Foreign Aid Conferees Add Safeguards to Presidential Authority to Waive Section 907

WASHINGTON–Responding to a broad-based Armenian American grassroots campaign alerting them to the dangers that changes proposed by the Senate would present to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh–a joint House-Senate conference committee today added report language safeguards and limitations to legislation allowing the President to waive Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act–reported the Armenian National Committee of America.

The conference committee approved the McConnell amendment–first adopted by the Senate on October 24–which allows the President to suspend Section 907 without having to certify–as the law presently requires–that Azerbaijan has lifted its blockades against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Against the wishes of the State Department–they also approved report language to accompany the foreign aid bill that specifically stipulates that US assistance provided under the Presidential waiver cannot be used against Armenian communities in the Caucasus. Although it was clear from the deliberations among the conferees that this reference was to Nagorno Karabakh–the panel felt constrained by intense pressure from the State Department from stating this explicitly.

In a set-back to the State Department–which has sought a free hand in extending the Presidential waiver indefinitely–the panel affirmed that Congress would review and reserve the right to amend the waiver language in the fiscal year 2003 foreign aid process. This report language–while non-binding–stakes out Congressional prerogatives and provides an important platform for stricter Congressional scrutiny and a more stringent Congressional review of this language in the coming deliberations over next year’s foreign aid bill.

"We want to thank our friends on the conference committee–particularly Congressman Knollenberg–Senator McConnell–Representative Lowey–and Congresswoman Pelosi–for their successful efforts to secure additional safeguards in the Section 907 provisions of the fiscal year 2002 foreign aid bill," said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian. "We welcome these new safeguards. Although in the form of non-binding report language–they reinforce the statutory provisions concerning the security of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh–and–very significantly–signal the White House that Congress will impose strict scrutiny and exercise careful oversight of the Administration’s waiver authority."

During the conference–Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chairman Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) was active in defense of Section 907–along with Congresswomen Nita Lowey (D-NY)–who serves as the Ranking Democrat on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee–and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)–the Ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

"In securing these added safeguards–our friends in Congress overcame tremendous resistance from the State Department–oil industry lobbyists–Azeri and Turkish interests–several Jewish American organizations–and–sadly–even the Armenian Assembly’s efforts to see the Senate language enacted into law unchanged," added Hamparian. "While we are troubled by the broad nature of the final waiver authority–we are heartened by these new safeguards and will work–first–to ensure that the law is strictly enforced–both in spirit and letter–and–second–to make sure that the integrity of Section 907 is maintained in the years to come."

The conferees also approved a hard earmark for Armenia that will guarantee a minimum of $90 million in assistance to Armenia and an additional $4 million in foreign military financing and $300,000 in military training. Sources on the panel report that Armenia was alone among the states of the former Soviet Union in receiving its appropriation as a guaranteed "hard earmark." The $90 million appropriation for Armenia is an $8.5 million increase from the House version of the bill passed earlier this year.

In an October 15 letter to key Senators and Representatives–the Secretary of State argued for lifting the restrictions in order to allow military assistance to Azerbaijan. In addition to the State Department–Turkish and Azeri interests as well as several influential corporate lobbies – including a coalition operating under the banner of USA*Engage – also worked against Section 907. A group of ten major Jewish organizations that had joined together in 1999 to lobby against Section 907 announced on the day of the Senate vote that they supported the Senate’s decision to allow for the waiver of this law. In a joint press release–they explained that "We supported similar legislation in 1999–believing that their "original reasons for supporting a waiver of Section 907–including the strategic imperative–have only intensified since the tragic events of September 11."

During the weeks leading up to the Senate decision and the Wednesday’s conference committee meeting–the ANCA worked in cooperation with the leading Armenian American organizations to defend Section 907.

Prior to the October 24th Senate vote–the seventeen leading Armenian American political–religious–and humanitarian institutions–representing essentially the entire organized Armenian American community wrote a letter to President Bush voicing their "unambiguous support for Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act as a vital element of US policy toward the Caucasus and a key instrument of stability in a region of great strategic significance to our nation during this time of crisis." They noted in their collective letter that–"retreating from the principles of Section 907 will–in our view–lead to a destabilization of the regional balance of power–to the detriment of the peoples of the region and the international community." The co-signers of the letter were: Apostolic Exarchate for Armenian Catholics; Armenian Evangelical Union of North America; Armenian Missionary Association of America; Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church – Eastern Region ;Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church – Western Region; Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church – Eastern Region; Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church – Western Region; Armenian American Democratic Leadership Council; Armenian Bar Association; Armenian General Benevolent Union; Armenian National Committee of America; Armenian Relief Society; Armenian Youth Federation of America; Hamazkayin Armenian Cultural and Educational Association; Homenetmen Armenian General Athletic Union; Knights of Vartan; National Organization of Republican Armenia’s.

In a November 8 letter to the House conferees–ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian brought to their attention "recent revelations concerning Azerbaijan’s aggressive intention against Nagorno Karabakh," and called upon them to help ensure that "Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act continues to act as an effective check against renewed Azeri attacks that would inevitably destabilize the Caucasus and undermine our efforts in the region to combat terrorism."

The ANCA letter specifically noted that–"President Aliyev and other senior officials have made public Azerbaijan’s intentions to use ‘military means’ against Nagorno Karabakh." These threats–Hachikian stressed–"represent a deliberate and public challenge to the Senate’s efforts and are a cause of profound concern to Armenia and the Armenian American community." The letter also cited threats against Nagorno Karabakh by Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev.

In an October 9 letter to President Bush–Armenian President Robert Kocharian outlined the negative impact that weakening Section 907 would have on the OSCE Minsk Group mediated Nagorno Karabakh peace process. In this letter–he explained that Section 907 and the Turkish and Azeri blockades of Armenia have been interlinked through the life of this conflict–and are part of the overall package of issues that require resolution. He noted that removing one element independently would irreparably damage the peace process.

Following the Senate vote–in an November 2 interview on Armenia’s Channel 1 public television station–the Foreign Minister of Armenia Vartan Oskanian expressed hope that the US Congress would clarify ambiguities concerning both the term of the Section 907 waiver as well as the need for a specific prohibition on the use of US aid in aggression against Nagorno Karabakh. The Foreign Minister noted that–"Azerbaijan’s final purpose–based on all their recent statements–from the president down–is to crush Karabakh. We don’t want Azerbaijan to have the opportunity to do so just because the waiver language says that this assistance can’t be used against Armenia. When the final decisions are made by the House and the Senate–it would be best for peace and stability in the region–that the US intent be made clear–and the possibility of use of these new resources against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh be clearly prevented." The Foreign Minister also raised concerns about the lack of clarity in the sunset provision of the waiver regarding how and under which circumstances it could be extended.

Earlier this week–the Chairmen of both the Armenian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense committees expressed their respective concern that the broadly worded Senate language did not provide sufficient protection for Nagorno Karabakh and would–if enacted without modification–represent an invitation to renewed Azeri aggression.

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