A century ago, on the 10 August 1920, the last one of the “Peace Treaty” seemingly closing the World War One era was signed up at Sèvres, in the vicinity of Paris. In the mind of the winners – mostly France, UK and the USA – this treaty was seen as secondary and therefore considered the latest in the most relegated place. After Treaties of Versailles for Germany (June 1919), of Saint-Germain-en-Laye for Austria (September 1919), of Neuilly for Bulgaria (November 1919) and of Trianon for Hungary (June 1920), the Treaty of Sèvres dealt with the fallen Ottoman empire.
From these treaties a brand new Europe emerged with centuries-long empires fading away, like the Austrian-Hungarian and the Ottomans ones and with new States popping up, like for instance Czechoslovakia, Poland or Yugoslavia. Likewise, some States remained deeply altered, either because of the treaties themselves – it was the case for Hungary severely dismantled by the Treaty of Trianon – or because of internal processes such as the Russian revolution.
More eastward, the Treaty of Sèvres was supposed to rule the fate of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Among other provisions, it is common narrative to consider that this treaty was stating a new Armenian State, East of Turkey, that it was also delineating the border between Turkey and this new State as it was for instance doing for the border between Turkey and Syria or Turkey and Greece. It is also a common narrative that this Treaty was never ratified and therefore that these provisions about Armenia were null and void and therefore superseded by the Lausanne Treaty signed up in 1923.
Indeed this is not so straightforward and several jurists and experts in International law pointed how legally flawed these narratives are. First because of the fundamental principles of International law themselves which are constantly considering acts of ratification (or of non-ratification) by Parliaments of secondary importance. On the contrary, the mere participation of a plenipotentiary delegation to the signing process and its prior agreement to the future execution of the Treaties’ clauses are seen as key features by International law. In this respect, the International legality of the Sèvres Treaty is legally speaking greater than the one of the Lausanne Treaty because many more States than the Lausanne one have signed it up. The fact that the Ottoman Empire was later replaced by the Republic of Turkey does not affect this doctrinal point as the latter, as a successor State of the former – and even more as a continuator State according to some experts – endorses rights and obligations deriving from treaties previously signed.
The second reason why these narratives are flawed lays in the content of the Sèvres Treaty between the Allied Powers and Turkey. From its thorough examination, one can actually read that it delineated some new boundaries for Turkey but the treatment of the Armenian border was clearly different from the other ones. Indeed, the key article 27 of the Treaty gives indications on Turkey’s borders in Europe (§27.I) and in Asia (§27.II). For the latter, the article gives direct detailed instructions about the border with Syria and with Mesopotamia – referring to a map given in article 28 – whereas the fourth point “On the East and the North East” is worded as follow:
“From the point above defined to the Black Sea, the existing frontier between Turkey and Persia, then the former frontier between Turkey and Russia, subject to the provisions of Article 89.”
Referred article 89 is in the remote Section VI dedicated to Armenia and which starts by article 88 “Turkey, in accordance with the action already taken by the Allied Powers, hereby recognises Armenia as a free and independent State
Article 89 states that “Turkey and Armenia as well as the other High Contracting Parties agree to submit to the arbitration of the President of the United States of America the question of the frontier to be fixed between Turkey and Armenia in the vilayets of Erzerum, Trebizond, Van and Bitlis, and to accept his decision thereupon, as well as any stipulations he may prescribe as to access for Armenia to the sea, and as to the demilitarisation of any portion of Turkish territory adjacent to the said frontier
This remote treatment actually extracted the question of the Armenian-Turkish border from the legal framework of the Sèvres Treaty to rely it on another juridical framework, the arbitration. Rules for arbitration were quite clearly defined by the first Hague convention in 1899, reinforced by the second Hague convention in 1907. The Ottoman Empire signed and ratified these conventions and was therefore bound by their provisions including those on the “Pacific Settlement of International Disputes” through arbitration.
It is an historical fact that President Wilson’s arbitration remained fruitless: When it was delivered on the 22 November 1920, Armenia – which was independent since the 28 August 1918 – was on the brink to disappear again. The US Senate had then just refused to establish an American mandate for Armenia on 1 June and the defeat of the scarce Armenian troops against the Turkish nationalists compelled the Armenian government to sign new treaties of Alexandropol and of Kars with these Kemalist forces. Facing a definitive annihilation by Turks, Armenia was unable to resist to the Red Army and was finally sovietized on the 29 November 1920 with the idea that it would be better to become “rather red than dead”.