The Lachin Corridor Dispute Reaches The World Court

Months of hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan have reached the fore of the International Court of Justice (also known as the World Court), the United Nations’ premier judiciary which began public hearings over the ongoing border dispute at Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday. For seven weeks and counting, a blockade of the Lachin Corridor initiated by Azerbaijani protestors has impeded access to electricity, food, water, and medical supplies for over 120,000 ethnic Armenians in the area, trapping many children, elderly, disabled, and other vulnerable civilians in what has been officially declared a ‘humanitarian crisis’ by the International Association of Genocide Scholars. This provocation from the Azeri government arrives as the latest in a series of endeavors to establish control over Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked zone between the two former Soviet republics that has endured as a source of militaristic conflict since the 1990s, and whose controversy captures a brutal legacy of ethnonationalist animus in the region. 


The question of which country claims sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh has hardly been resolved by over three decades of recurrent war, interrupted sporadically by piecemeal diplomatic initiatives historically brokered by Russia, and more recently by the EU. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenian forces gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and defended against initial Azerbaijani opposition in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, spurning the first wave of violent pogroms and inter-ethnic cleansing between the two nations until a ceasefire was arranged by Russia in 1994. The ceasefire resulted in Armenia’s de-facto possession of the territory, including the Lachin Corridor, a mountainous enclave that contains the only road linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh and is relied upon by many locals for transport of essential resources. The battle over the corridor and its surrounding territory resumed in the fall of 2020, when Azerbaijan, with aid from Turkey, deployed drone and missile strikes upon Nagorno-Karabakh and regained areas it had ceded in the prior dispute. ABC News estimates that the “Second Nagorno-Karabakh” War of 2020 claimed as many as 6,800 military casualties and displaced over 90,000 civilians from their homes, the effects of which are still being felt at the Lachin Corridor as thousands of already-unsettled Armenians struggle to attain basic necessities.  


Yegishe Kirakosyan, Armenia’s legal representative to the World Court, stressed in oral arguments how the Azeri protestors’ siege of the Lachin Corridor perpetuates the violence of the region’s history, and betrays the historical and contemporary importance of the Corridor to locals. “If the court does not act quickly, the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh will be faced with an impossible choice, to leave their ancestral homes or to stay there and starve,” he remarked to the court. “Such blatant acts of ethnic cleansing have no place in the modern era, and this court is the last hope for the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh.” 


Armenia’s legal claim of racial discrimination to the Court is founded in a recognition of how decades-old fascist sentiment in the South Caucasus has been reanimated by the threat of Azeri occupation. Unrest at the Corridor began on December 12, 2022, when a group of Azerbaijani citizens presenting as environmental activists arrived to protest the Armenian government’s alleged illegal mining of Nagorno-Karabakh land. These protests soon devolved into a general mass demonstration against Armenian sovereignty, with some in attendance rumored to be disguised supporters of the “Gray Wolves”, a far-right extremist group with roots in the Turkish nationalist movement. Speculation persists as to whether the majority of these protestors maintain legitimate grievances and peaceful intentions, or if the Azeri government has deployed a distraction in pursuit of its campaign against Armenian independence. International peacekeeping organizations and outside governments are starting to take notice of these concerns, as Amnesty International, The Helsinki Commission, the EU, Brazil, France, and the United States have all condemned the siege of the Lachin Corridor and called for the disengagement of military forces in the region. 


Peacekeeping operations between Armenia and Azerbaijan were officially undertaken by Russia at the end of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, though have considerably weakened in force since the Kremlin’s siege of Ukraine in 2021. Reports from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggest a lack of uniformity and organization in the enforcement of designated entry and exit points at the border among Russian officers, citing a fallout in September 2022 when Azerbaijani forces managed to breach the border patrol and deliver artillery strikes to remote villages in the territory. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led military alliance of post-Soviet states, did not respond to any appeals for military assistance from Armenia in the wake of these attacks, nor did the group release any statement condemning Azerbaijan’s violation of the CSTO’s founding treaty, which declares “the obligation to abstain from use of force or threat by force in the interstate relations.”


 This neglect has carried over to Russia’s relative inaction and silence on the current blockade; virtually no communications on the matter have been issued from Russian officials, besides a call that took place in late January between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and an Azerbaijani official, asking for “the earliest possible unblocking of traffic along the Lachin corridor in accordance with the parameters stipulated in the November 9, 2020, trilateral top-level statement.” This statement, brokered as part of the 2020 ceasefire, only specifies that all peacekeeping operations at the Corridor be delegated to Russian forces, and requests that “the Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the security of persons, vehicles, and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.” While commendable on paper, the reality of the unimpeded deprivation of the Armenian people’s access to food, heat, and medical supplies during the last month effectively negates this claim. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has condemned Russia’s refusal to act with integrity in harsh terms, calling the peacekeeping mission “a silent witness to the depopulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.” 


Some have argued that Russia’s ability to effectively moderate the crisis at the Lachin Corridor is compromised not only by its military preoccupation with Ukraine, but also as a result of ongoing trade-relations and dependence upon both Azerbaijan and Turkey for oil, gas, and “sensitive” military weapons that have been revoked through sanctions from the West. Moscow’s gradual retreat from its peacekeeping duties has invited other countries in support of Armenia to step in and leverage their diplomatic influence, though true progress on the issue will require these actors to re-evaluate various instances of split loyalty in their own foreign policy approaches. For instance, the United States is beholden to enforce statutory restrictions on military aid to Azerbaijan, per Section 907 of the U.S. FREEDOM Support Act, passed in 1992 after the fallout of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. However, these restrictions have been waived annually by both Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents between 2002 and 2020, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. President Biden, who promised during his 2020 campaign to properly recognize the Armenian genocide and refuse corroboration with the Azeri military, yet again authorized a lift on Section 907 in June of 2022. 


Despite these inconsistencies in foreign policy, the United States has pledged support for the European Union in its mission to de-escalate conflict between the two nations. As of January 23, the EU has launched a new two-year peacekeeping project that will add more patrols to the border zone- an initiative that will demand enhanced cooperation and communication with the Russian border guards already stationed there. Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mizoyan praised the decision as a step in the right direction, though other Armenian advocacy groups have emphasized further actions that must be adopted across national governments and NGOs to end the blockade. The Armenian Society of Fellows has called upon world leaders to organize airlifts of supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh, advocate for an international mandate against ethnic cleansing in the region, and double down on economic and Magnitsky sanctions against the Azeri government. In their view, any party’s failure to take action on this “prelude for genocide” will only further stoke the flames of violence and geopolitical unrest throughout Eurasia.


The World Court is now faced with an immense responsibility to adjudicate the future of this border in compliance with the demands of Armenian advocates and staunch supporters of peaceful democracy across the globe. It not only has the power to set provisional measures that order Azerbaijan to cease its orchestration of protests blocking the Corridor, but could seize this opportunity to strengthen its lukewarm precedent denouncing international genocide. Where the Court failed to fully hold accountable Serbia for its genocide in Bosnia during the Balkan War, it can redeem these mistakes to protect and deliver justice to thousands of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh at risk of persecution. As the Armenian Society of Fellows professed in a recent statement: “Nagorno Karabakh today stands at the forefront of the conflict between democracy and autocracy, between transparency and corruption, and between freedom and oppression.”


Leave a Reply