THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- The U.N. top court on Friday issued an order calling on Azerbaijan to ensure the safety of people who leave, return to or remain in Nagorno-Karabakh, following the Azerbaijani military's retaking of the separatist region in September.
Armenia asked the International Court of Justice to order so-called provisional measures guaranteeing safety and protecting property and identity documents after Azerbaijan's army routed ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh in a 24-hour campaign that began on Sept. 19.
The region's separatist government then agreed to disband itself by the end of the year. More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh to neighboring Armenia.
Armenia last month urged judges to issue interim orders on Azerbaijan to prevent what the leader of Armenia's legal team called the "ethnic cleansing" of the Nagorno-Karabakh region from becoming irreversible.
Azerbaijan's Deputy Foreign Minister Elnur Mammadov denied the allegation.
"Azerbaijan has not engaged and will not engage in ethnic cleansing or any form of attack on the civilian population of Karabakh," he said at the hearings in October. He made pledges that Azerbaijan would do all it could to ensure the safety and rights of all citizens in the region.
The court said Friday that those pledges "are binding and create legal obligations for Azerbaijan."
The judges then, by a 13-2 majority, ruled that Azerbaijan must ensure that people who left Nagorno-Karabakh after the Sept. 19 military operation and want to return "are able to do so in a safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner."
The court added that Azerbaijan also must ensure that people who want to leave the region can do so safely and ensure that people who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh or returned and want to stay "are free from the use of force or intimidation that may cause them to flee."
The judges also called on Azerbaijan to "protect and preserve registration, identity and private property documents and records" of people in the region and told the country to report back within eight weeks on the measures it takes to implement the orders.
The orders are a preliminary step in a case brought by Armenia accusing Azerbaijan of breaching an international convention against racial discrimination linked to Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan also has brought a case against Armenia at the world court alleging breaches of the same convention.
Those cases are likely to take years to resolve.
Azerbaijan's foreign ministry responded to Friday's court order by reiterating the country's position that it did not force out any ethnic Armenians, and that many left despite the government's call for them to stay.
"Azerbaijan is committed to uphold the human rights of the Armenian residents of Karabakh on an equal basis with other citizens of Azerbaijan in line with its constitution and relevant international obligations," the ministry said.
After six years of separatist fighting ended in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by Armenia.
Azerbaijan took back parts of the region in the south Caucasus Mountains during a six-week war in 2020, along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed earlier. Nagorno-Karabakh was internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan's sovereign territory.
Orders by the court, which adjudicates in disputes between nations, are final and legally binding.
Friday's ruling came on the day that another court in The Hague, the International Criminal Court, announced that Armenia will become its 124th member state on Feb. 1 after ratifying its founding treaty. The country has said it accepts the court's jurisdiction dating back to May 10, 2021.