Washington, D.C. - Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referred to the humanitarian crisis in Artsakh, where Armenians face daily violent threats by Azerbaijan. Chairman Menendez further questioned the wisdom of the State Department's ongoing waiver of Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act during an SFRC hearing on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, which assessed U.S. Policy in the South Caucasus with Karen Donfried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Ambassador Philip Reeker, Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations from the U.S. Department of State, reported the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly). In his opening remarks, Chairman Menendez stated that the "people of this region don't want to live under the threat of violence and they don't want autocratic rule imposed on them by the barrel of a gun." He stressed that the Armenian people "deserve to live in peace and they deserve freedom and security. And that means ensuring that a peace deal does not lead to ethnic cleansing for the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh. It means tackling the needs of the humanitarian crisis there. It means holding accountable those who order and carry out the violence we've seen in this region." Addressing the root of the conflict in the region, Chairman Menendez noted that "dictators with imperial aspirations have victimized those living in the South Caucasus." He cited the Russian-backed aggression in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Turkish-supported Azerbaijani aggression in Armenia and Artsakh, where "disregard for human life has been clear," most recently during the 44-day War on Artsakh in the Fall of 2020, when Azerbaijan's unprovoked assault uprooted over 100,000 Armenians from their homes in Artsakh, and resulted in the deaths of 6,500 people in total. Chairman Menendez noted that the "Armenians in Artsakh still face an acute humanitarian crisis, including threats of ethnic cleansing, and chronic shortages of water, energy, health care, and food." Chairman Menendez has continuously pushed for robust humanitarian assistance to help victims in Armenia and Artsakh. He admonished the U.S. humanitarian response as being "insufficient," and expressed outrage over its continued, annual provision of security assistance to Azerbaijan. "How on Earth can the United States justify sending any kind of support, security or otherwise, to a regime in Baku? It’s inexcusable. I personally think it’s morally repugnant. And it makes a mockery of the FREEDOM Support Act." Chairman Menendez continued: "Section 907 of this Act is meant to ban security assistance to Azerbaijan until Azerbaijan is 'taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.' And yet the Department of State has waived Section 907 over and over again. It requested $600,000 for Fiscal Year 22 to provide Azerbaijan with international military education and training – a program meant to 'provide a professional military education to countries selected by the Secretary of State.'" Expanding on the question of U.S. security assistance, Chairman Menendez referenced the Government Accounting Office's (GAO) report, publicly released earlier this year, which demonstrates that the Department of State and Department of Defense failed to comply with reporting requirements for reviewing U.S. assistance to the government of Azerbaijan relative to Section 907’s statutory requirements. Concluding his opening remarks, Chairman Menendez said he "welcomes senior level U.S. engagement in this region" and has "high hopes for a lasting peace." During the hearing, in response to Assistant Secretary Donfried and Ambassador Reeker’s respective testimonies, Chairman Menendez stated that their testimonies are "unresponsive to the concerns" that he raised in his opening statement or in the past. He pressed Ambassador Reeker about video footage that caught Azerbaijani forces "killing unarmed Armenian soldiers in cold blood." Ambassador Reeker replied that he has "seen a number of videos" and that his "email box is filled with them." Chairman Menendez asked if he has made efforts to verify the videos and if he has come across reports of Azerbaijani soldiers sexually assaulting and mutilating an Armenian female soldier. In response, Ambassador Reeker said that he has "seen many reports of atrocities," however, he stated he was "not familiar" with reports relating to Azerbaijan's reported use of illegal weapons, including white phosphorus, cluster bombs. Chairman Menendez emphasized that the State Department "seems to be looking the other way because of whatever interests we have with Azerbaijan." "My frustration with the State Department is that they always say 'well both sides should refrain.' But when there is an aggressor, we should call out the aggressor...it’s Azerbaijan. Yet we look the other way and we waive Section 907." Addressing Assistant Secretary Donfried specifically, Chairman Menendez asked how the State Department continues to provide a waiver to Section 907, not only due to the fact that the GAO study reaffirmed that the State Department did not meet its reporting requirements, but also because of the atrocities that the Aliyev regime wantonly commits. In response, Assistant Secretary Donfried said that the State Department is "working very hard to achieve a goal I think we share, which is a sustainable peace in the South Caucasus...what we are hearing from both [Armenia and Azerbaijan] is they believe there is an historic opportunity for a sustainable peace in the region." Regarding waiving Section 907, Assistant Secretary Donfried said the State Department "welcomes the GAO's review of the Section 907 waiver process" and that steps were taken to implement the GAO's recommendations. Chairman Menendez pressed that in the face of all of the facts, one cannot justify a waiver to Section 907. "Is it humanly possible to say that Azerbaijan has not benefited itself from the assistance we have given it in a way that gives it a clear edge against Armenia as it relates to its military prowess? There's no way to say that. You can’t sit here with a straight face and say that." Turning to specific actions the Biden Administration has taken to directly help at-risk Armenians living in Artsakh, Chairman Menendez emphasized that the humanitarian needs of the people in this conflict are being "wholly underserved." Ambassador Reeker acknowledged the "terrible humanitarian toll" from the 2020 war and that the "State Department continues to work with relevant agencies to evaluate needs in the region and identify how best humanitarian assistance can be provided." He noted that access to Artsakh is "extremely limited" and "not currently possible for U.S. government personnel to access the area and conduct needs assessments or monitor programs." The U.S., however, has provided funding for humanitarian demining operations, including the allotment of $2 million. Chairman Menendez remarked that this is "wholly unresponsive in terms of health care, food security, water. I can’t believe we don’t have an answer." Further in the hearing, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) emphasized "Turkey's historic role backing Azerbaijan" in relation to the country's role in the South Caucasus region. He stated that the U.S. relationship with Azerbaijan is due to its "increasing role as a supplier of energy to neighbors and into Europe" and that the U.S. has gotten the "balance wrong when it comes to promoting human rights and democracy in countries that have large oil reservoirs." Also during the hearing, Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) rightly questioned the judgement of the U.S. Departments of State and Defense in advocating for continued U.S. security assistance to the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan. In his closing statement, Chairman Menendez said the hearing was "disappointing," while pointing out to Assistant Secretary Donfried that while the State Department is urging Azerbaijan to observe human rights, the U.S. continues to give the country "direct assistance that can hurt Armenia." He emphasized that "one side is the aggressor" and the [U.S.] "has done nothing to verify the videos and the evidence of cluster munitions, of white phosphorus, which are illegal." Addressing Assistant Secretary Donfried and Ambassador Reeker, Senator Menendez said it is "totally unacceptable" that they can't respond with specificity what kind of humanitarian assistance the U.S. is providing to the victims.
Established in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.