Karabakh (see Al-Skeini, para 137; Pisari, para. 33). But given Russia’s military presence in the separatist entity, a question should be asked: under which conditions could Russia be considered to exercise spatial extra-territorial jurisdiction there? And what would the relationship to Armenia’s jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh be in that scenario?
Following the 2020 war, many observers have claimed that Russia is now the only security guarantor in Nagorno-Karabakh and that Nagorno-Karabakh has now, de facto, become a “Russian enclave”. There are also reports that Russia has exceeded limits on personnel, weaponry and military equipment stipulated by the ceasefire agreement (here and here). The ICG, however, claims that the size of the mission is too small to enforce the ceasefire (ICG, p. 13). Importantly, the parties have not yet signed the mandate of the mission. Russia has also sent a significant civilian mission to Nagorno-Karabakh to carry out humanitarian relief tasks. Foreign visitors are pre-screened by peacekeepers before entering the separatist territory, and in March 2021 Russian became the official language there.
As outlined, the strength of the third State’s military presence is the key factor in the notion of effective control. However, a closer look at case law reveals that this strength should be seen in a larger context, specifically with respect to conduct and the underlying objectives of the State’s troops. In the context of secessionist entities, the mere presence of forces “is not necessarily in itself sufficient, as it is also a requirement that the troops contribute decisively to the survival and existence of the local authorities” (Larsen, p. 187).
At this stage, despite the presence of the Russian peacekeepers and Russia’s position as the main security guarantor, it is difficult to see Russia exercising effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Most significantly, its military presence does not serve to prop up the secessionists, but rather to supervise the ceasefire in line with the ceasefire agreement. At the moment, it is operating within these narrow bounds, but this could change. Russia’s control over Nagorno-Karabakh could grow in parallel with Armenia’s control or to its exclusion. Depending on the power constellation in the former situation, the concurrent extra-territorial spatial jurisdiction of Armenia and Russia might be the most adequate solution (see generally Besson, pp. 162-163).
Overall, post-ceasefire Nagorno-Karabakh shows the limits of the criteria of “effective control”. It contextualizes the legal consequences of the military presence, or the lack thereof, with respect to extra-territorial jurisdiction under the ECHR. This could have implications beyond the case of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This post is part of a symposium on the topic of this year’s AjV-DGIR conference on ‘Jurisdiction – Who Speaks International Law?’, to be held physically in Bonn and online via Zoom. The contributions to the symposium are shorter versions of papers that will be presented during the conference. The full programme is available here. You can register as an engaged listener (online only) here.