Many of the world’s most intractable conflicts are a consequence of disagreement over territory. Which state controls a piece of land? Should a community have the right to self-determination and does this necessarily mean becoming an independent state? Where does sovereignty lie? These conflicts often last for decades and can result in significant fear, violence, and suffering. Sometimes they appear to be without resolution. Are there ways that these conflicts can be resolved or at least the likelihood of violence and war reduced?
Some of the territorial conflicts that are most difficult to resolve involve de facto (or unrecognised) states. These breakaway territories have declared independence, and are beyond the control of the central government, but have not been (widely) recognised internationally. Such conflicts are highly protracted, and the risk of renewed bloodshed is ever present, especially since they often draw in neighbouring states and are affected by geopolitical strategies. This was most recently illustrated in the bloody 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which saw the involvement of both Turkey and Russia.
Professor Nina Caspersen’s research on territorial conflicts has examined some of the world’s most protracted conflicts and possible paths to peace. By stressing the importance of embedding individual and group rights within the design of peace agreements, her work has challenged conventional approaches that examine conflict in narrow military terms. She has pioneered a framework for ‘fudging sovereignty’ having inclusivity as a core strategy for promoting dialogue and peace processes. This formulation argues that sidestepping status-related concerns and engaging a range of international and domestic actors can both prepare the ground for inclusive peace and promote permanent solutions to highly protracted territorial conflicts.
Professor Caspersen’s work has had significant influence on how states, international organisations and leading peace NGOs address these conflicts. Firstly, her framework shaped a UN initiative on mediation in self-determination conflicts (sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Lichtenstein to the UN) and was directly incorporated in a UN handbook for mediators, affected peoples and states. Secondly, her policy suggestions changed the strategies adopted in the Cyprus peace talks and led to the adoption of an implementation agreement, and a framework for monitoring, which was accepted by all conflict parties and the high-level UN representatives. Thirdly, her recommendations informed conflict resolution strategies in the Caucasus - Abkhazia (Georgia) and Nagorno Karabakh (Azerbaijan) - and shaped the thinking of a leading peace INGO, subsequently influencing Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) strategy in the South Caucasus.