Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) testified for continued life-saving U.S. de-mining assistance to Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) today, during a first-ever virtual testimony organized by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, as this key panel gets set to finalize its Fiscal Year 2021 foreign aid priorities over the next two week, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
Rep. Sherman, who testified live on video, was joined by his colleagues Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA), David Cicilline (D-RI), Jim Costa (D-CA), TJ Cox (D-CA), John Garamendi (D-CA), Jim Himes (D-CT), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who submitted written testimony. Overall, ten of the thirty U.S. Representatives offering testimony cited their support for aid to Artsakh and Armenia.
“We want to thank Congressman Sherman – who made a powerful case for Artsakh aid in his testimony today before the House Appropriations Committee – and all the legislators who submitted compelling testimony to continue U.S. funding for this American investment in peace,” said Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America. “With our goal of a mine-free Artsakh in sight, the United States should not pull the plug on The HALO Trust’s life-saving de-mining program. Doing so would leave countless landmines in the ground, where these weapons of war will cost innocent lives and limbs for decades to come.”
The HALO Trust (USA), Executive Director, Chris Whatley noted, “As the organization responsible for saving lives from landmines and other explosives in Nagorno Karabakh, we at The HALO Trust are so grateful for the support of Members of Congress who provided testimony to the House Appropriations Committee for Member Day. We hope to continue our work keeping families across the region safe, and appreciate the determination of Members of Congress who continue to fight to save this critical demining program.”
Congressman Sherman, whose leadership led to the Congress first appropriating aid to Artsakh in Fiscal Year 1998, was clear and concise in his virtual testimony. “I urge the committee to strengthen the US-Armenia strategic partnership by supporting robust assistance for Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) in the FY21 State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs appropriations bill. Most importantly, I urge you to include $1.5 million for Artsakh demining and robust funding for regional rehabilitation services for survivors of landmine injuries, and language urging our continued efforts to help Nagorno Karabakh deal with the problems of mines, health and education projects.”
Congresswoman Chu, who visited Artsakh in 2019 and saw the success of The HALO Trust’s demining efforts first hand, offered a touching example of why U.S. support for demining assistance must continue. “On June 12th, 2020, an 11-year-old boy [in Artsakh] dug up a submunition, launched during the 2016 conflict, in his family’s garden. Fortunately, because he had received U.S.-funded mine risk education, he identified the device as dangerous and notified his parents. The family contacted The HALO Trust, and HALO destroyed the item the very next day in addition to fencing off the garden area for further inspection. The threat from unexploded mines in Nagorno Karabakh is immediate, and the need for continued support for this program.”
Congressman Cicilline challenged State Department opposition to the continued Artsakh demining head-on. “The Administration’s opposition to de-mining Nagorno Karabakh is particularly troubling given that, while significant landmine contamination remains, the admirable aim of a landmine-free Nagorno Karabakh is finally within sight. It is wrong to leave this work unfinished and the farmers, families, and children of Nagorno Karabakh needlessly at risk. Without a clear funding mandate in the FY21 budget, this program will end, the cost of which will, sadly, be paid in lives.”
Congressman Himes argued, “demining in Nagorno Karabakh also helps prepare populations in this fragile region for peace, by removing remnants of war and by providing Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh, and Azerbaijan with an objective around which to build trust. These entities convene under the Landmine Free South Caucasus initiative, the only regional effort in the world to work toward mine-free status. Thus, demining plays a unique role in this region in supporting peace.”
Congressman Cox concurred, noting, “This program provides the only humanitarian demining support in the region. If the program draws down, families will be forced to live with the threat of landmines indefinitely. This makes it especially imperative that we secure continued financial support. The question of promoting peace and stability in the Caucasus region should not be controversial.”
Rep. Schiff noted his “unwavering support” for the right of self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and continued de-mining assistance.” He went on to share his “deep concern that the decision to end funding for humanitarian demining activities in Nagorno Karabakh was made while Azerbaijan engaged in increasingly bellicose and destabilizing activities. Azerbaijan continues to receive millions in military assistance through the Department of Defense, despite its horrendous human rights record and autocratic regime. I am concerned that the message being sent to Baku is that they can act with impunity and destabilize an already explosive border on the Line of Contact, risking a military confrontation with Armenia.”
Congressman Garamendi explained his support for continued Artsakh aid, stating, “Karabakh has experienced one of the world’s highest mine-accident rates, with per capita casualty rates, at times, at levels comparable those of Iraq or Cambodia. A quarter of these casualties have been children. Unfortunately, significant landmine contamination in Karabakh continues to threaten innocent civilians.”
Rep. Maloney went on to note, “USAID’s demining program has been responsible for destroying nearly 61,000 landmines and explosive hazards and has transformed over 33,000 acres of former minefield and battlefield into land available for productive use and recreation. Further, every child that has attended school in Karabakh since 2003 has also received mine risk education.”
Rep. Tlaib urged “support for the life-saving humanitarian demining program managed by USAID in Nagorno Karabakh. Without continued support in the FY21 budget, this program, responsible for providing the only humanitarian demining assistance in Karabakh, will be forced to close.”
Congressman Costa, in addition to supporting ongoing U.S. aid for Artsakh demining, expressed concerns that “Azerbaijan has continued to hinder the pro-peace mission of the OSCE Minsk Group, obstructing implementation of the bipartisan Royce-Engel accountability and peace proposals that could help to finally bring an end to this conflict. Even worse, Baku has escalated tensions at the line-of-contact, conducting large scale war games (May 18-22, 2020) and initiating cross-border attacks against both Artsakh and Armenia.” Rep. Costa called on the Committee to cut all military aid to Azerbaijani until “its government has ceased all attacks against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, and agreed to the purely peaceful resolution of regional conflicts.” He went to call for not less than $100 million in economic, governance, rule of law, and security assistance to Armenia.
In testimony submitted to both the U.S. Senate and House Appropriations Committees earlier this year, ANCA Government Affairs Director Tereza Yerimyan urged that the FY2021 Foreign Aid Bill include language stating that “not less that $10,000,000 shall be made available to: Fund demining and landmine risk education programs in Nagorno Karabakh, and; Support Nagorno Karabakh-based regional rehabilitation services for survivors of landmine injuries and other individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities.” Yerimyan argued, “the U.S. aid program to Nagorno Karabakh may require only a small expenditure, but it represents a major American investment in peace.”