The U.S. government has halted its funding for removing land mines in Nagorno-Karabakh, the largest American aid program in the contested territory.
The program has been strongly supported by Armenians and a longtime irritant to Azerbaijanis, but U.S. officials said the decision to defund the program was motivated by the virtual completion of the project and the need to direct resources to higher priorities rather than by any political considerations.
Still, Armenians and their supporters in the U.S. have rallied to try to convince Congress to restore the program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and carried out by the UK-based charity Halo Trust.
Halo is one of very few international organizations to be working in Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway territory of Azerbaijan controlled since the early 1990s by Armenian forces. The U.S. does not recognize the self-proclaimed independent government there.
U.S. officials made the decision to halt their support of the program in spring of 2019, which set off a months-long battle between the federal government and pro-Armenia members of Congress who fought to get the funding restored.
But the Trump administration has not been convinced. In a February 18 letter to several members of Congress obtained by Eurasianet, senior officials from USAID and the State Department noted that no civilians had been injured by landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2017.
“With casualties at an all-time low and contaminated land in the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast sparse, there are a number of opportunities that our agencies see for U.S. assistance funding that could have a greater impact on the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, such as preparing the populations for peace,” wrote Mary Elizabeth Taylor, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, and Richard C. Parker, Assistant Administrator of USAID for Legislative and Public Affairs. “Forward-looking programs that support a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and lay the groundwork for a more prosperous future offer the best hope for the populations of Nagorno-Karabakh in the long term.”
U.S. officials say the new funding will likely go towards programs in Armenia for promoting transparency and good governance, and in Azerbaijan for energy security and programs designed to wean the country off its dependence on oil and natural gas revenues.
“We see this [demining program] as a success … but at the same time we think we have reached a limit of what we can accomplish in supporting demining in traditional Nagorno-Karabakh,” a USAID official told Eurasianet, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And we’re looking forward to pivoting to other work in the region that could hopefully help resolve some of the regional conflicts.”
Halo’s work in the area is divided into two categories: those inside the Soviet-legacy borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and those in the territories surrounding Karabakh proper that Armenian forces control as a security buffer. USAID funds only operations in the former, while operations in the latter are funded by private donations, primarily by Armenian diaspora groups.
Officials at Halo did not respond to an emailed request for comment about the cut in funding. But during Eurasianet’s November visit to the organization’s headquarters in Karabakh’s de facto capital of Stepanakert, Halo’s officers said they still had much more work to do.
In nearly two decades of operations, Halo has cleared more than 2,000 anti-tank mines and over 9,000 anti-personnel mines from the area, making 48 million square meters of territory again safe for humans.
In 2018, Halo reported that it expected to complete demining in Karabakh by 2020. But in 2019, it started a new survey, which uncovered several new minefields in the region of Martakert (within the Soviet-legacy Karabakh boundaries). “It will take at least another year to complete the traditional oblast. It’s a job [surveying] that requires patience and skill, sitting in a village for a couple of hours and talking to people,” Rob Syfret, Halo’s program manager in Karabakh, told Eurasianet. The entire survey, including the surrounding occupied territories, was scheduled to take three years.
“We’re going village-by-village to quantify how much has been done and how much is still to go,” added Oliver Gerard-Pearse, Halo’s operations manager. “For every humanitarian demining program, this is a key stage in their lifespan.”
U.S. officials, however, argue that it is impossible to declare with certainty that an area is completely mine-free, and point to the fact that the only mine fatalities since 2015 have been Halo employees themselves, suggesting that the remaining mined areas are so inaccessible that the resources spent on clearing them would be better used elsewhere.
“This was an interagency decision, taking into consideration all of our priorities and interests in the South Caucasus, including regional priorities, assistance priorities, our demining programs around the world, and our role as a Minsk Group co-chair in the peace process,” a State Department official told Eurasianet, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Minsk Group is the body, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is mediating the peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the two sides signed a ceasefire over Karabakh in 1994.
Armenian-American lobby groups and members of Congress representing significant blocs of Armenian-Americans have rallied to try to save the program.
Seventy-five members of the House of Representatives signed a letter dated March 13 calling on Congress to restore the demining money. It argued that there were “12 near-miss scenarios for civilians over the past year” from land mines in and around Karabakh.
The representatives also called on the U.S. to eliminate military aid to Azerbaijan “until its government ceases its attacks against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh” and singled out a new $100-million maritime security program for Azerbaijan.
“For decades, USAID has helped clear mines in Artsakh, saving lives, promoting development, and giving communities a sense of normalcy. Today, even though the work is not done, that aid is threatened,” Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, said on the floor of the House of Representatives on February 11, using the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh. “Today, even though Armenia has transformed itself into a growing democracy, it is autocratic Azerbaijan that has received a massive, disproportionate increase in military aid from the United States. If the administration won’t help those who stand for peace and democracy, Congress must.”
“The demining program has […] allowed the Armenian population to grow into areas that were heavily mined that would not have been able to be populated otherwise,” Ani Tchaghlasian, an officer in the U.S. East Coast branch of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation said in February. “This is a major, major issue for us.”
Azerbaijan has long opposed the demining program, arguing that it perpetuates and encourages Armenian forces’ occupation of Azerbaijani territory. Most international organizations decline to operate in Karabakh because doing so usually results in being blacklisted by Azerbaijan; Halo is the most prominent organization to buck that sanction.
While there is no evidence that Azerbaijan has influenced the decision to defund the demining program, some Armenian advocates nevertheless sense Baku’s hand in the decision.
"This is a heartless, senseless cut by the Trump administration – attacking a life-saving American investment in Artsakh peace at the urging of the increasingly hostile Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan,” Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told Eurasianet. “Instead of cutting this humanitarian aid, the White House should be expanding assistance to Artsakh, a Christian land and democratic republic on the frontiers of freedom."
The press office of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.