WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Armenian Assembly of America’s timely and impactful Virtual National Advocacy Conference and Advocacy Week started on Monday, March, 8, 2021 as American Armenian constituents throughout the country participated in panels featuring special guest speakers and met virtually with their Members of Congress to advocate for a robust assistance package to help the Armenian people, including at least $100 million in assistance; enforcing Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act; urging support for legislation calling for the immediate release of Armenian prisoners of war held by Azerbaijan; and garnering support for this year’s April 24th Armenian Genocide statement by President Joe Biden.
The Assembly’s National Advocacy Conferences aim to reinforce awareness and support of Armenian issues in the U.S. and connect Armenian Americans with Members of Congress and Congressional staff.
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Outlines Key Priorities
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, outlined key policy priorities and called on the Biden Administration to revisit and reexamine U.S. policy in the wake of the Artsakh war. He highlighted priority issues facing the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the displacement from their homes, lack of access to food, shelter and healthcare, and the need for demining activities. Senator Menendez said that the Biden Administration “must move quickly to recalibrate our relationships with Azerbaijan and Turkey.”
“The United States cannot be in the business of supporting a corrupt, authoritarian regime that has attacked innocent civilians and committed appalling atrocities in violation of humanitarian law,” he added.
Looking ahead to April, Senator Menendez has called on President Biden to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. He praised the “sustained advocacy” of Armenian Americans, which will be vital to “press the executive branch to break its decades of silence and speak the truth of the genocide.”
Human Rights Panel Highlights Importance of Documenting Atrocities Against the Armenian People
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), headlined the panel “Defending Human Rights & Preventing Atrocities,” which featured former Republic of Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman Artak Beglaryan, and the Director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, David L. Phillips.
Moderated by Assembly Co-Chair Van Krikorian, the panel focused on the documentation of human rights violations against the Armenian people of Artsakh, as well as steps undertaken to provide humanitarian assistance and a lasting resolution to the ongoing conflict in the region. Rep. Schiff indicated that perpetrators of human rights abuses should be held accountable and that the U.S. should demand the return of Armenian prisoners of war and bodies of the fallen. He also stated that he is working on introducing a resolution with his Armenian Caucus colleagues in this regard.
Rep. Schiff said that “the U.S. has to reclaim its legacy of being a champion of human rights and provide tremendous humanitarian support to the region, demand the return of POWs, and support Artsakh’s right to self-determination.”
As Director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, David L. Phillips prepared the Institute’s Artsakh Atrocities documentation page and said “it’s important to document and record the crimes against Armenians that occurred in plain sight and create a dossier for U.S. policymakers to hold the perpetrators, including Azerbaijan, Turkey and the jihadist mercenaries, accountable,” said Phillips.
Phillips stated that the U.S. should provide more aid to Armenia to correct the imbalance with the security assistance it provided to Azerbaijan as a result of the waiver of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act.
“Restoring U.S. credibility on the international stage starts by recognizing Turkey as a perpetrator which commits crimes against humanity,” said Phillips.
In his remarks, Artak Beglaryan focused on impunity and Azerbaijan’s exemption from punishment for its ongoing human rights violations against the Republic of Artsakh and its people.
“Azerbaijan has conducted a serious policy of isolation against Artsakh that has intensified since 2008,” said Beglaryan. He emphasized Turkey’s role in the war, which was “quite visible,” along with the hiring of mercenaries, who were promised money in exchange for each Armenian soldier killed.
“We have many confessions and witnesses that prove the direct engagement of Turkey in recruiting and transferring mercenaries to Artsakh,” said Beglaryan, who cataloged and investigated all of the war crimes executed against Armenians, including cluster munitions and suicide drones that targeted civilians who resided far from military sites.
“These were deliberate targeting attempts using reconnaissance drones,” said Beglaryan, who noted that public reports are available through the Republic of Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman office.
Preserving Cultural Heritage Panel Conveys Urgency of Protecting Armenian Heritage Sites at Risk
As thousands of Armenian religious and cultural heritage sites are currently at risk of being expropriated and erased by Azerbaijan, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, Professor Lori Khatchadourian of Cornell University, and Professor Christina Maranci of Tufts University, Jeff King, the President of International Christian Concern, shared their insights in a panel moderated by Professor Rachel Goshgarian of Lafayette College.
