Department Press Briefing – June 21, 2022

22 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:13 p.m. EDT

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone.

QUESTION: Hello.

MR PRICE: It’s a little more hospitable in here today, temperature-wise at least. I have a few things at the top, and then we’ll —

QUESTION: Isn’t that because the building was empty for the last three days and the air-conditioning was probably not on?

MR PRICE: I think we also made a request to raise the temperature a little bit.

QUESTION: Oh, oh (inaudible).

MR PRICE: Yes, yes, yes. Looking out for your needs. Before we begin, a few things.

Yesterday marked World Refugee Day. I would like to underscore the messages shared by the Secretary and the department acknowledging the unprecedented humanitarian crises across the globe, resulting in the largest number of refugees in history.

For the first time in history, last month the number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights abuses, and persecution reached more than 100 million. That means more than 1 percent of the world’s population has been forcibly displaced.

The United States reaffirms our unwavering commitment to alleviate the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable people through our global leadership in humanitarian assistance and diplomacy.

We are the world’s largest single donor of humanitarian assistance, providing more than $13 billion in humanitarian aid during Fiscal Year 2021.

We also recognize the generosity of communities that host refugees and the united global response of international humanitarian partners who work diligently to help them.

We will continue to represent the best of American values by saving lives and alleviating suffering, working with our partners at home and abroad to assist those forcibly displaced in their time of need no matter who they are or where – no matter who they are, where they are, on World Refugee Day and every day.

Next, the United States congratulates the Colombian people for holding a free and fair presidential election on June 19th. The United States welcomes the results of the second round of elections.

We look forward to working with President-Elect Gustavo Petro and his new administration and to continuing our strong collaboration and joint regional leadership.

The U.S.-Colombia relationship remains based on shared democratic values, and we remain committed to working with the next Colombian administration in support of our mutual goals. Those goals include supporting Colombia’s implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord, reducing violence and narcotics trafficking, expanding rural development and security, promoting human rights, growing inclusive trade and investment, protecting the environment, and combating the climate crisis.

On June 19th, we also celebrated the 200th anniversary of the U.S-Colombia diplomatic relationship. Together with the people of Colombia, we built this enduring partnership that reflects the deep ties between our societies, our economies, our security, and our efforts to build a more democratic and equitable hemisphere.

And finally, earlier today, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack accompanied Attorney General Merrick Garland for a quick visit to Rzeszow, Poland, and the Ukrainian-Poland border.

At the border, they met with Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova to further advance U.S.-Ukraine cooperation in support of efforts to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes and other atrocities during Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war on Ukraine.

They also held meeting with – meetings, excuse me, with U.S. Government partners working on accountability and justice issues in Ukraine. This included the leadership of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, ACA, our joint initiative with the EU and the UK to support Prosecutor General Venediktova’s work to document war crimes and prepare case files for prosecution.

They also met partners from the Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program, or ICITAP, which provides assistance to Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service and National Police. ICITAP efforts in Ukraine are jointly funded by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, or INL, and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation’s, or ISN, and their Export Control and Related Border Security program.

Attorney General Garland upon the visit noted that, “The United States is sending an unmistakable message: There is no place to hide. We and our partners will pursue every avenue available to ensure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable.”

Ambassador Van Schaack will accompany Attorney General Garland to Paris, where she will join the AG, the Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, and other U.S. officials for meetings of the U.S.-EU Ministerial Meeting on Justice and Home Affairs. And we’ll have additional information on that event in the coming days.

So with that, we’ll go to your questions.

QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. I have a very brief one, but it’s going to be brief because I think you’re not going to have much of an answer. But since we haven’t had a briefing since Friday when this decision was made by the British Government on the extradition of Julian Assange, I just wanted to check to see if there had been any change in your policy that either journalism is not a crime or if there’s been any change to the – your belief that Julian Assange is not a journalist.

MR PRICE: Matt, there has been no change, and there’s been no change to the answer I delivered to you last time on this matter. We defer to the Department of Justice when it comes to all cases of extradition. I would refer you to the Department of Justice because this is an ongoing matter before the British courts and an extradition case.

QUESTION: But it still is your position, as it was on World Press Freedom Day not so long ago, that journalism was not – should not be a crime.

MR PRICE: That is absolutely our conviction, correct.

QUESTION: Thanks. Can you – did you have something on that? So I – this is – your colleague – actually colleagues, plural, at the White House kind of had a little State Department briefing earlier. It was quite interesting because a lot of I think of what you’re going to be asked today was – has already been asked and answered.

But your White House colleague – not Mr. Kirby, the press secretary, was asked about Brittney Griner and this phone call that was supposed to have happened the other day, and she said it was her understanding that it had been – has been rescheduled. So I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that, but also explaining what happened, what —

MR PRICE: Sure. As you heard earlier today, the phone call has been rescheduled. It’s not for us to provide specific timing, because there is not official U.S. Government involvement in this call. This is not a call between a U.S. official and a detained American; this is a call between two private Americans, one of whom is wrongfully detained by Russia, has been wrongfully detained for too long, and whose case we are working assiduously to see her release just as quickly as can possibly be achieved.

I think what you heard earlier today is absolutely the case. We deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak to her wife over the weekend because of a logistical error. It was a mistake. It is a mistake that we have worked to rectify. As we said before, the call has been rescheduled and will take place in relatively short order.

It was a logistical issue that was compounded in part by the fact that our Embassy in Moscow is under significant restrictions in terms of its staffing, and so when we have issues with the telephone system there, for example, the technicians are not located onsite. In fact, they’re not even located in Russia. They have to be located in a third country because of the onerous restrictions that the Russian Federation has placed on our embassy and its operations.

So all of that compounded what was a mistake, what was a logistical error, and we look forward to the opportunity for Brittney Griner to speak to her wife in short order.

QUESTION: But whatever the specifics of that logistical error, you’re confident that when this call is rescheduled, whenever it’s supposed to happen, it’s going to happen, and the same thing isn’t going to happen again?

MR PRICE: We are confident of that. We have done everything we can to rectify this.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Francesco.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) about the tensions around Kaliningrad. What do you make of the statements from Russia threatening of serious consequences and the train?

MR PRICE: Well, we aren’t going to speculate on how Russian saber-rattling or Russian bluster – don’t even want to give it additional airtime. We have been very clear over the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and in fact well before Russia began its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, that our commitment to NATO and specifically our commitment to NATO’s Article 5, the premise that an attack on one would constitute at attack on all, that commitment on the part of the United States is ironclad. Not only have we made that clear rhetorically, but together with NATO and with our own announcements of troop posture adjustments, we have reinforced our commitment to the NATO Alliance. We have reinforced NATO’s eastern flank, especially those countries who have been at the forefront of Russian threats over the course, in many cases, of many years.

We, of course, appreciate the unprecedented economic measures that many countries around the world, dozens of countries across continents that our allies and our partners, including in this case Lithuania, have joined us in taking against Russia for its unprovoked war in Ukraine. Of course, would refer you to Lithuania regarding its enforcement of EU sanctions.

QUESTION: So you fully support Lithuanian enforcement of the sanctions and against any threat from Russia?

MR PRICE: Lithuania is a member of the NATO Alliance. We stand by the commitments that we have made to the NATO Alliance. That includes, of course, a commitment to Article 5 that is the bedrock of the NATO Alliance. This is a campaign that includes dozens of countries around the world, including blocs of countries, in this case the EU but also individual countries using their national authorities.

Lithuania has been a stalwart partner in this. We stand by NATO. We stand by our NATO Allies, and we stand by Lithuania.

Humeyra.

QUESTION: Ned, on – New York Times also came out over the weekend with an investigation about the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Basically, they are also saying, just like all of the other media outlets who have done similar investigation, that the bullet was fired from the approximate location of the Israeli military convoy. So I’m just wondering in light of this, like, mounting new information, is the United States going to do anything more to press the Israelis to speed up their investigation, and are you going to do anything differently, maybe like consider conducting your our own investigation, since this is a U.S. citizen?

