Economic Blockades and International Law: The Case of Armenia


An adequate Armenian policy towards Turkey has spurred much debate, especially since the signing of the 2009 Armenia-Turkey protocols in Zurich. The opening of the border was considered one of the cornerstones of the protocols; thus, it is important to understand why the de-facto border was closed in the first place, and what alternatives to the protocols the Republic of Armenia has in mind.

This article presents the legal and historical background of the unilateral economic blockades imposed on Armenia by Turkey and Azerbaijan, and proposes certain measures that Yerevan may take to protect its national interests. This article will not, however, cover the topic of the de-jure borders of Armenia with its neighbors.

Interestingly, Turkey was one of the first states to recognize the independence of the Republic of Armenia (the legal heir of the Armenian Democratic Republic of 1918) on Dec. 24, 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1993, due to the ongoing war between the Artsakh Republic and the Republic of Azerbaijan, Turkey unilaterally closed its land and air borders with Armenia, although the airspace was later re-opened in 1995. Despite the closed border, some indirect trade still takes place between the two states, mostly through Georgia. However, transit entails additional costs and, obviously, an under-realization of the trade potential. The closed borders additionally block Armenia’s guaranteed access to the sea, which would enable more efficient trade opportunities. This has certainly translated negatively on Armenia’s ability to take part in international economic cooperation and to better integrate with multilateral trading blocs. The primary imported goods from Turkey to Armenia are food products, textile, chemical industries, and household goods. Armenia, on its part, exports raw and processed leather, jewelry, and various metal products to Turkey. To this day, Turkey and Azerbaijan have refused to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia. Additionally, Azerbaijan closed its border with Armenia and Artsakh during the Soviet era.

An economic blockade is a type of unilateral coercive measure. It is widely acknowledged that the term “unilateral coercive measure” is difficult to define. Nevertheless, these measures often refer to economic steps taken by one state to compel a change in the policy of another. The most widely used forms of economic pressure are trade sanctions in the form of embargoes and/or boycotts, and the interruption of financial and investment flows between sender and target countries. While embargoes are often understood as being trade sanctions aimed at preventing exports to a target country, boycotts are measures seeking to refuse imports from a target country. Frequently, however, the combination of import and export restrictions is referred to as a trade embargo.

Turkey and Azerbaijan have effectively been exercising an illegal unilateral economic blockade against Armenia, which has hurt the latter economically. The UN Security Council, the sole body to legally authorize sanctions against states, has not done so against Armenia.

On Dec. 1, 2011 the Second Committee of the UN General Assembly approved the text of “Unilateral economic measures as a means of political and economic coercion against developing countries” by a recorded vote of 118 in favor, 2 against (Israel, United States), and 49 abstentions. The General Assembly called on the international community to condemn and reject the imposition of such measures, while requesting that the Secretary General continue to monitor their imposition and to study their impact on countries and on development.

Earlier in October 2002, the General Assembly had adopted a resolution on unilateral coercive economic measures that called on states to not recognize or apply such measures imposed by any state across territorial boundaries, as they are contrary to recognized principles of international law. Armenia said that by voting in favor of the resolution, it condemned the continuing practice of imposing such measures, particularly in the South Caucasus region. Such measures contravene international law and the principles of the UN Charter, and their practice is detrimental to developing countries, as well as those with economies in transition.

Armenia is not yet recognized by the UN as a victim state of unilateral coercive measures. Its first objective should be to make sure that the economic blockades by Turkey and Azerbaijan are categorized as a unilateral coercive measure. Armenia has previously stated at the UN that the negative consequences of sanctions have been felt beyond the countries directly affected, as they have also had adverse implications for the free flow of international trade and the effectiveness of international economic cooperation. Additionally, Armenia said that it does not agree with the imposition of unilateral economic measures as instruments of political and economic coercion against developing countries.

The Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations was adopted by the General Assembly on Oct. 24, 1970. The maintenance of international peace and security and the development of friendly relations and co-operation between nations are among the fundamental purposes of the UN. According to the Charter, the people represented by the UN are determined to practice tolerance and live together in peace as good neighbors.

Turkey and Azerbaijan are in clear violation of the Principle of Good Neighborliness, as well as all of the General Assembly resolutions condemning unilateral coercive measures. Armenia, as a subject of international law, has to take actions to protect its rights and ensure that Turkey and Azerbaijan adhere to the accepted international norms and principles. Even though the General Assembly resolutions are not obligatory, they do create the guidelines and parameters for moving forward. Armenia must use this card to deal with the dual blockade as well as Azerbaijan’s accusations that Armenia is in violation of Security Council resolutions.

Treaty law provides countries and individuals the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living (including food, clothing, housing and medical care), the right to freedom from hunger, and the right to health. By blockading Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan have violated these rights. The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights concluded that human rights must be taken fully into account when designing an appropriate sanctions regime; that effective monitoring should be undertaken throughout the period that sanctions are in force; and that the external entity imposing the sanctions has an obligation to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, in order to respond to any disproportionate suffering experienced by vulnerable groups within the targeted country. None of the requirements of this Committee have been followed by either Azerbaijan or Turkey.

Turkey and Azerbaijan are also in violation of customary international law and general principles. Within the United Nations more broadly, Member States have expressed their view that unilateral coercive measures of an economic character may constitute unlawful interferences. The 1965 Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty, the 1970 Declaration on Friendly Relations, and the 1981 Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention and Interference in the Internal Affairs of States—with a particular emphasis on economic measures, among others—establish the basis for the customary law.

In order to be regarded as intervention, the measures must be aimed at influencing the sovereign will of another state in undue fashion. Thus, where unilateral coercive measures intend to induce compliance with international legal obligations, such as non-use of force or human rights, they are less likely to infringe on the principle than when they are directed against the legitimate sovereign political decision-making of a state. The Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade in this case is clearly an intervention.

According to Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, the Security Council may impose forcible or non-forcible measures in situations that constitute at least a threat to international peace and security. This has not been done with regards to Armenia.

Some states view unilateral coercive measures as infringing on the right to self-determination, basing their claim on Articles 1, Paragraph 2, and 55 of the Charter of the United Nations. Finally, these states note that unilateral coercive measures can also have the impact of the deprivation of one’s means of subsistence, and can constitute an obstacle to the realization of the right to development. Armenia can and should also use these factors in its argumentation.

Armenia needs to be more aggressive in the international arena in presenting its predicament. The border is not simply closed, but has been closed in violation of the accepted international norms and international documents. Once the brief but aggressive phase of awareness-building bears some positive results, and once the government of Armenia finds the right time, it needs to take the next step of introducing various resolutions within all possible international organizations (especially the OSCE) and pressure Turkey to abide by international rules and norms. It would be helpful to study the economic blockade resolutions regarding Cuba that pass in the General Assembly every year. Some other strategies may prove to be useful for Armenia as well.

At the same time, it is important to keep the Artsakh issue on the margins. At the beginning, the pursuit should only be geared towards the Turkish blockade, and not the Azerbaijani one. There is a high risk of also discussing the Artsakh conflict in the UN, should Armenia involve Azerbaijan in its demands. It would be less risky to first pressure Turkey and then, based on the experience, decide on the course of action regarding Azerbaijan’s blockade.

It is clear that Armenia, as a member of the international community, has certain rights and privileges provided by international law, and should thus use all possible instruments in its toolbox to ensure that its national interests are served well. International law by itself is unlikely to produce any tangible results for Armenia, but it should be incorporated into the Republic of Armenia’s wider strategy and foreign policy.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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