Department Press Briefing – May 17, 2022
Ned Price, Department Spokesperson
May 17, 2022
- HUMAN RIGHTS
- VESAK DAY
- NORTH KOREA
- UNITED ARAB EMIRATES/REGION
- UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
2:32 p.m. EDT
Today on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia, and Transphobia – IDAHOBIT – we affirm that the promotion and protection of human rights of LGBTQI+ persons is a foreign policy priority. We emphasize that the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons are just that: human rights to which all persons are entitled, as made eminently clear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides in its first Article that "[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, everyone deserves to live with respect, dignity, and safety.
The United States commits to doing our part to promote and advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons globally and to end discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ persons. We will capitalize on commitments made during President Biden's Summit for Democracy and the Year of Action to encourage positive reforms. Together with inclusive democracies, multilateral institutions, and civil society organizations around the world, we will continue to work toward a world where no one lives in fear because of who they are or whom they love.
This week we marked the occasion of Vesak Day, joining Buddhists around the world in celebration of a day honoring the life, legacy, and teachings of Buddha. This occasion also provides us with an opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Buddhist communities around the world, communities that have helped to build a better world for people of all faith traditions. Let us all recommit ourselves to upholding the timeless values of tolerance, compassion, and respect that are imbued in the Buddhist faith.
Happy Buddha Purnima.
Next, the international community has witnessed horrific atrocities perpetrated by Russia's forces since President Putin launched his devastating and unjustifiable war of choice against Ukraine. We are working through partnerships with U.S. academia and the private sector to assist current and future quests for justice following months of fighting and mounting evidence of these widespread, large-scale atrocities that have been committed.
To ensure that crimes committed by Russia's forces are documented and perpetrators are held accountable, today we have launched a new Conflict Observatory for Ukraine. The program will capture, analyze, and make publicly available open-source information and evidence of atrocities, human rights abuses, and harm to civilian infrastructure, including Ukraine's cultural heritage. Forthcoming reports will be posted on the program's website: ConflictObservatory.org.
The information collected by the Conflict Observatory will be a resource for the world to see the deplorable and brutal actions of Russia's forces against the Ukrainian people. It will shine a light on atrocities and is intended to contribute to eventual prosecutions in Ukraine's domestic courts, courts in third-party countries, U.S. courts, and other relevant tribunals. It will provide information to refute Russia's disinformation campaigns and expand the range of our and our partners' accountability mechanisms.
However long it takes, we are committed to seeing that justice is served.
In Guatemala yesterday, President Giammattei chose to re-appoint Maria Consuelo Porras Argueta de Porres as attorney general, despite her record of facilitating corruption. This is a step backward for Guatemalan democracy, transparency, and rule of law – a step that will hurt the people of Guatemala.
During her tenure, Attorney General Porras has worked to dismantle Guatemala's justice sector, protect corrupt actors, and perpetuate impunity. She has a documented record of obstructing and undermining anticorruption investigations in Guatemala to protect her allies and gain undue favor. Porras's pattern of obstruction includes reportedly ordering prosecutors in Guatemala's Public Ministry to ignore cases based on personal or political considerations and firing prosecutors who investigate cases involving acts of corruption.
This corruption weakens the Guatemalan Government's ability to reduce violence and stop narcotraffickers. It also slows down economic growth and scares away investments, robbing Guatemalans of jobs and opportunity – all of which are primary factors driving migration.
Yesterday, as a result, we announced the public designation of the attorney general under Section 7013(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2022. This designation renders the attorney general and her immediate family members ineligible for entry into the United States. We'll have more announcements about consequences for the bilateral relationship of this decision at the appropriate time, and we'll continue to robustly use our counter-corruption tools going forward.
The United States is determined to stand with all Guatemalans in support of democracy and the rule of law, and against those who would undermine these principles for personal gain. We call on the Government of Guatemala to take serious, concrete steps to reverse democratic backsliding.
And finally, on Monday, May 23rd, the United States will welcome the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – OIC – Secretary General, His Excellency Hissein Brahim Taha, and the OIC delegation to Washington, D.C., for the inaugural U.S.-OIC Strategic Dialogue.
The United States and the OIC have been close partners for decades, and we share enduring economic, social, cultural, and person-to-person ties with the organization and its 57 members. The launching of this dialogue is an important affirmation of our growing ties. The dialogue will be led on our side by our Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Assistant Secretary Yael Lempert and other senior department officials.
On Wednesday, May 25th, Secretary Blinken will meet with the OIC Secretary General. We'll discuss shared challenges and opportunities in the fight against climate change, our support for greater respect for human rights the world over, mutual goals regarding women's empowerment and health issues, and our commitment to countering violent extremism.
The strategic dialogue with the OIC is also part of our commitment to working closely with multilateral organizations, and it shows the depth and breadth of our shared interests. Through our sustained engagement, we will further this important partnership and enable greater joint efforts to address shared challenges.
So having said all that, there may be time for a final question or two.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) I've got a – thank you. Let me see, I've got a couple very brief logistical ones. But they'll only be brief if you keep your answers brief, so make —
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Let me make that appeal.
MR PRICE: Okay.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: I'm not quite – what exactly is new about – I mean, aren't you guys already doing this?
MR PRICE: Well, it's a new mechanism. And essentially, we are providing millions of dollars worth of funding to our partners on the outside.
QUESTION: Aren't you already providing millions of dollars of funding to your partners?
