Why Section 907(a) Of Freedom Support Act Is An Impediment To Azerbaijan-Armenia Peace – OpEd


To achieve a new rule-based regional order in the South Caucasus, the Biden administration should treat Armenia and Azerbaijan equally regarding compliance with international law.   

Thirty years ago, at the height of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in 1992, Congressman Wayne Owens (Utah) and Senator John Kerry (Massachusetts) proposed the contentious Section 907(a) amendment to the Freedom Support Act (FSA), conditionally suspending direct aid to Azerbaijan. The reasons invoked were alleged ‘blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.’ There were neither public deliberations nor an invitation for an Azerbaijani perspective in this legislative initiative. Domestic politics, lobbying, and legislative bargaining overrode any legitimate moral, legal, and political objections some US lawmakers and diplomats raised. 

Amid Section 907(a)’s grave humanitarian consequences for a million Azerbaijani refugees displaced in the 1991-1994 war, the Washington Post ran an editorial criticizing Congress for ‘punishing the loser and comforting the conqueror, occupier and evident winner of the war.’The Chicago Tribune shared the same sentiment, concluding that ‘it is the Armenian government, not Azerbaijan that opposes a compromise settlement being pushed by the US, Russia and France, the co-sponsors of talks to end the conflict there.’ Regrettably, these evidence-based US media perspectives remained unheard in Congress.     

Section 907(a)’s Distortive Impacts  

Besides its adverse humanitarian outcomes, this politically charged amendment had many unintended consequences for broader US policy in the South Caucasus and the resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.   

First, the amendment created a considerable policy discrepancy between the US administrations and Congress (particularly the House) on devising a consistent policy towards the conflicting parties, which continues to this day. Such conflict came to the fore when the Clinton administration broke with the House’s largely pro-Armenia stance by voting for four crucial UN Security Council resolutions in 1993 that condemned the military occupation of Azerbaijan and required all Armenian forces to withdraw from the occupied territories unconditionally. Such inter-governmental fighting made the repeal of Section 907(a) became harder in Congress despite the US administrations’ formal support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. 

Second, the amendment created a semblance of the US’s favoritism to Armenia by not holding it to the same legal standards as all recipients of US aid must respect human rights. Armenia’s displacement of about a million Azerbaijanis and blockading of the Nakhichivan exclave did not receive any recognition in Congress. Meanwhile, Armenia received US financial aid worth billions of dollars. The mismatch between the FSA’s goal of promoting inclusive institutions in the post-Soviet republics and the humanitarian reality on the ground created deep resentment in Azerbaijani society about the morality and legality of the US’s uneven approach and the rationale for punishing the real victim of the conflict.  

Third, the amendment unduly increased the influence of special interest groups on the conflict and the US-Azerbaijani relations. For instance, a prominent American journalist Thomas Goltz described Section 907(a) as the ‘most successful lobbying effort ever made and the very bedrock of the special relationship between Congress and the Armenian lobby.’ In turn, the lobby organizations hailed Section 907(a) as their ‘great achievement’ against Azerbaijan. With more than 120 members, the Congressional Armenian Caucus co-chaired by Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Frank Pallone exercise considerable clout in Congress, advancing legislative initiatives advocated by the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee. Consequently, the FSA, instead of promoting human rights in the post-Soviet space, has been regularly invoked to grant preferential treatment to Armenia vis-à-vis Azerbaijan in the diplomatic and financial spheres. 

Fourth, the amendment negatively affected the peaceful resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict by significantly contributing to the former’s hardening maximalist position over time. For instance, relying on the caucus and the diaspora’s support to isolate Armenia from international diplomatic pressure, Armenia’s PM Pashinyan expressly rejected the so-called ‘Basic Principles’ in 2019, undermining the very basis of the past three-decade-long peace negotiations under a US mediation. Armenia’s opting for formal annexation of all Azerbaijan’s occupied territories was the fundamental cause of the so-called ‘44-Day War’ flare-up in late 2020. The US’s uneven treatment of the conflicting parties created a privileged situation for one party, making it unwilling to agree to a compromised solution.  

