European Court Grants Interim Measures in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

European Court of Human Rights
Credit: CherryX per Wikimedia Commons

In the last several weeks, as the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh reignited and intensified, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has granted two sets of interim measures. The Court called on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and all States “directly or indirectly involved” to avoid committing or contributing to violations of civilians’ human rights. [ECtHR Press Release] Other international bodies have also urged an end to hostilities and respect for human rights. [UN News: Escalation; OHCHR Press Release; COE Commissioner for Human Rights]  Approximately 600 people have been killed since fighting broke out in September. [AP] The conflict over territory claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan also has implications for States that are not party to the European Convention on Human Rights, including Iran. [Deutsche Welle

Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

The Nagorno-Karabakh region sits between Azerbaijan and Armenia geographically and was part of the former Soviet Union, under the control of Azerbaijan. [BBC] The majority of its 150,000 inhabitants are Armenian. In 1988, the regional legislature decided to join Armenia and, in 1991, declared independence. The resulting war killed and displaced thousands of people. [CFR] In 1994, the parties agreed to a truce, but there have been violations of the ceasefire over the years, including in 2016 and earlier in 2020. [CFR; UN News: Fresh Clashes] The Minsk Group (led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)) has continued to pursue talks and agreement between the two States. 

Today, forces backed by Armenia control the region. [CFR; Deutsche Welle: Peace] Russia has a defense agreement with Armenia, while Turkey is Azerbaijan’s close ally. [Deutsche Welle: Peace] Freedom House describes Nagorno-Karabakh as “partly free” See Freedom House, Nagorno-Karabakh, Freedom in the World 2020.

The most recent round of fighting began on September 27, 2020. [Deutsche Welle: Peace] Regional authorities and Armenia described the outbreak as an attack by Azerbaijan. [HRW] Journalists and civilians are among those injured and killed, including as a result of the targeting of churches where they have sought shelter. [BBC: Churches; Al Jazeera] A ceasefire brokered by Russia took effect on October 10, but was quickly broken. [Guardian] This time, the conflict reportedly involves newer weaponry and technology. [Al Jazeera; Guardian: Drones] It has also significantly increased the spread of COVID-19 in the area. [Reuters]

ECtHR Interim Measures

Rule 39 of the ECtHR’s Rules of the Court governs requests for interim measures. While compliance with interim measures is low, the Court considers noncompliance to be a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. [ECHR Blog] While Rule 39 does not say this, the Court’s practice is to grant interim measures when “there is an imminent risk of irreparable damage” and only in limited situations, typically involving threats to life or bodily integrity. See ECtHR, What are interim measures?; ECtHR, Factsheet: Interim Measures (March 2020). This is similar – although more limited in some cases – to the practice of other courts and oversight bodies with authority to issue interim, provisional, or precautionary measures. See, e.g., Eva Rieter, Preventing Irreparable Harm: Provisional Measures in International Human Rights Adjudication (2010) (reviewed by IJRC).

Relatedly, Article 33 of the European Convention authorizes all States parties to refer another State’s alleged violations to the Court. Most such applications have involved “situations of crisis or conflict,” in the words of the Court. See ECtHR, Q & A on Inter-State Cases (Oct. 2020). 

Armenia recently lodged applications with the ECtHR against both Azerbaijan and Turkey, adding to the list of inter-State applications to the Court. At the same time, it requested interim measures. While the European Court has previously decided individual complaints involving Nagorno-Karabakh and the conflict there, it has not previously decided an inter-State application involving Armenia and Azerbaijan. [EJIL: Talk!]

On September 30, the ECtHR announced its decision on Armenia’s request for interim measures against Azerbaijan. [ECtHR Press Release: Azerbaijan] Armenia had presented its request on September 28, and the Court made its decision the following day. The Court granted the request in order to prevent serious violations of the Convention, and “called upon both Azerbaijan and Armenia to refrain from taking any measures, in particular military action, which might entail breaches of the Convention rights of the civilian population.” The Court emphasized the rights to life and freedom from torture or inhuman treatment, and called on the States to comply with their Convention obligations. Finally, the Court asked both States to report back on their efforts to comply. [ECtHR Press Release: Azerbaijan

On October 4, Armenia filed its application and request for interim measures with regard to Turkey. [ECtHR Press Release: Turkey] On October 6, the ECtHR announced its decision to grant the request, in a press release that reiterated its statement regarding the previous request. “Taking into account the escalation of the conflict,” it “call[ed] on all States directly or indirectly involved in the conflict, including Turkey, to refrain from actions that contribute to breaches of the Convention rights of civilians, and to respect their obligations under the Convention.”

Other Statements

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet “expressed her alarm at the suffering of civilians” and called for an “urgent ceasefire” in her October 9 statement. [OHCHR Press Release] She pointed to the destruction of houses, schools, and other civilian buildings and reminded the States of their obligations under international humanitarian law. The High Commissioner urged the States to immediately stop using cluster munitions, and to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Her concerns also included the use of discriminatory and hateful speech, and the risks of increased COVID-19 spread.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights’s October 1 statement reminded the States of their regional human rights obligations, and focused on the need for “objective reporting from the conflict zone” and the avoidance of inciting speech. [COE Commissioner Statement]

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, on September 27, called for an end to the conflict and continued talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. [UN News: Fresh Clashes] He reiterated this call on October 6. [UN News: Escalation] On September 30, the UN Security Council urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop  fighting. [Guardian]

The Council of the European Union welcomed the ceasefire and expressed “extreme concern” regarding military action against civilian targets and civilians. [Council of the EU Press Release]

Additional Information

See the IJRC Online Resource Hub for additional information on the European and United Nations human rights mechanisms, country factsheets on European States’ human rights obligations, and our overview of international humanitarian law. To stay up-to-date on international human rights news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.