MR PRICE: Well, yes, to partners to work with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General. But this is a new mechanism, and it's a new mechanism that will encompass the efforts of some of our key partners, including Yale, including Esri, PlantScape AI, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.
QUESTION: And these groups, these institutions or groups weren't involved before?
MR PRICE: You would have to ask them about their level of involvement before, but this is the first time we've launched a portal like this that will not only be a mechanism by which the Department can work with these outside organizations to collect, to analyze, to document, but also importantly to share the findings that together we're able to uncover. And just as I said, they will be shared publicly on the website.
QUESTION: Well, I think you've said almost the exact same thing as it relates to the collection of war crimes evidence in the past. So anyway, it's fine that you have a new mechanism. I just want to know if there's – I mean, fundamentally you're still doing the same thing, right?
MR PRICE: We have been engaged in the work through a variety of mechanisms and efforts to collect, to document, to analyze, to share evidence of potential atrocities, potential war crimes with the relevant prosecutors, with relevant state entities, with relevant organizations. But this is the first time that these partners will have come together and to share those findings so that not only the public can see it, to shine a spotlight on what Russia's forces are doing in Ukraine, but so that relevant authorities in areas of appropriate jurisdiction, including within Ukraine, potentially including within the United States – so that prosecutors can potentially even build criminal cases based on the material that is published online.
QUESTION: Okay. On the Afghan embassy and consulates thing that – that I pointed out to you earlier?
MR PRICE: We will get you updated information on that.
QUESTION: You don't – do you know why off the top of your head the U.S. – I mean – the U.S. – the Afghan mission to the UN is not included in —
MR PRICE: I'm sorry. I didn't hear.
QUESTION: The Afghan mission to the UN is not one of the facilities that has – that is being quote/unquote, "seized, taken control"?
MR PRICE: I don't have any more details to share, but if we do, we'll let you know.
MR PRICE: Well, you heard the Secretary speak to this over the weekend in Berlin. And the Secretary was in Berlin to meet with his counterparts in the context of a NATO ministerial. He had an opportunity to meet with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu there, to speak with him. Other NATO members did as well. The Secretary, as you alluded to, Matt, will have an opportunity to see the foreign minister, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, on the sidelines of the UN event tomorrow in New York City.
What the Secretary said is that he, of course – and we, of course, won't characterize private conversations, but there was over the weekend and there has been a strong consensus for bringing Finland and Sweden into the Alliance if they so choose. The Secretary made the point that we are confident that we will be able to preserve that consensus should Finland, should Sweden, formally apply for NATO membership. Of course, that has not yet happened. I know there is a perception that it may be a foregone conclusion, but precedent, protocol, procedure – all those P words – are very important, especially in the world of diplomacy. So we'll reserve further comment until we hear additional —
QUESTION: Well, but are – there seem to be, at best, conflicting if not absolutely contradictory positions coming from the President and then President Erdoğan, and then apparently the people who the Secretary and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg have been – and the other foreign ministers have been talking to, because Erdoğan's comments yesterday were very clear in raising opposition. So are you still seeking clarification of the Turkish position or —
MR PRICE: It is not for us to speak for the Turkish Government, of course. It is for us —
QUESTION: I'm asking you —
MR PRICE: It is for us to speak as —
QUESTION: — do you understand what the Turkish position is?
MR PRICE: — as a member of the NATO Alliance. And Secretary Blinken, who had the opportunity to sit into the – sit in on the foreign ministerial discussions in Berlin over the weekend came away with the same sense of confidence that there was strong consensus for admitting Finland and Sweden into the Alliance if they so choose to join, and we're confident we'll be able to preserve that consensus.
QUESTION: I mean, Erdoğan said yesterday that Swedish and Finnish delegations should not bother coming to Ankara to convince it to approve their NATO bid. I mean, I just don't understand how you're reconciling that there's this consensus when Turkey's telling them not even to bother coming.
MR PRICE: Again, it is not for me to speak for the Turkish Government or to characterize their position. What we can do is characterize what we heard inside the NATO ministerial, what we have heard in bilateral and multilateral – including in conversations as an Alliance – with our fellow NATO Allies. There is strong consensus, there has been strong consensus for admitting Finland and Sweden if they so choose to join, and again, as you heard from the Secretary, we are confident we'll be able to preserve that consensus.
QUESTION: Has Turkey asked for anything from the U.S. in exchange for supporting their bids?
MR PRICE: Again, we're not going to read out private conversations. The Secretary did have a chance to see the foreign minister, Çavuşoğlu, in Berlin. He will have a chance to see him in New York City and I am certain these conversations will continue.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, you keep referring to the confidence that emerged from the meeting over the weekend, and were referring to what President Erdoğan said yesterday, so is that confidence still there? And what explains your confidence as to President Erdoğan said the contrary publicly?
MR PRICE: I am explaining our confidence in the context of discussions that we have had bilaterally, multilaterally, and together as an Alliance. Again, it is not for me to characterize the Turkish Government's position. It is for us to characterize our position. You know where we stand should Finland and Sweden opt to apply for NATO membership. You have heard from a range of other NATO Allies, of their positions on this. Some have been quite explicit. I'm sure more will be if and when we hear that Finland and/or Sweden are formally applying for the Alliance, but all of the conversations we have had to date lend us that sense of confidence that we will be able to preserve that strong consensus for admitting Finland and Sweden if they so choose to apply.
QUESTION: And so today, after President Erdoğan spoke yesterday, you are confident that Turkey will not be a roadblock on the way – on that path?
MR PRICE: Our assessment of the sentiment among our NATO Allies and within the NATO Alliance has not changed.
