An Unjust Use of Force – Azerbaijan’s 2023 Seizure of Karabakh

By Hans Gutbrod - 16 October 2023
An Unjust Use of Force – Azerbaijan’s 2023 Seizure of Karabakh

Hans Gutbrod argues that we must highlight dissenting Azerbaijani voices if we're to have hope of a resolution to the conflict.

In recent days, Azerbaijani troops have seized the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which for more than 30 years has been under Armenian control. The territory is an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan. Its seizure nevertheless does not constitute a just use of force, by the long-established criteria of the just war tradition. The seizure lacked good intention, legitimate authority and the use of force was not a last resort.

Azerbaijani justification of military action emphasizes ‘territorial integrity’ as a just cause. In itself, this does constitute a broadly plausible cause – yet one that normally needs to be balanced with some degree of self-determination. People matter, too. Turkey, which has supported territorial integrity as a determining principle in Nagorno-Karabakh, for several decades has championed self-determination when it comes to Northern Cyprus. Even if one were – at a long stretch – to grant that territorial integrity in itself is sufficient cause for seizing control in Nagorno-Karabakh, there remain other criteria to consider, under the established framework of Ius ad Bellum.

Lack of Good Intent

The seizure of a people who are comparatively more free cannot constitute ‘good intent.’ It is better described as subjugation. International indicators are crystal-clear: Azerbaijan is a ‘Not Free’ country according to Freedom House, garnering a rating of 9/100 in 2022. By comparison, Nagorno-Karabakh, for all its flaws, was still ranked as ‘Partly Free,’ with 37/100.

An illustrative case is the fate of Gubad Ibadoghlu. Ibadoghlu is a respected economist and was a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. On July 23 of this year, he was detained while on a visit to Baku. The charges are widely considered trumped up. It appears that his wife was also severely beaten at the time of his arrest. Independent of ethnicity, no reasonable person can be expected to welcome being kidnapped into a dictatorship.

Next to this general rightlessness of people in Azerbaijan, the government had long engaged in a vicious and degrading rhetoric towards Armenians. Akram Ayilisli, an author who told the story of how Armenians, too, had suffered in the last century, has been threatened, vilified, and consigned to a kind of internal exile. After the 2020 war, some monuments that had come under Azerbaijani control were damaged or even razed. No reasonable person believes that there was a realistic prospect that Armenians would enjoy the limited rights and services available to the ethnic and linguistic majority.

No Legitimacy in Authoritarianism

Azerbaijan does not have ‘legitimate authority.’ The country is ruled by a dictatorship rightly described as a ‘kleptocracy’ in the headline of a Washington Post editorial. The formal ‘authority’ therefore is not legitimate. Azerbaijani peace activists were subjected to major repressions before Azerbaijani troops advanced on Karabakh. As for Russia’s war in Ukraine, the lack of legitimate authority is underlined by the repression of those that call for peace.

No Last Resort

The seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh squarely fails the test of ‘last resort.’ The government of Azerbaijan did not undertake any reasonable effort to convince Armenians that living under Azerbaijani rule would be a viable prospect. Many options were available that could have been attempted before a resort to force was justifiable. Effectively, travel to and in Azerbaijan remained banned for Armenians. The Armenians of Karabakh were asked to submit to a capital that they could not visit for a generation.

As a thought experiment: after the 2020 war, the Azerbaijani government could have offered a thousand return flight tickets a year to any destination in the world for Armenians from Karabakh, if they were to fly through Baku. This measure would have cost less than a single midsized weapons system and would have allowed poor Karabakhi families to visit relatives they otherwise would not ever get to see. As a gesture, it could have highlighted to Armenians that living in Azerbaijan could keep them connected to the world and show that they can safely pass through Azerbaijan. While such a suggestion seems outlandish in the current reality, what is truly preposterous is the suggestion that force can be justified without previously going out of one’s way to convey one’s goodwill.

What was done, instead, was the very opposite of trying to win over Armenians: for more than nine months, Karabakh was under blockade, causing significant hardship, contributing also to a cataclysmic explosion which killed more than 150 Armenians at a fuel depot, in the end of September.

