Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karabakh Refugees Closer to Compensation

Despite win in Europe’s human rights courts, political stalemate is likely to draw out the process of paying reparations to families displaced by war.
By Lilit Arakelyan, Nurgul Novruz
  • Mountain scene in Mardakert, Nagorny Karabakh. (Photo: Gayane Mirzoyan)
    Mountain scene in Mardakert, Nagorny Karabakh. (Photo: Gayane Mirzoyan)

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a landmark ruling in June in favour of displaced people on both sides of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. But officials in both Yerevan and Baku have yet to explain how they plan to compensate claimants forced by conflict to abandon their homes and property.

On June 16, the ECHR issued decisions on Sargsyan v Azerbaijan and Chiragov and Others v Armenia, two cases filed nearly a decade ago. The cases exemplify the plight of many civilians on both sides of the war.

Ruling that both states were obliged to compensate people displaced from territory under their control, the court said Armenia and Azerbaijan must establish mechanisms to facilitate the reclamation of property rights and compensation. The rulings are expected to affect more than 1,000 similar cases filed at the ECHR by displaced Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Although the ECHR gave both countries a year in which to decide how their compensation systems would work, experts warn that the intractable nature of the conflict means that this timeframe is unrealistic.

After Armenians living in NagornyKarabakh demanded secession from Azerbaijan in the late Soviet period, a war broke out that ended only in 1994 with a ceasefire but no peace deal. Since then, Karabakh and adjoining territories have been governed by an Armenian administration which has held elections and claims independence. Karabakh’s claim to sovereign status is not not recognised by any country.

Azerbaijan refuses to talk to the Karabakh leadership, and negotiations mediated by the OSCE are solely between the states of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The talks have made little headway because the two sides are so far apart in their fundamental visions of Karabakh’s future – independence versus reintegration – that it is hard to discuss even preliminary steps like refugee return and restitution.

In the two cases on which it ruled, the ECHR demanded action from the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and not the Karabakh authorities. 

According to Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Centre, a non-government group in Azerbaijan, “The court made it clear that it is Armenia and Azerbaijan that are responsible for the entire set of problems that the refugees from both sides raised in Strasbourg.”

“I don’t think that the refugees will receive their compensation within a year. It’s going to be a long process,” Larisa Alaverdyan, who heads an Armenian NGO called Against Legal Arbitrariness, told IWPR. “Nor does it matter whether the [two governments] come to common or separate decisions. The real issue lies elsewhere – both sides must first decide what form the compensation should take, whether it’s money, a property exchange, or their return to their former places of residence.”

Minas Sargsyan began his ECHR lawsuit against Azerbaijan in 2006, stating that fighting in 1992 forced him out of his home in the village of Gulistan in the Shahumyan district. He died in 2009, but his son Vladimir Sargsyan continued with the case, saying his father had always wanted to return to Gulistan.

“My father wanted to battle it out and that's why he went to court,” Vladimir Sargsyan said. “Gulistan means ‘land of roses’, and it was a very beautiful and rich village. Like everyone else, we had a house, livestock and amarket garden. I don’t know how the compensation will be paid, but I’m glad we won.”

The same legal format was used in the Chiragov and Others v Armenia, filed by Azerbaijani citizens forced to abandon their homes and property in the Lachin district in 1992.Lachin was a key strategic point as it lies between Armenia and Karabakh.

Ara Ghazaryan, an Armenian human rights activist and expert in international law, told IWPR that the next step should be for both court decisions to be referred to the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe's decision-making body which monitors the implementation ofECHR judgements.

“A dialogue must begin between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mediated by the Committee of Ministers. Armenia and Azerbaijan must consider how each of them is to restore property rights and create mechanisms to pay compensation in these two cases, and also the 1,000 outstanding cases,”Ghazaryan said.

Around 600 case applications are still pending from the Azerbaijani side, and 400 filed by Armenians.

Human rights activists agree that the ECHR decision sets a precedent for creating a framework for property restitution.

The obstacle is the lack of movement on the wider Karabakh peace process. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still technically in a state of war, and the resolution of human issues like property rights and the return of displaced persons are intertwined with the basic question of what happens to Karabakh itself – de jure independence, restoration of Azerbaijani rule, or something else.A number of districts around Karabakh including Lachin have also been under Armenian control since 1994, and their Azerbaijani and Kurdish residents fled during the conflict. These areas are supposed to be returned to Azerbaijan at some point in the peace process, whatever the future of Karabakh itself. But no one knows if and when that might happen.