MR PRICE: Humeyra, we have been in close and constant touch with our Israeli and with our Palestinian partners as well. We have sought, in just about all of these conversations, to bridge cooperation between the parties. We want to see the parties cooperate. We believe that enhanced cooperation between Israeli and Palestinians on this investigation will facilitate what is and what should be a collective goal, and that is an investigation that culminates in accountability. That’s what we would like to see happen.

We’ve made clear our view, again, both to Israelis and Palestinians, that we seek a thorough, transparent, and impartial investigation into Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing. We expect full accountability for those responsible. And we have urged to that end, as I alluded to a moment ago, that the two sides share their evidence with one another. We believe the sharing of evidence and the bridging of these investigations will help facilitate accountability, an investigation that culminates in that.

QUESTION: Right. Do you mean by that – do you mean by that that you guys are pushing for, like, a joint investigation? Because the Israelis are conducting their own – like, exactly what kind of bridging are we – to what end are we talking about?

MR PRICE: The two sides are conducting their own investigations. We’re not necessarily calling for a joint investigation, but we are calling on the two sides to share evidence with one another. We believe, again, that by sharing evidence, we will be able to – or the two sides, I should say, will be able to facilitate what is our goal, what should be a collective goal, and that is an investigation that is impartial, that’s transparent, that’s thorough, and that culminates in accountability.

QUESTION: Are you considering conducting your own? And if you’re not, why not?

MR PRICE: We’re – that is not on the table at the moment. The two parties, the two sides – the Israelis, the Palestinians – are conducting their own investigations. We want to see those investigations be conducted in a way that’s thorough, that’s impartial, that’s transparent, and that culminates in accountability. We believe that can be accomplished most effectively if the two sides share evidence with one another, if they bridge their investigations in that way.

QUESTION: That’s not on the table. Could that be on the table in the coming weeks, months if the Israeli investigation or this cooperation that you’re pushing for doesn’t come through?

MR PRICE: Again, I’m not going to weigh in on a hypothetical. We want to see the two parties work together constructively because we believe it should be a collective goal of all three of us, and of course, every other country that has a stake not only in this particular killing, but also in this broader issue of press freedom and ensuring that the press, independent media around the world are afforded adequate protections – that that interest is served.

QUESTION: Okay, just super quickly on the – on – final thing on Israel. Defense Minister Benny Gantz basically briefed lawmakers the other day about this Middle East air defense alliance, saying that this has been going on for some time, basically U.S.-sponsored regional air defense alliance. Can you talk a little bit about that? Which countries are in this? What is the exact U.S. role? Is this going to be something that President Biden will talk at length about when he’s there?

MR PRICE: I don’t have any specifics to offer at this time. We’ve talked and we’ve spoken at length previously about the cooperation. We have – vis-à-vis Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region, of course, Iran is a country that exports its malign influence not only in the Middle East, but well beyond. We cooperate very closely with our Israeli partners. We cooperate very closely with our Arab partners and with a number of other countries around the world to counter Iran’s malign influence.

Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. I just want to follow up on Humeyra’s – on Shireen. Now, you believe that Israel’s track record proves that it can conduct a transparent and thorough investigation in this particular case?

MR PRICE: Said, we’ve spoken to previous historical analogies. Israel does have the wherewithal to conduct an investigation that is transparent, that is impartial, and that – importantly – culminates in accountability. That’s what we would like to see happen.

QUESTION: I mean, how often does this specifically occur?

MR PRICE: Said, we’ve —

QUESTION: I mean, we don’t want to compare notes and so on, but I can assure you there are not very many examples that show Israel can commit to a transparent and thorough investigation. I want to go back —

MR PRICE: We’ve spoken of previous examples. We have spoken of the example of Eyad al-Hallaq, for example, one such example. But again, I’m speaking for —

QUESTION: But that —

MR PRICE: I am speaking for what the United States is asking for, what we seek. We seek an investigation that is transparent, that’s impartial, that culminates in accountability.

QUESTION: Okay. I want to ask you about what I asked you last week, which is the Secretary of State, asked by Abby Martin, responded by saying that he calls for an independent investigation. What does that mean? Have you reflected on what he said? There are mechanisms that you have in mind that an independent investigation could be pursued?

MR PRICE: The Secretary was not signaling a change in our approach. He was not signaling anything different than what I just said right now. What we are calling for, what we are seeking, what much of the international community is seeking is a set of investigations – there are two in this case, but investigations that are impartial, that are transparent, that culminate in accountability.

QUESTION: I have a couple more questions on Israel. Now, the collapse of the Israeli coalition, I wonder whether you’d comment on that. How would that likely impact whatever ongoing programs that you have with the Israelis, whether it’s the JCPOA or anything else or possible – the possible even normalization with Arab countries and so on. How do you see this impacting your policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

MR PRICE: I don’t expect political developments in Israel will have implications for what we are seeking to accomplish together with our Israeli partners or with our Palestinian partners, for that matter. And that’s because Israel is a strategic partner of the United States. It’s a fellow democracy. We respect its democratic processes.

One of the strengths of the bilateral U.S.-Israeli relationship, a strength that has come to be formed over the course of many decades, is the bipartisan support it has in this country, is the fact that the strength of our relationship does not depend on who sits in the Oval Office. It doesn’t depend on who sits in the prime minister’s chair in Israel. This is a strategic partnership between our two countries. It will continue to be a strategic partnership between our two countries in the coming weeks, in the coming months as the process plays out.

QUESTION: Even as we stare into the fifth possible election in three years, and the specter of Mr. Netanyahu making a comeback.

MR PRICE: Again, Said, this is a strategic relationship. It does not depend on who sits in the Oval Office; it does not depend on who sits in the prime minister’s chair.

QUESTION: And I promise my last – on the refugees because you mentioned refugees. My heart goes out to all refugees and especially Palestinian refugees that have been languishing for more than 70 years. There is a UN resolution, there is a General Assembly resolution that called for their return ever since it happened. Why cannot you – why can’t you support this call by the United Nations?

MR PRICE: Said, there are a number of so-called final status issues. The right of return is one of the so-called final status issues. What we seek to do is to create the conditions to advance the prospects over the longer term for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s what we are trying to set in place now, those conditions. In the case of the Palestinian people, we are trying to do that in part with our significant humanitarian support to provide to the Palestinian people in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip what they need to have more prosperity, have more stability, have at the end of the day the dignity that they deserve.

Again, our approach to this conflict is based on what should be a very simple and non-controversial premise that Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of security, of prosperity, of dignity, and that is what we assess, as have previous administrations, would be best accomplished by a two-state solution.

QUESTION: One more on Israel?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: You mentioned that the collapse of the Israeli Government isn’t going to have an impact on policy. Where does this – does this mean that President Biden’s promise of a consulate in Jerusalem is going to go unfulfilled? Just because there was a widely assumed belief that the reason that this wasn’t implemented is because the administration feared the collapse of the Israeli Government, so that’s why they weren’t fulfilling Biden’s promise to open a consulate. But it’s collapsed now, so what – where are we in this process? What – is that actually going to happen?

MR PRICE: We remain committed to reopening a consulate in Jerusalem. In the meantime, we have really re-energized the relationship between the United States and the Palestinian Authority, but also the Palestinian people. And I spoke to our humanitarian support, but of course, we’ve had a number of opportunities, I believe most recently when Barbara Leaf traveled to Ramallah, to meet at – including at senior levels with the Palestinian leadership. Secretary Blinken has had an opportunity in the past couple weeks to speak to President Abbas. President Biden, when he travels to Bethlehem in the coming weeks, will have an opportunity, I would expect, to meet with the leadership of the PA. This does nothing to our – what remains our objective of opening – excuse me, reopening the consulate in Jerusalem. As you know, we’ve recently taken some steps, including changes to the reporting structure, so that our diplomats in Jerusalem can report back directly to State Department headquarters. We are taking steps to see to it that we can continue to engage constructively with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people.

QUESTION: Has the concern now shifted from the collapse of the government to any steps, either on the consulate or maybe JCPOA, would bolster a potential Netanyahu return to power?

MR PRICE: As I said before, our relationship with Israel does not depend on who sits in the prime minister’s chair. We certainly don’t take steps or avoid steps, for that matter, based on any potential political developments in Israel. We are confident in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel such that we can pursue U.S. national interests and we can pursue the many interests we share together with our Israeli partners as partners. That’s what we’ll continue to do in advance of the President’s travel and in the aftermath of it as well.

Yes.

QUESTION: Sir, on Ukraine, I know the State Department confirmed the death of U.S. citizen Stephen Zabielski. I was wondering if the department could confirm some details that have been circulating in reporting that he was a Army veteran and that he was killed by a landmine. Can you provide any additional confirmation of those details?

MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to provide any additional details. We did, in fact, confirm his death, but in terms of any of the specifics of his death, that is just not something I can weigh in on, in part out of respect for the family during this difficult time.

QUESTION: And then on the captured Americans in Ukraine, I would like to follow up on a comment by my colleague, NBC’s Keir Simmons, with Dmitry Peskov saying that they are not subject to the Geneva Convention. I know that the Biden administration weighed in on this today, but what is your response to Peskov saying that those Americans are not subject to the Geneva Convention and it can’t be applied for, quote, “soldiers of fortune”?

MR PRICE: Well, let me start with the issue broadly and just note that we are working hard to learn more about reports of Americans who may be in Russian custody or in the custody of Russian proxy forces. We have been in touch with Russian authorities regarding U.S. citizens who may have been captured while fighting in Ukraine. As I mentioned, last week – late last week, we’ve also been in touch with our Ukrainian partners, with the ICRC, with other countries, as well as with the families of Americans who have been reported missing in Ukraine.

We have both publicly as well as privately called on the Russian Government and its proxies to live up to their international obligations in their treatment of all individuals, including those captured fighting in Ukraine. We expect – and in fact, international law and the law of war expects and requires – that all those who have been captured on the battlefield be treated humanely and with respect and consistent with the laws of war.

We once again should take this opportunity to reiterate to Americans the inherent dangers of traveling to Ukraine. For weeks now we have been urging Americans not to travel to Ukraine because of the attendant dangers that Russia’s aggression inside Ukraine poses to U.S. citizens who may be there. Our message to U.S. citizens who are in Ukraine is that they should depart immediately using any commercial or other privately available transportation means. We understand certainly that there are Americans across this country – millions of Americans across this country – who feel motivated to support the righteous and the noble cause of the Ukrainian people. There are ways to do that that work to the direct benefit of the Ukrainian people, ways that are safe, ways that are helpful and constructive. We have many of those ways on our website.

QUESTION: Just one follow-up —

QUESTION: A quick follow-up with that. Do we know – does the U.S. Government know where these Americans are, and has the Kremlin even confirmed that they have been captured or know where they are?

MR PRICE: We have no additional details beyond what’s been reported in the media, including by some of your own media organizations. As I said, we’ve been in direct contact with Russian authorities. We have not been provided, either by Russian authorities or by Russian proxy forces or any other entity, with additional details of the whereabouts of these Americans. We are pursuing every channel, every opportunity we have, to learn more and to support their families, especially in this difficult hour.

QUESTION: Ned —

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, Ned —

QUESTION: Can you —

MR PRICE: Let me —

QUESTION: One follow-up?

QUESTION: Well, he’ll understand because this has to do with the death, and I just want to know one thing. I realize there are privacy concerns you can’t take. Can you at least say when you – when you learned of this man’s death? And – because it’s a bit odd that the local newspaper obituary from which this news came and which you have now confirmed was published on June 1st.

MR PRICE: Yes, my understanding is that we —

QUESTION: Is that right?

MR PRICE: — is that we learned of this individual’s death several weeks ago. It is not standard procedures to formally announce when an American has been killed.

QUESTION: Yeah, well, I get that.

MR PRICE: But —

QUESTION: But before the obit or after his death on May (inaudible)?

MR PRICE: My understanding is that we learned of it before June 1st.

QUESTION: Ned, on the same point —

QUESTION: Can I follow up on —

QUESTION: The Russians claim there are 450 Americans fighting with the Ukrainians. Do you have – can you confirm that figure or is that too inflated? Do you have any way of knowing how many Americans are fighting alongside the Ukrainians?

MR PRICE: We don’t have any means to corroborate that figure. I would just note that we often encourage Americans and all others to take anything the Kremlin says with a grain of salt. But in terms of that specific piece of information, it’s not something I can confirm or refute.

Alex.

QUESTION: Okay. Are you in a position to be a little bit more specific on who in the Russian Government you are in touch with? Because Medvedev said over the weekend that “We don’t have any with the United States…They are at zero on the Kelvin scale.” Okay?

MR PRICE: Well, I think our embassy officials in Moscow would be surprised to hear that, because we do have an embassy in Moscow that continues to function. As I said before in a different context, it functions under severe constraints. But we have worked hard despite the onerous and unnecessary restrictions that the Russians have imposed on our embassy operations to maintain a fully functioning – or I should say a functioning embassy compound. Ambassador Sullivan is here in Washington attending the Chiefs of Mission Conference, but he will soon be returning to Moscow to lead the small but very capable team at Embassy Moscow. The embassy does regularly take part in exchanges and have discussions with their counterparts in the ministry of foreign affairs or elsewhere within the Russian Government.

One of the issues that the embassy does regularly discuss with their Russian counterparts is the status of Americans who are detained in Russia, the status of our embassy as well, to try to preserve what we believe is a critical outpost. We have done everything we can to preserve lines of communication between the Russian Government and the United States. We have done that at great effort not because we are at an especially rosy time in terms of our relationship, but we believe that during times of conflict, during times of crisis, that channels of communication, including the channel that our embassy affords, is especially vital and is especially important. And it’s been a valuable one for us to pass precisely these types of messages.

Kylie.

QUESTION: Just while we’re on Russia-Ukraine, Project DYNAMO, an independent organization, just put out a press release saying that John Spor, who’s an American nuclear scientist who was stuck in Ukraine and was being hunted by Russian forces in Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine, is now being taken out of the country by Project DYNAMO. Is the State Department in touch with this organization about this, what they’re calling a rescue effort?

MR PRICE: I’m not familiar – immediately familiar with the particulars of this case. It sounds like the press release was just issued. If we have anything to add, we’ll certainly let you know.

QUESTION: And just generally speaking, due to the lack of U.S. military presence on the ground in Ukraine, do you guys support these independent organizations’ efforts to get Americans out if they need on-the-ground assistance that can be provided?

MR PRICE: Whether this is – whether it is the efforts of private Americans, private American organizations, our guidance remains: Americans should not travel to Ukraine. Traveling to Ukraine brings with it significant and profound dangers, including some of the dangers we’ve already talked about during the course of this briefing. So whether for individuals or organizations, that guidance is constant.

Will.

QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on the captured Americans. Russia says that they’re – that they were captured by the forces of some of these breakaway statelets. So is the U.S. working with Russia about their release, and is that working out in working with Russia, or is there some need to negotiate with others about the status and what’s going to happen? In other words, is Russia acting as sort of the force behind these proxy forces? Is that working out?

MR PRICE: It’s difficult for us to say at this point. As I noted before, we have been in contact with Russian authorities regarding the reports of detained Americans. We have not received any formal or official response. The only response we’ve seen has been the response that Russian officials have made in public interviews. So we just don’t have anything from that private engagement.

Yes.

QUESTION: On Iran. After a long pause, one second you’re witnessing a new naval confrontation between Iran and U.S. in Persian Gulf. Any reactions to that?

MR PRICE: I would refer you to the Department of Defense. They may have more for you. But we have seen not only in recent days but over the course of many weeks and months that Iran has engaged in maritime activity that is unsafe, that is unprofessional, that puts sailors at risk. It is something that we have condemned. It is something that we have urged Iran not to engage in.

QUESTION: Also, we are seeing some efforts from U.S. allies in the region that you’re trying to persuade Biden to change the course, to come up with a new strategy toward Iran. I want to specifically ask about Biden’s trip to region. How much of this trip is about Iran? And can you give us more detail if any meetings are planned regarding Iran?

