Hawaii lawmakers are inserting themselves into a century-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, neighboring nations nestled between the Black and Caspian seas at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe.
Reps. Rida Cabanilla and Mark Takai, who traveled to Azerbaijan together last year on an $8,000 trip that was paid for by the republic, have co-sponsored legislation that’s been set for a hearing Wednesday.
House Resolution 13 recognizes the 22nd anniversary of the Khojaly tragedy which, according to the resolution, involved the slaughter of hundreds of innocent civilians in Azerbaijan in February 1992.
House Resolution 9 calls on the United States to strengthen its efforts to facilitate a political settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
The first resolution describes the tragedy like this: On Feb. 25 and 26, 1992, “Armenian armed forces accompanied by Russian military troops occupied the town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan and killed more than six hundred innocent civilians, including many women, children and the elderly; wounded more than one thousand civilians; and captured more than one thousand two hundred civilians.”
Armenian-Americans and other critics are concerned the two lawmakers are trying to rewrite history in favor of Azerbaijan.
“It is hard to see how a resolution that distorts history and contemporary reality in so many ways serves Hawaii’s interests,” Honolulu resident Dawn Webster wrote in her testimony on HR 9.
Webster said she grew interested in the resolutions after talking to her Armenian daughter-in-law, Ani Martirosian Menon.
“That family connection has made me sensitive to the inappropriateness of this rather strange resolution and the likelihood that it will be used to strengthen a false representation of historical facts about the relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” Webster said.
“Given the islands’ own history of dispossession and occupation and the ongoing struggle for sovereignty by Native Hawaiians, the resolution is at the very least ill-advised and certainly at odds with Hawaii’s culture of aloha.”
Cabanilla and Takai went to Azerbaijan in May to attend a convention sponsored by oil companies and look for opportunities to promote Hawaii.
Civil Beat reported on the trip after discovering details in gift disclosure statements the representatives filed with the Ethics Commission.
Takai said at the time that the trip was ethical because the Legislature was not addressing relevant issues that would directly benefit Azerbaijan. He did not return a message seeking comment on the resolutions Monday.
Cabanilla said the invitation by Azerbaijan came as part of a lobbying effort to improve the oil-rich nation’s alliance with the U.S. She said she took the trip to try to bring business to Hawaii.
The resolutions came from Elin Suleymano, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, she said.
Cabanilla, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, said her military background has taught her the importance of Azerbaijan as a strategic location for a U.S. ally in the Middle East. She considers the resolutions to be a harmless form of gratitude and recognition.
“Maybe (the resolution) is not 100 percent accurate — I don’t know if it is or not — but the fact that they’re an ally and support our troops (in the region), they don’t have to say anything more after that,” Cabanilla said, explaining her decision to introduce the legislation.
If Azerbaijan has lobbied to gain recognition for a version of history, it is in some ways following in the footsteps of Armenia. Ethnic Armenian communities in the United States, Australia, France, the United Kingdom and many other countries have lobbied national governments to gain recognition of the “Armenian genocide” by Turkey in the early 20th century. Authorities in Turkey continue to deny that killings and the seizure of Armenian land during the Ottoman Empire constituted a genocide.
House Resolution 13 describes the Khojaly massacre in Azerbaijan as a “sobering reminder of the terrible carnage that can be inflicted in wartime and it exemplifies the enduring need for greater understanding, communication, and tolerance among people worldwide.”
The resolutions are set to have their first hearing Wednesday morning before the Veterans, Military and International Affairs Committee, which Takai chairs.
Read Webster’s testimony on the resolutions here: