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Briefing with U.S. Representative to the UN Ambassador Kelly Craft On U.S. Engagement at the United Nations Security Council

Special Briefing
Kelly Craft, United States Ambassador to the United Nations
Via Teleconference
June 5, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you very much. Good morning, everyone. I'm particularly pleased today to welcome my friend and our ambassador at the United Nations, Kelly Craft, to this on-the-record briefing, which I think is her first briefing to the State Department bullpen, so be nice to her, guys.

To highlight our priorities and major lines of effort at the UN Security Council, Kelly will be on today to discuss that and will take your questions. Among other issues that we can discuss today: working to materialize Secretary Guterres' call for a global ceasefire; ensuring adequate humanitarian support to Syria's beleaguered men, women, and children; addressing China's actions to erode Hong Kong's autonomy and its democratic nature; and supporting a democratic transition in South Sudan.

Ambassador Craft will open with some brief introductory remarks, and then per usual we will devote the rest of our time to taking as many questions as possible. Remember, please, you can go ahead and get in the question queue now if you'd like. You just dial 1 and then 0. So again, this call is on-the-record, but please remember that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call. Ambassador Craft, go ahead.

AMBASSADOR CRAFT: Thank you, Morgan. Good morning, everyone. I'm especially delighted today to have this chance to speak with each of you. And since this is my first time, as Morgan mentioned, with the State Department press corps, it's even more great to be with you, though I wish and I'm looking forward to the moment that we can actually be in person. We're going to have time to address questions on a range of important issues that have emerged in recent weeks, but I thought that I would begin by filling you in on central issues that affect the UN and make all the difference between effective policy and disfunction.

One of the central themes that has been motivating my work since joining my colleagues at the U.S. mission in September has been the credibility of the UN Security Council and of the United Nations more broadly. When the American people, and any taxpayer around the world for that matter, ask how their tax dollars are being spent, we need to be able to provide a satisfactory answer. And for too long, a gap has been growing between our words and our actions on critical issues in the Security Council.

When I first took this job I told President Trump that I really wanted to show him that the UN, and the Security Council specifically, were still institutions capable of making a difference, and to do that we have to bolster the council's credibility. I think you'll hear a lot of words today about credibility, and that's been one of my main focuses.

Some of you have seen that back in December, when the United States held the presidency of the council, our primary focus was on council credibility and unity, which involved outlining specific goals, making unbiased assessments of previous efforts, and taking steps to ensure that the council remained engaged in working towards resolving international crises just as it was created to do. And I have to say that I saw firsthand, when invited the Security Council on a trip to my home state of Kentucky, the benefits of having them outside the city of New York and to an area that the travel was relatively easy. When we all returned, the relationships that we built really flourished. And yes, we still disagreed and we still disagree, but we – it's in a more – it's more of a way that we are human and we know each other. And we also are able to laugh at ourselves and one another, so I think that has been really very helpful for the council for all of us to be together.

In the time of COVID-19, the credibility begins with me by keeping the lights on, and that's why my incredible team at the U.S. Mission has led a very swift and early effort to transition the new voting procedures and a VTC format for council engagements. It's essential for the UN to continue performing its core functions, and we've been making sure that this is happening. Far too many lives are at stake for us to be slowed down by the pandemic.

I do want to briefly touch on an issue that I'm sure that you all would be interested in, and that is the council's approach to any COVID-related products, including a potential council resolution which has – would be following the secretary-general's March 23rd call for the global ceasefire. And once again, this is going to come back to the credibility of the council. During this truly global challenge, it is of course important for the council to demonstrate unity and understanding of the gravity of this situation. As we all know, this situation knows no boundaries or nationality. But we also believe that when the council speaks, its words must not be empty. That means we will not shy away from plainly stating what is really needed to combat this pandemic – full transparency, full accountability – and that means we should not and cannot praise organizations or give voice to countries whose actions have not in fact been praiseworthy.

We've been working and we will continue to work closely with our colleagues to bring about credible council engagement on this issue. And there's been several places where our focus on credibility and meaningful action has resulted in improved outcomes since I've arrived in New York – for example, South Sudan. The council has played a critical role in encouraging the formation of a transitional government, both through consistent engagement and by traveling to South Sudan in 2019. The government there plans to hold elections in 2021. Furthermore, the arms embargo imposed in 2018 have made South Sudan a genuinely safer place. And we were glad to once again bolster the council's credibility by renewing this embargo at the end of May.

There are several other mandate renewals we secured at the end of the month, including missions in Iraq and Somalia that demonstrated the council is capable of addressing important issues. But the truth is there are several areas where the council's failure to act have deeply harmed the credibility of this council. Nowhere is this clearer than on the question of Syria and cross-border aid. And I know that you've spoken to Jim Jeffrey, and it's just very important to emphasize the importance of the cross-border aid in Syria, because it's the people of Syria that we are very concerned about.