Uncertainties Remain

It may well turn out that the eventual historical record is even worse for Azerbaijan. Some reports suggest that the Armenian side in the last weeks was willing to make far-reaching concessions. Western diplomats have said that they were repeatedly assured there would not be a military assault.

Moreover, the immediate justification seems shaky. As in 2020, Azerbaijan claimed it was acting in self-defense. The trigger for the so-called ‘antiterrorist operation’ to seize Karabakh was said to be the death of six people, two civilians and four policemen, who had driven onto a mine, allegedly laid by Armenians. The timing of this incident lined up rather neatly with comprehensive preparations for an attack. Given that journalists cannot report freely and access to external observers was blocked, the sensible presumption is to be skeptical. After 2020, the obvious September lie that Azerbaijan was defending itself from Armenian attack was forgotten once the war had been won.

Forced Displacement, at the very least

Some pro-Azerbaijani analysts have balked at describing what transpired as ‘ethnic cleansing,’ claiming this is a loaded word. The departure of nearly 100,000 Armenians from Karabakh can still be characterized as ‘forced displacement’ at least. Some preliminary reports say that Azerbaijani soldiers told inhabitants in smaller settlements that they had to leave. A report from one settlement claimed that Azerbaijani troops on arrival shot in the air and told people to get out. The first messages from Azerbaijani authorities to Armenian citizens via SMS said women and children would be allowed safe passage, making it unclear whether men might be detained.

After Azerbaijani troops in 2020 beheaded Armenian prisoners, including a civilian in his 80s, Armenians were understandably terrified what might await them. To this day, it seems that no Azerbaijani has been held to account for any of the 2020 murders, even though several of the perpetrators were easy to identify on videos.

To highlight these concerns is not to exempt Armenia’s actions from scrutiny. In and after the first Karabakh war, 30 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis had to flee. Hundreds of Azerbaijanis lost their lives in a massacre in Khojaly. (Many Armenians lost their lives in a previous pogrom in Soviet Azerbaijan, bizarrely described as an Armenian conspiracy by senior Azerbaijani officials.) Armenian forces held onto several majority-Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh for nearly three decades.

Yet the current emphasis on Armenian transgressions by many Azerbaijanis only underlines that force was used for getting retribution. That sentiment is on display on social media, where dozens and perhaps hundreds of Azerbaijanis publicly gloated at the misery of the now-displaced Armenians. Prominent Armenian-Karabakhi leaders have been displayed as trophies, head forcefully bent down by their Azerbaijanii captors, as they are shoved towards their interrogation.

The ethical tally, in summary, is disastrous for the Azerbaijani side. As the saying goes, you can only have two out of three: honesty; a basic ability to apply ethical judgment; actively justifying what Azerbaijan did in Karabakh in September 2023. Other long-term analysts come to similar conclusions.

Stefan Meister noted in an analysis for the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP) that Azerbaijan has the right to regain control of its territory. ‘But systematically starving the people of Nagorno-Karabakh over months, killing civilians, bombing civil infrastructure and driving people out by threat and force contravenes international law and human rights.’

Azerbaijan roundly won. Yet there is a terrible price for Azerbaijan and its people also, in having its dignity debased as a country disfigured by a petty dictatorship and its awful wars.

For that reason, it is all the more important to highlight dissenting Azerbaijani voices. An Azerbaijani feminist peace collective in August 2023 had emphasized solidarity between Armenians and Azerbaijanis against oppression. Others stressed that whatever happened in the past, this was no reason to justify new injustices. In a moving essay for Open Democracy, Rauf Azimov described how he felt empathy because he, too, had experienced what it was to be violently displaced. Most of those who speak up for peace have faced massive abuse. In such darkness, even a few rays of light can shine far. One can only hope that they will serve to inspire a generation that eventually will challenge the dispiriting deeds of their fathers.



Dr. Hans Gutbrod is a Professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. He regularly writes on ethics, recently also publishing “Ethics of Political Commemoration: Towards a New Paradigm” (with David Wood). He has worked in the Caucasus region since 1999.

Photo by Laker

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