When Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin sought to strangle West Berlin into submission 75 years ago, President Harry Truman stood firm lest dictators’ blockades become the norm. The Berlin Airlift brought temporary relief. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev concluded President John F. Kennedy was weak and vulnerable. He again turned his sites on Berlin, but Kennedy pushed back hard. West Berlin remained secure, even if divided, until the end of the Cold War.
Credibility matters, but six decades after Kennedy, Western fortitude is in short supply. When dictators challenge democracies, diplomats often counsel dialogue but do nothing else. This has led dictators to embrace blockades and starvation as a policy tool. Less than a year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize, for example, he blockaded his country’s Tigray region to force its political submission. When he saw the West was all talk and no action, he simply tightened the noose. Several hundred thousand people died.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev now repeats the process in Nagorno-Karabakh, home to one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities. In December 2022, he violated an agreement to keep a corridor open to allow traffic between the Armenian-populated region and the outside world. Last week, he even cut Red Cross shipments to the region. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken pleaded for dialogue, Aliyev responded with bullets fired at an American factory.
Neither the White House nor the State Department needed to be impotent. More than a quarter-century ago, Congress gave both the tools to tackle those who would use blockades and starvation as tools of statecraft.
The end of the Cold War lifted the lid off a pressure cooker. Long-suppressed local conflicts erupted in Ethiopia, Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union. As both Turkey and Azerbaijan blockaded Armenia, American authorities debated how to respond, especially when one recipient of U.S. assistance interfered with the delivery of U.S. assistance elsewhere. The result was the Humanitarian Aid Corridors Act. Initially part of the 1996 Foreign Operations Bill, Congress inserted it as an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 the next year, enshrining it in U.S. law.
Specifically, the law declares: “No assistance shall be furnished under this chapter or the Arms Export Control Act [22 U.S.C. 2751 et seq.] to any country … [that] prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance.”
Frankly, it is common sense. Aid is not an entitlement, and those diverting, blocking, or embezzling American aid should not themselves receive any. Unlike other provisions that Blinken and effete diplomats waive in the false logic that accountability might impede dialogue, there is no waiver to the Humanitarian Aid Corridors Act. If Abiy wants to block aid to Tigray or whatever ethnic minority displeases him, then all American assistance to Ethiopia should immediately cease.
Ditto Azerbaijan. The Humanitarian Aid Corridors Act does not require the formal designation of a blockade, so the State Department cannot weasel its way out with a false determination. Nor does it require that blocked aid be destined for a country. In short, U.S. officials could shrug their shoulders and inform Aliyev they have no choice but to suspend all assistance until he lifts all blockades and stops his ethnic-cleansing efforts.
Too often, administrations seek to reinvent the wheel. Dictators exploit the rotation of democracies’ diplomats and the lack of institutional memory.
It is time the State Department and Congress wake up. Legal mechanisms exist to restore credibility to American diplomacy and fight the growing scourge of blockades and ethnic cleansing. It is time for Congress to invoke the Humanitarian Aid Corridors Act, restore credibility to American diplomacy, and demonstrate that preventing genocide is not a throwaway line to advance a career, but an active goal of American policy.
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