WASHINGTON—Azerbaijan’s escalation of violence against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh and ongoing repression of human rights took center stage during Wednesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan designee Richard Morningstar, reported the Armenian National Committee of America.
In successive questions, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Senator Robert Menendez sent a clear message that U.S. – Azerbaijan relations should not solely be founded on energy concerns and must reflect the fundamental issues of democracy building and human rights as well as finding a peaceful and lasting resolution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
“We join with Armenians in New Jersey, New Hampshire and across America in thanking Senators Menendez and Shaheen for shining a spotlight on the failure of the Obama Administration to stand up to Azerbaijan’s escalating threats and acts of anti-Armenian aggression and worsening human rights record,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian. “We were especially gratified, in light of Baku’s recent cross-border attacks into both Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh that Senator Menendez was able to secure assurances from Ambassador-designate Morningstar regarding the very strict scrutiny that should be applied to any potential U.S. military transfers or sales to an Azerbaijani government that has openly pledged to use its growing arsenal to renew its aggression.”
US-Azerbaijan Relationship More than Energy
“Azerbaijan’s integration with the West can and must span well beyond pipelines,” said Ambassador-designate Morningstar in his prepared testimony, after underscoring the broad levels of energy and security cooperation between the U.S. and the Caucasus nation. “The United States must also continue to work with Azerbaijan on advancing democratic and economic reforms, including promoting respect for the rule of law, transparency, and fundamental freedoms.” Morningstar went on to cite that “to achieve a more secure and prosperous future for the region, there is no higher immediate priority for the United States than the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
Senator Menendez Condemns Azerbaijani Aggression; Demolition of Djulfa Cemetery
In his questions to Morningstar, Sen. Menendez called specific attention to recent cross-border attacks by Azerbaijan against Armenia, threats by President Aliyev that “Armenian will live in fear,” and the assertion that “Our [Azerbaijan’s] main enemies are Armenians of the world.” Menendez continued, asking “do you think, based upon those types of statements, that the proposed sales of military hardware to be used in conjunction with Azerbaijan’s military helicopter fleet is really in the national interest of the United States?”
Morningstar responded that “that it is fair to say, and I will say, that any language that is counterproductive, such as you have said, that any actions by any party that bring about loss of life, as the Secretary of State said last week, create increased tensions, can create escalations that can have unpredictable and unforeseeable consequences and make even more difficult the task of achieving the settlement in Nagorno Karabakh.” He stopped short, however, of expressly calling out the Azerbaijani Government’s aggression against Armenia.
In terms of military sales to Azerbaijan, Morningstar argued, “There are increasing tensions with respect to other neighbors, in particular with Iran. And we have to provide, I think, security assistance, possibly military assistance in ways that cannot be used to exacerbate any situation with respect to Armenia or Nagorno Karabakh.” Menendez was quick to respond, reminding Morningstar that “I didn’t hear President Aliyev say ‘My main enemy or security concern is Iran,’ he said that, ‘Our main enemies are the Armenians of the world.’ [. . .] I have a real problem with going ahead and selling military hardware to the Azerbaijanis based upon what has happened.”
In response to Sen. Menendez’s question about why the Azerbaijani destruction of the Armenian cemetery in Djulfa was not included in the State Department Religious Freedom Report, Morningstar replied, “. I don’t know. But I can say that if I am confirmed I will make every effort to visit the cemetery and that any kind of desecration such as that is unacceptable, outrageous and I will do my best to get there, and soon.” Menendez continued undeterred, stating that “I would assume the only impediment to your best effort will be the Azerbaijanis not letting you go? I’m trying to understand what your “best effort” is? You’re going to do everything possible to go?” referencing the Aliyev regime’s refusal to allow former Ambassador Bryza to visit the region. “Yes,” replied Morningstar.
As with past nominees, Sen. Menendez pressed Morningstar regarding his position on the proper recognition of the Armenian Genocide, asking “I don’t expect you to answer any differently than I have had previous nominees before this committee do, but I have to ask you whether or not you contest any of the facts what transpired in 1915 as it relates to 1.5 million Armenians who were brutally massacred and marched to their deaths in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire?”
Morningstar replied “No, I do not.”
Senator Shaheen focused her questions on Azerbaijan’s human rights record and urged Morningstar to do more than “jawboning” in terms of getting positive movement with regards to democracy building efforts in the country. She went on to ask Morningstar about the effect of Israel’s proposed $1.5 Billion arms sale and its affects on regional stability. In his opening remarks, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry cited the importance of finding a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) focused his questions on the energy sector and Azerbaijan’s role in the region.
Senators have an additional day to submit written questions to Ambassador-designate Morningstar. No date has yet been scheduled for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation vote.