In the latest, in a series of op-eds discussing the future of Nagorno-Karabakh and its people on commonspace.eu, Nurlan Mustafayev says that a security dilemma remains a critical issue for both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani communities in Karabakh, and that dealing with this issue first requires demilitarisation. The author argues that “given the current uncertainty and complexity, the inclusion of both ethnic groups in local governance is one clear thing or a shared vision that should be a part of the overall peace process. The parties’ use of the untapped resources of international law on minority protection, on the one hand, and security, on the other, can play a critical role in the face of political uncertainty.
Despite many differences contained in the many conflict-resolution proposals on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in the past three decades, a common feature has been an exclusion of a future political role of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh. This one-sided approach wrongly proposes to advantage one ethnic group over the other when it comes to rights and institutions. In the post-war phase, a similar approach inadvertently persists. However, institutional segregation based on ethnic lines would neither be in accord with international law nor be stable in the long term. This leaves only one viable option as the way forward – inclusive governance in Karabakh, which will address the rights and security of both ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis in Karabakh.
In the post-conflict period, numerous Azerbaijani and Armenian scholars proposed many ideas regarding possible models of governance in Karabakh, e.g., autonomy, international regime, joint sovereignty, etc. However, what is conspicuously missing in these narratives is the ‘right and security of ethnic Azerbaijanis’ in Karabakh – about 30 percent of the total local inhabitants who had to flee the area after the Khojaly genocide and the fall of Shusha in 1992. The question is how to integrate a significant number of returning ethnic Azerbaijanis into local governance in Karabakh as well? Any future administration in Karabakh which does not consider such ethnic inclusivity would be fundamentally flawed and unworkable in the long run.
Ethnic Coexistence and Inclusive Governance
The conflict’s historical, ethnic, and territorial complexity partially resembles other protracted conflicts, such as those in Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Good Friday Agreement and the Dayton Accords’ success in solving these respective conflicts were made possible by putting the ‘coexistence’ of several ethnic communities at the center of the peace processes and cultivating a shared vision. The parties and mediators delicately balanced competing security, human rights, and governance considerations to reach this ultimate goal. In this respect, three crucial principles from past successful peace processes regarding security, local governance, and cultural self-rule can pave the way for ethnic coexistence in Karabakh.
A security dilemma remains a critical issue for both communities in Karabakh. Security requires demilitarization and, in particular, disarming and disbanding of all local militias. This precondition proved crucial to preventing inter-community violence between Unionists and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland before the parties struck a final peace deal. Demilitarization will also ease the eventual return of ethnic Azerbaijanis to Upper Karabakh and eliminate the risk of rocket attacks from the area into civilian settlements outside the region—a substantial national security risk for Azerbaijan. While a Russian peacekeeping force is the temporary peacekeeping force in Karabakh, the UN and other international institutions can help the parties gradually build a local police force representative of both ethnic groups to provide permanent security in the region.
Minority Rights: Decoupling Rights from Territory
It is worth noting that ethnic Armenians are the third largest ethnic group of out sixteen in Azerbaijan. What is at issue is minority rights granted to ethnic Armenians by international law and local laws. Unlike the Aland Islands, Karabakh’s location at the center of Azerbaijan’s trade and transport hub makes any geographical ringfencing for one ethnic group a practical impossibility, nor would it lead to ethnic integration in the future.
The international human rights regime of minority protection – the cultural autonomy model – can bridge the parties’ seemingly incompatible positions by decoupling minority rights from the territorial question. For instance, many EU countries, including Poland, Romania, and Hungary, implement this model wherein a minority group’s guaranteed political, cultural, language, religious, economic, and social rights extend to a given state’s whole territory. Azerbaijan and Armenia’s being party to the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on Protection of Minorities and the UN minority rights framework creates additional guarantees and verifiable mechanisms to protect ethnic Armenians’ distinct culture, history, language, and religion in the area. Regular monitoring and verification by UNESCO and the Council of Europe could ensure adequate protection of such minority rights in Karabakh.
Multi-ethnic Local Governance
Designing governance institutions to administer Karabakh districts would create an equal participation opportunity for both ethnic groups in the region’s economic and political spheres. Allocating a fixed percentage of positions in local executive bodies and municipalities, including the police force and courts, to each ethnic group may resolve representation and potential discrimination problems. Local municipal and mayoral elections may also provide a stable central-local government power distribution. Checks and balances and minority veto power over majority decisions on vital issues affecting each district’s social, cultural, and economic life will also be crucial in blocking any potential abuse of local power. Notably, the parties should avoid the pitfalls of an ethnic-based governance system where one ethnic group monopolizes power or voting behavior happens on ethnic lines due to weak local institutions.
In conclusion, given the current uncertainty and complexity, the inclusion of both ethnic groups in local governance is one clear thing or a shared vision that should be a part of the overall peace process. The parties’ use of the untapped resources of international law on minority protection, on the one hand, and security, on the other, can play a critical role in the face of political uncertainty.
source: Nurlan Mustafayev is an advisor on international legal affairs, and adjunct lecturer at ADA University in Baku.
photo: The citadel in the town of Shusha before it reverted back to Azerbaijan in 2020.
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