International court orders Azerbaijan to "ensure movement" on blockaded road
Armenians declared victory in the case, but Azerbaijan already denies that it is blockading the road to Karabakh and it's not clear how the ruling will be enforced.
An international court has ordered Azerbaijan to “ensure unimpeded movement” on the highway connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been virtually closed for more than two months as a result of government-backed protests blocking the road.
But the ruling appears to have little immediate prospect of lifting the blockade, as Azerbaijan argues that it is not in fact blocking the road and so is not obliged to do anything it isn’t already doing.
The International Court of Justice, the top court of the United Nations, ruled on February 23 that “Azerbaijan shall … take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”
Armenia had asked the court in January to impose provisional measures against Azerbaijan for the blockade. Following the decision, Yerevan declared victory. “[I]n accordance with the Court’s orders, Azerbaijan's blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh and other actions must now come to an immediate end,” Armenia’s foreign ministry said in a statement following the ruling. “Armenia will closely monitor the situation and inform the Court of any violations as Armenia’s case against Azerbaijan proceeds.”
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry sidestepped the main thrust of the ruling – that the court demanded it ensure free movement on the road – but pointed out that the court “took note” of Baku’s argument that it “has and undertakes to continue to take all steps within its power and at its disposal to guarantee safe movement along the Lachin Road.”
The ruling “will have little effect on the situation on the ground until peace [is] reached [between] the two countries as every [document] interpreted differently by the parties,” tweeted Farid Shafiyev, the head of the Azerbaijan state-run think tank Center for Analysis of International Relations.
Indeed, international law has traditionally had little effect on the ground throughout the history of this conflict.
In December 2021, in another provisional ruling in the same case, the ICJ demanded that Azerbaijan act to protect Armenian cultural sites on its territory. Months later, though, researchers used satellite imagery to detect the destruction of an Armenian church in what they called a “serious violation” of the ICJ ruling.
If Azerbaijan also disregards this ICJ ruling, the UN Security Council can take up the issue. Armenian officials have already called on the body to do so.
But enforcement of UNSC resolutions requires political will by some state willing to undertake the effort.
In 1993, the UN Security Council issued four resolutions demanding that Armenian forces withdraw from Azerbaijani territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Those remained unimplemented until 2020, when Azerbaijan took them back by force in the Second Karabakh War.
The current blockade was launched on December 12, when a group of activists backed by the government set up a protest on the road near Shusha. Since then the only traffic that has been able to pass has been vehicles of the Russian peacekeeping contingent and occasional transfers of ill people accompanied by the International Committee of the Red Cross. It has resulted in widespread shortages of goods in the territory, and ordinary people stuck on either side of the roadblock have been stranded.
Azerbaijan has denied that it is blockading the road. Officials have offered a variety of explanations for the situation, including that it is the Russian peacekeepers who are blocking traffic or that the Armenian residents of Karabakh simply refuse to travel on the road.
At the same time, however, Azerbaijan has begun to advance formal demands that it exert oversight on the road. It recently offered a proposal to Armenia, in the ongoing negotiations over a comprehensive resolution to the conflict, to set up checkpoints on the Lachin Corridor. In exchange, it would allow Armenia to operate its own checkpoints on the proposed route that Baku calls the “Zangezur Corridor.”
In its ruling, the court declined an Armenian request to force Azerbaijan to “cease its orchestration and support of the alleged ‘protests’ blocking uninterrupted free movement along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.” The court argued that the measure was “not warranted,” without offering further explanation.
The court also declined an Armenian request to direct Azerbaijan to restore regular natural gas supply to the territory, which has been repeatedly interrupted during the blockade. The court said it did not have evidence that Azerbaijan was disrupting the supply.
It also rejected Azerbaijan’s request that the court demand new measures related to allegations that Armenia has continued to plant land mines on Azerbaijani territory.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.