BY SENATOR ANTHONY J. PORTANTINO
I am proud to Chair the California State Senate Select Committee on California, Armenia and Artsakh Mutual Trade, Art and Cultural Exchange. California is the only state that I am aware of that has formalized an official cooperative effort of this significance. I am also honored to live in a State which recognizes Artsakh as an independent Country and to have been able to have visited Karabakh on three occasions. During my three trips there, I have spent productive time in Shushi, Stepanakert and Hadrut. I was humbled to visit the Aghdam Border where I was able to respect and admire the patriotic efforts of young soldiers on the frontline. And, I look forward to returning to Artsakh to further encourage productive partnerships with California.
It is important to recognize the United States’ long history of providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, including USAID’s funding of humanitarian landmine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance. USAID-funded humanitarian de-mining work has cleared almost 500 minefields in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2000, saving untold civilian lives and building goodwill towards the United States.
Anger and resentment from landmine accidents reduces efforts to achieve peace, so the threat of uncleared landmines and UXO undermines other programs aimed at supporting the peace process. Beyond that threat to peace, humanitarian de-mining and UXO clearance programs, as well as other humanitarian programs that assist civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh, build goodwill between the United States and the people of the region, many of whom have relatives and compatriots living in California and across the U.S.
Since Fiscal Year 1998, direct U.S. aid to Nagorno Karabakh has provided the people of Nagorno Karabakh with maternal health care, clean drinking water, and life-saving de-mining by the HALO Trust. Continued aid is needed to complete de-mining and meet the desperate needs for regional rehabilitation services – such as those provided by the Lady Cox Rehabilitation Center – for infants, children and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities – including those injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance.
In August of last year, in response to indications that the Administration was set to cut Nagorno Karabakh funding, 22 Senators and 89 Representatives co-signed bipartisan letters defending the USAID-funded HALO Trust de-mining program. In April of this year, 31 U.S. Senators and 75 Representatives signed a letter supporting this continued aid – with many more urging this committee to act through their personal office requests.
While the exact percentage of territory requiring clearance remains uncertain, The HALO Trust’s village-by-village resurvey has already identified 1.8 million square meters of additional contamination in the highly populated Martakert region, a figure that will certainly increase as the resurvey continues. All told, 385 people have been killed or injured by landmines or other explosives in Nagorno Karabakh since 1995, including several HALO Trust employees in just the past few years.
The 25th Senate District is the proud home to many residents who trace their heritage back to Nagorno-Karabakh and many veterans of the campaign for independence. It is also the home of Artsakh Avenue further honoring the strong bond between California and Artsakh.
It is vital that Congress includes humanitarian assistance to Nagorno-Karabakh in the FY 2021 appropriations for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
Anthony J. Portantino represents the 25th district in the California State Senate.