This uneven treatment and its distortive effects continue to this day. Speaker Nansi Pelosi’s visit to Armenia in September 2022 and her anti-Azerbaijani comments is the continuation the same mistaken narrative created about Azerbaijan in US Congress in the early 1990s. 

The Rule-based Order in the South Caucasus?   

The United States did not have a consistent policy in the region under all three past U.S. administrations. Despite Biden’s calling for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the last two years, there does not appear to be a concrete policy in place toward these countries.  

The US’s new re-engagement with the South Caucasus under Biden requires new approaches. The success of Biden’s rule-based order will heavily depend on whether this policy will be evenhanded and grounded on international law without privileging any party. Exempting Armenia from international law, particularly human rights law, inadvertently creates perverse political and military incentives reflected in territorial claims against Azerbaijan that weakens the regional order.  

From this perspective, Section 907(a) – a product of domestic US politics rather than a policy justified by international law – stands in the way of a rule-based system between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Notably, the rationale for the formal existence of Section 907(a) has long become obsolete on policy and factual grounds, which requires a critical re-evaluation by Congress. 

First, since 2001, the amendment has been inoperative on policy grounds. Mainly due to Azerbaijan’s substantial inputs to American national security, the US administrations continue granting annual waivers from Section 907(a). In the past two years alone, the US allocated about $100 million assistance to Azerbaijan’s Coast Guard and the Customs Committee for counter-terrorism efforts and borders security and $5.6 million for development projects. This cooperation will likely increase in light of the US’s continued presence in Central Asia and the Middle East and Iran’s open military threat to Azerbaijan. 

Second, the US policymakers should also reconsider whether it is a reasonable policy to invoke Armenia’s self-imposed economic isolation to penalize Azerbaijan. For instance, the Trilateral Agreement that ended the recent war envisages the restoration of all transport links in the region (Article 9), reciprocally suspended at the outbreak of the conflict in 1988. The “Middle Corridor” or East-West connectivity (the Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey-EU route) could link Armenia directly to Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia by rail and a network of roads, transforming it into a transit hub. However, Armenia has so far openly refused to restore these links and ends its self-imposed economic isolation. 

Third, the rising awareness of the actual facts on the ‘use of force’ in the conflict also questions the original rationale of the amendment. For instance, after Azerbaijan’s liberation of its territories from Armenia’s three-decade-long occupation, the field reports by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC and Euronews depict a picture on the ground cardinally different from those presented to Congress in 1992. They reveal a largely desolate Karabakh region – about the size of the State of Connecticut – stripped of all buildings and infrastructure during Armenia’s occupation. This sizeable region used to be a home for almost a million Azerbaijani IDPs – the fundamental fact to be accounted for in any Congress’s re-evaluation of the amendment.      

These new developments require revisiting Section 907(a) from factual and policy perspectives in Congress, which is going to be crucial for the success of Biden’s rule-based order in the region. Privileging one party in the conflict not only goes against the US’s neutrality but also leads to a zero-sum-game approach towards the conflicting parties. As a result, some US lawmakers tend to view the US-Armenia and US-Azerbaijan relations as mutually exclusive, as recently reflected in a House bill proposing to cut military aid to Azerbaijan, which Rep. Frank Pallone described as unprecedented support for Armenia.’ 

The exclusionary view of the conflict fundamentally runs counter to Biden’s rule-based order in the South Caucasus. Peace in the region can only be enduring if both conflicting countries are held accountable for complying with international law without exemptions. To achieve such a basic goal, the US lawmakers need to see relations with both nations as mutually inclusive, reinforcing each other and creating a new regional peace dynamic despite historically close cultural ties between the US and Armenia. To achieve Biden’s rule-based order in the Caucasus, the new administration shall depart from this exclusionary approach by petitioning Congress to repeal this unfair and discriminatory amendment.

Nurlan Mustafayev is a Baku-based specialist in international law and public administration. He works as an advisor on legal affairs and corporate governance at the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR).  His views are his personal view and do not represent that of his employer.   Twitter @nmustafayev

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