BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Ruling simultaneously on the Sargsyan vs. Azerbaijan and Chiragov vs. Armenia cases, the European Court of Human Rights decided on June 16, 2015 that Armenia and Azerbaijan had violated the rights of refugees who had fled during the Karabagh (Artsakh) conflict.
Azeri government officials, however, misled their citizens, declaring that Azerbaijan had won and Armenia had lost.
Here are the details of both court cases: On April 6, 2005, six Azerbaijani Kurds filed a joint complaint against Armenia with the European Court. They claimed to have been forced to flee their homes during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in 1992, after Armenian troops took over the Lachin region which separated Armenia from Artsakh. The Azerbaijani refugees alleged that Armenia had violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights: 1) protection of property, 2) right to respect for private and family life, and 3) right to an effective remedy.
On August 11, 2006, Minas Sargsyan filed a similar complaint against Baku in the European Court of Human Rights. He charged that Azerbaijan had violated his rights, the same ones claimed by the six Azerbaijani refugees, since he too was forced to flee in 1992 from his native village of Gulistan in the Shahumian region, controlled by Azerbaijan.
Both parties asked that their property rights be restored and demanded fair compensation.
In March 2010, after years of inactivity, the Court forwarded both cases to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, consisting of 17 judges from Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Cyprus, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and Ukraine. The Grand Chamber’s decisions are final and not subject to appeal.
A decade after the these cases were first filed, the Grand Chamber issued two identical judgments on June 16, 2015, finding that both Armenia and Azerbaijan had violated the rights of each other’s refugees. In a lengthy document of 221 pages, including the two verdicts and the dissenting and concurring opinions, the Court ruled that the 20-year long peace negotiations did not free the two governments from their responsibility to protect the rights of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The Grand Chamber noted that there are over 1,000 individual applications pending before the Court, filed by Armenians and Azerbaijanis displaced during the Artsakh conflict.
The six Azerbaijani applicants claimed they had suffered $9 million in monetary damages and $330,000 in non-monetary damages. They further estimated their legal expenses to be around $65,000 as of October 2013. The Azerbaijani applicants’ representatives requested that an expert be appointed to evaluate the total damages their clients had incurred.
On the other hand, the Armenian applicant Minas Sargsyan had requested the restitution of his property, including the right of return to his home. He claimed $415,000 in monetary damages and $210,000 in non-monetary damages, in addition to non-specified legal fees.
Acknowledging “the exceptional nature” of the two cases, the Court did not make a final determination on awarding compensation or “just satisfaction.” The Grand Chamber asked the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments and the respective applicants to submit their “written observations on the matter” within 12 months, and “to notify the Court of any agreement that they may reach.”
In my opinion, the European Court’s parallel decisions were aimed at pressuring the two governments to expedite a negotiated settlement that would resolve all outstanding issues, including rights of refugees.
One of the most significant, yet unexpected outcomes of these court cases were the two written opinions — 25 pages each — by Judge Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque of Portugal and appended to the court’s verdicts, in which he presented a strong legal case for Artsakh’s independence: “Whenever a part of the population of a State is not represented by its government and the human rights of that population are systematically infringed by its own government, …the victimized population may have recourse ‘as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression,’ to use the powerful formulation of the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The Judge also wrote that when a State systematically abuses the human rights of a seceding population, it is lawful for another State to take military action in favor of the seceding population, after the latter has established control of its territory and declared its secession.