QUESTION: Can I follow up?
MR PRICE: Kylie.
QUESTION: Yeah. So I'm just – you refused to answer the question if Turkey's asking the United States for anything to allow Sweden and Finland to join. You said that was private discussions. But if Turkey does leverage this moment to get something that it wants from NATO members in return for greenlighting these two countries joining, doesn't that set a dangerous precedent? And can you speak to efforts underway to make sure that precedent isn't set?
MR PRICE: Your question entails a hypothetical that's on top of a hypothetical. Neither country have yet put forward an application for membership. Turkey, of course, has not made any specific asks or requests. So I will respectfully dodge the question on those two grounds, but again, we are having these conversations among Allies bilaterally and as an Alliance with the 30 existing NATO Allies. Those conversations will continue. Secretary Blinken, again, will have an opportunity to speak to Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. Other conversations are ongoing between and among current NATO Allies and with potential aspirant countries.
QUESTION: And just one more question: Are you confident that Turkey's concerns will be in the rear view mirror by the time the leaders of Sweden and Finland come to the White House later this week?
MR PRICE: We are confident that we will be able to preserve the consensus within the Alliance of strong support for a potential application of Finland and Sweden.
QUESTION: Ned, same topic?
MR PRICE: Stay on the same topic? Sure.
QUESTION: Based on your response, is it fair for us to assume that you still don't have clear understanding of what Turkey wants?
MR PRICE: The Turkish officials have made public statements. I would refer you to those public statements, including some statements that have been referenced here already.
QUESTION: Well, that doesn't clear up anything, because the statements that —
MR PRICE: Again, it is not – it is —
QUESTION: We get you telling us that in Berlin the Turks were all on board and then the president of the country comes out yesterday and says he's not on board.
MR PRICE: It is not up to me to characterize what the Turkish Government's position is. I will leave it – I will leave it —
QUESTION: No, but that's not the question. It's: Do you understand what the Turkish position is?
MR PRICE: I will leave it to the Turkish Government to articulate —
QUESTION: Is it clear to you?
MR PRICE: — to articulate their position.
QUESTION: Is it clear to the United State Government what the Turkish position is?
QUESTION: On two major issues. So one is media freedom in Georgia and the second one will be about the rights of the LGBTQI community in Georgia as well. So yesterday the director of Mtavari Channel, Nika Gvaramia, was imprisoned for three and a half years. Based on the verdict by the Georgian city court, this U.S. Ambassador to Georgia issued the statement on this that reads, and I'm quoting, "The disturbing pattern of selective investigations and prosecution targeting those in opposition to the current government undermines the public's confidence in the police, prosecution, the courts, and the government itself." The ranking member of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch, tweeted as well, and I'm quoting, "Silencing political opposition will send Georgia in a very troubling direction."
That's the channel that I work for. I don't know if I have a job next week or not. That's the same concern that my team in Tbilisi has. So taking into account how much the U.S. Government values and cherish the importance of free media worldwide, what do you have to say about that?
MR PRICE: We have been quite clear, quite candid with our Georgian partners about the continued need to strengthen the pillars of democracy that we want to see bolstered in Georgia, that we want to see bolstered around the world. That includes democratic institutions; it includes the rule of law as well. And we'll continue to partner with the people of Georgia as they pursue a democratic, prosperous, peaceful, and Euro-Atlantic future.
When it comes to media freedom, you have heard us consistently speak to the indispensability of a free, of an independent media the world over. Secretary Blinken just a couple weeks spoke to this in extended remarks at the Foreign Press Center here in Washington, D.C., where he extolled the virtue and really the necessity of a free and independent media, noting that over the past year, too many journalists have been repressed, too much of their work has been suppressed, and too many tragically have been wounded or even killed in the line of duty. And of course, their duty is to do nothing more than to report the truth, to spread the truth the world over using nothing more than a pen and perhaps a keyboard.
So we'll continue to stand resolutely behind independent media, whether it's in Georgia, whether it is anywhere around the world.
QUESTION: And all the LGBTQI rights in Georgia, that community still cannot enjoy their constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression, because Georgian Orthodox Church and pro-Russian ultra-nationalists persecute them and threaten to beat and kill anyone who tries to rally in the street. So Georgian Government and the law enforcement do not guarantee the safety – the prime minister last year called for not holding the peaceful rally because the police wasn't able to protect them from the violent mob.
How much of a support should the members of the LGBTQI community in Georgia expect from the United States?
MR PRICE: LGBTQI communities around the world have the support of the United States. That is not only a rhetorical position; it's a policy position. In February of 2021, President Biden issued an executive order calling for, once again, the policy of the United States, of our foreign affairs departments and agencies, to be to protect and to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world. We do that in a number of ways. We of course do it rhetorically, but we also do it through programmatic funding for supporting the important work of advocacy organizations, for calling out abuses, repression, intimidation, violence against LGBTQI communities around the world.
And of course, whether the cause, whether the community is the community of LGBTQI+ individuals or any other community, including marginalized communities, we always call for universal rights to be protected and to be enshrined in democratic institutions. And of course, the right the peaceful assembly, the right to freedom of expression – two of those important rights.
QUESTION: And very lastly, when you look at the media free speech in Georgia – we just previewed that – and when you look at the human rights record of the country, I know you don't preview any sanctions or speak about the hypotheticals. But still, I just want to gather your thoughts on the general idea where the U.S. Government stands on that. When you look at those two venues of a country that is declared to be a partner of the United States, what is your major concern? Do you – how do you see the detrimental effect of the Georgia-U.S. relations when you look at those two avenues, and that's the least?
