Humanitarian Delegation from Canada Visits Artsakh on Fact-Finding Mission
By Paula Der Matoian
(STEPANAKERT, ARTSAKH) – On 29 August 2017, a humanitarian delegation from One Free World International, based in Toronto, Canada; traveled to the Republic of Artsakh on a 4-day fact-finding mission.
The delegation was led by Rev. Majed El Shafie, President and co-founder of One Free World International, who was joined by two Conservative Party members of the Parliament of Canada – the Honourable Tony Clement and Ms. Rachael Harder. Mr. Clement and Ms. Harder were accompanying the delegation in the capacity of observers.
Also included in the delegation was Mr. Robert Avetisyan, Permanent Representative of the Artsakh Republic to the United States; and Mr. Sevag Belian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of Canada (ANCC), which was instrumental in assisting with and organizing the visit.
The delegation travelled to Artsakh to meet with Armenian officials, and have a first-hand look at the situation on the ground. On the final day of their visit, the 1st of September, the delegation held a press conference to report on their initial findings. Each member of the delegation gave a brief synopsis of the trip from their own perspective, but echoed the same sentiments on the need and benefit to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
The delegates appeared to be emotionally moved by their findings and the experience of the visit, and at one point, Ms. Harder struggled to maintain her composure when discussing the Artsakh Armenian civilian children that had been killed during the 4-day war. They pledged to continue the work that they had started from their trip, in the interest of human rights and justice.
Below is the transcribed text of the press conference.
Rev. Majed El Shafie
“We would like to thank the Armenian and Karabakh governments for receiving us here, their welcome and hospitality, they made us feel like we are in our second home. The only problem now is that we love this country so much we all want to apply for citizenship.
My name is Reverend Majed El Shafie, and I’m President and Founder of One Free World International for Human Rights. Our organization is based in Canada Toronto, we have branches in 28 different countries, and our main focus is the freedom of religion. We operate in war zones, so from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Africa, we always operate when a war starts.
First, I would like to thank every member of my delegation that came with me. I would like to thank the two Canadian members of Parliament that came as observers, Mr. Tony Clement and Miss Rachel Harder. Both of them, I consider them heroes, not because of their title, but because they fight always for freedom of religion and for human rights.
As I indicated earlier, both of them are coming with me in the capacity of observers, this means that every statement and any statement that I am making, I am making only on behalf of One Free World International.
I am very proud as well of the record of my country Canada, as many before Canadian members of parliament have visited this great nation. I remember when the Honorable Stephane Dion, from the Liberal Party; came and visited here, not that long time ago. I believe that Canada has always been a temple of human rights and the conscience of our world.
A year ago, One Free World International was shocked and disgusted by the pictures and images that we received after the 4-day war. On April 2nd last year, the world woke up to war crimes committed by the Azerbaijan government and the Azerbaijan forces. Killing of civilians, innocent civilians, children, and the elderly.
I just had the honor of meeting the mother of Vaghinak Grigoryan, who lost her son, 12 years old, the first victim of this war. And we went to see the homes, and the crime scene, of the elderly couple that was killed.
But not only again is the civilian killed, but the service man and woman.
We understand that war is a nasty business, but also warriors have to respect the international laws and the Geneva Conventions. Beheading a soldier, cutting their ears, mutilating them, this is a war crime, make no mistake. Killing and wounding innocent children in their school, knowing that this is the time that they gather for their classes, is a war crime.
We believe that there are two elements that make the Armenian Genocide continue. Number one is the denial; the people and the governments who deny the Armenian Genocide. Number two is Karabakh. We have to understand that this war is not only your war, it is an all civilized world war. An all human being war.
When we are calling for peace and a peaceful resolution to this conflict, we also have to understand that Karabakh has the right to exist and the right to defend itself.
It was very disturbing to us as well that the Azerbaijan government is portraying this war as a religious war, Muslims against Christians.
