After last week's post about Azerbaijan threatening to shoot down flights to the soon-to-open airport in Nagorno-Karabakh, a number of Azerbaijanis wrote in to argue that Azerbaijan would be fully in its rights to do so. One of them, Adil Baguirov, co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Azeris Network, agreed to a short email interview. It's printed, in its entirety, below.
The Bug Pit: Do you believe Azerbaijan would have a legal right to shoot down civilian aircraft going to the Karabakh airport?
Adil Baguirov: By definition, as well as from the standpoint of law and even logic, there can be no civil aircraft that would be determined, in a non-emergency situation, to land at an airport in the Armenia-occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Any and all aircraft that willingly tries to fly into, and land in, the Armenia-occupied territories of Azerbaijan, such as into the Khojaly airport (a.k.a. Stepanakert airport, or Khankendi airport) is not a civilian aircraft, but a military aircraft that can be carrying military cargo and personnel, and thus can be legally shot down. That entire airspace over the occupied territories has been a publicly declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) since 1992.
Meanwhile, the 1944 Chicago Convention has clearly empowered Azerbaijan under Article 1 (Sovereignty), Article 2 (Territory), Article 4 (Misuse of civil aviation), Article 9 (Prohibited areas) and Article 89 (War and emergency conditions) a freedom of action in shooting down foreign aircraft without a flight plan in the war zone such as Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) region. Azerbaijan has been very vocal in asserting its rights, put Armenia, as well as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the European Civil Aviation Conference (ICAC) on notice since 2010, and has specifically designated and publicly declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire area of Armenian occupation of the NK region and adjacent districts.
Then, the Montreal Protocol of 10 May 1984, which amended Article 3 of the Chicago Convention and became known as Article 3bis, is balanced by measures designed to protect the sovereignty of the subjacent State: "[E]very State ... is entitled to require the landing at some designated airport of a civil aircraft flying above its territory without authority or if there are reasonable grounds to conclude that it is being used for any purpose inconsistent with the aims of this Convention; it may also give such aircraft any other instructions to put an end to such violations...."
Finally, there are many examples of aircraft being shot down due to mistakes in their identification. Thus, the right question would be - who in their right mind would want to fly into a warzone?!
BP: From the Azerbaijani perspective, how is operating an airport different from using a road to get from Armenia to Karabakh?
AB: Airports are regulated not only by domestic authorities, but also by international authorities, such as Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), that assign three-letter codes to them. Such three-letter codes are required for all legitimate airports, and the Khojaly airport (a.k.a. Stepanakert airport, or Khankendi airport) does not have it. Also, airports have a much higher strategic value from the military standpoint - and are always among the very first targets in any airstrikes. That is because they can move military cargo and personnel much faster than wheeled machines can on paved or unpaved roads. However, it is almost guaranteed that the Lachin road, that connects Armenia with the Armenia-occupied territories of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno-Karabakh, would also be among primary targets if the war escalates from the current low-intensity state.
BP: What would Azerbaijan gain from shooting down an aircraft?
AB: By shooting a military aircraft of Armenia, Azerbaijan would decrease Armenia's military potential and get closer to liberation of its lands, which constitute some 16% of Azerbaijani territory, restoring its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which have been violated by Armenia since 1992.
BP: Given that world public opinion is likely to disapprove of shooting down a civilian aircraft, leaving aside any legal questions, how should Azerbaijan frame such a move so as to not become a pariah state?
AB: Per above, there can be no civil aircraft willingly and defiantly flying into a warzone. However, obviously the Armenian government propaganda and lobby would attempt to twist the simple logic and facts, and present it as a case of "aggressive" Azerbaijan doing harm to "innocent" Armenia. In any case, Azerbaijan will always do everything it can to liberate its lands from Armenia's occupation, and to restore its territorial integrity and sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. It has made many sacrifices so far, and would spare no effort to see Karabakh liberated and free, where all people can live together side-by-side, and where not a military junta, but a regular civil government can operate.