MR PRICE: Well, we do consider Georgia a strategic partner. And as a strategic partner, the United States is well positioned to encourage Georgia down the path of reform, to encourage Georgia to take on some of the improvements, some of the steps that we have talked about here.
Of course, Georgia's aspirations don't occur overnight. They're impossible to realize over the course of a single year, even a single decade. It takes hard work; it takes patience. It takes significant resources to realize. Part of our task is to continue to partner with Georgia, to continue to support them down that path, to do that with resources, with guidance, with direct support in many cases. And that is an area where we will continue to cooperate closely with our Georgian partners.
QUESTION: On Ukraine, just going back to something last week, President Zelenskyy told Chatham House in London that he'd be open to start discussing things normally with the Russians if the Russian military pulled back to their position that they were at on February 23rd. He said something similar to Margaret Brennan on CBS News – the beginning of April – he mentioned the date February 24th. What does this administration understand that to mean? Does that mean the Russians need to pull out of the country, or pull back to where their forces were already operating in parts of the Donbas? And then does that mean that Zelenskyy would be open to giving up parts of the Donbas to discuss with the Russians to move negotiations forwards?
MR PRICE: The important point here is that it is not for us to define the objectives that our Ukrainian partners seek to achieve. It is the task of the Ukrainian Government, which is, in turn, expressing the will of the Ukrainian people. It's a democratically elected government, a representative government, and it is up to that government on behalf of the Ukrainian people to define what their objectives in pushing back on Russian aggression should be.
It is our task to support our Ukrainian partners in every appropriate way we can, to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table, recognizing that, at the moment, there are not high-level negotiations to speak of. We have heard very clearly from our Ukrainian partners that there has been no significant progress, that the Russian Federation has remained intractable in its positions.
And so of course, what we are doing now is two things: one, as I said before, supporting and strengthening the hand of our partners in Kyiv; and two, simultaneously, is imposing the massive costs and consequences that we have warned the Kremlin about since late last year. And in doing so, it is our hope to generate the conditions where dialogue, where good-faith diplomacy can take place.
And, of course, more so than the process, we are most concerned about the outcome, seeing to it that our Ukrainian partners are successful in seeing their objectives through. To do that, we will continue to provide them with security assistance. We will continue to provide them with economic assistance. We will continue to provide our Ukrainian partners, the Ukrainian people, with what they need with humanitarian assistance in the meantime as well.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up to that: If your job is not to define their objectives but it is to support your Ukrainian partners – excuse me – at what point does that stop for those objectives and that support? Is there a limit to what the U.S. is willing to back?
MR PRICE: The U.S. wants what the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian Government wants. It is a Ukraine that is democratic, a Ukraine that is independent, a Ukraine that is sovereign, a Ukraine that is free. Now, the contours of that, the specific objectives, will have to be defined by the Ukrainian Government – what those objectives are to them, how they want to pursue those at the negotiating table. Those are not questions for us. Those are questions for our Ukrainian partners to sort through.
Yes, Michael. Yes, in the back.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. So recently on this topic, the French President Macron implied that we should learn lessons from World War I and not punish Russia too severely. I was wondering if you could speak on the topic of whether the U.S. and its European allies support the same endgame scenario in Ukraine. And then, more broadly, if you could choose your most ideal, realistic endgame in Ukraine, what would that be?
MR PRICE: So I think your second question is just a clever way of asking the last question that was asked to me. It is not up to us to choose our ideal endgame. It is up to our Ukrainian partners to determine how they would like to see this conflict end. What we know is that they would – just like United States, just like NATO, just like the international community – we would profoundly like to see this conflict end. We would like to see a cessation of the violence, a cessation of the bloodshed, a cessation of the atrocities that have inflicted the country of Ukraine over the past 82 days, owing to the brutality that Russia's forces are perpetrating against Ukraine's people, its state, and its government as well.
Your first question —
QUESTION: Possible fissures between the Europeans' idea of what an endgame scenario would be like and what the United States endgame is.
MR PRICE: We have any number of fora in which to discuss with our European partners and our European allies the long-term course of all of this. And I think there is no daylight between the United States and our European partners in the G7, in our European partners in the Quad, the European Quad, our European partners in the European Quint, our European partners at the EU, and our European partners more broadly – that we would like to see – and we know the Ukrainian people and government would like to see and will see – a Ukraine that at the end of this conflict is free, it is independent, it is sovereign, and democratic.
QUESTION: Yeah. Different topic, please.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. About the corona crisis in North Korea, it was reported that three North Korean cargo planes were carrying corona treatment medicine from China yesterday. You know that the North Korea likes Chinese vaccines. What if North Korea requests assistance through COVAX with the United States (inaudible) North Korea's – if North Korea wants assistance through COVAX.
MR PRICE: Your question is what has North Korea requested?
MR PRICE: Well, unfortunately, to date the DPRK has refused all vaccine donations from COVAX. I say it is unfortunate because we are deeply concerned about the apparent COVID outbreak within the DPRK, how it might affect the North Korean people. And the United States continues to support the provision of vaccines to the DPRK. We would like to see humanitarian, including medical relief, provided to the people of the DPRK. To that end, we strongly support and encourage the efforts of U.S. and international aid and health organizations in seeking to prevent and, as necessary, to contain the outbreak, the spread of COVID-19 in the DPRK, and to provide other forms of humanitarian assistance to the North Korean people.
