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Q&A: CSU law professor Milena Sterio heads to Azerbaijan on Fulbright

Milena Sterio, associate professor at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, is off to Azerbaijan in February on a Fulbright.

CSU ranks No. 2 in the nation for Fulbright scholars. Also selected to participate in this prestigious international educational exchange program during the 2012-2013 academic year were Sterio’s Cleveland-Marshall colleague Brian Ray, as well as Jayne Fuglister and Rama Jayanti of the Monte Ahuja College of Business and Janche Sang of the Department of Computer and Information Science.

Sterio, who blogs about international law, will be in Azerbaijan through June, teaching civil law and alternate dispute resolution at Baku State University. She’ll also research territoriality and minority rights.

How did you zero in on Azerbaijan?

I originally applied to go to Serbia, where I was born and raised. I do research in public international law, focused on statehood and secession issues. As you know, Kosovo seceded from Serbia a few years ago, which in terms of research was very interesting to me.

When the Fulbright program asked how I would feel about going to Azerbaijan instead, I was open to it. In Azerbaijan, there’s a province called Nagorno-Karabakh, which is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The issues are similar to those between Serbia and Kosovo. If you look on a map, Nagorno-Karabakh officially belongs to Azerbaijan, but it de facto functions as a separate entity.

Could your research apply to similar disputes elsewhere around the world?

Absolutely. In Georgia, there are two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which function as separate entities. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska functions as a separate entity. Chechnya would be another example.

Many entities around the globe are in this weird limbo of looking like a state but not being recognized as a state. It definitely has negative implications for the people who live there. Most of these areas are very poor and underdeveloped. They can’t benefit from international assistance programs because they’re not formally a state, yet they have no reasonable relationship with the official governing entity.

Politically speaking, I don’t see a solution in the near future, unfortunately. Legally speaking, however, scholars of international law — and this is where I see my contribution — should try to develop a normative framework of circumstances under which an entity should be able to separate legally from its parent state. Whether they’re implemented or not is another question, but having set legal criteria would help.

Why hasn’t international law kept pace with all the redrawn lines on maps?

The rules we have really deal with decolonization, which for the most part was over by the late 1970s.

We’re dealing with a different paradigm now, although there have been successful instances of true secession. One example would be Eritrea, which seceded from Ethiopia.

The major actors in international law are states, and no state likes the idea of secession, because it means you’re going to lose a chunk of your territory. So states have been very reluctant to come up with rules for secession. International law is still playing catch-up.