And we saw the evidence, when there are foreign fighters joining them, paid foreign fighters, like from Afghanistan and Chechnya. And let me tell the Muslim world today and now, this is not your war and this is not a Jihad.
These are people, the Karabakh the Artsakh people, people defending their home, defending their land, and they just want to live in peace. You cannot liberate people from their own home. And you cannot defeat them. It doesn’t matter how much weapons you have, it doesn’t matter how big is your army, you cannot defeat the people of Artsakh for one simple reason, they are fighting for their homes and their families. They will fight until the end. Until the last soul of them man or woman, elder or child.
This portraying of a religious war is disturbing because we can see that in Armenia and Artsakh, you have great relationships with many Muslim countries such as Egypt and Iran.
So, my advice to the Azerbaijan government is do not speak of this as a religious war. We believe in freedom of religion, we believe that you are free to worship in your Mosques, your Synagogues and your Temples. I saw Churches in Karabakh and also I saw Mosques in Karabakh. I saw Yezidis, Christians, Muslims, Jews. We are all human beings, and we are all free to worship, believe, or not to believe.
And I’m here for three messages. My first message is for the international society, the international community. To my Canada, to my west, to my United States. If you remain in silence on a crime, be aware of the possibility that you will become a partner in it.
Our world is an unjust place, is an unfair place, not because of the people who are doing evil, but because of the people who remain silent about it. In the absence of light, darkness prevails.
And the biggest dilemma that took place on April 2nd last year was, not that Azerbaijan army attacked, mutilated and beheaded innocents and service men, but the worst part was that the world remained silent about it.
Sadly, in Canada, there is a Canadian company, an arms company, that started selling weapons to Azerbaijan, the company under the name INKAS. And it is an armored vehicle manufacturer.
Under Canadian law, they cannot sell these arms without the approval of the Canadian government. From Artsakh, from here, from the capital, I’m calling on this company to stop sales of this weapons to war criminals.
“Our world is an unjust place, is an unfair place, not because of the people who are doing evil, but because of the people who remain silent about it. In the absence of light, darkness prevails. And the biggest dilemma that took place on April 2nd last year was, not that the Azerbaijan army attacked, mutilated and beheaded innocents and service men, but the worst part was that the world remained silent about it.” – Rev. Majed El Shafie.
And I’m asking from the Canadian government to have the integrity to stop this deal. Three years ago, the conservative party was the government, and signed a weapons deal agreement deal with Saudi Arabia and the Liberal party of Canada was in the opposition at the time, and they attacked the conservative party for selling these weapons to Saudi Arabia.
And yet two years later, when the liberals took over, and became the government, they sell the weapons to a country worse than Saudi Arabia. Hypocrisy is not a good thing.
This will be my first message to the international world.
My second message will be to Azerbaijan. Number one my message is to the people of Azerbaijan. You are not our enemy, and you will never be. I never, when I walked in the streets of Karabakh, when I talked to the officials, and even to the people, I never heard one time that anybody hates you.
The only thing that the people wishes here is to live in peace. Eat, drink, go to the restaurants, dance, sing, get married, get divorced, they just want to live.
The Azerbaijan government, and the representative in Canada, attacked me and my colleagues here, and he put our names on what’s so-called a black list.
From Karabakh, dear friend, the Azerbaijan representative to Canada, I would like to tell him it’s an honor that I am on the black list. And I would like to tell him, that I will love one day to visit your county, and let’s sit down together and let’s see your evidence and my evidence.
And I will not insult him as he did with me, and I will not threaten him as he did with me, simply because I’m a better man. But I will challenge him, invite me in your country, let me go sit down, see the prisoners that you have, see the prison, see your human rights record, meet with your officials, let me confront you, I challenge you, if you allow me in your capital.
My last message will be to the Karabakh people, or Artsakh. You’ve become an example to the world, your zeal, your perseverance, the fact that you didn’t give up.
And yet, after all this suffering and pain, you refused to hate even your enemy.
I want to tell you from the bottom of my heart that you are alone anymore, and you don’t have to fight alone, we are with you.