MR PRICE: I’m not aware that there will be a meeting specifically focused on Iran. This trip, I should also add – hasten to add, is a few weeks away still, and of course it’s a White House trip, so I’ll defer ultimately to the White House to speak to it.

But I will say it’s my strong suspicion, and I think you’ve heard this from the White House, that Iran will be a topic of conversation naturally during at least a couple of these stops. When the President is in Jerusalem meeting with Israeli officials, when he is in Jeddah meeting with members of the GCC+3, as well as taking part in bilateral meetings with Saudi officials, that of course the threat that Iran poses in its many manifestations – not only its nuclear program but its ballistic missile program, its support for regional proxies, its support for terrorist groups – the full panoply of malign influence and threats that Iran poses I would imagine will be a topic of discussion.

QUESTION: Okay. And one – another one about the latest report by the UN nuclear watchdog about Fordow and Iran starting to use more than 100 IR-6 centrifuges. Anything about that? Any updates about the nuclear talks?

MR PRICE: Well, we’ve seen these reports. We remain concerned that Iran continues to deploy advanced centrifuges well beyond the limits of what’s prescribed in the JCPOA. We are seeking a full return to implementation of the JCPOA precisely because we believe that Iran’s nuclear activities, including the centrifuge component manufacturing that you referred to, should be strictly limited and strictly monitored by the IAEA.

And of course, the JCPOA carried with it the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever peacefully negotiated. The fact is – and we’ve made this point on a number of occasions – Iran’s program in different ways has now far exceeded the limits that the JCPOA imposed. It is spinning cascades of advanced centrifuges that are not allowed under the deal. Its fissile material breakout time has been dramatically reduced from about a year to what is now – what can now be measured in weeks or even less.

We are deeply concerned by the current state of Iran’s nuclear program. It’s precisely why we want to see those strict limits, that verification and monitoring regime reimposed on Iran.

QUESTION: But you still believe that returning to JCPOA is going to be within U.S. interest, even though you describe all of these concerns?

MR PRICE: Well, all of these concerns exist when the JCPOA is not being fully implemented. If we were to fully implement, if Iran were to fully implement the JCPOA, many of the concern that you just alluded to, that I just alluded to, would be taken off the table, because they would not be permitted. And the IAEA would have the wherewithal to be able to inspect, to have real-time monitoring, to alert the international community if Iran surpassed those limits. That is not the case now, and that’s what gives us such great concern.

QUESTION: But it is the case that’s still not permitted under the JCPOA. None of —

MR PRICE: And Iran is not fully compliant with the JCPOA.

QUESTION: I know.

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: But I mean, it’s not the case that they are now allowed to do these kinds of things.

MR PRICE: Iran has distanced itself from the strict limits that the JCPOA imposed after the last administration decided to walk away from the JCPOA when Iran, by the way, was fully implementing and in strict compliance with the JCPOA, as confirmed by the IAEA.

Anything else on Iran or the Middle East? Nazira.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Price, two question. One question about Daesh/ISIS activity in Afghanistan. They killed so many people, including Hindus. It was very big tragedy.

And the other question about the Taliban leadership’s travel sanction. Are they allowed to travel to so many countries? People concerned, especially human rights organizations.

MR PRICE: Two questions. Let me take the first one first.

Of course, we all saw these horrifying reports over the weekend. We – as you heard from several of our senior officials, we’ve condemned the recent attacks that have killed and harmed civilians in Afghanistan. This includes the cowardly attack that we saw this weekend against the Sikh community in Kabul that claimed innocent lives, including the life of a Sikh worshipper.

This is part of a – what can only be described as a concerning trend against members of religious minority groups in Afghanistan. We know that, as is the case around the world, Afghanistan’s diversity is one of its greatest assets; it should be viewed as such. And a threat to any minority group in Afghanistan is a threat to the identity, the heterogenous identity of Afghanistan itself.

Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, Special Representative for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights Rina Amiri, our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, they all put out statements yesterday expressing our condolences to the families of the victims in this cowardly attack.

But again, this was more than one attack. What we are seeing here appears to be a pattern on the part of terrorists, on the part of extremists, who are striking at the heart of Afghanistan’s pluralistic identity, who are striking against Hindus and Sikhs, and we must – those perpetrators must be held accountable, and members of all minority groups should be protected.

In terms of the travel of senior Taliban officials, this is something that’s been discussed at the UN in recent days. And in line with the Security Council’s ongoing consideration of the situation in Afghanistan and council actions in support of the Afghan people, the council, as you may know, removed from the 1988 travel ban exemption list two individuals who oversee education policy for the Taliban. With this step, this list now has 13 individuals on it. So in other words, these individuals who are responsible for the Taliban’s education policy are no longer exempted from the inability of senior Taliban officials to travel beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

We proposed that the Security Council take this step to signal to the Taliban in no uncertain terms that its decision to prohibit girls from obtaining secondary education has consequences, including very practical consequences like this. Through press statements, the council has expressed deep concerns regarding the erosion of the respect for human rights in Afghanistan, including for the rights of women, girls, other minority groups in Afghanistan.

So we will continue to coordinate very closely with our partners at the UN and other stakeholders to hold to account those who are responsible, not only for the violent attacks that we’ve seen inside Afghanistan but for all those who would seek to erode the rights and protections that are afforded to Afghanistan’s minorities.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MR PRICE: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Tunisia – any reaction to latest development lately, the demonstrations against the proposed constitution by the president?

MR PRICE: We – what we have sought to see is – we have stood with the Tunisian people in defending democracy and protecting human rights, including the freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly. This is what is stipulated by Tunisia’s constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well. We continue to call for a swift return to constitutional governance, including the seating of a new parliament. We believe that doing so is necessary to restore widespread confidence in Tunisia’s democratic institutions.

Yes, Shannon.

QUESTION: Going back to the two Americans killed while fighting for Ukraine, can you say if the State Department is providing consular services to any others, despite these two – I mean, beyond those two particular cases?

MR PRICE: Any consular services in what regard?

QUESTION: For Americans killed while fighting in Ukraine.

MR PRICE: I’m not aware that we are aware of confirmed reports of other Americans who have been – who have died while fighting in Ukraine.

QUESTION: And for your stance towards Russia, have you communicated that you will hold them accountable if anything befalls the two captured Americans in the hands of their proxies? Is that a stance the department has?

MR PRICE: We have made very clear to the Russian Federation that we have – and just as importantly, the international community has – the full expectation that anyone who is in their custody or the custody of proxy forces who fall under Russian control, their health, their safety, their well-being is the responsibility of the Russian Federation. We’ve made a very similar point when it comes to – this is a different context – but to Americans who are detained in Russia, and also to Russians who are detained in Russia as well. We recently made this point very clear, that anyone who is in Russian custody – but this would also apply to those individuals who are in the custody of groups that are under Russian control – that their safety, their well-being is the responsibility of the Russian Federation.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you. Two short questions on Russia and Ukraine. Firstly, you mentioned atrocity crimes. It was reported in the topper. When you first announced that this group will cooperate with Ukraine from this podium, you told they will work outside of Ukraine. I heard a discussion that they might return to the country. Was the final decision approved already, and what about the terms?

And secondly, the Secretary Yellen told yesterday that United States is in talks with allies to further restrict Moscow energy revenue by imposing a price cap – or as she told, price exception – on oil, on Russian oil. Any comments on that? Are you in the State Department a part of these discussions, these talks? And which countries are import already?

MR PRICE: On your second question, I will just say briefly that we are looking for all appropriate ways to hold the Russian Government responsible for the war that it is waging in Ukraine, for the violence and brutality that it’s waging against the people of Ukraine. We are looking for ways to ensure that accountability, including with sanctions, and to limit the revenue that the Russian Government and key Russian decision makers are able to accrue, just as we work with the international community to see to it that we preserve the supply of global energy on energy markets.

When it comes to our support for the Ukrainian prosecutor general, you recall that last month we announced the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group. This is a group that constituted by the United States and as well as our EU and UK partners. It calls on the expertise and the experience of many of our nongovernmental partners as well. And while much of this work does take place outside of Ukraine, some of this work does take place inside of Ukraine as well. Part of the idea of the ACA is to see to it that the – that the experience of these groups and of these individuals is brought to bear for Ukraine’s prosecutors who are building cases, who are collecting evidence, who are preserving evidence as well.

And in fact, the ACA had its first formal meeting in Kyiv on June 16th with the lead implementing partners from the United States, from the EU, from the UK. And our – the ACA’s lead advisor, Ambassador Clint Williamson, who himself was a former ambassador-at-large for Global Criminal Justice, who’s now at Arizona State University, also participated in the AG and the ambassador’s meeting at the border with the prosecutor general that I mentioned at the top.

So there is activity that is taking place inside Ukraine, but there’s a lot of support that takes place virtually and in third countries as well.

Yes, Alex.

QUESTION:  Ned, thanks so much.  Ned, on Russian aggression, Putin last week hinted that neighboring countries might face Ukraine’s fate if they turned against him for the invasion.  Now, if you sit in Azerbaijan, Georgia, or Kazakhstan, you might scratch you head and think about whether or not the U.S. will help me in case Russia does more conflict?  Can you explicitly state that the U.S. will not leave those countries alone if Russia does what it says it does?

MR PRICE: Well, I think we’ve sent a very clear signal with the support that we have provided to Ukraine, support that totals more than $5 billion in security assistance since the start of Russia’s invasion on February 24th, the way in which that the United States has rallied the international community, how dozens of countries across multiple continents have come together to provide not only the security assistance that Ukraine needs, but also the economic assistance and the humanitarian assistance for the Ukrainian people, just as we have imposed an unprecedented set of economic and financial measures, as well as the export controls that we’ve spoken to, on the Russian Federation.

So that is a clear signal of the resolve we have. It is a clear signal that Russian aggression against sovereign, independent countries will not be tolerated by the United States. It won’t be tolerated by our international partners as well.

Yes.

QUESTION: Candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, prospective for Georgia – as you know, this is the – sorry – recommendation of the European Commission, and now all three countries are waiting for June 24, when decision of the European Union will be announced. Do you think that Georgia also deserves to be supported on its way? I understand that this question does not concern you directly, however, your position on the Western perspective of Georgia and on this path is extremely important for us.

MR PRICE: Well, on the question broadly, we maintain our longstanding commitment to a Europe that is whole, that is free, and that is at peace, and we support the further integration of Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia as well with their European neighbors. When it comes to Ukraine and Moldova (inaudible) European Union.

For all of these countries, though, these are countries that over the course of now decades have expressed a desire for a closer relationship, closer proximity with the West. The United States has worked with all three of these countries to help them develop their democratic institutions, to help them develop their system of checks and balances; to help them develop their economies that are integrated with Europe and with the West; and we will continue to stand by them going forward.

The details of the accession processes and timelines, those, of course, are a decision for the EU and its member states, and so I would need to refer you to the EU for any specifics of that process.

Excuse me. Michel.

QUESTION: Ned, on the global food insecurity, what is the U.S. doing to help ease the situation globally and in the Middle East specifically?

MR PRICE: Well, we’ve had an opportunity to speak about food security quite a bit recently, including when Secretary Blinken convened a number of his fellow ministers – about 40 ministers – in New York last month at the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. This was a challenge that in some ways predates the Russian aggression, but there – certainly it is a challenge that has been compounded by what we call the three Cs: by COVID, by climate change, and now by conflict. And the fact is —

QUESTION: That was four Cs.

MR PRICE: I was counting climate change as one, but yes, thank you, Matt, if you want to be literal about it.

The – and, unfortunately, it is that final C, conflict, that has had an outsized implication for not only the region but also for much of the world. The fact is that Russia’s forces have attacked, they have taken offline grain silos. They are attacking Ukraine’s farmers. They are leaving Ukraine’s wheat fields and its other plots of arable land unusable. There is – there has been an effort to pursue Ukrainian ships at sea that have been carrying grain. And, of course, there is an ongoing blockade with ships now stuck in port that have some 20, 25 million tons of grain that countries around the world, including in the region but also well beyond the region, including in Africa and, as we heard recently at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, is needed in the Western Hemisphere as well.

So we’ve produced a global action plan that focuses on five lines of effort. First, we provided billions of dollars – more than $2.5 billion – in food security and other humanitarian assistance. In addition, the President last month signed the emergency supplemental request that provides more than $5 billion – $5.5 billion – in additional aid for food security around the world.

Second, we’re working with other countries to mitigate the global fertilizer shortage. President Biden recently announced a $500 million investment to increase domestic fertilizer production. We’re working with countries around the world to increase their own domestic levels of fertilizer production as well.

Third, we’re boosting agricultural capacity and resilience through the Feed the Future initiative, and this is a program that has been longstanding but is aimed at achieving greater longer-term resilience to food security, knowing that even if we are able to address the acute near-term crisis, that this will be a long-term challenge that we’ll need to address together.

Fourth, we’re taking measures to cushion the macroeconomic shocks of this crisis on the most vulnerable populations. We’re working with international financial institutions, international lending institutions, with international partners on this.

And fifth, we’re keeping the issue high on our diplomatic agenda. As I already alluded to, Secretary Blinken during the U.S. presidency at the UN, he thought food security deserved to be the headliner, deserved to be high on the agenda or the highest agenda item, and it was for that reason. And I will – I would expect that in the coming couple days we’ll have more to say about travel that the Secretary will be undertaking to advance this goal to see to it that we can address the near-term acute crisis and also the longer-term implications not only of COVID and climate change, but of course, Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and its attendant implications for global food security.

QUESTION: Should we expect solutions from the (inaudible) meeting?

MR PRICE: I don’t think any single meeting will be able to produce a solution. Of course, there are a number of countries, the United States included, that are looking at near-term practical steps we can take vis-à-vis the grain that is stuck in Ukraine’s ports. That’s something that we’ve worked on with the UN and Secretary-General Guterres. It’s something that our Turkish allies have been very engaged in. We’re supporting their efforts to see to it that Ukraine’s grain is to be released. Of course, it could be released tomorrow if Vladimir Putin were to authorize it, if he were to authorize what would be a purely humanitarian gesture that could save untold lives around the world, but that is something that he has not yet done.

I think the goal at the session at the UN – and the Germans have already spoken publicly to a session that Foreign Minister Baerbock is convening later this week in Berlin – but the goal of sessions like these is to continue to put a spotlight on the acute challenge we face to bring together countries that have potential food supplies, fertilizer supplies with those who need it as well as countries who have resources, whether it is food, whether it is funding or other resources to offer to give them an opportunity to make those connections.

Let me move around. Yes.

QUESTION: Move to PRC, China. Give us your comments about China’s claim of successful anti-ballistic missile interceptor test on Sunday as well as recent launch of domestically designed aircraft carrier.

Secondly, does the United States see the Taiwan Strait as international water?

MR PRICE: So on your first question, I just don’t have anything to offer on these announcements that we’ve seen from – excuse me – that we’ve seen from the PRC.

On the second question, we made clear last week, I believe it was, that the Taiwan Strait is an international waterway. That means that the Taiwan Strait is an area where high seas freedoms, including freedom of navigation, overflight, are guaranteed under international law. The world has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and we consider this central to the security and the prosperity of the broader Indo-Pacific region. We’re concerned by China’s aggressive rhetoric, its increasing pressure and intimidation regarding Taiwan, and we’ll continue, as we have said before, to fly, to sail, and to operate wherever international law allows, and that includes transiting through the Taiwan Strait.

Yes.

QUESTION: Two follow-up, actually, Mr. Price. So one, we have – as the war in Ukraine, it rages on, we might be more and more Americans being stranded, killed, or captured in Ukraine. And is there a discussion within the department to take some steps to stop the flow of American foreign fighters to Ukraine other than just issuing an advisory – travel advisories?

