This week, the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly) submitted written testimony to the Helsinki Commission’s hearing entitled: “Update on the OSCE: Religious Freedom, Anti-Semitism, and Rule of Law,” citing Azerbaijan’s escalating and deadly cease-fire violations and urging additional action.
“As the Commission is aware, the Assembly remains deeply concerned about the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan, its jailing of journalists and abandonment of democratic values, particularly for America’s ally Armenia,” Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny’s testimony stated.
Chairman Smith opened the hearing by stating his concern for human rights crises in Europe and Eurasia. Smith described repression in Azerbaijan as “rife,” especially in regards to freedom of the press. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan is the leading nation in Eurasia for jailing journalists. The Human Rights Watch 2016 World Report states that “the [Azerbaijan] government’s unrelenting crackdown decimated independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media,” resulting in imprisonment, criminal investigations, harassment, or travel bans.
The Assembly, for its part, highlighted Azerbaijan’s continued ceasefire violations in 2014 and 2015, which have been marked by an unprecedented increase in civilian casualties, including the targeting of a kindergarten in Armenia’s Tavush region. There have been over 54,000 cease-fire violations committed by Azerbaijan on the line of contact from 2014 through 2015, with an estimated total of nearly 1 million shots fired.
“These violations constitute a clear disregard for the rule of law and pose a direct threat to fundamental freedoms,” Ardouny said.
During the hearing, Chairman Smith noted that members of the Commission recently traveled to Baku twice, where they met with President Aliyev in rather lengthy meetings on human rights issues on both occasions. As a result of these discussions, Chairman Smith introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015. Chairman Smith said the reaction by the Aliyev government and parliament was “startling.” “They claimed the Armenians put me, Chris Smith, up to it. The Armenians had absolutely no input, advance notice, or anything else about the bill,” according to Smith. “So when I hear this coming from the parliament, and coming from major media and presidential spokesmen, I wonder about their credibility on other things,” he said.
The Assembly also welcomed the Royce-Engel initiative to U.S. Ambassador James Warlick, U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, calling for: (1) an agreement from all sides not to deploy snipers along the line of contact; (2) the placement of OSCE-monitored, advanced gunfire-locator systems and sound-ranging equipment to determine the source of attacks along the line of contact; and (3) the deployment of additional OSCE observers along the line of contact to better monitor cease-fire violations.
“We strongly urge the Commission to support this important initiative by convening a special hearing to examine the scope and nature of these violations as well as review steps needed to bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” stated Ardouny.
Below is the full text of Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny’s testimony, which was submitted to the Helsinki Commission on February 11, 2016.
Testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
“Update on the OSCE: Religious Freedom, Anti-Semitism, and Rule of Law”
Submitted by Bryan Ardouny
Executive Director of the Armenian Assembly of America
February 11, 2016
Chairman Smith, Co-Chairman Wicker, distinguished Commissioners, the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly) welcomes today’s important hearing. We share the concerns of the Commission with respect to threats to religious freedom and the rule of law as well as the specter of anti-Semitism, whether in Europe or beyond.
The Assembly especially appreciates the Commission’s ongoing vigilance in shining a bright light on human rights violations in an effort to bring about much needed change and to protect religious and minority communities. In particular, we remain deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of Christians and other minorities at risk in the Middle East and elsewhere. As ISIS continues its brutal targeting of innocent civilians, images of which evoke the horrors of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and other crimes against humanity, it reminds us all about the urgent challenges before us and the need to redouble our efforts to prevent atrocities from occurring.
We also appreciate the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), as well as the OSCE Minsk Group which seeks to find a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. We welcome the introduction of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 by Chairman Smith, which sends a strong message that the United States takes the defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms seriously.
As the Commission is aware, the Assembly remains deeply concerned about the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan, its jailing of journalists and abandonment of democratic values, and the impact it has on the region, particularly for America’s ally Armenia. Unfortunately, these authoritarian trends have spilled over into the OSCE-mediated Nagorno Karabakh peace process wherein the Azerbaijani government continues to violate the 1994 cease-fire agreement at an alarming rate and with more powerful weaponry.
According to reports filed with the United Nations (UN) and the OSCE, there were over 11,500 cross-border violations committed by Azerbaijan against Armenia from 2014 through 2015, constituting an estimate of more than 200,000 shots fired. In Armenia’s Tavush region, a kindergarten has been the repeated target of sniper fire. This is an outrageous violation. The targeting of innocent civilians and children must end.
With respect to the line of contact between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan, there have been over 54,000 cease-fire violations committed by Azerbaijan during the same period. These violations constitute an estimated total of nearly 1 million shots fired.
Some of the weapons used by Azerbaijan in its attacks against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh in 2014-2015 include: grenade launchers, large caliber machine guns, large caliber sniper weapons, mortars, and howitzers. Not surprisingly 2014 and 2015 have been marked by increased civilian deaths and casualties. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs in a Joint Statement in December 2015 said “there is no justification for the death and injury of innocent civilians.” “We especially condemn the use of mortars and other heavy weaponry,” the joint statement highlighted “and regret deeply the civilian casualties these weapons have caused.”
These violations constitute a clear disregard for the rule of law and pose a direct threat to fundamental freedoms. Given these egregious violations, the Assembly welcomed last year’s initiative by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and Ranking Member Eliot Engel to address the dramatic increase of deadly cease-fire violations. In their letter to Ambassador James Warlick, U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, they called for three concrete steps to be taken. These include: (1) an agreement from all sides not to deploy snipers along the line of contact; (2) the placement of OSCE-monitored, advanced gunfire-locator systems and sound-ranging equipment to determine the source of attacks along the line of contact; and (3) the deployment of additional OSCE observers along the line of contact to better monitor cease-fire violations. The letter was signed by 85 Members of Congress.
We hope that these recommendations are implemented to help ensure the safety and security of the people of Armenia and Karabakh. Further, we strongly urge the Commission to support this important initiative by convening a special hearing to examine the scope and nature of these violations as well as review steps needed to bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The United States has a vested interest in advancing peace and bringing stability to the region – and a key to stability is respect and adherence to the fundamental tenets of the rule of law and human rights.
Chairman Smith and Co-Chairman Wicker, we commend you for holding this hearing and look forward to working with the Helsinki Commission on these and other pressing issues as we pursue shared values in promoting democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.