Emphasizing the importance of cultural heritage, Archbishop Derderian said that academic findings and studies, as well as the ongoing dialogue with political leaders and international cultural organizations, are key to helping find a resolution to the Armenian cultural heritage sites in peril.
Professor Khatchadourian, an archaeologist who teaches at Cornell’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, launched the Caucasus Heritage Watch to monitor, through high-resolution satellite imaging, the damage being done to Armenian cultural heritage sites. The project, which is in its early stages, documents the conditions of the monuments and may help hold perpetrators accountable in the future. She underscored the fact that UNESCO “shirks from calling out governments from which it depends for funding,” therefore there are “few tools for preventing state actors from damaging cultural heritage under their sovereign control or holding such actors accountable.”
Khatchadourian noted that over 1,000 Armenian cultural heritage sites fall under Azerbaijani jurisdiction, distributed across former provinces in Nagorno-Karabakh, and ranging from Armenian monastic complexes to khatchkars (cross-stones), cemeteries and fortresses, among other relics.
“The threats to these sites are real,” she said. “Between 1997 and 2006, Azerbaijan sought to fully erase traces of Armenians, destroying thousands of khatchkars and tens of thousands of historic tombstones in unprecedented acts of destruction in Nakhichevan. Those grave threats loom once again.”
Professor Maranci, the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara Oztemel Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture, as well as Department Chair of the History of Art and Architecture at Tufts University, has researched Armenian heritage loss and destruction, which she remarked is not only “material” culture but “gets to the very root of” Armenian spiritual culture. She cited the horrible consequences of war on heritage sites, such as the damage of the Ghazanchetsots (Holy Savior) Cathedral in Shushi, while noting that far worse would be the “complete erasure of sites.”
Panel moderator and Professor Rachel Goshgarian highlighted the importance of the Armenian American community becoming more aware of the destruction of cultural heritage and engaging as grassroots advocates.
As President of International Christian Concern, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that serves the persecuted church around the world, Jeff King stated:
“At ICC, based on what we have seen and covered, we take the position that recent conflict was a genocide against Armenian Christians due to this messaging of Pan- Turkism against Armenia and Christianity as a whole, and the brutality employed by Azerbaijani forces against soldiers and civilians alike,” said King. “The demolishing of Christian heritage sites is just one example of the religious underpinnings apparent throughout this conflict.”
Assembly President Carolyn Mugar, Assembly Co-Chair Anthony Barsamian and Assembly Board Member Annie Totah introduced the Republic of Artsakh’s Foreign Minister David Babayan and His Excellency Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan, Armenia’s Ambassador to the U.S., where both diplomats shared their perspectives and provided a post-war overview, including humanitarian and rebuilding needs, as well as the urgent priority to ensure the release of Armenian prisoners of war and civilians still detained by Azerbaijan in contravention of the Geneva Conventions, international humanitarian law, and the November 9, 2020 ceasefire statement signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Minister Babayan noted that “It’s important to now concentrate on humanitarian aspects,” and to “go forward step by step.”
Ambassador Nersesyan thanked the Assembly and the community for their enormous humanitarian fundraising efforts during the war, which he said was a clear “symbolic act of unification.” Referencing the centuries-old “strength” of the Armenian people, Ambassador Nersesyan was confident that the “immense challenges will be overcome.”
The Ambassador also indicated that Armenia welcomes mediation efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs – the U.S., Russia and France – to “find a peaceful solution to the outstanding issue of the status of Artsakh.”
Upon the conclusion of Minister Babayan and Ambassador Nersesyan’s remarks, a special “Artsakh Post-War” panel commenced, moderated by the Assembly’s Armenia Regional Director Arpi Vartanian, which featured the Republic of Artsakh’s Deputy Foreign Minister Armine Aleksanyan, the Republic of Artsakh’s U.S. Representative Robert Avetisyan, and The HALO Trust’s Development Manager Amasia Zargarian.
Deputy Minister Aleksanyan shared her insights and echoed Ambassador Nersesyan’s support for the OSCE Minsk Group to help find a peaceful and lasting settlement yet “not through force” as Azerbaijan attempted last Fall when it launched a full-scale war against the Armenian people. Deputy Minister Aleksanyan also discussed issues of human rights, POWs and the rights of children who have been deprived of shelter, housing, and education as a result of the war.