Immediately after the publication of the ECHR verdict on June 18, Armenian foreign minister Edward Nalbandian told reporters that “matters related to the return of refugees and displaced persons are an integral part of the negotiation process. They can be resolved as a part of a comprehensive settlement.”

Nalbandian said Chiragov and Others v Armenia did not have implications for the Karabakh dispute, saying that “the ECHR stresses that its decision bears no relation to a resolution of the conflict”.

Commentators on both sides agree that sorting out refugee issues including compensation is likely to be frustrated by the lack of movement on resolving the conflict itself.

“Of course it’s tied up with politics,” Ghazaryan said. “There will certainly be proposals to create robust mechanisms to allow refugees to return, to make use of their property without hindrance, and receive appropriate compensation. But it’s obvious none of this is going to happen until the Karabakh issue is solved at the political level.”

Hovhannes Sahakyan, a lawmaker from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia who chairs the parliamentary committee on state and legal affairs, also stressed the difficulty of uncoupling the legal cases from the broader Karabakh dispute.

“If we look at this in purely legal terms, the ECHR’s decision is final and must be enforced. However, I wouldn’t wish to view it solely in legal terms, as there are a lot more elements including political ones,” Sahakyan told IWPR.

Avaz Hasanov, director of the Society of Humanitarian Studies in Azerbaijan, believes the ECHR rulings were a “reminder” to the two governments of the pressing need to re-engage in the peace process.

“These cases have been awaiting review at the ECHR for a long time. The rulings come just at a time when the sides have most distanced themselves from resolving the conflict and have started talking more about war,” he said. “It’s obvious the sides don’t plan to pay compensation to the plaintiffs.”

If the Sargsyan and Chiragov judgements offer a precedent for claimants displaced by combat in and around Nagorny Karabakh in the early 1990s, they may not give much hope to Armenians who left Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijanis who left Armenia. Members of these two minorities fled wholesale as tensions and violence rose both before and during the conflict. They too left homes and property behind.

Zeynalov doubts that these groups of refugees will be able to use the two ECHR cases as a precedent.

“Complaints of this kind from Armenian refugees from Baku and Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia will not be successful,” he said. “After all, their property has already been reassigned to new owners by the [two] states. That happened before the [ECHR] convention ever came into force, and it was not appealed against in the national courts in time.”

“It’s simpler when it comes to displaced persons from Karabakh,” he added, explaining that because the territory’s claim to sovereignty is not recognised, it follows that the titles to properties there must still be derived from Soviet-era documentation, and subsequent claims of ownership made by new occupants do not carry legal force.

In Armenia, Alaverdyan argues that the takeover of properties left behind by departing refugees is still a live issue in terms of international law, and that those affected are therefore covered by the European Convention on Human Rights, which underpins the Strasbourg court.

Eleonora Asatryan is coordinator of the Refugees and International Rights NGO, which works on the rights of Armenians who fled Azerbaijan. She notes that none of the cases before the ECHR concerns the more than half a million refugees who came from Azerbaijan in 1988-1990.

“The ECHR decision includes a range of information, but not a word about the ethnic cleansing in Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad and other towns in the Azerbaijan SSR [Soviet republic], which resulted in more than 500,000 people becoming refugees. The ECHR ruling says armed conflict began in 1988, but the lawsuits relate only to 1992,” she continued.

Alaverdyan is nevertheless keen to underline the importance of rulings that require governments to undertake commitments and act on them. 

“The authority of the ECHR is so great that its decision-making isn’t influenced by how strained the relationship between states is, or whether they are at war,” she said. “Its decisions are made out of a conviction that states have obligations towards the civilian population and must implement them.”

Arzu Abdullayeva, head of the Azerbaijani National Committee of the Helsinki Civic Assembly, is hopeful that the ECHR rulings will end up contributing to conflict resolution.

“It’s especially positive that the claims were made from both sides. The ECHR examination of these cases will affect global awareness of the Karabakh issue. Rising numbers of cases of this kind will play an educational role. I believe cases like this will contribute to a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” she said. “The main thing is for the animosity between the two peoples to come to an end at last.”

Lilit Arakelyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia. Nurgul Novruz is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist.