Helsinki Principles Ignore Artsakh’s Right to Independence

Helsinki Principles Ignore Artsakh’s Right to Independence

In an aside to the June 17-18 meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) Industrialized Nations in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Presidents Barack Obama (U.S.), Vladimir Putin (Russian Federation), and Francois Hollande (France) reaffirmed their support of the Helsinki Principles as the basis for a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict. The three leaders lamented the fact that “…the parties have continued to seek one-sided advantage in their negotiation process,” adding that “the use of military force…will not resolve the conflict.” They then appealed to both sides “…to refrain from any action or rhetoric that could raise tensions and lead to an escalation of the conflict.”

To make such statements while ignoring the continuing build-up of the Azerbaijani military into the largest offensive force in the South Caucasus shows a serious disconnect from reality. The three leaders, and their respective co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group monitoring the negotiations, continue to ignore the constant threats by President Ilham Aliyev to use force to resolve the conflict, as well as the virulent anti-Armenian rhetoric and actions coming from Baku.

Against this backdrop the leaders have the temerity to stress the importance of the Helsinki Principles as the basis for continued negotiations, especially those principles “…relating to territorial integrity, and equal rights and self-determination of people.” Territorial integrity, which is the key principle, nullifies the principles of equal rights and self-determination if these principles properly refer to the right of a people to declare their independence.

If not, then the only way by which equal rights and self-determination can co-exist with the principle of territorial integrity is by interpreting these principles to mean the granting of local autonomy to the Karabagh Armenians under the political jurisdiction of Azerbaijan. This solution would ignore the independence that the Artsakh people have (1) unanimously declared, (2) defended in a war brought on by Azerbaijan, (3) maintained for two decades, and (4) have the right to be recognized. Maintaining that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity negates the legal right of the Karabaghtsis to their independence, as well as their moral and inalienable right to free themselves from the oppressive rule by a government that has discriminated against them and their culture for 70 years.

The Helsinki Principles are supportive of Azerbaijan’s interests. Using these principles as guidelines leaves nothing substantive to be negotiated, nothing that would advance the needs and interests of our brothers and sisters in Artsakh.

PRINCIPLE 1 requires the return of all liberated territories to Azerbaijan. These liberated territories are absolutely vital to Artsakh’s security and its ability to function as an independent state. The occupation of these liberated territories by Azerbaijan would make the Nagorno-Karabagh districts of Artsakh an enclave, isolated from Armenia and shorn of its security zone. The districts of Artsakh comprising Nagorno-Karabagh will have lost their defensive perimeter.

PRINCIPLE 2 addresses the right of displaced people and refugees to return to their original place of residence. This is an internal issue that Baku has refused to ameliorate. The abysmal human rights record of the Azerbaijani government has been citied time and again by international watchdog organizations. Given the Azeri government’s long-standing discrimination of its Armenian citizens and its actions to destroy Armenian cultural artifacts, few Armenians would be interested in returning to any former places of residence under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Those Azeris who have been displaced—their numbers inflated by Azerbaijan—are victims of a devastating war initiated and sustained by their own government, which is using them solely for political purposes vis-a-vis a Karabagh solution.

PRINCIPLE 3 would address the need, which is presently unnecessary, to put in place safeguards to guarantee the security and the right of self-government by the Artsakh Armenians during an interim or transitional period. Essentially, the Armenian negotiators are expected to negotiate away Artsakh’s present ability to protect itself in return for a guarantee of protection by a third party as provided for in Helsinki Principle 4. How much sense does this make? Artsakh is already providing for its security through its own military force and support from Armenia. As it is, Azerbaijan continually flaunts the ceasefire they agreed to by repeated incursions along the Line of Contact (LoC), which has resulted in the murder of multiple Armenian military personnel. To trust Azerbaijan would be beyond foolhardy; its record during the past two decades is confirmation enough of its duplicitousness.

PRINCIPLE 4 would address the security issue made necessary if the Helsinki Principles govern the negotiations. An international peace-keeping force under the aegis of the United Nations or the OSCE would be responsible for maintaining Karabagh’s security. This is as ludicrous as it comes. Peace-keeping forces have no authority beyond reporting violations by either side. They purposely are not given the authority to intervene, nor do they have the capability to prevent violations. Should Azerbaijan move forces into areas prohibited to it, the peace-keeping force would simply move aside, observe, and file a useless report that would change nothing on the ground. Confrontation and prevention are not within the scope of their responsibilities. Why the Minsk co-chairs would expect the Artsakh Armenians to render themselves defenseless and then dependent upon a peace-keeping force for their protection defies logic. How can this be offered as a viable option?

PRINCIPLE 5 would address the need to guarantee a secure corridor linking Karabagh with Armenia. This presumably would be the present Lachin Corridor that is already secured by Karabagh’s military forces. Principle 1 requires the occupation by Azerbaijan of the liberated territories; this means that the already secured Lachin Corridor highway that passes through Armenian liberated territory would become an unsecured corridor that will need to be protected by an international peace-keeping force. How senseless is this? As it is, this solitary link is already vulnerable to Azeri missile and air attack. Its vulnerability would only increase if Azeri forces occupied the liberated territories through which the corridor passes. Presently a second highway will be expanded and improved beginning in 2014 that links Vartenis in Armenia to the Martakert district in northern Karabagh. Sections of the road are currently a morass of mud and impassible during the rainy season. This northern road will pass through the liberated Kashatagh region and be secured by Armenian forces. It will be economically and militarily significant to Artsakh’s security and future development. This much-needed second highway would be impossible if the Azeri are occupying the liberated territories.

PRINCIPLE 6 will presumably set up the mechanism for a plebiscite to be held sometime in the future to determine the political status of the Artsakh districts (excluding Shahoumian) that comprise Nagorno-Karabagh. If the Helsinki Principles have determined the course of negotiations, the liberated territories have already been occupied by Azerbaijan. What remains to be negotiated with respect to the plebiscite is when it will take place; who will be eligible to vote; how will it be administered; and what the options are to be voted on. For the Karabagh Armenians, the best option they can hope for is being granted limited local autonomy as an enclave within Azerbaijan. If this is where negotiations will ultimately lead us, then we have already turned a hard-won victory into defeat.

This was an objective analysis of the Helsinki Principles, as they would affect Artsakh if applied. Yerevan is either constrained by Russian interests or is unwilling to pursue an aggressive diplomatic policy in support of Artsakh’s independence. However, there should be no constraint for any political party or coalition of parties in tandem with the government of Artsakh and Armenian Diasporan organizations to vigorously support an aggressive independence policy. Will it be said years later that some 7,000 azatamartiks sacrificed their lives in vain?

This is the first political victory that Armenians have won since the genocide, when our nation faced near annihilation. It is the first victory that gives credence to Hai Tahd. It is the first victory that provides our people with some measure of justice. However, it is a victory that has not yet been completed.


Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.


  1. Well said. Fortunately, the new , “status quo” is an independent Artsakh. With courage and determination, they are building what the Azeris denied them for 70 years… The God give right to live in freedom. The example of Arsakh is inspiring and we must never forget what the alternative could be.

  2. Dear Michael,

    Thank you for your concern regarding the fate of the Republic of Artsakh. But the situation is not as hopeless as you describe. Moreover, you will be surprised to hear that there is nothing wrong with the principle of territorial integrity, and it absolutely does not “nullify the principles of equal rights and self-determination”…. if you apply it right way. I mean the way we, the people of Artshakh, understand it. Very simple: this principle of territorial integrity applies equally to both sovereign states in conflict:to Republic of Artsakh and Azerbajan. Full stop. Now it remains to make the mediators understand that principle the way we understand it….

  3. The Helsinki Principles are a smoke-screen. They are wasting their time. There will be no capitulation, no concession and no compromise. We don’t like them and they don’t like us. And that’s the way we want it.
    We have been a people who has marched through sword and fire. We are a survivor nation – let them make no mistake. We shall stand our ground till kingdom come. The chances of anyone ever taking Artsakh away from us are less than we recovering historic Armenia some day.

  4. Throughout the history, armenians have always been the pawn of the great powers. The great powers have always used them the way they want. Today is no difference.

  5. I agree with the author. The Helsinki act is very ambiguous. What I don’t undestand is why Azeris do not agree with Madrid principles? They walked away from Kazan summit when everything was ready to sign. It must be something there that would lead to Artsakh’s independence, otherwise if everything is in their favor, as author describes, they wouldn’t walk away from it.

  6. I will astonishingly agree with “Ahmet” which is a turkish name/person.
    We, Armenians should have a full voice , representaion within those
    major powers. This is not 1920’s Armenia. We know our history with those major powers that were involved agreements in behalf of Armenians.. and Eveyone on of them look after their own interest but Armenians.Armenian government should have one thing in their mind when they sit on that table with those major powers,
    “Independent Artsakh” but nothing else.

  7. Yerevan’s defeatist “diplomacy” ala the infamous ‘Protocoles’ has led to this dangerous and deplorable situation when Armenia is independent only in name. We have NO VOICE in international or even regional diplomacy. Yerevan is a de facto vasal state. Artsakh and the Diaspora together with healthy and patriotic elements in Yerevan must together build the resistance to this doomed course.

  8. Is there a split in sentiment, spirit and feelings between Armenia and the Diaspora with respecto to Artsakh ? Reading the commentaries this perception is unavoidable. How can the diaspora alone forge an alliance with Artsakh, when Artsakh itself is Armenia ? Do I detect an alofness from the Armenia towards Artsakh ?. When in Armenia I heard disquieting comments from the residents I came across; not all of them need I say, comments such as, ” we don not want a war with the Azeris, neither they want a war with us ” ” We can live like brothers”. “We have nothing against the Azeris”. Such exclamations are hardly the stuff people fighting for their liberty, freedom ,autonomy, independence, are made of. This kind of talk is reminiscent of the Armenian forces, part of the Russian army, occupying the Van province in 1916, withdrawing from the area because ” troops are homesick and this land is not theirs” ???
    The diaspora is a critical component in the independence struggle, but the diaspora alone can not work miracles.

  9. I agree strongly with ” comedian” why is always we have to live a perception westernised comfortable solution as giving in already to not wanting a war to save our lands? War has been and will be always a solution, not I want to ,but if you think Armenia can be brother with an Azeri or Turk ” those people are them gave away the Armenia in 1st place.. never be afraid to sacrefise and I will be there next to you always! keep your head up and love your real Armenian brother giving his life for you to live comfortable as already they have and will do .

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