Reps. Gabbard and Pallone visit a vocational school under construction in Shushi. Courtesy image.
Reps. Gabbard and Pallone visit a vocational school under construction in Shushi. Courtesy image.

U.S. Representatives Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and David Valadao (R-Calif.) were in Nagorno Karabakh this week, first such visits in a decade and a half.

Since the late 1990s, U.S. Congress appropriated assistance to post-war reconstruction in Karabakh, initially focusing on the rebuilding of housing and securing water supplies. In recent years, the focus has been on supporting humanitarian de-mining by British charity HALO Trust. Shortly before the visit, Rep. Valadao secured continued funding for that program.

While members of Congress used to visit Armenia and Karabakh frequently in the 1990s, no visits to Karabakh had taken place since August 2002, when Pallone and Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett observed presidential elections there. The pause coincided with greater restrictions on foreign travel for U.S. lawmakers, making trips to Yerevan rare as well, but was likely also the product of specific State Department recommendations against their travel to Karabakh.

Rep. Valadao visits with HALO Trust. Photo courtesy of ANCA

The Azerbaijani government has also sought to restrict foreign visits to Karabakh, blacklisting politicians visiting there and launching diplomatic protests. While this had no visible impact on European politicians, who continued to visit Karabakh frequently, visits by members of the Russian parliament – the State Duma – have also been curtailed, with the most recent visit by a Russian parliament member in 2013.

Reps. Gabbard, Pallone and Valadao were part of a larger congressional delegation that arrived in Armenia, as the country hosted the 6th Armenia-Diaspora conference. For the first time in the history of congressional delegations to Armenia, it was funded by the Armenian government as part of an exchange program with the United States.

In late August, two Canadian parliamentarians were in Karabakh to look into reports of war crimes committed against civilians in the village of Talish during April 2016 fighting.