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Military occupation of Azerbaijan by Armenia

Conflict type: Military occupation

Armenia is occupying the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts on the territory of Azerbaijan.

Armenia is the occupying power in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as well as in the surrounding districts Aghdam, Jabrail, Fuzuli, Kalbajar, Gubadli, Lachin and Zangilan 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.

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 or have the power to establish their own authority. For further information, see ‘military occupation – elements of occupation’.

Occupation by proxy

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 later President of Armenia. Likewise, the former 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-Karabakh 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’, EJIL:Talk!, 23 June 2015. Moreover, Armenian troops are present/guard the line of contact, i.e. the borderline between Nagorno Karabakh respectively the occupied adjacent regions and Azerbaijan that sees regular incidents of fire exchange and fight actions between the two sides’ militaries. ‘International Mediators condemn ceasefire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh’, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 20 May 2017; T. de Waal, ‘Revamping the Nagorny Karabakh Peace Process’, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 26 June 2013.

Declaration of independence and armed confrontations

Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1991, triggering 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.  The Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) monitors the ceasefire. However, 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. A. Bellal, The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2016, Geneva Academy, 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. Since then, the intensity of confrontations has gone down, although exchange of fire/skirmishes are still frequent and cause several casualties on each side per year. ACLED, Dataset Middle East 2016-2019, Data through 2nd of February 2019. For instance, in 2017 there have been 19 casualties on the Azerbaijani side and 22 on the Armenian side. In 2018, six casualties were reported on the Azerbaijani side and seven on the Armenian side. Caspian Defense Studies Institute, 119 hərbçi dünyasını dəyişib – Cənubi Qafqazda – MÜQAYİSƏLİ STATİSTİKA, 7 January 2018; Caspian Defense Studies Institute, 2018-ci ildə Ermənistan 45 hərbçisini itirib – STATİSTİKA, 3 January 2019; Caspian Defense Studies Institute, Azərbaycan 2018-ci ildə 37 hərbi qulluqçunu itirib – STATİSTİKA, 3rd January 2019.

In March 2018, the presidents of the two states engaged in direct talks for the first time in several years in Vienna. The negotiations resulted in a new commitment to the ceasefire, which contributed to a de-escalation along the line of contact in early 2019. A. Souleimanov and H. Aliyev, ‘Azerbaijan and Armenia Eager to Revive Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Talks’, CACI Analyst, 23 January 2019; A. Ohanyan, ‘At long last, peace might be possible between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Here’s what’s needed’, The Washington Post, 20 March 2019. Furthermore, the parties agreed to maintain direct dialogue, to strengthen direct interaction between the states and its peoples, as well as to set up humanitarian support measures. ‘Armenia-Azerbaijan Summit described as “positive”, “constructive”’, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 30 March 2019; ‘Round of negotations on Nagorno-Karabakh in Vienna’, CaucasusWatch, 30 March 2019. In 2019 the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met during a summit in Moscow, also attended by representatives of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group from Russia, the US, France, and the OSCE chairperson. The two countries reaffirmed their commitment to a peaceful and sustainable solution to the peace process. Further steps to facilitate individual contact, such as visits to detained relatives and visits of media representatives, were agreed upon. Yet, no concrete steps as to the design of a possible agreement was laid out. ‘Armenia, Azerbaijan, ”agree on political steps” to foster human contact’, Tert, 15 April 2019; ‘No Breakthrough Evident at Nagorno-Karabakh Talks in Moscow’, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 15 April 2019.

In June 2019, Armenian National Security Council announced the intention to build a third highway between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh the following year. On 5 June 2020, the de facto President Araik Arutyunyan reiterated that the road will be constructed in 2020. On 10 June, the European Parliament’s rapporteurs on Azerbaijan and Armenia and the chair of delegation to EU-Armenia Parliamentary Partnership Committee issued a joint statement, expressing their concerns that the highway ‘could symbolically entrench the illegal occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and of its surrounding districts.’ International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2020; ‘Armenia and Karabakh announce construction of third connecting highway’, Eurasianet, 25 June 2019

