When All Else May Fail: ECtHR’s Granting of Interim Measures in Armenia v. Azerbaijan and Armenia v. Turkey

Rachelle Kredentser
Vol. 42 Associate Editor

A common critique of international law and intervention, especially in cases of human rights violations, is that international decisions lack the weight of enforcement. It becomes a question of “who will make us?” or “will this actually do anything?” when an international court imposes judgments or decisions, including interim measures, on a member state. These questions have once again come up as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) grapples with Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic tensions have turned to acts of violence and a potential war.[1]

In September 2020, Azerbaijan began attacks seeking to gain territory in the ethnic-Armenian area, breaking a decades-long ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.[2] In response to these aggressions, Armenia requested the ECtHR impose interim measures including: “to cease the military attacks towards the civilian settlements along the entire line of contact of the armed forces of Armenia and Artsakh; to stop indiscriminate attacks; and to stop targeting civilian population, civilian objects and settlements.”[3] The court granted interim measures, asking “both Azerbaijan and Armenia to refrain from taking any measures, in particular military action, which might entail breaches of the Convention rights of the civilian population, including putting their life and health at risk, and to comply with their engagements under the Convention ….”[4] In response to another request by Armenia, the court granted interim measures in Armenia v. Turkey, with the court “call[ing] on all States directly or indirectly involved in the conflict, including Turkey, to refrain from actions that would contribute to breaches of the Convention rights of civilians and to respect their obligations under the Convention.”[5]

According to the ECtHR, interim measures are “urgent” and appropriate “where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm.”[6] The contracting parties to the European Convention on Human Rights are obligated to comply with interim measures in cases to which they are a party.[7] Most interim measures are granted in cases related to expulsion or extradition[8] and are rarely used in inter-state conflicts.[9] In 2019, the ECtHR only granted 145 requests for interim measures out of its 1,570 decisions on interim measures.[10] Once granted, the state involved has to demonstrate compliance to the court.[11]

The interim measures granted in the Azerbaijan and Turkey cases failed to prevent further violence, resulting in further international condemnations, multiple failed truces,[12] and civilian casualties.[13] So what was the benefit for Armenia in seeking an interim measure, a remedy rarely granted, and even more rare in the case of inter-state conflicts?

First, interim measures seems to play a communicative role in the international legal sphere. Such a grant seems to add a degree of legitimacy to Armenia’s concerns, for example, about risks of violence perpetrated by Turkey against civilians.[14] This grant further gives credence to the risk of harm on both sides of the conflict. Armenia being the one to seek such an order implies or communicates a degree of innocence in the conflict, or at least, may communicate a degree of Azerbaijan’s accountability in the conflict. As Professor Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou explains, though they may be ineffective in inter-state conflict, the ECtHR “has to grant [interim measures] because otherwise it creates a wrong impression of legality of state actions and undermines the coherence of its case law because they were granted previously.”[15]

The measures also called upon the international community to not exacerbate violence. It explicitly addresses Turkey’s involvement and obligates Turkey, and other involved parties, to stop their participation in breaches of the Convention. Against the backdrop of claims against Turkey of hiring mercenaries[16] and using drones,[17] the measure affirmatively calls for such “actions that would contribute to breaches of the Convention rights of civilians,”[18] though not specifically named, to cease. It puts the entire international community, particularly those meddling, on notice about the risk of further escalation of the conflict and their responsibility.[19]

In such a historically complicated and volatile area, with traceable roots to the Armenian Genocide,[20] interim measures are just one among many means of raising international consciousness, and getting the international community peacefully involved in a ceasefire. In the past, the United States had worked for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia,[21] and since the granting of interim measures, has been involved in negotiations again.[22] Further, international institutions are on notice of the severity of the conflict, the potential illegality of further actions, and thus may be more conscious of violations of measures and more readily publicly condemn actions.[23] International diplomacy so far has largely failed to prevent further violence or violations of interim measures, but continued pressure, both by courts via interim measures, and by other states attempts, alongside international institutional condemnation, are some of the only means of leveraging an end to the conflict.

Finally, the interim measures are framed as forward-thinking, asking states to refrain from certain actions, and so may actually prevent some irreparable harms, rather than just being reactionary.[24] The court in granting the interim measures acknowledges the real possibility of continued and imminent harm if the conflict continues, acknowledges the international nature of this conflict, and thus directly acknowledges each parties’, even unnamed, role in preventing possible further deprivations of rights or human rights violations. Without needing to decide on merits in the case, it denotes an ongoing conflict as creating serious risks of violations and is not waiting for further harms to occur before condemning such action.

Ultimately, the interim measures in the Nagorno-Karabakh inter-state conflict serve a communicative role to the parties involved, other international entities, and the international community as a whole. The interim measures set out general bounds of unacceptable behavior and expectations. They act as a call upon each of the audiences to take notice of and de-escalate the risk of harm, and as a symbolic call for international diplomacy and implied responsibility of those who may become involved in preventing further human rights violations.