Mr. Avetisyan reflected on the positive momentum in pre-war Artsakh and the post-war vision to restore economic opportunities, particularly among diasporans who want to invest in Artsakh. Mr. Avetisyan discussed the current situation in the region and the vital steps that need to be taken to safeguard the people of Artsakh.
The HALO Trust Development Manager Amasia Zargarian focused on making Artsakh communities safer post-war. Over the last two decades The HALO Trust has diligently worked on the ground in Artsakh to clear almost 500 minefields, while employing the local population. The organization’s efforts have increased exponentially since the war, despite cuts in funding by the previous U.S. administration.
Mr. Zargarian noted that mines and explosives used to be a larger rural problem in agricultural zones, but are now more of an “urban threat.”
Armenian Caucus Co-Chairs Prioritize Issues Facing Armenian People
Armenian Caucus Co-Chairs Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) were featured during the Congressional Priorities and U.S. Policy Perspectives panel moderated by Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny.
“U.S. leadership lacked during the war,” said Rep. Pallone. “We emphasized during the Trump Administration, and now we do so during the Biden Administration, that Armenia is one of the few democracies in the former Soviet Union and it should be protected.”
Rep. Speier said Armenia has been “deeply scarred” by the former Administration’s “willingness to be passive.”
Rep. Pallone commented that Turkey’s aggression in Artsakh is “not an isolated incident” and cited examples of its involvement in Libya, Syria, and beyond. “They are not interested in agreements because they are creating a trans-Turkish empire and using war as a mechanism,” he said as he called for sanctions against Turkey, halting U.S. support of the country under Erdogan’s leadership, ending the waiver of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, and securing a major aid package for Artsakh.
“We need to find ways to create stronger ties,” said Rep. Speier, remarking that Artsakh needs assistance with the critical components of security, humanitarian aid, release of POWs, and access to clean water.
“The diaspora has to stay united with the people in Armenia and Artsakh,” concluded Pallone. “This is a rebuilding process and we have to look ahead.”
Contributing their perspectives and insights on U.S. policy, Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, a former OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair, and Dr. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, participated in a panel moderated by the Assembly’s Congressional Relations Director Mariam Khaloyan.
Ambassador Cavanaugh stated that President Biden has been “strident in reintroducing human rights as a fundamental tenet of American foreign policy.”
Regarding the November 9, 2020 trilateral statement, Ambassador Cavanaugh said it was “not a peace agreement” and despite Aliyev’s use of force as a desired solution, the conflict remains unresolved.
“Force will not solve the situation,” he continued. “There needs to be a definitive discussion and agreement between the countries that includes support from people in the region on how this can be finalized, and that includes status.”
Referring to the September 27, 2020 war as a “surprise attack,” Dr. Rubin said that the commitments Azerbaijan made in order to secure the Section 907 waiver were “wholly violated.”
“There are no mitigating factors here and the U.S. should make clear that it will stand by its own laws,” he continued, adding that sanctions should be imposed on Azerbaijan in the coming year as a consequence of its actions. “Azerbaijan needs to stop getting a free pass.”
Dr. Rubin underscored Turkey’s expansionism, which has reached Libya, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq and Greece.
“We see a pattern of aggression with the aim of ethnic cleansing,” said Dr. Rubin. “Turkey should be held accountable as a reasonable, responsible NATO partner.”
Virtual Meetings with Members of Congress
Throughout the week virtual meetings took place with Members of Congress from across the country including, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. These timely meetings allowed constituents to advocate for the letter circulating by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Member Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to President Joe Biden regarding affirmation of the Armenian Genocide as well as the Prisoner of War resolution spearheaded by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), along with the leadership of the Armenian Caucus leadership, which urges Azerbaijan to immediately release all POWs and captured civilians.
“The rich and diverse panels and productive virtual meetings with Members of Congress organized during the Assembly’s Virtual National Advocacy Conference showcased the breadth of experience and knowledge from our dedicated elected representatives, academics, policy experts and community members,” stated Executive Director Bryan Ardouny. “We appreciate the time and efforts of our panelists as well as our State Chairs and grassroots activists from across the country to make our voices heard.”