MR PRICE: At this point, we continue our efforts to encourage, to urge, to recommend, to do whatever we can to impart to Americans, well-meaning Americans, that they should not travel to Ukraine. They should not travel there because of the attendant dangers, but also because of the challenge you alluded to. We only recently were able to resume limited operations at our embassy in Kyiv. We are not able to provide the same level of services for American citizens who may be in Ukraine. That is part of the reason why before the February 24th start of this phase of Russians – Russia’s invasion, we encouraged Americans to depart Ukraine, and we are now doing everything we can to urge Americans not to travel there.

QUESTION: Also a follow-up to the – reopening up the consulate in Jerusalem. Why does reopening take so long? Like, what is the obstacle there? It’s just reopening the building. Like, transferring the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem did not take that long. What is preventing you from reopening the embassy?

MR PRICE: Obviously, these are complex issues. These are issues that we need to coordinate with the Government of Israel as well, but it’s an issue that we are committed to and we’re continuing to discuss that with our Israeli partners, with our Palestinian partners.

QUESTION: Why should you coordinate with the Israelis while you are opening a consulate for Palestinians?

MR PRICE: Because this will be in Jerusalem.

Francesco.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that France, a major European —

QUESTION: So wait a minute, again, but you – Jerusalem, as far as your policy is concerned, is divided.

MR PRICE: Well, that’s why I said we’re consulting with Israel —

QUESTION: You would not acknowledge that Israel —

MR PRICE: We’re consulting with Israelis and Palestinians.

Francesco.

QUESTION: Yeah, I was asking, are you concerned that France, a major European ally, goes through a rare political crisis with President Macron maybe being incapacitated in taking actions for a long time in the middle of a war in Europe, in international crisis?

MR PRICE: President Macron was just re-elected. He has – well, I’ll leave it to French voters to assess the results of those elections. But no, we know, just as I’ve said in other contexts during these briefings, that France is an ally of the United States. We have every bit of confidence that we will continue to work very closely with the Macron government going forward on the challenge that Russia presents and the other shared challenges that we face as allies.

QUESTION: Colombia? Can I have a question on Colombia, where you began?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Gustavo Petro is a leftist, so that was – that is the first leftist in – I think in Colombian history. He’s a former rebel. Last year we had also leftist candidates win the presidency in Chile, Peru, Honduras. We’ll probably have Lula da Silva coming back and so on. In your view, is that a repudiation of U.S. policy toward the – South America?

MR PRICE: These are the sovereign decisions of voters within sovereign countries. I don’t think it is in any way a reflection of American policy. I think the point that we heard repeatedly during the Summit of the Americas and something that applies equally to all countries across the globe is the challenge that all of our countries face, and that is seeing to it that our fellow democracies can deliver for our people. And I think whether it’s Colombia, whether it’s Brazil, whether it’s Israel, whether it’s France, whether it’s anywhere around the road – around the world where we have free and fair democratic elections, people are expressing their viewpoints based on unique circumstances.

But again, what unites, I think, much of what we’ve seen is a desire on the part of people around the world, especially in the midst of COVID, especially in the midst of the implications of climate change, especially in the midst of the economic recovery that we are seeking to advance, that people are looking for representatives who are able to deliver on those democratic promises.

Secretary Blinken, as you know, spoke to President-elect Petro last night and they had a very good conversation. They spoke about a number of issues, some of those issues that do implicate very – that are very real issues for people in both of our countries: public health, COVID, climate change and the environmental degradation that we’ve seen, the shared democratic values that unite both of our countries.

So whether it is the new government – or the incoming government, I should say – in Colombia, whether it is a partner around the world, we’ll be able to pursue our shared values and our shared interests.

QUESTION: I have a quick clarification question. Sorry to kind of switch gears here. But back on the American citizen killed in Ukraine, I know you said you don’t want to provide specific details due to the family’s privacy, but can the State Department confirm that he was killed in combat specifically?

MR PRICE: We have confirmed his death, but we have not confirmed details – specific details.

QUESTION: Were you able to confirm that it was combat-related?

MR PRICE: I’m not able to confirm any specific details.

Humeyra.

QUESTION: Just, Ned, super-quickly on Finland, Sweden, and NATO since next week is NATO summit. So it looks like the – this agreement between – well, Turkey saying no to Finland and Sweden’s NATO bids, that whole disagreement is not being resolved quickly. The U.S. has been saying that they would like to see these two countries join NATO relatively quickly, and the Turks yesterday said the summit next week is not a deadline. So is it also U.S. understanding now that you’re not – that the summit is not going to be a deadline and this sort of, like, disagreement may well expand beyond that? Or are you still hoping that this would be resolved by then?

MR PRICE: I don’t believe we’ve ever put a firm deadline on it. Of course —

QUESTION: But I mean, would you like this to continue for months?

MR PRICE: We —

QUESTION: I mean, from the very beginning you guys said that —

MR PRICE: We —

QUESTION: — you would hope to wrap this up fairly quickly given the war in Ukraine.

MR PRICE: No, of course. Of course, we would like it to be concluded swiftly, but this is a process that requires consensus by all of the NATO Allies. Of course, the Finns and the Swedes and the Turks have been engaged in discussions, tripartite discussions, bilateral discussions. We’ve heard from them. We’ve heard them characterize these discussions publicly as constructive and ongoing. We are not a party to these talks, but we’re lending support to our partners Finland and Sweden. We’ve also had an opportunity to discuss the issue broadly with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu and other Turkish officials.

I’ll do quick final questions.

QUESTION: And if you could, are there any other meeting – any other meeting between the Secretary and the foreign minister or president next week in Madrid?

MR PRICE: We haven’t announced anything yet. If there will be, we’ll announce it in due course.

Yes, final – I’ll go to you. I don’t believe you’ve had a chance today.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m Gabby. I’m with Jewish Insider.

MR PRICE: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

QUESTION: So my question is about there was a ban on kosher and halal slaughter in Belgium that was recently defeated, and my understanding is that American diplomats played a pretty big role in working with legislators there to vote that bill down. I’m wondering if there’s anything you could share about America’s involvement in that process.

MR PRICE: I am not immediately familiar with the details, but we’ll see if we can get you any details after this.

All right, thank you very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:20 p.m.)

# # #

Civilians Killed in Ethiopia

21 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

The United States is gravely concerned by reported killings of civilians in the Amhara community of the Oromia Region of Ethiopia this weekend. We mourn for the victims and extend our sincerest condolences to survivors and all those who lost loved ones in this horrific act. We also call on all Ethiopians to reject violence, and instead, pursue peaceful dialogue to resolve differences. National reconciliation must involve comprehensive, inclusive justice for victims and accountability for those responsible for human rights abuses and violations. Continued reports such as these underscore the urgency of ending the ongoing armed conflict in Ethiopia.

Holding the Nicaraguan Regime Accountable

17 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

The Ortega-Murillo regime for years has chipped away at Nicaragua’s democratic institutions and, along with a small circle of enablers, has allowed corruption and impunity to reign. Nicaragua is increasingly deepening its relationship with Russia as it turns its back on the Nicaraguan people.

Today, the United States took additional actions to promote accountability for the Ortega-Murillo regime’s attacks on civil liberties and democracy.  The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on Nicaraguan state-owned mining company ENIMINAS and the president of its board of directors, Ruy Delgado Lopez.  The Nicaraguan National Assembly’s 2017 creation of ENIMINAS increased the government’s involvement in the mining sector, notably gold mining.  The Ortega-Murillo regime promotes the gold mining industry, driving profits to its allies in the private sector and increasing ENIMINAS revenues that are managed by senior figures in the ruling party. As the Ortega-Murillo regime continues to isolate itself by repressing Nicaragua’s democracy and Nicaraguans’ human rights, it finds itself moving closer to other authoritarian nations like Russia.

On November 7, 2021, following months of repression and the imprisonment of more than 40 democratic leaders, including seven potential presidential candidates, opposition members, journalists, students and members of civil society, the Ortega-Murillo regime stole an election that denied Nicaraguans their ability to choose their own government.  By declaring victory after the fraudulent election, the regime entrenched itself in power and established a dynastic dictatorship similar to the Somoza regime, which the Sandinistas overthrew more than 40 years ago.  In the months that have followed, the Ortega-Murillo regime has closed over 500 non-governmental organizations and universities and refused to release the more than 180 political prisoners who remain unjustly detained.

