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Military occupation of Azerbaijan by Armenia

Conflict type: Military occupation

Armenia is occupying the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

Armenia is the occupying power in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Armenia exercises its authority over Nagorno-Karabakh by equipping, financing or training and providing operational support to the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and its forces, but also in coordinating and helping the general planning of their military and paramilitary activities. For further information on the use of proxy forces, see 'contemporary challenges for classification – control over proxy forces’ in our classification section.

Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1991. The declaration of independence triggered a conflict between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, which was supported by Armenia. The conflict resulted in an estimated 30,000 deaths and the displacement of approximately 1,000,000 persons. A ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, following which Armenian forces remained in control over Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts. A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflict in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp 62ff. The Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) monitors the ceasefire. Violations of the ceasefire with armed clashes between Armenian, Azerbaijani and separatist forces remain common. A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflict in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 64. Particularly severe clashes leading to dozens of deaths took place in April 2016. For further information, see A. Bellal, The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2016, Geneva Academy, March 2017, p 42; International Crisis Group, Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?, Report No 239, 4 July 2016; S. Tisdall, ‘Azerbaijan-Armenia Conflict is a Reminder of Europe’s Instability’, The Guardian, 3 April 2016; ‘Nagorno-Karbakh’s War. A Frozen Conflict Explodes’, The Economist, 9 April 2016.

The self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s claim to independence has not been internationally recognized. General international law determines whether a secessionist entity possesses statehood. It remains debated whether recognition is a criterion. For further information and references on statehood, see 'international armed conflict - secessionist entities' in our classification section. The OSCE See for example the 2015 Resolution on Adherence to the Helsinki Principles in Inter-State Relations Across the OSCE, 2015 Helsinki Final Act Declaration, 24th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, July 2015., the United Nations General Assembly, See UN GA Res 62/243, 25 April 2008; UN GA Res 60/285, 7 September 2006. and the Security Council have all reaffirmed Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. See UN SC Res 822 (1993), 30 April 1993; UN SC Res 853 (1993), 29 July 1993; UN SC Res 874 (1993), 14 October 1993; UN SC Res 884 (1993), 14 November 1993.

However, Armenia’s position is that ‘Nagorno-Karabakh has no future as a part of Azerbaijan and whatever is the solution, it must emanate from the will of the Karabakh people’. Any ‘Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement must be based on recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh people’s right to self-determination.’ See Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh Issue.

Elements of occupation

For a territory to be considered occupied it must be 'under the authority of the hostile army.' Article 42, 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land. For an occupation to exist hostile foreign forces must exercise effective control. Three elements must be fulfilled for effective control to exist.

  • First, the armed forces of a foreign state are physically present in the territory and the territorial state did not consent to their presence.
  • Second, the presence of the foreign forces prevents the effective local government in place at the time of invasion from exercising its powers.
  • Third, the foreign forces establish their own authority. For further information, see ‘military occupation – elements of occupation’ in our classification section.

States may use proxy forces to occupy a territory: if a state exercises overall control over de facto local authorities or other local groups that exert effective control over the territory, the state can be considered an occupying force. For further information on overall control, see ‘contemporary challenges for classification – control over proxy forces’ in our classification section. Two elements must therefore exist in such a situation.

Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts are under the effective control of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), also known as the Republic of Artsakh. However, Armenia exercises overall control over the NKR. According to the European Court of Human Rights, significant indicators of overall control are: the presence of large number of troops engaged in active duties in the occupied area, and the fact that the local authority is dependent for its survival on military and other support from the occupying state. See ECtHR, Ilaşcu and Others v Moldova and Russia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 48787/99, 8 July 2004, §§312-315. Demonstrative of Armenia’s overall control is the link between the Armenian armed forces and the armed forces of the NKR. For instance, Serzh Sargysan served as the Chairman of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Self-Defense Forces Committee during the initial conflict with Azerbaijan. He later served as the Armenian Minister of Defense, the Prime Minister of Armenia, and is now President of Armenia. The current Chief of Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, Movses Hakobyan, previously served as Minister of Defence in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Reinforcing this link is the 1994 agreement signed between Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic which established that conscripts from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh may do their military service in each other’s militaries. See the information provided for by Armenia during proceedings before the European Court: ECtHR, Chiragov and Others v Armenia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 13216/05, 16 June 2015, §161.

Reportedly, the Nagorno-Karabkh forces rely significantly on Armenian nationals and the two militaries are highly integrated. International Crisis Group, Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the Conflict From the Ground, Report No 166, September 2005, pp 9-10. Significantly, the European Court of Human Rights accepted that it was clear from multiple reports and statements that Armenian military support 'has been - and continues to be - decisive for the conquest of and continued control over the territories in issue, and the evidence, not least the 1994 military co-operation agreement, convincingly shows that the armed forces of Armenia and the “NKR” are highly integrated’. ECtHR, Chiragov and Others v Armenia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 13216/05, 16 June 2015, §180. For a discussion of the European Court’s approach to this issue, see M. Milanovic, ‘The Nagorno-Karabkh Cases’, Blog EJIL Talk, 23 June 2015.

Views of the parties and the international community

The subjective views of the parties may be an indicator, but are not determinative for the classification of a situation.  For further information, see 'overview-classification based on legal criteria and facts' in our classification section. Azerbaijan considers the region occupied by Armenia, including due to the control exercised by Armenia over the local authorities. See for example the statements of the Armenian representative in the General Assembly, General Assembly, 62 session, 86th Plenary Meeting, 14 March 2008, UN doc A/62/PV.86, p 2; ECtHR, Chiragov and Others v Armenia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 13216/05, 16 June 2015, §§165-166. While accepting that there is cooperation between the armed forces, Armenia denies its involvement and considers that the NRK is ‘a sovereign, independent state possessing all the characteristics of an independent state under international law.’ ECtHR, Chiragov and Others v Armenia, Grand Chamber, Judgment, App no 13216/05, 16 June 2015, §163.

The United Nations General Assembly considers that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is occupied by Armenia and has requested the withdrawal of all Armenian forces. See UN GA Res 62/243, 25 April 2008, §2, UN GA Res 60/285, 7 September 2006. Similarly, the Security Council repeatedly requested the withdrawal of all occupying forces in 1993. See UN SC Res 822 (1993), 30 April 1993, Preamble and §1; UN SC Res 853 (1993), 29 July 1993, Preamble and §1; UN SC Res 874 (1993), 14 October 1993, Preamble; UN SC Res  884 (1993), 14 November 1993, Preamble and §4.

The law of military occupation is set forth in the 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs on Land, the 1949 Geneva Conventions (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilians Persons in Time of War and the 1977 Additional Protocol I applicable to International Armed Conflicts.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are parties to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, while only Armenia is a party to 1977 Additional Protocol I.

Customary international humanitarian law is also applicable during occupation, it complements the protection granted by treaties and binds all parties to the conflict. Customary international law consist of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of occupation. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are States Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights. Armenia remains bound by its international human rights law obligations in the territory it occupies.

Last updated: Tuesday 12th September 2017