Azerbaijan's use of force in Nagorno-Karabakh risks undermining key international norms, signaling to dictators that might makes right

Nareg Seferian, Ph.D. Candidate, School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

The United States’ top humanitarian aid representative, Samantha Power, was dispatched on a fact-finding mission on Sept. 26, 2023, to a registration point on the border with Armenia for those fleeing the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. What she found was frustration: “Sanction Azerbaijan or go back to your country! We don’t care. Stop the lies!” someone shouted in a mid-press conference interruption.

Underscoring the gravity of the situation, Power’s visit coincided with a fuel depot explosion across the border in the disputed territory that killed at least 68 people, with 105 reported missing.

As an Armenian scholar of international affairs, I see the anger directed at Power reflecting two realities: the worsening plight of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and the perceived inaction of the international community. Should the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan be allowed to act with impunity in Nagorno-Karabakh, then I fear it will only further erode the international principle of nonuse of force.

The violence the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are trying to leave behind ramped up on Sept. 19, when Azerbaijani forces launched “anti-terror” operations on the enclave – populated by Armenians but within Azerbaijan’s recognized borders – claiming that some of its servicemen were killed by land mines placed by the Armenian side.

The flare-up of violence is only the latest episode in a long-standing conflict. And it was not entirely unexpected; troops had been building up for weeks prior to the assault.

A Russian-brokered truce was announced the following day, on Sept. 20. It saw the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic – or, in Armenian, Artsakh – acquiesce to disarming and disbanding. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic had been in de facto existence since 1991, though never formally recognized by any nation or international body.


There are now deep concerns that the world is essentially witnessing a genocide in real time – despite the reticence of the U.S. and other actors to use that term.

Azerbaijan has pushed its rhetoric on “reintegrating” the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh for some time now. The Azerbaijani government in the capital Baku presents its country as a multiethnic, cosmopolitan society in which the Armenian population can fully participate, with all of its cultural rights guaranteed. But the regime in Baku has a well-founded reputation for authoritarianism, suppression of dissent and repression of the Armenian population in particular.

Before the latest violence, Nagorno-Karabakh had been under a nine-month partial or whole blockade of the one highway connecting the territory with Armenia.

That road was opened after the fighting ended last week and has led to a mass exodus of people fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia. If most of the population leaves, as expected by a senior Nagorno-Karabakh official, that could amount to about 120,000 people. And that will pose a significant challenge for Armenia, with its population of less than 3 million.


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