And for the Karabakh people, there is one thing, and only you thing you need to remember, after every night, there is a new morning carrying a new day, after every storm there is sunshine, and after every persecution there is victory.
Your enemy can come to you with weapons, and with great arms, but never forget that you will always have the Lord Almighty by your side. They can kill the believers but they cannot kill the belief of your hearts. They can kill the dreamer but no one can kill the dream. Thank you for having me.”
Honourable Tony Clement
“Good afternoon, my name is Tony Clement, and I’m a member of parliament in the Canadian Parliament.
I would first like to echo the thanks to our hosts, including the government of the Republic of Artsakh, we’ve been treated very well, and doors have been open as well as hearts.
I’m delighted to be a party to the humanitarian mission that was sponsored by One Free World International. I should tell you that One Free World International has an exemplary record for speaking for the oppressed, and those in need of voices.
I’m here to observe and certainly part of the observation was a lot of the pain that has occurred as a result of this ongoing conflict, this war. The pain continues and it was particular evident with the testimony that we received today from the parents of the victims.
We’ve also met with mothers who have lost sons, servicemen, in both conflicts. As Majed mentioned, we’ve been on the site of some scenes of unspeakable horror as well, civilians killed.
But I want you to know, as a politician perhaps, this is the way I see the world generally, I always have hope, and I have hope in this case as well. I have hope for a peaceful and prosperous Artsakh, that where the people can live and grow side-by-side with their neighbors, including Azerbaijan.
“But I want you to know, as a politician perhaps, this is the way I see the world generally, I always have hope, and I have hope in this case as well. I have hope for a peaceful and prosperous Artsakh, that where the people can live and grow side-by-side with their neighbors, including Azerbaijan.” – Hon. Tony Clement.
Speaking of Azerbaijan, I do want to comment on the reaction we have received to my trip. Much to my surprise and disgust, it has included threats, intimidation, and defamation. Very unfortunate. I want to stress to you I’m only here to seek the truth and to help in a humanitarian capacity. I can only comment that if they treat me, a Canadian Parliamentarian this way, I can only imagine how they treat their neighbors, and indeed their own citizens.
I want to stress however, that I’m not here to condemn the Azerbaijan people. I wish the people of Azerbaijan only peace and freedom. This is a squabble that we have with the government of Azerbaijan.
I would also like to observe and commend the mature and earnest leadership of the Republic of Artsakh, and the government of Armenia, and God willing, the situation here will improve.
Finally I want to thank Majed, Rev. El Shafie, he has shown exemplary leadership, and principled intervention, and advocacy. He truly is a great Canadian, but we’re willing to lend him out to the rest of the world. Thank you.”
Ms. Rachel Harder
“Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for joining with us today. My name is Rachel Harder and I’m a member of parliament in Canada.
It is certainly a privilege to be here with all of you and to be able to share a bit of our experience with you today.
It is an honor to be here with Reverend El Shafie, who is the leader of an organization based in Canada called One Free World International.
“We believe that it is in the best interest of the Armenian people, and for all of those who are impacted by this squabble, we believe that is the best interest of the Armenian people and Azerbaijan to enter into a peaceful resolution. And to arrive at a solution that respects and honors the homeland of the Armenian people.” – Ms. Rachel Harder
We came here for a few reasons. One, we came here to meet with government officials, on the Armenian side and of course the Republic of Artsakh. And we also came here to meet with those who have lost loved ones, either soldiers, or children as civilians. We came here to gain a first-hand look at what’s going on, the negative impact of war, to listen, to look, and to understand.
We have been met with generosity and incredible hospitality by the Armenian government and the government of Artsakh. And the people, the Armenian people, are the, some of the most kind people, the most generous people, the most integral people that I have met.
During our time here in Artsakh, we met with many government officials, including this morning we had the opportunity and the privilege to meet with the President. His love for his country, for his people, is very evident. It is clear that he wants to lead with kindness, with integrity, with his strength.