There are millions of innocent Syrian women, children, and men that are depending on lifesaving assistance from outside of the country. Until January of this year, the assistance was coming into the country through four different border crossings. Due to Russia and China's obstruction, two of those were unfortunately closed, not for any other reason other than to voice the murderous Assad regime. And once again, what we're concerned about is not the Assad regime but the people of Syria.

The UN reporting from the secretary-general has clearly indicated that the best possible way to get desperately needed food and medicine to northeast Syria is by opening a third border crossing. However, once again, our Russian and Chinese colleagues have objected to even this strictly humanitarian endeavor.

China repeatedly states it is concerned about the Syrian people, but its continued obstruction says something very different. If China was really concerned, it would have listened to the advice of the WHO, a body whose recommendations they claim to value practically in every other arena. Some policy disagreements are not black and white, but this one is. Failure to provide humanitarian relief to Syria will send innocent people to their deaths and condemn millions to a grim future. If this council does not renew cross-border aid in July, our critics will rightly be able to ask if we're capable of fulfilling even the most basic elements of our mandate.

Most recently, we have seen the People's Republic of China block a Security Council meeting regarding what is taking place in Hong Kong. As I have said to my fellow council members in closed session last week, China's actions are in direct conflict with its international obligations and implicate international peace and security. When the world sees us failing to address a matter as urgent and important as this, it only serves to further undermine the credibility of the Security Council.

So as you can tell, there's a number of issues on which we've seen success, but a clear-eyed and honest assessment of the council activities suggests that we've got a long way to go. We need to earn the full confidence of the American people and the international community. And one of those things that Secretary Pompeo has already talked about is an extension of the arms embargo, Iran arms embargo, before the current one expires October 18th.

This is the work that I'm committed to as long as I have the honor of serving as President Trump's UN ambassador. And so with that, Morgan, I'll stop and I'll hand it over to you to begin our Q&A.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks so much, Kelly. We're first going to turn it over to Carol Morello, Washington Post.

OPERATOR: And Carol, your line is open. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Can you hear me? Thank you for being with us, Ambassador. A number of world leaders have expressed horror, and "consternation," in the worlds of Justin Trudeau, about what's going on in the United States, specifically about the means used to disperse peaceful protestors before the President walked through Lafayette Square for a photo op. I was wondering what kind of criticism that you were hearing and if this has made it more difficult for you to make the U.S. voice heard and listened to when you stand up for basic democratic values. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR CRAFT: Thank you, Carol. Of course, we denounce this awful killing of George Floyd. I mean, it is intolerable. It is brutality. There is no other way to define it. However, there is no moral equivalent between our free society, which works through tough problems like racism, and other societies which do not allow anything to be discussed because it has – they are of authoritative regimes.

What I really want to stress is that I would challenge anyone to compare their record with our record as far as how they treat situations. If you want to ask China why are we not talking about the Uighurs, why are we not talking about their treatment of Africans, the Tibetans – we need to have a dialogue on the difference. And I think that what's been really important that I have seen are the people in the council that have called and reached out in support of the fact that the U.S. is allowing the freedom of speech. We want that – those to be peaceful demonstrations, as the attorney general has stated, but I have seen nothing but support from my fellow council members. Yes, we have Russia and China that are trying to change the narrative, but that's normal.

So I look at the positive that we are going to uphold our democracy. We are going to allow people across the country to have peaceful demonstrations and the opportunity to speak freely. To me, there is such a distinct difference between the authoritative regimes and a freedom-loving nation as the one that we are all so honored to be able to live in. This is something that I've stressed through our open discussion at the UN, that we have democratic elections and we have a judicial system, and they do not. So thank you for that question.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Kylie Atwood, CNN.

OPERATOR: Kylie, your line is open. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this, Ambassador. I just have – I have two questions for you. The first is in regard to your opening remarks in which you criticize China for not listening to the WHO with regard to Syria. Given that the Trump administration has cut funding to the WHO, is your messaging at odds with the Trump administration's actions here?

And then my second question is just a follow-up with regard to everything that we've seen here in the U.S. right now. Have you provided any guidance to State Department employees who are based in New York City about partaking in peaceful protest? And are they allowed to partake in those protests if they're fundamentally focused on combating racism in the U.S.? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR CRAFT: Thank you, Kylie. When it comes to the WHO, you have seen what the President has said. I mean, we want an institution that is going to be accountable. We want an institution that is going to be making a difference. I mean, we had reforms the last time, during the SARS outbreak, to prevent this very thing that's happening at the moment. We have to take action when an organization does not follow by the rules. We have a great track record of other organizations such as NATO, the World Food Program, other organizations following through, but when there – it comes to the WHO, a multilateral institution, they have to work. China has been using the WHO; they have not been transparent. They have not allowed us to hold them accountable. And for China to not agree on Syria but yet uphold the WHO, I find – actually, I find it disgusting, to be quite honest with you.

