House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Royce Calls for Change in U.S. Policy on Nagorno Karabakh

By Danielle Saroyan

Armenian Agenda Associate Editor

U.S. House
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) called on the U.S., Russian,
and French mediators to press Azerbaijan to accept major safeguards against
intensifying ceasefire violations in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR)
conflict zone while speaking at the 24th anniversary of NKR independence
celebration on Capitol Hill
this week.

Rep. Ed
Royce also said on Wednesday that the U.S. administration must not shy away
from blaming Azerbaijan for deadly fighting along “the line of contact” around
Karabakh.

“Why are the
snipers not pulled back from the border?” Royce asked. “Why have we not
deployed those [gunfire] direction finders, that special equipment? They can
tell where an incoming shell is coming from and identify that and thus be able
to catalogue violations of the peace?”

“Why haven’t
those in the Minsk Group moved forward to endorse this?” Royce added, referring
to the mediating body co-headed by diplomats from the United States, Russia and
France. He said he and several other members of the U.S. House of
Representatives hope to discuss the matter with U.S. OSCE Co-Chair Ambassador
James Warlick early next week.

Warlick attended
the annual Capitol Hill event co-hosted by the U.S. Congressional Caucus on
Armenian Issues, Armenian Assembly of America, Armenian National Committee of
America, U.S. Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR), and the Embassy of
Armenia in the U.S. Armenia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Tigran Sargsyan, NKR
Representative to the U.S. Robert Avetisyan, former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia
John Evans, and many others attended the Capitol Hill reception as well.

Hours before
the Capitol Hill reception, Azerbaijan’s military again launched an attack on
Nagorno Karabakh, this time using heavy tank fire for the first time since the
ceasefire was signed in 1994. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby called
the increased attacks and Azerbaijan’s use of heavy weapons “unacceptable.”

During the “Freedom
and Democracy of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic” event on Capitol Hill, House
Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) expressed his
concern with Azerbaijan’s aggressive and dangerous military provocations, as
well as current U.S. policy.

“I also
raised my dismay that the response from the United States has been to draw a
false equivalence between Azeri and Armenian behavior,” Rep. Schiff said. “As
we pursue a peaceful settlement, we cannot ignore the bellicose rhetoric and
provocative military actions by Azerbaijan. Our silence only emboldens them.”

Earlier this
year, Royce initiated a joint letter signed by 85 U.S. lawmakers to Warlick,
listing three concrete measures which they believe would minimize truce
violations in the conflict zone. Those suggestions include sniper withdrawal,
deployment of more field observers from the OSCE, and installation of
gunfire-locator systems on the Karabakh frontline. Warlick reportedly backs the
proposed safeguards.

The letter
campaign began after mortar fire from Azerbaijan on September 24th killed 3
Armenian women aged up to 94. Azerbaijan military actions over the following
days resulted in several deaths in Armenia and along the line of contact
between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Within 24 hours of the letter’s
issuance, OSCE monitors came under gunfire ascribed to Azerbaijan. “During
our Line of Contact crossing, repeated gunfire forced OSCE monitors to take
cover. This is unacceptable,” Ambassador Warlick, tweeted on October 27.

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The Minsk
Group co-chairs have long been urging the parties to the conflict to withdraw snipers
and agree to a mechanism for international investigations of armed incidents.
These measures are backed by Armenia and Karabakh but rejected by Azerbaijan.

Royce
insisted on Wednesday that the “common sense steps” advocated by him and his
colleagues would not only prevent more bloodshed but also “reinvigorate
negotiations” on a Karabakh settlement. “And then the leaders of the Minsk
Group can press Azerbaijan to fully pull back those snipers from the Line of
Contact,” he went on. “And they can accurately identify who violates the
ceasefire with artillery fire.”

“Once we
accurately identified who violated the ceasefire agreement, it is important
that the international community has the courage to call out those responsible
and hold them accountable,” he said. “And that means we must end our current
U.S. policy of equivocation. We have to speak the truth regarding the
perpetrator of each and every attack.”

Royce’s
appeal followed a fresh escalation of fighting around Karabakh, which has left
several Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers dead over the past 10 days. Royce
said that the truce violations pose a serious threat to the safety of
Karabakh’s population. “This isn’t a theoretical threat,” he said. “Those of us
who remember 1988 remember the [anti-Armenian] pogroms in Baku. We remember
what happened in Sumgait.”

Rep. Royce
has accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire in the past. In an August
2014 statement, he also urged the Obama administration to help set a date for
an internationally recognized referendum in Karabakh that would determine the
territory’s final status.

The conduct
of such a referendum is one of the Basic Principles of a Karabakh settlement
proposed by the three mediating powers. The conflicting parties have for years
disagreed on the date and other practical modalities of the vote.

About Armenian Assembly of America

Established in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.

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