During our time here, we can verify, that the Armenian people occupy one homeland that has been divided into two geographical regions.
And we see that the Armenian people have not been treated well by Azerbaijan. And this grieves me, the elderly couple killed in Talish, and the many children who were taken out as civilians, and the soldiers who lost their lives on the front line.
I think our message is very simple and very clear, and that is the rights of humans, the rights of the Armenian people need to be protected. And so today we are calling on the international community to acknowledge that, they need to have a voice and take a stand on your behalf.
We believe that it is in the best interest of the Armenian people, and for all of those who are impacted by this squabble, we believe that is the best interest of the Armenian people and Azerbaijan to enter into a peaceful resolution. And to arrive at a solution that respects and honors the homeland of the Armenian people.
Today we had the opportunity to meet with a woman at the Union of Relatives of Missing Soldiers. And she advocates on behalf of mothers who have lost a child. But it’s not verified with or not the individual is dead or alive. And she was telling us that she takes the time to meet and to listen to and have tea with mothers from the Azerbaijan side. This is what it is to live from a place of honor. To honor one another and this is what we’re calling for. Thank you.”
“My name is Sevag Belian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of Canada. I would like to first of all thank you for coming, and I would like to mention that the Armenian National Committee of Canada has joined Rev. El Shafie’s delegation as observers for this trip, for the past few days, and it was an honor for us to be with such a great team with such great leadership and to be joining this very important fact-finding mission.
First of all, a big thank you Rev. Majed El Shafie and the One Free World International Organization, for their courage, for their principled stance, and for their decision to come to Artsakh, to meet with the people, to meet with the leadership, and hear directly from the commoners who have often remained voiceless.
And their commitment to raise their voice is truly commendable, not only by the Armenian National Committee of Canada, but also the entire Armenian Canadian community.
“what’s very special for this delegation, is that it did not only come to meet official representatives from the government, but also, they embarked on a fact-finding mission, going to the front-lines and directly hearing it from the soldiers, and from the commoners, who are often made voiceless.” – Sevag Belian
Of course the biggest thank you goes out to the members of parliament, the Honorable Tony Clement and Ms. Rachel Harder, again for their courage, for their principled stance, and for their decision to stand up against any sort of injustice, whether that may be in Artsakh or anywhere else.
That is who we are as Canadians, that is what we believe in as Canadians, those are our shared values, and we are happy to say that Armenians in Canada are part of that great social fabric that we call our nation, that we call our home.
I think the trip went very well, and as a non-partisan grass-roots organization, the Armenian National Committee of Canada would like to see also other individuals from Canada, whether they are public or political figures, to act in the exemplary model that was set by this delegation, to come and visit Artsakh, and find out for their own.
The one last thing I want to say is that we’ve had many visits from Canadian delegates before in the past, however, what’s very special for this delegation, is that it did not only come to meet official representatives from the government, but also, they embarked on a fact-finding mission, going to the front-lines and directly hearing it from the soldiers, and from the commoners, who are often made voiceless.
So thank you very much for that, and on behalf of the community, we thank you for your great efforts.”
Rev. Majed El Shafie
“Thank you so much. We just will open the question and answer session, we’ll try to take like two or three questions, please start.”
“Ruzanne Nishkanyan from Free Artsakh Newspaper. My question is for you Mr. Clement, as you are here seeking the truth and discover the truths, you’ve been to many places, and you have seen a lot, would you raise the question of selling the weapons by INKAS to Azerbaijan, would you raise the question in parliament to the government of Canada?”
Hon. Tony Clement
“Thank you for the question. What I intend to do after the trip is completed, is to report to my party, the conservative party, and to the caucus of the conservative party. It’s important that they hear what I saw here.
I’ve also pledge to work with the Armenian National Committee of Canada, and work with the Armenian Canadian community, on the issues that they think are very important to the Armenian Canadian population.
So the short answer to your question is that I intend to pursue this issue in the near future.”
California native Paula Der Matoian is a freelance writer living in Armenia.