It is COVAX that determines allocations for the Pfizer vaccines we have donated. Those are the brunt of the vaccines that we have donated. Should COVAX allocate doses to the DPRK, we would be supportive of that, as we would to any member of the grouping and to the African Union as well. As I said before, however, it is the DPRK that has consistently refused all vaccine donations. We don't currently have bilateral plans to share vaccines with the DPRK, but we continue to support, as I've said before, those international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable within North Korea.
There is another great irony, or perhaps it's even a tragedy, in that even as the DPRK continues to refuse the donation of much – apparently much-needed COVID vaccines, they continue to invest untold sums in ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs that do nothing to alleviate the humanitarian plight of the North Korean people. The DPRK leadership continues to enrich themselves, to take care of their cronies, while the people of the North – of the DPRK suffer, apparently now with the added burden of COVID.
QUESTION: There was previously that South Korean director of intelligence service said that there is the secret papers. He announced that the U.S. and South Korea previously suggested this through the COVAX, but Kim Jong-un refuses to help. Is that true?
MR PRICE: We have discussed with our Republic of Korea allies, with our Japanese allies, and with others ways that we might mitigate the humanitarian plight of the North Korean people. Unfortunately, it is the North Korean leadership that has prevented many of those steps from proceeding.
QUESTION: Lastly, do you think North Korea likely to put on hold nuclear test due to coronavirus?
MR PRICE: We have never seen the DPRK regime prioritize the humanitarian concerns of their own people over these destabilizing programs that pose a threat to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, so I do not think there is any expectation of that.
QUESTION: Thank you. Two question, and surprise, one is about Haqqani's recent interview in CNN, and he said the United States is not our enemy. So good thing. If United State not your enemy, United State has expectation to reopen girls' school. Number one, do you have the same – United States has the same position, establish friendship – new friendship – with Haqqani Network, leader of the Taliban?
MR PRICE: It is our position that the women and girls of Afghanistan, including those girls who have been denied the opportunity to attend post-secondary education for weeks now – it is our strong position, it is the position of countries around the world, as you may have seen in a statement that came out from the G7 and other multilateral statements as well, that these girls have – should have the opportunity to attend school, to build skills, to develop the capacity to improve their own lives, to improve the lives of their families, and ultimately the welfare and the livelihood of their communities and their country. We have made the point before that any society that seeks to suppress, to hold back, half of its population is not a society that can be thriving, is not even a society that can succeed.
So, of course, we've seen the remarks from Siraj Haqqani. I think you will understand that we have developed a well-earned skepticism of these sorts of comments. We've heard these types of comments before. What we care much more about rather than rhetoric is action, and we await the Taliban acting on these positive signals and reopening schools at all levels across the country, which itself would be a very welcome development.
QUESTION: Okay. The second question, Mr. Price, can you update U.S. on Afghan funds frozen by the New York courts?
MR PRICE: You may recall that several months ago now there was an executive order that came forth from the White House that spoke to the disposition of the $7 billion – approximately $7 billion – in frozen assets. It provided for a sum, an element, a part of these assets to be used for the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. So that is something that we continue to work closely with our colleagues throughout the administration, including in the Department of Justice.
But as you know, Nazira, we have continued to be the world's leader in terms of our humanitarian support to the people of Afghanistan, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars for education, for health care, for shelter, for food, for clean water, for sanitation, and for winterization projects at the appropriate time. We will continue to do that going forward, using the humanitarian funding that we currently have available to us.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes, Daphne.
QUESTION: On Taiwan, Taiwan has been trying to secure an invitation to the World Health Assembly, and 13 member states made a proposal for it to join. Was the U.S. one of the 13? And what is the U.S. doing to try to get Taiwan access to the WHA, beyond public statements?
MR PRICE: Well, we strongly advocate for the WHO to invite Taiwan to participate as an observer and lend its expertise to the solution-seeking discussions at the 75th World Health Assembly, scheduled for this month. We believe that inviting Taiwan to participate as an observer would exemplify the WHO's commitment – stated commitment – to an inclusive approach to international health cooperation and, quote/unquote, "health for all." Taiwan in that regard is a highly capable, engaged, responsible member of the global health community, with unique expertise and approaches that can benefit the world.
We've made this point before, that Taiwan has much to share with the world in different realms, including in the realm of public health. And, of course, Taiwan's absence from the WHA in recent years is something that we have sought to rectify. The WHO broke years of precedent at the 70th World Health Assembly in 2017 when it failed to invite a Taiwanese delegation to observe. Taiwan's inclusion, unfortunately, has continued every year since 2017.
As we continue to battle a pandemic, as we continue to confront other public health threats, Taiwan's isolation from the world's preeminent global health forum – it's unwarranted. It represents itself a serious health concern. We believe that its significant public health expertise, its technical and technological capabilities, its democratic governments – governance, its resilience in the face of COVID-19, and its robust economy offer considerable resources to inform the WHA's deliberations, and we believe there is no reasonable justification to exclude its participation.
QUESTION: Was the U.S. one of the 13 that made the proposal?
MR PRICE: We have supported – excuse me – Taiwan's participation as an observer in at the World Health Assembly.
QUESTION: Just back to Afghanistan quickly, there was some reporting that the Afghans during the NEO who didn't pass vet and were being held at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo – there were about some 16 of them – that the State Department is making a final determination of what to do with these 16 or more. Has a final determination been made on what to do with them? And if so, where are they going?