With these new sanctions, the United States adds its voice to the international condemnation of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s malign behavior.  The United States joins the regional calls for a return to democracy in Nicaragua and will continue to use the diplomatic and economic tools available to us to promote accountability for the Ortega-Murillo regime.  We call again for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners.

For more information on today’s action, see the Treasury release .

Laurence R. Helfer Elected to the UN Human Rights Committee

17 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

We extend our congratulations to Professor Laurence R. Helfer on his election today to serve as an independent expert on the UN Human Rights Committee for the 2023-2026 term.   Professor Helfer is a distinguished scholar, lecturer, and professor of international human rights law, and will bring to this Committee a determined passion to protect and promote civil and political rights.

The Human Rights Committee is an important treaty body established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the United States views it as a key venue in which American values and perspectives are indispensable.  Professor Helfer is known globally as a tireless advocate for human rights, and the United States applauds his election.

U.S. Support for the Philippines in the South China Sea

17 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

The United States supports the Philippines in calling on the PRC to end its provocative actions and to respect international law in the South China Sea. We share the Philippines’ concerns regarding the PRC’s provocative actions interfering with Philippine sovereign rights within the Philippine exclusive economic zone near Second Thomas Shoal and massing vessels near Whitsun Reef. These actions are part of a broader trend of PRC provocations against South China Sea claimants and other states lawfully operating in the region.

The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in upholding the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as guaranteed under international law.

Department Press Briefing – June 16, 2022

17 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, DC

2:16 p.m. EDT

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. I come empty-handed, except to comment, once again, on just how frigid it is in this room, but hopefully we can all —

QUESTION: We’ve all been just saying, it’s a little bit warmer than yesterday. A little.

MR PRICE: That’s not saying much.

QUESTION: No, it’s not. Okay. Well, you came empty-handed, huh? All right. I just have one very brief one, and then —

MR PRICE: Sound like the voice of God in here.

QUESTION: Yeah, exactly. I should talk like this. Do you have any – have you managed to get any more information about these Americans who are allegedly – have allegedly been captured or detained in Ukraine?

MR PRICE: So this is something we’ve spoken to over the last day. We are limited in terms of what we can say on two fronts, first in terms of our privacy considerations and some unique considerations that we have as the Department of State, but also because we are limited in terms of what we know at the moment.

But I can tell you what we do know and what we can say. We are aware of unconfirmed reports of two U.S. citizens captured in Ukraine. We’re closely monitoring the situation. We are in contact with Ukrainian authorities, as well as with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the families of the two reported missing U.S. citizens. Of course, we’re not able to offer any more on that front because of privacy considerations.

But the broader message – and this is something you’ve heard from us previously, and it’s one we reiterate again today – is that we continue to urge in every way we can American citizens not to travel to Ukraine because of the attendant dangers that is posed by Russia’s ongoing aggression. There are many individuals in this country who are well-intentioned and who want to do everything they can to help the people of Ukraine. Of course, we all understand that. There are avenues and ways to channel that energy, to channel those efforts in ways that are constructive and ultimately helpful for the people of Ukraine, and you can find many of those on our website.

QUESTION: Can you just explain, if you can, who it is that you’re reaching out to for any information?

MR PRICE: Well, we’re reaching out to the Ukrainian Government to see if —

QUESTION: They don’t – it’s not them that has them if they are being held.

MR PRICE: No, of course. We are speaking to the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have discussed this issue broadly with other partners, including our British partners, for instance. If there are other avenues that we feel could shed light on the whereabouts of these two reported missing U.S. citizens, we will pursue that.

QUESTION: Well, okay. So you have not spoken to the Russians about this?

MR PRICE: As of today, we have not raised this yet with the Russian Federation. If we feel that such outreach through our embassy in Moscow or otherwise would be productive in terms of finding out more information on the whereabouts of these individuals, we won’t hesitate to do that.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you just – what would make it – what would make you think that it would be productive to reach out to the Russians? Some kind of proof of their captivity?

MR PRICE: Well, of course, we likewise haven’t seen anything from the Russians indicating that two such individuals are in their custody. If the Russians were to claim that they had such individuals, I assume we would pursue that. If we had reason to believe, credible reason to believe that these individuals were in Russian custody, we would pursue that as appropriate.

QUESTION: So just to put a very fine point on it, at this moment, you don’t have credible reason to believe that they are being held by Russia?

MR PRICE: At this moment, we have seen the open press reports, the same reports that you all have seen, but we don’t have independent confirmation of their whereabouts.

Shaun.

QUESTION: To follow up on that, I know you mentioned that you don’t have confirmation that the Russians have them, but in terms of what the message would be to the Russians – I mean the – supposedly, according to the reports from their families, they were volunteering with the Ukrainian military. What would be the expectations of treatment by the Russians? The Geneva Conventions, would that come into play?

MR PRICE: Well, the Russians have certain obligations, and members of the Ukrainian armed forces, including volunteers who may be third-country nationals incorporated into the armed forces, should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions and afforded the treatment and protections commensurate with that status, including humane treatment and fundamental process and fair trial guarantees. Under the Geneva Convention, POWs are entitled to combatant immunity and cannot be prosecuted for participation in hostilities. Russia’s obligations here are very clear: As a party to the Geneva Convention and the First Additional Protocol, they apply to its detention and treatment of anyone in the armed conflict, regardless of the status that person merits or that Russia purports to recognize of any such individual.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, the – I’m sure you’re aware of the case of British nationals recently who were caught up in the fighting there. What’s the signal from that in terms of how the Russians are treating foreign fighters there? Is there any cause for concern about how they’ve treated people caught with the Ukrainian forces?

MR PRICE: Well, of course, and we continue, as do our British partners, and we’ve been in touch with our British partners on specific cases and on the issue more broadly. The Russians have an obligation to afford humane treatment to anyone in their custody as a result of this conflict – humane treatment and fundamental process and fair trial guarantees. Anyone who is captured on the battlefield, who are members of the Ukrainian armed forces, including, again, volunteers who need not be Ukrainian nationals, who could be third-country nationals, should be afforded the full protections of the Geneva Conventions and the Laws of Armed Conflict.

QUESTION: Are they regular army, Ukrainian army soldiers?

MR PRICE: Again —

QUESTION: I mean, the Russians probably say, look, these guys are mercenaries.

MR PRICE: Again, I can’t —

QUESTION: We have – they have very severe and draconian kind of —

MR PRICE: Again, I can’t comment on specific cases.

QUESTION: Right.

MR PRICE: But individuals who are fighting in the effort as part of the Ukrainian armed forces are – they do have these protections. I’ll make this point, though. Even if not regarded officially by the Russian Federation as a prisoner of war, any person detained by Russia in connection with the conflict must be afforded fundamental guarantees, including humane treatment and fair trial rights, whether or not the Russians consider them POWs. Anyone who is fighting with Ukraine’s armed forces should be treated as a POW. Even if Russia refuses to do that, there are certain fundamental guarantees to which they should be afforded.

QUESTION: Would you warn or caution the Russians not to designate them as mercenaries?

MR PRICE: Of course. We – our message to them is that those members of the Ukrainian armed forces should be treated as POWs. Anyone captured on the battlefield should be afforded these same basic and fundamental guarantees.

Jenny.

QUESTION: Is this the first possible case of detained Americans by the Russians who were fighting in the war? Are there other cases that State is aware of?

MR PRICE: There are reports of one additional American whose whereabouts are unknown. I can’t speak to the specifics of that case. Unfortunately, we don’t know the full details of that case.

QUESTION: To your understanding, was this person fighting with the Ukrainians, this unknown —

MR PRICE: Similarly, our understanding was that this individual had traveled to Ukraine to take up arms.

QUESTION: Can you give a time on this of when this person was identified as missing?

MR PRICE: This has been in recent weeks.

Yes, Janne.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Do you mind if I just do one more on —

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: — one more on Ukraine? The – several European leaders visited Kyiv today and they voiced support for European Union membership for Ukraine. Obviously, the U.S. isn’t part of the European Union, but does the – do you have any stance on this in terms of what this means and what this could mean also potentially for NATO aspirations in the future for them?

