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 Thursday, December 15 2022 12:38
Marianna Mkrtchyan

Closure by Azerbaijan of Lachin Corridor has "severe humanitarian  implications" - Karen Donfried

Closure by Azerbaijan of Lachin Corridor has "severe humanitarian  implications" - Karen Donfried

ArmInfo. Today, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber, convened a hearing on "U.S. Policy Towards the Caucasus,"  where Karen Donfried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and  Eurasian Affairs, reiterated that the closure by Azerbaijan of the  Lachin Corridor - the only road connecting Armenia and Artsakh - has  "severe humanitarian implications" and should be "restored" as it  "sets back the peace process," reported the Armenian Assembly of  America (Assembly).  

In his introductory remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Bill Keating  (D-MA), stated that the Caucasus is a region with a "vibrant history"  at a "vital crossroads of the world," however, it faces many  challenges, including democratic backsliding taking hold in some  countries, and continued violence taking place across internationally  recognized borders."

He reflected on Armenia and Azerbaijan's ceasefire statement two  years ago, and although the ceasefire was "supposed to represent a  formal bookend to the fighting, skirmishes have indeed continued. As  a result, civilians continue to be displaced, many have been wounded  or lost their lives, and longterm peace agreements remain elusive."

Chairman Keating noted the importance of U.S. involvement in the  negotiation process, alongside the EU and OSCE Minsk Group, as well  as bilateral talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

"While a sustained peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan is  vital for the region, so is continued democratic reform, respect for  rule of law and anti-corruption initiatives," said Chairman Keating,  as he called upon Azerbaijan to protect minority groups, and make  necessary reforms to establish democratic processes in the country.  These reforms include the need for increased religious tolerance, as  exhibited by a report published today by the United States Commission  on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) titled, "Tolerance,  Religious Freedom, Authoritarianism," where it lists Azerbaijan's  religious intolerance as a case study.

He also noted Azerbaijan's key ally, Turkey, and its increasing role  in the region "which has only grown since the 2020 ceasefire."  Chairman Keating stated that he supported "normalization of relations  between the two countries, and that a mutually agreed upon path  forward for Armenia and Turkey will open immense opportunities for  the people and the economies on both sides of the border."

Ranking Member Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), stated that the conflict  between Armenia and Azerbaijan recently escalated this past  September, and pointed out the "footage of Azeri executions of  Armenian prisoners of war and mistreatment of many people, which has  raised concern and criticism internationally."

During her testimony, Secretary Donfried said that following  intensified fighting in September, Armenia and Azerbaijan have  "renewed focus on negotiations, with U.S. engagement playing a key  role."

"We continue to press Azerbaijan and Armenia to maintain momentum for  negotiations, and we continue to advocate that the rights and  security of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh is a key part of those  discussions," said Secretary Donfried, noting that since September  2020, the U.S. has provided over $21 million in humanitarian  assistance to address critical regional needs.

She also stated that relations between Armenia and Turkey can  "increase regional stability" and lead to "greater economic  development."

Regarding Azerbaijan's blatant human rights violations, Secretary  Donfried said the State Department "continues to advocate with the  government of Azerbaijan to protect human rights and hold individuals  accountable for human rights abuses."

Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA) questioned Secretary Donfried about  Azerbaijan's "flagrant violations of human rights," including  illegally imprisoning Armenian POWs, and asked whether she discusses  these violations with negotiators in Washington, D.C.

Secretary Donfried replied that "human rights are a critical part of  the conversation," and has raised the issue with both Armenia and  Azerbaijan's foreign ministers.

Rep. Costa then pressed upon what the U.S. is doing to hold  Azerbaijan accountable, to which she responded that the State  Department has begun to "impose visa restrictions" on an Azerbaijani  official relating to his involvement in a "gross human rights  violation, including torture" against an Azerbaijani civilian.

Bringing to light the priority issue this past week of Azerbaijan  blockading the Lachin Corridor between Armenia and Artsakh, which is  a "critical humanitarian lifeline," and that gas pipelines have been  shut off by the Aliyev regime, thus impacting 120,000 Armenians in  Artsakh, Rep. Costa said that this "does not show good faith" and  asked Secretary Donfried what specific steps are being taken to  safeguard Armenians living in Artsakh.

Secretary Donfried concurred that the closure of the Lachin Corridor  has "severe humanitarian implications and sets back the peace  process." She said she called upon the government of Azerbaijan to  "restore free movement throughout the Corridor."

In the face of continued human rights abuses, Rep. Costa emphasized  that the Administration's consistent waiver of Section 907 of the  FREEDOM Support Act "is a mistake."

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) expressed his support of legislation in  Congress condemning aggression against the Armenian people in  Artsakh, and emphasized that the "U.S. has a critical role to play to  protect Armenians against unprovoked aggression."

"Congressional action should be viewed as important leverage for  peace, given the considerable aid the U.S. supplies to the region,"  Rep. Schneider continued, before asking Secretary Donfried to expand  on how to prevent other nations from undercutting stability and peace  in the region.

Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA), emphasized that she has a "significant  Armenian American community" in her district, and that many of her  constituents are "deeply and personally connected to the continuing  conflict."

"Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh continue to face an acute humanitarian  crisis, including threats of renewed attacks and chronic shortages of  water, energy, healthcare and food," she noted, to which Secretary  Donfried replied that access to Nagorno-Karabakh is limited, "which  impacts U.S. ability to engage and undertake in assistance programs."  Despite limitations, however, the "U.S. has sought to help those  impacted by the conflict, many of whom are in Armenia."

In his concluding remarks, Chairman Keating underscored the "greater  issue we're facing today of authoritarianism versus democracy, and  we'll do everything we can to have success here [in the Caucasus]  because we'll be helping the entire region, and on a larger scale,  the cause of democracy."

"Given Azerbaijan's attempt to isolate the people of Artsakh via  blocking access to the only road connecting Armenia and Artsakh and  cutting off the gas supply during the chill of winter, leaving  120,000 Armenian civilians without heat and needed medical supplies,  today's House Foreign Affairs hearing was timely and important," said  Assembly Congressional Relations Director Mariam Khaloyan. "The  Assembly appreciates Rep. Costa's strong and salient questions to  Secretary Donfried regarding Azerbaijan's actions that have yet again  undermined the peace process and created a humanitarian crisis for  the Armenian people."

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