MR PRICE: So I don't have anything to share in terms of specific cases, but as you know, every individual who was transported out of Afghanistan underwent and has undergone, in most cases, vetting throughout by the interagency, by our partners within law enforcement, within the Intelligence Community, within the Department of Homeland Security as well. In some cases, there have been individuals who have required additional vetting. They have undergone that additional vetting at Camp Bondsteel. In many cases, that remains ongoing, but I just don't have anything to offer in terms of disposition.
QUESTION: One follow-up. Is there a time limit on how long they can be held at Camp Bondsteel?
MR PRICE: Again, the vetting usually can take place fairly quickly. There will be limited cases that require a longer vetting period. Our goal always is to see to it that we can complete the process as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: A follow-up on that, please?
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Just one question. Can you definitively say that they won't be sent back to Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: I will – I can definitively say that we will comply with all regulations and guidelines when it comes to international humanitarian law and the principle of non-refoulement.
QUESTION: Can we go to Iran?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Israeli defense minister said, I think yesterday, that Iran is currently trying to complete the production and installation of 1,000 advanced IR-6 centrifuges, including at a new underground facility being built near Natanz. Is that the U.S. understanding of what is currently occurring by the Iranians?
MR PRICE: I am not going to detail what our understanding is. As you might gather, much of this, some of this may be derived from elements that we typically don't speak to in public. But of course, we do share information routinely with our Israeli partners. We have a common understanding across many fronts, and we share a common strategic interest and that is seeing to it that Iran is never able to acquire a nuclear weapon.
So of course, our Israeli partners are not the only ones to have expressed concern about the progress that Iran's nuclear program has been in position to make since the previous administration left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. We, too, have expressed our own profound concerns about the pace at which Iran's nuclear program has been in a position to gallop forward since 2018.
That is precisely why we are continuing to test whether we will be able to secure a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, because doing so remains profoundly in our interest. It would put back in a box the nuclear program, a nuclear program that has not been subject to the same limits, to the same transparency, to the same verification and monitoring that Iran's nuclear program was prior to 2018 when the nuclear agreement was in full force – when it was verifiably and demonstrably, according to international weapons inspectors, according to this building, and according to our Intelligence Community, working to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Ned, on this topic, U.S. Central Command chief lands in Israel tonight to coordinate a joint Iran strike exercise. Is the military option on the table now since the Vienna talks stalled?
MR PRICE: We believe that diplomacy and dialogue affords an opportunity to sustainably and durably and permanently put an end to Iran's ability to produce or otherwise acquire a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: You're aware that Enrique Mora left the – Iran on Friday, so I think it's safe to assume that by now, he may – he has briefed Rob Malley on his talks with the Iranian officials. The Iranians are saying that they have presented it as several proposals. You have said that you don't negotiate in public, but can you confirm that?
MR PRICE: Well, we don't negotiate in public. What I will say is that we and our partners are ready. We have been for some time. We believe it is now up to Iran to demonstrate its seriousness. As you've heard from us before, there are a small number of outstanding issues. We believe these small number of outstanding issues pertaining to Iran's nuclear program could be bridged and closed quite quickly and effectively, if Iran were to make the decision to do so. We are grateful, as always, for Enrique Mora and his team's efforts to – and we look forward to more detailed conversations with them in the days ahead.
But, as you've heard from us before, at this point, a deal remains far from certain. Iran needs to decide, as I alluded to before, whether it insists on conditions that are extraneous to the JCPOA, or whether it is ready, willing, and able to conclude the JCPOA, a mutual return to compliance with it, quickly. We know that it would serve America's national security interests; we believe that it, in turn, would serve all sides' interests.
QUESTION: Well, they're saying the same thing, that it's now up to the U.S. to make the decision, and that if it does so, if it does answer, that you could get back to the talks again.
MR PRICE: There are a number of parties involved in this negotiation. I think if you talk to the parties, they will tell you that the United States has negotiated indirectly, in the case of Iran, earnestly, in good faith, seeking to arrive at a mutual return to compliance. And unfortunately, the same cannot always be said of the Iranian side.
QUESTION: One last one on this?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: There are reports that Iran has set up a drone factory in Tajikistan. Are you aware – is the United States aware of this? Because the Israeli defense minister thinks that the drone program also is part of their program to send drones to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
MR PRICE: We've expressed our concerns about Iranian UAV technology. We have taken action using appropriate authorities against proliferators of Iranian UAV technology. I just don't have anything to add on a possible drone factory in Tajikistan.
QUESTION: A couple on Russia?
QUESTION: On Iran? Yeah.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
MR PRICE: Iran? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Iran, yeah. Last week, we heard that Iran arrested two Europeans. Today we got to know they are French; we know their name. And Iran is labeling them with security accusation, like always familiar pattern. That is a matter related to French – to France foreign minister, so my question for you is about the negotiations you are having in Vienna about the hostages, dual nationalities, foreign citizens. Those negotiations, are they still going on? Are they tied to the nuclear talks? Can you give us an update? And as a country who has at least five citizens in Iranian jail, how do you react to that behavior?
MR PRICE: Well, let me first start with the arrest of the two French nationals. We, of course, are aware of these reports. We echo what you've heard from our French allies, the condemnation of these arrests. We similarly call on Iran to immediately release these two French nationals. As you alluded to, Iran has a long history of unjustly imprisoning foreign nationals in an attempt to use them as political leverage. It continues to engage in a range of human rights abuses, which include arbitrary and large-scale detention of individuals, some of whom have faced torture and execution after trials that have lacked due process. These practices are outrageous. We have continued to speak out against them together with our allies and partners.
