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UN high court tells Azerbaijan to clear roadway to separatist enclave

The dispute stems from a 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, that left more than 6,500 dead and nearly 100,000 displaced.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The United Nations' highest court ordered Azerbaijan on Wednesday to ensure free movement along the only highway between the Armenian border and a majority ethnically Armenian region inside Azerbaijan. 

The International Court of Justice ruled on a number of requests from the Caucasus neighbors in a pair of cases where each accuses the other of violating a decadesold treaty forbidding racial discrimination, granting one of Armenia’s protection measures while dismissing those of Azerbaijan. 

"There is a real and imminent risk that irreparable prejudice will be caused before the court makes a final decision in the case,” the court's president, Judge Joan Donoghue, said in reading out the ruling. 

Following a bloody 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, the pair complained to The Hague-based court that the other is guilty of violating the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD, which requires signatories to take steps to end racial discrimination and promote of understanding between differing nationalities, races and ethnic groups. 

Last year, both countries asked the court to intervene for the second time while the underlying case is being considered. During hearings in January, Armenia asked the court to guarantee access to the Lachin corridor, the only road between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, as well as restore the flow of natural gas. 

Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,700-square-mile area that technically falls within the borders of Azerbaijan but is overwhelmingly ethnically Armenian, has been a source of friction since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

In its first ruling Wednesday, the court ordered Azerbaijan’s capital Baku to allow the free movement of people and cargo along the corridor, finding there was evidence that blockades had caused “shortages of food, medicine and other life-saving medical supplies.” 

However, the 15-judge panel said two other requests from Armenia - one asking for Azerbaijan to end demonstrations along the road and the other to ensure the supply of gas - failed to meet the standard for provisional measures. The court wrote Armenia had “not placed before it sufficient evidence” for its claims. 

In its own case, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of engaging in ethnic cleansing by planting explosive devices in the region and refusing to hand over maps indicating where mines have been placed.

However, in its second ruling of the day, the court found that these allegations also did not meet the threshold under the CERD. In that case, a 16-judge panel said that Azerbaijan had failed to prove Armenian was using mines to target civilians based on their nationality. The court ruled identically on a similar request made by Baku earlier in the proceedings. 

The pair both first appealed to The Hague-based court in 2021. Hearings were held in the first requests they made for provisional measures - essentially an injunction - the same year.  Armenia argued Azerbaijan was intentionally exacerbating existing tensions by erecting a war memorial using the helmets of dead Armenian soldiers, while Azerbaijan claimed the Armenian military had seeded the ground with landmines, leaving the area dangerous and impassable. 

In December 2021, the court ordered Azerbaijan to ensure the safety of soldiers captured in the conflict, prevent incitement of racial hatred and protect Armenian cultural heritage sites, while telling Armenia to avoid doing anything to exacerbate the conflict. Both sets of earlier measures continue to stand, the court reiterated Wednesday.

The Council of Europe, the oversight body of the European Court of Human Rights, has also weighed in, ordering Azerbaijan to open the Lachin corridor last month. The countries have a different case pending before the rights court, which protects the civil and political rights of Europeans, stemming from the same conflict. 

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