Robert Menendez, the pro-Armenian chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other Democratic senators criticized on Thursday the administration’s reluctance to impose sanctions on the Azerbaijani government during a committee hearing on the deepening humanitarian crisis in Karabakh.
"In the stores of Nagorno-Karabakh shelves are empty,” Menendez said, opening the hearing. “Ambulances don't have gas. Miscarriages have nearly tripled. The BBC reports that one third of deaths there are now from malnutrition.”
He accused Azerbaijani President Aliyev of seeking to “either coerce the people of Artsakh into political submission or starve them to death.”
“Is it so important to us that we cozy up to someone who is in the process of creating ethnic cleansing?” added Menendez.
Testifying before the committee, a senior U.S. State Department official insisted that Washington is doing its best to get Baku to lift the blockade that has led to severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.
“The United States will not countenance any effort or action, short-term or long-term, to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Yuri Kim, the acting assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.
The senators seemed unconvinced by her assurances. One of them, Ben Cardin, said Washington’s failure to take “decisive action” means that “more people are dying” in Karabakh every day.
“I think you have to put all possible tools on the table because gentle diplomacy does not seem to be working,” another senator, Chris Murphy, told Kim.
The lawmakers specifically advocated a freeze on U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan. The U.S. Congress had banned all kinds of direct assistance to Baku through Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act passed in 1992. But a decade later it allowed U.S. administrations to waive the ban on an annual basis to help Azerbaijan’s military and security agencies cope with terrorist threats.
Just like his predecessors, Biden waived Section 907 in April 2021 over strong objections of the Armenian community in the United States. His most recent waiver expired in June this year.
“We have not submitted a new waiver request yet because we are reviewing the situation very carefully,” Kim said in this regard.
The senators’ criticism was echoed by the two main Armenian American advocacy groups. In its testimony to the Senate panel, the Armenian Assembly of America renewed calls for the U.S. Agency for International Development to “deliver aid directly to Stepanakert.” Washington must “use the considerable tools at its disposal not only to end the humanitarian crisis but also help stop a genocide,” added the Assembly’s executive director, Bryan Ardouny.
Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, deplored “the State Department’s refusal to forcefully confront Azerbaijan’s genocidal ethnic cleansing of Artsakh.”
U.S. officials and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in particular have repeatedly urged Baku to unblock the sole road connecting Karabakh to Armenia. They have at the same time backed an alternative, Azerbaijani-controlled supply line for Karabakh sought by Baku and rejected by the Karabakh Armenians.