When it comes to the Americans, the U.S. citizens who are held unjustly inside Iran and who have been for years, as we often say, we have no higher priority than seeing – than the safety and security of Americans everywhere, and of course, that includes Americans who are unjustly detained in places around the world.
The – we have been careful not to tie the fate of these individuals – their freedom, I should say – to a potential mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. And we've been careful not to do that for precisely what I said just a moment ago. A mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is far from certain. We want to see the return of our unjustly detained American citizens as a certainty.
Now it is true, as you have heard others say, that we are treating this as an utmost priority. The Iranians – we have made quite clear to them the priority we attach to this, and it is something that we will continue to do, regardless of what happens with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: I have another one about a phone call between Secretary Blinken and the Qatari Foreign Minister Al-Thani. He thanked him for the mediating role he played between Iran and America. My question is that – can you give us detail about what sort of a role Qatar played and what exactly Al-Thani achieved from his trip to Iran?
MR PRICE: So I will have to refer you to the Qatari authorities to speak to the Amir's visit to Iran. What I can say is that we're grateful for the constructive role that Qatar has played in our efforts to achieve diplomatic resolutions to some of the important and difficult issues between the U.S. and Iran, and that includes what you referred to just a moment ago, the unjust detention of several U.S. citizens and our efforts to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Russia. Secretary – Defense Secretary Austin spoke on Friday with his Russian counterpart, and I'm just curious if there are plans for Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov to speak – they haven't done so since February 12th – and just if there are additional lines of communication beyond Ambassador Sullivan and officials in Moscow.
MR PRICE: You are correct that the Secretary has not spoken to his Russian counterpart since February, and this goes back to something I noted just a moment ago in terms of where we are and, more precisely, where we are not with the diplomacy. The Russian Federation has not given – has not afforded us any reason to believe that a conversation at that level between Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov would be constructive in the current environment. We have demonstrated many times that we have no bones about picking up the phone if doing so – having a conversation, having a meeting – has the potential to lead to a more constructive outcome. Everything we have heard from our Ukrainian partners, everything we have heard publicly from the Russians gives us no indication that a conversation at this time would be a useful exercise.
There are lines of communication between the United States and Russia. As you know, we have an embassy that is limited in terms of its – in terms of its ability to function fully given some of the restrictions that the Russians have unjustly and unfairly imposed on our mission community in Moscow. But Ambassador Sullivan continues, as he did last week, to meet with and to speak with his MFA counterparts. Our Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs here in Washington continues to have occasional contact with Russian officials who are based here. We have spoken previously of the National Security Advisor's contact with his Russian counterpart, Mr. Patrushev. And as the Pentagon read out this – Secretary Austin did have an opportunity to speak with his Russian counterpart.
There are issues that the Defense Department deals with, including issues of deconfliction, that are more tactical, that are different from the types of strategic conversations that Secretary Blinken has had in the past with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and if the conditions present themselves and if we make the judgment that a conversation between them could advance the cause of a dimunition of violence or easing the humanitarian plight of the Ukrainian people that they may have going forward.
QUESTION: And can you just give us an update on the case of Brittney Griner? There's some talk of a possible prisoner swap with Viktor Bout, for instance.
MR PRICE: Well, of course I'm not going to get into – I'm not going to entertain that. But let me first speak generally to her case. You may have seen Ambassador Sullivan issued a statement earlier today. He made the point that it is unacceptable that for the third time in a month, Russian authorities have denied an embassy visit to Brittney Griner. A consular official was able to speak with her on the margins of her court proceedings on Friday. That consular official came away with the impression that Brittney Griner is doing as well as might be expected under conditions that can only be described as exceedingly difficult.
But sporadic contact is not satisfactory. It also may not be consistent with the Vienna Convention, to which Russia has subscribed. That is why we continue to urge the Russian Government to allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizens detained in Russia, in line with those very legal obligations, and to allow us to provide consular services for U.S. citizens detained in Russia.
Among the issues that Ambassador Sullivan raises with his MFA counterparts are the cases of detained Americans. More broadly, I can confirm that Secretary Blinken had an opportunity in recent days to speak to the wife of Brittney Griner. He conveyed once again the priority we attach to seeing the release of all Americans around the world, including Brittney Griner in the case of Russia, Paul Whelan in the case of Russia – those are Americans who we consider to be wrongfully detained. That has been a priority of Secretary Blinken since the earliest days of his tenure. He's had an opportunity to speak with the families of American hostages and detainees as a group, but he often does one-on-one – has one-on-one conversations with these families as well. And he was appreciative of the ability to speak to Brittney Griner's wife.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: I have a couple questions on the Middle East. First, how will the U.S. delegation visit to UAE to offer condolences affect the relations between the two countries, and how was or how can you describe the meeting between Secretary Blinken and UAE foreign minister yesterday?
MR PRICE: Well, as you know, Secretary Blinken did join the delegation that was led by the Vice President to offer condolences and to pay respects to Sheikh Khalifa, and to honor his memory, his legacy in the context of his passing. The Vice President underscored the strength and the – of the partnership between our countries and our desire to further deepen our ties in the coming months and years. Really, the visit itself was an opportunity to commemorate the life of Sheikh Khalifa and to congratulate His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on assuming the presidency of the United Arab Emirates.