To talk about your guidance, I just sent out a letter to my staff yesterday at the USUN. I'm on a weekly call with different groups. And you know, I sensed yesterday a lot of uncertainty and I just wanted them to know, through my letter than I e-mailed yesterday, that we – we're all in this together. It is a very difficult time in New York. I am with them. Without them, I can't be productive, so I need each and every one of them. I too wish I could be there in person just like I wish I could be there today with all of you to speak face to face. I wish I could be there in person, but we are all sheltering in place. The UN is not open, neither is the USUN. So I have reached out. It's funny you said that. I just wrote the letter 24 hours ago to send out to the USUN, because I have to tell you, everybody's feeling very uncertain at the moment, and that's why it's so important that we all – you – I mean, I have to depend on the press to be able to highlight the issues that are going on in the world, because we're not in the Security Council in person. So we have to all be able to speak freely, and I just wanted them to know that I hear them, I'm there with them, we're in this together, and we will win this. Thanks, Kylie.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. And now we have Edith Lederer from the Associated Press.

OPERATOR: Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Ambassador, and apologies but I'm filling in for our State Department correspondent who is not there today. I have a question about Iran and how the U.S. is going to pursue this arms embargo, given that the Russian ambassador has said quite unequivocally that they oppose any change to the arms embargo and do not believe that the United States has any standing to invoke the snapback provision in the JCPOA because of the Trump administration's pull-out in 2018. So how are you going to try and move ahead on this? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR CRAFT: Thank you, Edith. It's great to hear your voice. Can they hear me – can – I don't – yeah, okay. First of all, the U.S. is going to exercise all of our diplomatic options to ensure that the UN arms embargo is extended. My job is to make sure that this arms embargo extension happens. I mean, I'm working very closely with the Secretary, with Brian Hook – this 2231 that's going to be coming up for renewal. What I say to people is on October 18th – and this is what the Secretary has reiterated – do we want Russia selling weapons to Iran? Do we want China selling – do we want anyone providing and/or selling weapons to Iran once this arms embargo – if we do not extend this embargo?

I'm stressing that Russia and China need to join a global consensus on Iran's conduct. This is about the people – not only the people of Iran, but the people in the Middle East. We have to think about the unintended consequences and ramifications. This is an absolute imperative that we exercise all of our options to make certain that this UN arms embargo is extended.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. Okay. I think we have –

AMBASSADOR CRAFT: Do you want me to – I think also, just because I owe to this Edith about the snapbacks, I think that I really encourage everybody to be able to read this 2231 which makes clear that the U.S. retains the right to initiate a snapback renewal for the arms embargo. Thanks, Edith.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much. Next up we have Said Arikat.

OPERATOR: Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Morgan. Thank you, Madam Ambassador. Today marks the 53rd anniversary since Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have had to endure a very brutal Israeli military occupation. Do you believe that the time has come to end this occupation? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR CRAFT: Thank you, Said. We have – in January, the President put forth a Vision for Peace, and I just want to make sure that, as I say to everybody in the council, this is not set in stone. This is not something that we are pushing. This is an opportunity for Israel and the Palestinians to sit at the table together.

I am personally deeply committed to making certain that we facilitate this peace plan. Through Jared Kushner and through President Trump and Secretary Pompeo we've been working very closely to make certain that both Israel and the Palestinians – as you remember, the President said we are here for you, we want to bring you to the table – that both sides understand that this Vision for Peace is – it's very detailed, it's very realistic, it's very implementable, and it meets the core requirements for both Israel and the Palestinian people. That's my concern, are the people.

You see both sides are hurting. Both want to go about their lives. We want the economic and their economy to grow. We want them to have their own way of life. And it's just imperative that as the USUN ambassador, that I really work very close with both of the PRs to ensure that we have people sit together at the table. Until we have dialogue, there's going to be nothing. So there is a lot of room within this Vision for Peace, but we have to have them at the table first before we know what each side has in mind. So I'm really stressing and really pushing, whether it be through a Quartet, whether it be through just my engagement at the Security Council or with the PR in Palestine – Palestinian PR, Israeli PR, we have – you have to get to the table. Otherwise, we don't know how each side is truly feeling about the Vision for Peace.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Okay. Now we have Michelle Nichols from Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Thanks for doing this. Hope you're doing well. Just a follow-up to Edith's question, just to be a little more sort of direct: When are you planning to circulate the draft resolution to extend the arms embargo on Iran?

And on the World Health Organization, when does that decision take effect to withdraw? There was a resolution, I think in like 1948 – not a resolution, a – or Congress – something to do with Congress saying that they would give one year notice and pay up what they owe. So I just wanted to find out when that's happening. Thanks.