[1] Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, Catch 22: The Interim Measures of the European Court of Human Rights in the Conflict Between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Strasbourg Observers (Oct. 9, 2020), https://strasbourgobservers.com/2020/10/09/catch-22-the-interim-measures-of-the-european-court-of-human-rights-in-the-conflict-between-armenia-and-azerbaijan/#more-4854 (discussing questions of legal value and effectiveness of interim measures).

[2] Nvard Hovhannisyan & Nailia Bagirova, Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes Kill at Least 16, Undermine Regional Stability, Reuters (Sept. 27, 2020, 2:06 AM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-armenia-azerbaijan/armenia-azerbaijan-clashes-kill-at-least-16-undermine-regional-stability-idUSKBN26I06E.

[3] European Court of Human Rights Press Release ECHR 264, Request for Interim Measures Lodged by Armenia Against Azerbaijan (Sept. 28, 2020).

[4] European Court of Human Rights Press Release ECHR 265, The Court Grants an Interim Measure in the Case of Armenia v. Azerbaijan (Sept. 30, 2020).

[5] European Court of Human Rights Press Release ECHR 276, The Court’s Decision on the Request for an Interim Measure Lodged by Armenia Against Turkey (Oct. 6, 2020).

[6] Eur. Ct. H.R., Factsheet – Interim Measures 1 (Mar. 2020), https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/FS_Interim_measures_ENG.pdf.

[7] Id. at 10.

[8] Id. at 1.

[9] Dzehtsiarou, supra note 1.

[10] Eur. Ct. H.R., Analysis of Statistics 2019, at 5, https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Stats_analysis_2019_ENG.pdf.

[11] U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Toolkit on How to Request Interim Measures Under Rule 39 of the rules of the European Court of Human Rights for Persons in Need of International Protections 16 (2012), https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4f8e8f982.pdf.

[12] See Arwa Ibrahim & Elizabeth Melimopoulos, UN Chief Urges Nagorno-Karabakh Rivals to Respect Truce, Aljazeera (Oct. 18, 2020), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/18/armenia-accuses-azerbaijan-of-violating-truce-in-nagorno-karabakh.

[13] Anton Troianovski, At Front Lines of a Brutal War: Death and Despair in Nagorno-Karabakh, N.Y. Times (Oct. 18, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/18/world/europe/Nagorno-Karabakh-war-Armenia-Azerbaijan.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage; ECHR Rejects Turkey’s Bid to Lift Interim Measure Requested by Armenia, Radio Free Eur./Radio Liberty (Oct. 15, 2020), https://www.rferl.org/a/echr-rejects-turkey-lift-interim-measure-requested-armenia/30895262.html.

[14] ECHR 264, supra note 3.

[15] Dzehtsiarou, supra note 1.

[16] Bethan McKernan, Syrian Rebel Fighters Prepare to Deploy to Azerbaijan in Sign of Turkey’s Ambition, Guardian (Sept. 28, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/28/syrian-rebel-fighters-prepare-to-deploy-to-azerbaijan-in-sign-of-turkeys-ambition.

[17] Sebastien Roblin, Turkish Drones Over Nagorno-Karabakh—And Other Updates from a Day-Old War, Forbes (Sept. 28, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/sebastienroblin/2020/09/28/turkish-drones-over-nagorno-karabakh-and-other-updates-from-a-day-old-war/#62fc1a570da7.

[18] ECHR 276, supra note 5.

[19] Radio Free Eur./Radio Liberty, supra note 13.

[20] Andrew E. Kramer, Armenia and Azerbaijan: The Conflict Explained, N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/article/armenian-azerbaijan-conflict.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.

[21] Id.

[22] See U.S.-Armenia-Azerbaijan Joint Statement, U.S. Dep’t of State (Oct. 25, 2020), https://www.state.gov/u-s-armenia-azerbaijan-joint-statement/; Timur R. Nersesov, Absence of US Diplomacy on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Risks a Wider War, Just Security (Oct. 17, 2020), https://www.justsecurity.org/72919/absence-of-us-diplomacy-on-the-armenia-azerbaijan-conflict-risks-a-wider-war/ (discussing a United States failure to get involved as “diplomatically and economically” detrimental).

[23] See, e.g., Maria Tsvetkova & Olzhas Auyezov, U.N. Says Nagorno-Karabakh Attacks Could Be War Crimes, Reuters (Nov. 2, 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-armenia-azerbaijan/un-says-nagorno-karabakh-attacks-could-be-war-crimes-idUSKBN27I1RK.

[24] Cf. Antonio Augusto Cancado Trindade, The Evolution of Provisional Measures of Protection Under the Case Law of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (1987-2002), 24 Hum. Rts. L. J. 162, https://www.corteidh.or.cr/tablas/r23114.pdf.

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