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Senator Menendez Emphasizes Urgency of Humanitarian Crisis Due to Blockade in SFRC Hearing

Updated: Sep 18, 2023


Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (SFRC) held a hearing "Assessing the Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh" on September 14th, 2023 with witness Yuri Kim, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Joining SFRC Chairman Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Members of the Committee present at the hearing included Senators Jim Risch (R-ID), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Pete Ricketts (R-NE). In his opening remarks, Senator Menendez (D-NJ) conveyed the harsh realities on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). "In the stores of Nagorno-Karabakh shelves are empty. Ambulances don't have gas. Miscarriages have nearly tripled. The BBC reports that one third of deaths there are now from malnutrition," said Senator Menendez. "For months Azerbaijan has blocked access to the Lachin Corridor to Armenia, keeping out humanitarian aid to this ancient Armenian community that is starving to death." Senator Menendez noted that only one truck recently went through and that one truck is not enough for a population of 120,000 Armenians, as there were 120 trucks passing through the Corridor before the blockade. "President Aliyev says he's not organizing ethnic cleansing but that's exactly what he's doing," he said. "By leveraging humanitarian aid, he aims to either coerce the people of Artsakh into political submission or starve them to death." Senator Menendez referred to former International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo's Expert Opinion where he stated that "starvation is the invisible genocide weapon. Without immediate dramatic change this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks." "Our message from the highest levels must be unequivocal," emphasized Senator Menendez. "Stop the blockade. Stop threatening the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Stop threatening Armenia. Open the Lachin Corridor immediately. Uphold the commitments Azerbaijan itself made in the November 2020 ceasefire. We must stand up for peace, security, and the defense of human rights." He underscored that "talk is worthless when one participant in those talks is carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing." Senator Menendez expressed his "deep opposition" to waiving Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act, which allows the U.S. to send military assistance to Azerbaijan. "Azerbaijan's actions over the last three years have vindicated my skepticism," he said. "I hope the international community is watching because when President Aliyev is tried for crimes against humanity, as I think he should be, the burden of proof will be very high." Senator Menendez said he would like to hear what the State Department is doing to facilitate the opening of the Lachin Corridor before the situation escalates even further. "Is it so important to us that we cozy up to someone who is in the process of creating ethnic cleansing? Is that the side of history the US wants to stand on?" concluded Senator Menendez. Conveying the extent of bipartisan concern over the humanitarian crisis, Ranking Member Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) stated in his opening remarks that "tensions are rising again between Armenia and Azerbaijan" and that "ending this conflict would bring peace to a fractured region." "The US, along with our European allies, have an important role to play in the future of the Caucasus. Our action in response to the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh will be key to broader US policy towards the region."


The Honorable Yuri Kim, Acting Assistant Secretary of European and Eurasian Affairs in the United States Department of State

In her opening statement, Assistant Secretary Kim said that the State Department shares Senator Menendez's "sense of urgency." "We are deeply concerned by the continued closure of the Lachin Corridor and the impacts this closure is having on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh," said Kim. She emphasized that the State Department views the "status quo as completely unacceptable" and that they will "not stop working until we have a resolution." "We have consistently said that that Corridor must be open to commercial, humanitarian, and private traffic," she continued. "We have conveyed that message both publicly and privately to all levels of government in Azerbaijan on numerous occasions. Access to food, medicine, baby formula, and energy should never be held hostage." Kim stated that there should be no more delays and that it's "essential for these supplies which have been ready to move in weeks to finally be delivered to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh now." She continued that the State Department is encouraging "all sides to work constructively" as the "only path forward is through dialogue." Kim added: "We believe peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan would have cascading benefits for the region." Assistant Secretary Kim also said that "we have made clear that the rights and security of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh must be protected. This is an essential element of any durable and dignified peace agreement." Concluding her statement, Kim said that the US will not support any effort or action to "ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh," reiterating that the "current humanitarian situation is not acceptable." Senator Menendez asked Kim if she shared his and the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) assessment that the blockade presents a real and imminent risk to the health and life of Armenians, to which she agreed and again stated that the State Department shares his sense of urgency. He then countered by asking what the State Department is doing to avert Azerbaijan's military escalation, to which Kim responded that the US will not tolerate an attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Senator Menendez pointed out that Azerbaijan is not abiding by the 2020 ceasefire agreement and that "we are just asking them to live up to their agreements." By not doing so, Senator Menendez observed that the US has "only emboldened Aliyev."


Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD)

Senator Pete Ricketts (R-NE) observed that Armenia prioritized its relationship with Russia militarily and economically "mainly because it's the only game in town for security in Nagorno-Karabakh." Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) said he agreed with Senator Menendez that the "humanity crisis is horrible" and each day that the US waits, "more people are dying." "The US needs to take decisive action," he stated. "When you routinely give waivers under Section 907, you're saying that Azerbaijan has demonstrated steps to cease all blockades and uses of force against Armenia and that's just not the case, so we lose credibility when that happens when we aren't prepared to take decisive steps based on our values." He asked Kim why the waiver continues to be exercised since it sends the wrong message. Assistant Secretary Kim responded that President Biden and Secretary Blinken have "made clear that human rights and values are at the center of our foreign policy." She stated that "none of the assistance" the State Department provides is used for "offensive action against Armenia and it's in the national security interest." Kim said that the State Department continues to carefully review Section 907.


Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)

Senator Chris Murphy said that "gentle diplomacy" does not seem to be effective when dealing with President Aliyev. He concluded that while distancing itself from Russia, the US is "turning from dependence on one dictatorship to a different dictatorship and the question now becomes are we funding Azerbaijan's efforts to impose a brutal blockade on the Armenian people."


Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) also raised concerns about Section 907 and asked Kim if US assistance was having a positive impact on the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the region as a whole. Kim responded that the Statement Department is going "through those issues very thoroughly." "I hope you don't exercise the waiver because I don't think the conditions on the ground merit it," noted Senator Van Hollen. Senator Menendez wrapped up the hearing by elaborating on the US's values and principles. The Assembly's testimony was also included for the record. "If there is a country in the world that stands for human rights it's the US," he said. "Speaking of it [human rights] is meaningless. It's a hollow promise without action." Earlier this week Senator Menendez delivered a speech on the Senate Floor where he said that the US "can't look away at a systematic attempt to eradicate and erase an entire people from the face of the Earth...We must stop [Aliyev] from starving these Armenians to death." In the Assembly's testimony, Executive Director Bryan Ardouny noted the hearing's "critical timing" as the Armenian people are "now confronted with genocide and ethnic cleansing from their ancestral lands for the second time in little over a century." The testimony referenced the ICJ's ruling to open the Lachin Corridor as Azerbaijan continues to "starve the Armenian people living in Nagorno-Karabakh, going so far as to deny even access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as the governments of Armenia and France, all of which have tried to deliver humanitarian supplies via the Lachin Corridor to the people of Artsakh." The Assembly reiterated its call for USAID to deliver aid directly to Stepanakert and urged "the Administration to use the considerable tools at its disposal not only to end the humanitarian crisis, but also help stop a genocide," and can start by enforcing, and not waiving Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act. "History has shown that appeasing dictators only serves to embolden them. President Biden has repeatedly said in his State of the Union addresses that the United States must stand in defense of democracies in the face of autocrats who want nothing more than to see democracy fail. The U.S. has taken a strong stand in support of democracy in Ukraine and should do so for Artsakh and Armenia." "The Assembly's position is clear," concluded Ardouny in the Assembly’s testimony. "Stand up for democracy and human rights, oppose genocide and end the blockade of Artsakh."

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. ###

NR# 2023-29


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