The United States on Thursday said that the Lachin Corridor “must open now,” and is not negotiable, while insisting that the U.S. will not tolerate the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
These statements were made by Yuri Kim, the acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, who a week ago gave a more muted — some might say pro-Baku message —when speaking to Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan.
Kim was speaking on Thursday at a hearing initiated by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was presided over by its chairman, Senator Robert Menendez. The hearing entitled, “Assessing the Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh,” was an opportunity for senators to hear from the State Department and ask questions regarding the urgent steps, if any, the U.S. is taking to thwart a genocide of Armenians by Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev.
“The Lachin corridor must open now. Other routes can be opened too, but Lachin must be opened, that’s non negotiable,” Kim, the assistant secretary of state, said during the hearing referring to Azerbaijan’s now nine-month-long blockade of Artsakh.
“We view the status quo as completely unacceptable. We will not stop working until we reach a resolution. We have consistently said that that corridor must be opened to commercial, humanitarian and private traffic. We’ve conveyed that message both publicly and privately to all levels of the government of Azerbaijan on numerous occasions. Access to food, medicine, baby formula and energy should never be held hostage,” she added.
For the first time in recent week, a high-level state department official touched on the inadmissibility of ethnic cleansing in Artsakh against its Armenian population. Artsakh authorities, as well as Armenian advocacy groups, such as the Armenian National Committee of America, have been pressing the U.S. for at least an acknowledgement of threat facing the Artsakh population. This mantle was also carried and vocally asserted by Members of Congress, including Menendez, who has been urging the Biden Administration for decisive action in Artsakh.
“A few weeks. That is how long we have. I would ask our witness to speak to what the Department is doing, what the Biden Administration is doing, and what the international community must do, to avert this atrocity from being carried out before our own eyes,” emphasized Menendez in his opening remarks on Thursday.
“The United States will not tolerate any action – short-term or long-term – to ethnically cleanse or commit any other atrocities against the Armenian people of Nagorno Karabakh. The current humanitarian situation is not acceptable. Humanitarian access through the Lachin corridor and other routes must be available now. We will do everything possible to make that happen and we look forward to continuing to work to make that happen,” Kim stated, however, not referring to Azerbaijan as the perpetrator of what many experts have called a genocide in progress.
She did reiterate the State Department’s talking point that “the rights and security of ethnic Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh must be protected.”
“We should be mindful that the war is not over between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which adds urgency to our commitment to try to support a durable and dignified peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” the State Department official said.
“This is an essential element of durable and dignified peace agreement. Azerbaijan must provide internationally verifiable assurances of respect for their rights and their ability to remain in their homes without fear,” Kim said.
In his opening statement, Sen. Menendez succinctly outlined the realities on the ground and the crucial role the U.S. must play in averting genocide and ensuring that the Armenians of Artsakh do not become victims of Azerbaijan’s ongoing aggression.
“I have to be honest with you,” said Chairman Menendez. “I don’t understand when we come together and we say ‘Never again. Never again.’ And here we are, before our plain eyes, seeing history unfold in a way that defies our supposed commitment to ‘Never again.’ Is it so important to us, despite Aliyev getting closer and closer to Russia, that we cozy up with someone who is in the process of creating ethnic cleansing? Is that the history the United States wants? Is that the side of history we want to stand on?”
“But I fear,” Menendez said, “based upon what’s happened today, that this is the path we’re headed on. And so to the extent whatever resources I have to try to get the Department to act, I intend to use them.”
“Before the blockade there were 120 trucks passing through each day. So let’s not be fooled by the regime’s attempt to muddy the waters. President Aliyev says he’s ‘not organizing ethnic cleansing; but that is exactly what he is doing. By leveraging humanitarian aid he aims to either coerce the people of Artsakh into political submission, or starve them to death. And given that he is reportedly amassing forces along the border, we must be vigilant about military action,” explained Menendez.
“So as we sit here today—with the lives of so many people hanging in the balance—time is of the essence. The former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo recently wrote and I quote—“Starvation is the invisible genocide weapon. Without immediate dramatic change, this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks,” emphasized the Senate Foreign Relation Committee chair.
“I was pleased to see that Secretary Blinken has recently personally gotten involved, but let me be clear. Our message from the highest levels must be unequivocal: Stop the blockade. Stop threatening the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Stop threatening Armenia. Open the Lachin Corridor immediately. Uphold the commitments that Azerbaijan itself made in the November 2020 ceasefire,” Menendez asserted.
The leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee blamed Russia and its peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh for inaction.
“We must stand up for peace, security, and the defense of human rights, which is in stark contrast to Russia who is not only an unreliable and incapable partner, but is an obstacle to peace and security. As Azerbaijan’s forces moved in 2022, Putin’s so-called ‘peacekeepers’ were responsible for upholding the 2020 ceasefire. They stood idly by. Because of the implications for our own moral fortitude and broader stability throughout Europe, the United States and Europe have a responsibility,” added Menendez.
The Senate leader referred to the State Department’s active efforts to mediate peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. He said while he supports those efforts, “the reality is this—talk is worthless when one participant in those talks is carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
“For too long we have hedged on Aliyev. I have repeatedly expressed my deep opposition about waiving section 907 of the Freedom Support Act allowing the United States to send assistance to his regime. This clearly alters the balance of military power between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Aliyev’s favor. I think Azerbaijan’s actions over the past three years have vindicated my skepticism,” said Menendez.
“I hope the international community is watching, because when President Aliyev is tried for crimes against humanity—as I think he should be—the burden of proof will be very high,” Menendez said. “Right now, the burden of proof is not about convicting him of a crime. It is about preventing this crime. And I’d like to hear about how the Department is seeking to do that.”