Signature of the Sevres Treaty, 10 August 1920 (source: Wikiwand)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that this Treaty was never ratified and therefore that these provisions about Armenia were null and void and therefore superseded by the Lausanne Treaty signed up in 1923.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”.
Legal boundary between Armenia and Turkey according to the arbitration of President Wilson (source: Wikipedia)
However, a few points of juridical importance are worth to be noted: The following Treaty of Alexandropol was signed on the 3 December 1920 between the Minister of Foreign Affairs of a Republic of Armenia that was no more in place at this time and by representatives of the Kemalist forces that were not enjoying any international recognition. In terms of International Law, this treaty is therefore deprived of any legality as well as the subsequent Treaty of Kars signed on the 13 October 1921 between the still illegal regime of Kemal and the then-unrecognized Soviet Republics of Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The same may be said for the interim Treaty of Moscow (16 March 1921). In addition, it may be argue that when they signed the Treaty of Kars, Soviet Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan were de facto no more independent countries, a point that achieved to void the validity of this treaty (as if, for instance, Alabama or the French Britain would sign an International treaty).
The common idea that the Treaty of Lausanne (24 July 1923) may have “replaced” the Sèvres one is also a misleading shortcut. First because it has obviously not been sign by ant Armenian Republic (- whether Soviet or not - and even not by the Soviet Union that was still unrecognized by France, UK or the USA and this time. Second, because the Treaty or Lausanne is absolutely not addressing the Eastern border of Turkey.
Of course, these few legal recalls are certainly not sufficient by themselves to modify the current border between the two countries. This is probably the general fate of International Law to be just a kind of expediency used to justify actual balance of powers. Nowadays, the Wilson arbitration has not been enforced just because nobody wants or can enforce it but this politically stalled situation does not challenged its juridical validity. This is the very reason why Turkey presses so much on Armenia – even today – to snatch a document that would legalize the de facto border between the two countries (not to speak about regular threats and intimidations, including with worrying recalls to and glorification of the Armenian genocide). So far, the Republic of Armenia resisted to these schemes. On the one hand, it stated on several occasions that it has no territorial claims on the de facto territory of Turkey. This situation is thus also a consequence of the Armenian Genocide that prevents today’s Armenia – with only three millions inhabitants – to populate these large territories (though this is not really an argument; there are several countries with large territories and scarce populations such as, for instance, Australia or Canada). But on the other hand, it has only said that it wants full diplomatic relations “without preconditions” with Turkey, which means that Armenia pragmatically avoids to file suit to the International Court of Justice or to utter territorial claims until the issue of today’s inexistent diplomatic relations with Turkey is settled in a mutually acceptable way.
This being said, these recalls help us to debunk the usual narrative of Turkey tooling the so-called “Sèvres syndrome” in order to discredit the mythicized idea of a “Greater Armenia”. The actual situation is exactly the other way round: the inability of the International community to impose its own legality in Minor Asia paved the way to a Greater Turkey, which – under the forged wording of “Eastern Anatolia” – is today largely encroaching upon the legal territory of Armenia.