Between 12 and 16 July 2020, fighting erupted along the border between Movses in Armenia and Agdam in Azerbaijan, a densely populated area. Both countries used heavy weapons and violence caused twelve military fatalities, including a well-regarded general, and one civilian on Azeri side and four military casualties and one civilian wounded on Armenian side. It is unclear the reason why violence broke out, and each country accuses the other of starting hostilities. International Crisis Group, Preventing a Bloody Harvest on the Armenia-Azerbaijan State Border, Report 259 / Europe & Central Asia, 24 July 2020. On 27 September 2020, heavy fighting broke out in Nagorno Karabakh. According to Armenia, Azerbaijan attacked civilians in the city of Stepanakert and reacted by downing two Azerbaijani helicopters and three drones. On the other hand, Azerbaijan affirmed that it was a ‘counteroffensive to suppress Armenia’s combat activity and ensure the safety of the population.’ ‘Fighting erupts between Armenia, Azerbaijan over disputed region’, Al-Jazeera, 27 September 2020.

Turkey, who has no official relations with Armenia, expressed its support to Azerbaijan. On the other hand, President Putin called for a ceasefire. Russia is traditionally seen as an Armenian allied and has a military base in the country, but has also good relationships with Azerbaijan and sells weapons to both countries. Furthermore, Armenia is part of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. ‘Armenia and Azerbaijan fight over disputed Nagorno-Karabakh’, BBC, 28 September 2020; ‘Armenia-Azerbaijan: What's behind the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?’, BBC, 29 September 2020; ‘Russia defends selling arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia’, AP News, 9 April 2016. On Tuesday, 29 September, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) hold a closed-door discussion on the clashes in Nagorno Karabakh and expressed concern about the escalation of the hostilities. A similar was expressed by the UN Secretary General Gutierrez. ‘Fresh Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh, as UN chief urges an end to fighting’UN News, 27 September 2020; ‘Azerbaijan, Armenia reject talks as Karabakh conflict widens’, Al Jazeera, 30 September 2020; ‘Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia says ready to work towards ceasefire’, Al Jazeera, 2 October 2020.

It has been reported that ‘Syrian rebel fighters have signed up to work for a private Turkish security company as border guards in Azerbaijan.’ According to sources within the Syrian National Army (SNA), the main Syrian rebels umbrella organization, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, about 500 Syrian fighters have arrived in Azerbaijan. Russia and Armenia claim that 4,000 members of SNA are present in Nagorno Karabakh, while Turkey and Azerbaijan reject these claims. On 1 October, French President Macron reported that, according to French intelligence, 300 fighters from “jihadist groups” in Syria have crossed Turkey and were directed to Azerbaijan. B. McKernan, ‘Syrian rebel fighters prepare to deploy to Azerbaijan in sign of Turkey’s ambition’, The Guardian, 28 September 2020.

On 28 September 2020, Armenia submitted a request for interim measures to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The following day, the Court decided to apply Rule 39 of the Rules of the Court. While the decision and ensuing interim measures remain confidential, a press release of the ECtHR specified that the situation in Nagorno Karabakh could cause serious violations of the Convention and added that ‘[w]ith a view to preventing such violations and pursuant to Rule 39, the Court called upon both Azerbaijan and Armenia to refrain from taking any measures, in particular military action, which might entail breaches of the Convention rights of the civilian population, including putting their life and health at risk.’ ‘The Court grants an interim measure in the case of Armenia v. Azerbaijan’, Press Release issued by the Registrar of the Court,  30 September 2020. 

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. It holds that the de-occupation of the regions and respect of its territorial integrity is a conditio sine qua non for sustainable peace in the region. ‘Azerbaijani MFA issues statement on the 27th anniversary of the occupation of Lachyn’, Defence.az, 17 May 2019. 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. Armenia is of the view 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.

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, e.g., UNGA, UN Doc. A/RES/62/243, 25 April 2008, §2; UNGA A/RES/60/285, 7 September 2006. Similarly, the Security Council repeatedly requested the withdrawal of all occupying forces in 1993. See, e.g., UNSC S/RES/822 (1993), 30 April 1993, Preamble and §1; UNSC, S/RES/853 (1993), 29 July 1993, Preamble and §1; UNSC, S/RES/874 (1993), 14 October 1993, Preamble; UNSC, S/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: Monday 23rd November 2020