The Secretary did – on Monday night, I believe it was – have an opportunity to have dinner with his Emirati counterpart. It was a session that, again, commemorated the life and legacy of Sheikh Khalifa and was held in that context, but they were able to discuss a number of substantive areas, both regional and bilateral issues. They discussed our joint efforts to reinforce the ceasefire in Yemen; they discussed our – the international emphasis on defusing tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem; they discussed our joint cooperation in countering Iran and the threat that it poses; and ways that we can build on what is already a strong partnership between our two countries.
As you know, this is a relationship that Secretary Blinken – where Secretary Blinken has been fortunate to have had a lot of face time in recent weeks. He saw his Emirati counterpart in the Negev for the summit focused on the Abraham Accords. We then later traveled to Morocco, where he saw his Emirati counterpart, but of course met with Mohammed bin Zayed, then the crown prince, to discuss the relationship – the valued and valuable relationship – between the United States and the United Arab Emirates. And the conversation that he had with ABZ at dinner yesterday evening was an opportunity to build on those conversations and to look ahead to additional cooperation.
MR PRICE: We are highly concerned by reports of armed clashes in Tripoli. We urge all armed groups to refrain from violence, and for political leaders to recognize that trying to seize or retain power through force will only hurt the people of Libya. It's critical for Libyan leaders to find consensus to avoid clashes like the ones we saw yesterday. We continue to believe that the only viable path to legitimate leadership is by allowing Libyans to choose their leaders through free and fair elections. The constitutional talks underway in Cairo are now more important than ever. Members of the house of representatives and the HSC gathered there must recognize that the continued lack of a constitutional basis leading to presidential and parliamentary elections on a realistic but aggressive timeframe is depriving Libyans of the stability and the prosperity they deserve.
MR PRICE: Well, we are pleased that the parliamentary elections took place on time in Lebanon without major security incidents. We encourage Lebanon's political leaders to recommit themselves to the hard work that lies ahead, to implement needed reforms to rescue the economy. We believe that part of that important work that lies ahead is government formation, a government that is responsible and responsive to the Lebanese people, that can undertake some of the reforms that have been called for, some of the reforms that are necessary – both in terms of international financial and lending institutions, but also, more importantly, to address the humanitarian concerns of the people of Lebanon.
MR PRICE: Again, I don't have additional details to read out. We have held discussions with – previously with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on a collaborative approach to managing potential market pressures stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. We are committed to doing everything we can and to work with other countries to bring down the costs of energy for the American people, and to make countries around the world more resilient to the type of – to potential price shocks and to potential disruptions in energy supplies owing to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
QUESTION: Okay, and then —
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: — the Ethiopia question, sorry.
MR PRICE: Ethiopia question.
QUESTION: Reuters reported yesterday that authorities in Ethiopia's Tigray region are forcing young people to join their army's fight against the central government by threatening and jailing relatives. Is this something the U.S. is aware of? And are you concerned that the TPLF may be preparing for a possible resurgence in combat?
MR PRICE: Well, we certainly hope not. Our goal is to build on the humanitarian truce that was announced on April – that was announced last month. We strongly support that humanitarian truce that the Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray regional authority have committed to as well. We've seen a series of encouraging actions by the Government of Ethiopia that we hope will lead and help lay the groundwork for an end to the conflict. That includes lifting the state of emergency, releasing some political prisoners and detainees. Tigrayan forces, for their part, have withdrawn most of their forces from Afar.
Our emphasis now is on doing all we can to support the parties in efforts to accelerate, to uphold, and expand efforts to ensure that this humanitarian truce sticks, but also to expand immediate, sustained, and unimpeded humanitarian access to all Ethiopians affected by this conflict. So certainly would not like to see any backtracking that has the potential to undermine the humanitarian truce that we've seen.
QUESTION: Ned —
MR PRICE: Let me go to you, and then we'll come right to you.
MR PRICE: I am not in a position today to offer a rough outline, but I can assure you that the Secretary intends to deliver these remarks at the first possible opportunity. As you know, he was set to deliver it the other week, but of course, his COVID diagnosis disrupted those plans. But we'll have more details on that shortly.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I want to go back to the very first question on a new program. You said something important about sharing your findings with partners. Does that include the ICC as well? As you know, ICC is sending its largest-ever team to Ukraine. What is the U.S. position on that? And will you have your own separate investigation, or is this part of the cooperation with the ICC?
And secondly, President Zelenskyy last week said that he thinks that Moscow believes it's going to get away with its war crimes because of its nuclear capabilities. Can you assure us that that's not going to be the case? Thank you.
MR PRICE: In terms of the ICC, we support all international investigations into the atrocities in Ukraine. We welcomed the announcement by the prosecutor general of an effort vis-à-vis Ukraine. We support those conducted by the ICC.
We've said before that everything is on the table. We are considering the most appropriate options for accountability. We've also said that the Ukrainian prosecutor general, her team, obviously has an appropriate jurisdiction. They have developed well-developed efforts to document, to analyze, to preserve potential evidence of war crimes for criminal prosecutions. As you saw the announcement from her office just a couple days ago, they have actually started proceedings in one case.
So we will continue to pursue all appropriate venues to see accountability. And accountability means accountability; and no country – no matter how large, how potentially powerful, what types of weapons they may have in their arsenal – can escape accountability for the types of atrocities that we have seen Russia's forces perpetrate against the Ukrainian people.
We have already made the assessment that Russia's forces have committed war crimes. Our task now is to support those, to support the important work of those who are seeking to build criminal cases against those who are responsible for this, whether at the tactical level or those who at much more senior levels may have given orders or may have been complicit in the war crimes that have occurred.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:38 p.m.)
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