BY RAFFI HAMPARIAN
Sometimes we lose before we win.
Failure is often the price of trying. Of striving. Ultimately, of achieving.
Looking back on setbacks in our own work, we can point to May 1, 1997, a discouraging day to be sure in the history of the Armenian National Committee of America. On that day, nearly two decades ago, we failed. Before the U.S. Congress and our entire community, we fell short in our effort to launch a U.S. direct assistance program to Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).
Congressman Brad Sherman – a great friend and strong ANCA supporter – had, during a meeting of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, offered an amendment to the Foreign Policy Reform Act to appropriate direct U.S. funding for Nagorno Karabakh. As you might expect, the Azerbaijani government attacked, hard. For our part, we worked closely with his office, educated his Committee colleagues, and rallied grassroots support, but the Sherman Amendment still went down in flames – failing by a margin of 14 yeas to 23 nays.
That could have been the end of the story. We could have thrown up our hands, cursed the Azerbaijani Embassy’s lies (and there were many), complained about the Clinton Administration’s opposition, and grumbled about a rigged system.
But that’s not how it went. I remember, because I was there, working as an aide on Capitol Hill. The evening of the vote the ANCA gathered our best and brightest at our office, got our leaders on the line, and rolled up our sleeves. We analyzed the vote, took a sober look at the lessons to be learned from this experience, and examined the state of the legislative landscape. Then we charted our path forward.
Our decision: Double down on U.S. aid to Artsakh.
Our reasons: Meeting urgent humanitarian needs, supporting our long-term conflict-resolution goals, and, of course, highlighting Nagorno Karabakh’s independent status.
Our result: Within a few short months, with our support, the House Appropriations Committee approved a Foreign Aid bill (Public Law 105-118) that ultimately led to the allocation of $12 million in Fiscal Year 1998 aid for Nagorno Karabakh.
This victory for Nagorno Karabakh was surely the result of Congressman Sherman’s leadership and lots of hard work – much of it done by ANCA activists in Congressional Districts across America – but it was also a powerful tribute to the power of persistence, the eternal truth that if at first you do not succeed, try, try again.
Since those battles back in 1997, and despite opposition by both Republican and Democratic occupants in the White House, Congress has dependably, if not always entirely consistently, supported the U.S. aid program for Artsakh – implemented through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Among the major beneficiaries of U.S. aid to Nagorno Karabakh have been countless families, who received, in the early years of the program, vitally needed maternal health care. More recently, others have been the men, women and children who work the fields and walk the forests throughout the interior of Artsakh – territory that is sadly home to thousands of landmines.
Since 2000, the HALO Trust has used American aid dollars – in concert with other funds – to clear over 11,000 mines, 12,000 cluster bombs and over 47,000 items of ordnance across Nagorno Karabakh. According to the HALO Trust, which is active in war torn regions around the world, they have now cleared 85% of all minefields within Nagorno Karabakh. In 2015 alone, HALO Trust employed 130 courageous individuals to conduct their mine clearing efforts.
Our success in securing U.S. assistance funds to de-mine Artsakh isn’t just a victory for the ANCA, but for all those who kept the faith, keeping their shoulder to the wheel in Washington and around the nation even when, after the defeat of the Sherman Amendment, all seemed lost.
Another major benefit of U.S. aid to Nagorno Karabakh has been the rebuilding of Stepanakert’s water system to provide clean, safe drinking water to Artsakh’s families. USAID delivered millions of Congressionally allocated dollars to bring potable water to thousands in Nagorno Karabakh, materially enhancing the quality of life and strengthening the basic infrastructure required for Artsakh’s growth and prosperity.
Again, the success of U.S. assistance funds being secured for water infrastructure projects in Artsakh represents, at one level, the hard-earned fruit of our labors, but, at a deeper level, the result of our grit and determination.
Today, the ANCA continues to work to ensure that U.S. assistance is appropriated by Congress for worthwhile projects in Nagorno Karabakh.
The ANCA is doing this work despite the indifference and even opposition of the Obama Administration, which has declined to propose funding for Nagorno Karabakh in the annual budgets they have presented to the U.S. Congress since 2009.
The ANCA is doing this work despite the opposition of an army of lobbyists on Capitol Hill working for the decidedly undemocratic governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Earlier this year, the ANCA Board of Directors set as a policy goal the aim of securing millions of dollars in U.S. assistance for Nagorno Karabakh in the Fiscal Year 2017 foreign aid spending bill that Congress will be considering this year. As part of this goal, we are working to secure funding for the Baroness Cox Rehabilitation Center in Stepanakert, a center that, each year, provides rehabilitation and reintegration services for over 1,000 children and adults with disabilities. To advance this goal, the ANCA submitted formal testimony to Congress outlining a goal of securing $5 million for the center.
In March of this year, ANCA leaders came to Washington, DC and joined the Rehabilitation Center’s Stepanakert-based director, Vardan Tadevosyan, to encourage Congress to allocate assistance for the center.
In May of this year, many ANCA Board members, myself included, traveled to Nagorno Karabakh – shortly after Azerbaijan’s reckless attack in April – and personally visited the Baroness Cox Rehabilitation Center – where we saw for ourselves the great needs facing the facility.
We are glad to report that, thanks in large measure to the outstanding outreach of the ANC of Illinois, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) worked successfully to include language in the U.S. Senate’s foreign aid spending bill for Fiscal Year 2017 that addresses Nagorno Karabakh’s needs.
This language, in the report accompanying the Senate foreign aid bill for Fiscal Year 2017, states that: “The Committee recommends assistance for victims of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict in amounts consistent with prior fiscal years, and for ongoing needs related to the conflict. The Committee urges a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The Committee recognizes that Nagorno Karabakh has a per capita landmine accident rate among the highest in the world, and that mine clearance programs have been effective where implemented. The Committee is concerned with territorial restrictions on demining activities in the region and recommends continued funds for, and the geographic expansion of, such programs.”
Just as it was back in 1997, the ANCA’s work to ensure continued U.S. assistance to Nagorno Karabakh is far from guaranteed, this year or any year. With the corridors up on Capitol Hill and the halls of power across Washington filled with the lies spread by Azerbaijani and Turkish lobbyists, we have our work cut out for us.
What we do know for sure is that we must – like the citizens and soldiers of Nagorno Karabakh – remain vigilant, persistent, and relentless.
For supporting the ANCA and helping us secure U.S. aid for Nagorno Karabakh and so many of our other policy priorities, I have two words for you: Thank you.
Raffi Hamparian is the Chairman of the ANCA.