AMBASSADOR CRAFT: You're welcome. It's good to hear from you. As far as going to your first question about the arms embargo, we have shared a draft resolution – the arms embargo resolution with the UK, France, Germany, I believe Estonia, and Russia. So pretty soon we'll be sharing the full 15, but we are trying to really work very carefully, very thoroughly to prepare for this October 18th, and we're speaking to different council members. Before I share any of the other members a draft, I want to make certain that everyone understands where – that we are committed to making certain that the UN Security Council does not allow this to expire in October. So they need to understand my firm, solid commitment to the people in Iran, to the people in the region, and I think they'll understand better then once they're able to see the draft embargo.

As far as the WHO, we are working with the White House and the Secretary on the timing. We have – I'm sure you know this, Michelle, being at the UN – the U.S. has given more than any country. We're at $1 billion now for combating COVID-19. And as you know, we're always the first to step up and we have done so, and the American people have been extremely generous on their own at about 11 billion thus far. So thank you for bringing that up. That's a good question.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. We have time for one more question, and we'll go to Joel Gehrke.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I actually wanted to circle back kind of to the – Carol's question at the top. I was wondering, related to the protests this week, the attorney general mentioned that there are foreign actors involved in disinformation efforts targeting the U.S. I wonder, do you think that China or Russia specifically are doing anything to support or stoke violence on the one hand, and is that affecting any of your engagement with them now? And then on the other hand, are you worried that authoritarians watching this kind of controversy and this kind of debate about how to contain the violence will feel emboldened to quote American rhetoric or Western condemnation of the U.S. of different policies when they want to take actions that are undeniable abuses of power and protesters?

AMBASSADOR CRAFT: Thank you. I really appreciate you bringing that up, Joel. First of all, with George Floyd, I mean, I can't stress enough how this killing was – it's awful. I mean, it's intolerable. I could go on and on. However, we have to remember that there is no moral equivalence between our free society and other societies. I mean, if you think about how we work through racism, we work through all problems, and we always prevail. Goodness prevails in the United States because we are a country of democracy. With authoritative regimes like China, other – it doesn't happen that way. They are only pushing their agenda toward us in order to hide what they're doing. I mean, we should ask them, we should challenge them. We should challenge them to compare their record with ours. What are they doing about the Uighurs? How are they handling this brutal treatment to the Africans, to the Tibetans? I mean, let's talk about – let's get the difference out in the open.

Now, when it comes to the council and my relationship with the council members, I have to say that I try to look for the positive and in ways that I can work with China, with Russia. There have been many ways with Russia working on counterterrorism. These relationships that you build – yes, we're going to disagree and there's going to be no one that's going to stand up for this country with China and Russia more than the United States and more than myself at the USUN. But you have to do it in a way that you're not cutting off the dialogue, because I have to have that dialogue in order to show the other 12 members of the Security Council that we can work together. But while we do disagree and while I make – my eyes are wide open and I voice my opinions, I might voice it with a little bit more kindness. It doesn't mean it's weakness, but I also have to let the other countries know that we are willing to work on positive reform and on bringing China and Russia to the table with us. And that's my goal.

And that goes back to that credibility issue that I was talking about, and I will say that one thing I have learned about this council and for that matter the other – the rest of the UN member-states is that we have all been affected by this COVID-19 pandemic. It doesn't matter where, what corner of the world; we've all been affected by this economically, socially, and I have seen a real gathering even in the midst of disagreements on this resolution that we're trying to put forth for the global ceasefire, I have seen a togetherness that – you know there's a silver lining in everything, and with COVID-19, even with China – I mean, they're concerned about their people. They know I'm concerned about their people.

They also know that my heart is with areas that already have conflict, and that is whether it's South Sudan, whether it's Syria. We have a horrific situation in Yemen, in Lebanon, Libya – anywhere – in Bangladesh, anywhere where there are groups of refugees, you wouldn't believe the kind of softness that I'm seeing within the council because of the COVID-19. It affects every one of us. It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter what part of society that you are within that country.

So I'm really trying to focus on the goodness, what I'm seeing in some of the PRs, and I'm hoping that we'll have a success, that we'll be able to have a council resolution on the global ceasefire, that we'll be able then to move on to July for the cross-border issues in Syria. You've got to start somewhere, and you've got to have a positive reinforcement, and we've got to have a camaraderie, and then I can work toward pointing out the negativity. They all know how I feel, but I have to show them that I'm willing to work to get to what the U.S. stands for, and that is for the people, for democracy all over the world.

MS ORTAGUS: Well, that's a wonderful way to end, Kelly. Thank you so much for joining in. We'd love for you to come back more regularly and brief our State Department bullpen.


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