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Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and the Right to Self-Determination


Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and the Right to Self-Determination

October 17th, 2020: (1) This is the first post in a series of three written by Dr Andrew Ashdown, who has joined HART as the Manager of Good Governance and Advocacy Development (HART). 
October 17th, 2020

“By virtue of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, all peoples have the right freely to determine, without external interference, their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and every State has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.”

(The United Nation General Assembly Resolution 2625 (XXV): Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, 24 October 1970).

In the opening chapter of the UN Charter, respect for the right to self-determination of peoples is presented as one of the purposes of the United Nations. The right to self-determination of all peoples was confirmed by the United Nations General Assembly (GA) in the Declaration of Friendly Relations, which was unanimously adopted in 1970 and is considered an authoritative indication of customary international law.

Article 1, common to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), reaffirms the right of all peoples to self-determination, and lays upon state parties the obligation to promote and to respect it.

Criteria For the Right to Self-Determination:

A people can be said to have realised its right to self-determination when they have either:

1) established a sovereign and independent state

2) freely associated with another state or

3) integrated with another state after freely having expressed their will to do so.

The definition of realisation of self-determination was confirmed in the Declaration of Friendly Relations. The principle outlines not just the duty of states to respect and promote the right, but also the obligation to refrain from any forcible action which deprives peoples of the enjoyment of such a right. In particular, the use of force to prevent a people from exercising their right of self-determination is regarded as illegal and has been consistently condemned by the international community. The obligations flowing from the principle of self-determination have been recognised as erga omnes, namely existing towards the international community.[1]

Limitations of the Right to Self-Determination:

“The theory of self-determination, as justifying the secession of a people from its existing mother state as a matter of last resort only, in situations where the people is oppressed or where the mother state’s government does not legitimately represent the people’s interests, has remained constant throughout the 20th century development of international law.”[2]

“Self-determination in international law is viewed to be synonymous with the right of self-governing territories to independence. Such territories are distinguished by virtue of their being geographically and racially distinct from the metropolitan country which governs them, but with which these territories do not share political power. If international law were to go beyond this and recognise the right of self-determination as transcending legally established international boundaries, it would undermine the stability of the international order by placing it in a perpetual state of flux.”[3]


Written by Dr Andrew Ashdown, Manager of Good Governance and Advocacy Development @ HART


[1] https://www.diakonia.se/en/IHL/The-Law/International-Law1/IL–Self-Determination/#:~:text=Criteria%20for%20the%20right%20to,their%20will%20to%20do%20so.

[2] https://www.asil.org/insights/volume/22/issue/1/self-determination-and-secession-under-international-law-cases-kurdistan

[3] Zubeida, Mustafa (1971) The Principle of Self Determination in International Law. In International Lawyer Journal. Vol. 5, No.3. pp 479-487. https://scholar.smu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4243&context=til

[4] De Waal, Thomas (2019) The Caucasus. An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2nd Edn. P. 105

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