MR PRICE: We certainly support Ukraine’s European aspirations. Our support since Ukraine’s independence has been to help place Ukraine on the path to help support its European aspirations. We continue to, and to this day, continue to work with Ukraine to realize those aspirations. Obviously, this is a question for the EU, but it is also an aspiration that we fully support.

QUESTION: Can I just go back to the – just – I just want to clarify something about – when you said about anyone who was taken off the – captured on the battlefield should be treated as a POW. Does that mean that anyone who – anyone at all or anyone who is in uniform? Because I’d like to – I don’t know if there’s a comparison to be made; I’m sure you will say there isn’t. But what about the battlefield in Afghanistan, where clearly the United States did not treat enemy combatants as POWs? Is there – are you making a distinction between what’s going on in Ukraine and what has happened in Iraq or Afghanistan?

MR PRICE: So, first, when it comes to Ukraine, again, our position is that members of the Ukrainian armed forces, whether they are Ukrainians or third-country nationals —

QUESTION: I’m talking – okay.

MR PRICE: — should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

When it comes to Afghanistan, all U.S. military detention operations conducted at Guantanamo Bay are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict – also known as the Law of War – or international humanitarian law, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and all other applicable international and domestic laws. So our position on this has been consistent.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. So those Geneva Conventions allow waterboarding and things like that?

MR PRICE: Go on.

QUESTION: No. Well, you can smile and nod, but really?

MR PRICE: Matt, we have —

QUESTION: These people were not treated as – and I understand if you’re trying to make – if you’re going to make a distinction between those people who may be terrorists or, quote/unquote, “enemy combatants” and those who are uniformed members of a military, but are you making that distinction, or are you saying that the U.S. has always treated anyone it’s taken prisoner on a battlefield as a prisoner of war?

MR PRICE: That – the policy of the United States has been that all U.S. military detention operations conducted at Guantanamo Bay are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, including the applicable portions of the Geneva Conventions.

QUESTION: Well, okay.

MR PRICE: Now, we have spoken —

QUESTION: Well, how about detentions in black sites in Europe?

MR PRICE: Now, we have spoken at length – we have spoken at length – not as much during this administration, but certainly during the last administration in which I served – about the ways in which America lost its way in some very notable instances in our pursuit, in our prosecution of the war on terrorism. I’m not here to relitigate that. I think we all have —

QUESTION: Okay. I’m not asking you, but I just want to know – I’m not asking you to relitigate it. I just want to know if you’re making – are you making a distinction between the two? Or are you just saying that, with some unfortunate exceptions, the U.S. has always hewed to the – to respecting the Laws of War?

MR PRICE: This has been our policy when it comes to detention operations at Guantanamo Bay.

QUESTION: Ned, do we know for sure whether they were wearing actual Ukrainian army uniforms with insignias and all that stuff, and a rank or anything like that?

MR PRICE: Said, as I said, I can’t speak to specific cases.

Yeah. Janne.

QUESTION: Thank you. On Russia, China, and North Korea, in a recent phone call with President – Russian President Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the Russian war was justified and supported Russia. What is your comment on China’s support of the unjustified Russian war?

MR PRICE: The alignment and the partnership between China and Russia is something that we’ve spoken quite a bit about, including in recent weeks. Secretary Blinken noted it during his speech recently on our approach to the PRC. To put it bluntly, we are concerned about China’s alignment with Russia. We have noted statements from the PRC claiming that China is neutral, but its behavior, its rhetoric, its actions suggest that it is anything but. It is still investing in close ties with Russia.

We’ve seen this from the earliest days of this conflict, even before this conflict. As Russia amassed its forces along Ukraine’s borders, President Xi on February 4th, about three weeks before the invasion began, when it was quite clear what was likely to happen, chose to announce what the PRC and Russia called a, quote/unquote, “no limits” partnership. And in the joint statement from – that emanated, 5,000 words from the meeting between those two world leaders, they put forward a vision of the world order that is profoundly illiberal, that is profoundly different from the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and beyond that the United States and our partners have not only espoused but have sought to promote and protect.

The vision that they put forward is a world in which might makes right, a world in which – contrary to decades of PRC statements regarding the inviolability of state sovereignty – where big states can bully small states, where countries are not able to exercise a discretion to choose their own partnerships, to adopt their own foreign policy, where in many ways coercion is the name of the game.

So in key respects, despite what we – what we hear from the PRC, a stance of stated and purported neutrality, the PRC has already made a choice. And more than three months now into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China – despite the atrocities that have been committed, despite the violence, despite the loss of life, despite the global implications including when it comes to food insecurity not only in the region but well beyond – China is still choosing to stand by Russia. It is still echoing Russian propaganda. Very disturbingly, it is echoing and propagating what are very clearly very dangerous Russian lies on many fronts. The PRC and Russia, of course, continue to shirk their obligations as members of the Permanent Five. The fact that the PRC is in many ways still denying the atrocities that have taken place inside Ukraine – the atrocities that we’ve seen with our own eyes thanks to the reporting from many of your organizations – I think speaks to the partnership and the choice that the PRC has made.

We’ve seen, of course, the recent phone call between the two leaders. Again, this position of stated neutrality on the part of the PRC is nothing more than a hollow statement. If the PRC actually believed in the principles that it has espoused over the course of many years, including in the UN Security Council over the course of many years, the approach that we would be seeing from the PRC would be markedly different from the approach that we’re seeing now.

QUESTION: Do you think China will be willing to support military aid to Russia, any movement or —

MR PRICE: Supporting humanitarian aid to Russia or to Ukraine?

QUESTION: I mean Russia, not Ukraine.

MR PRICE: Russia. I would have to defer to the PRC to speak to any humanitarian aid that they should be sending or that they are sending to Russia. We have been calling on the international community to send, of course, humanitarian aid to the people of Ukraine. And just yesterday, you heard from us of an additional $250 million in humanitarian assistance that we are providing for the people of Ukraine. All told, this is about a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance that we’ve provided to the people of Ukraine since the start of this conflict on February 24th. This is funding for the basic and fundamental needs of the Ukrainian people: clean water, sanitation, housing, food, nutrition, the basic essentials of daily life that in many ways have been imperiled by what the Russians are – what Russia’s forces are doing against the country and the people of Ukraine.

QUESTION: On North Korea, is there any response to the recent letter sent by the United States to North Korea?

MR PRICE: You heard from Secretary Blinken when he was standing next to his South Korean counterpart earlier this week that our approach is to make clear to the DPRK that we harbor no hostile intent. We seek diplomacy and dialogue in order to advance the prospects for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. You also heard him say we have not heard a response from the DPRK. That was just a few days ago. There has been no change to that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Ned, just going back to what you said about the Chinese policy and the idea, this “might makes right” and that the Chinese seem to be going into this following this idea that big states can dominate small states. So there are a lot of historians who would say that the United States itself has had that same policy towards – particularly towards countries in Latin America.

But since we’re talking about Taiwan in this instance, let’s talk about small island – islands that are off the coast of each country. How exactly would you describe U.S. policy towards Cuba? Is that not the case of what – the same thing of what you’re accusing the Chinese of doing with Taiwan? And if not, why not?

MR PRICE: Matt, I think you can compare what Beijing is doing to Taiwan with clear acts of intimidation, flying sorties into what are – what is clearly —

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Ned, you invaded.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: Are you going back 60 years? Is that where you’re going to?

QUESTION: Sure, yeah.

QUESTION: You have a long (inaudible) Cuba.

QUESTION: You can go back longer than – longer than that. I just want to know – I – again —

MR PRICE: Matt, we’ve had this – we’ve had this conversation before. I’m here to speak to the Biden administration, not to the Kennedy administration or the Eisenhower administration.

QUESTION: Okay. All right. Okay. So let’s talk about the Biden administration and its policy towards Cuba, which still has the embargo, right? Is that not a case of a big state trying to dominate a smaller state?

MR PRICE: This —

QUESTION: Which is exactly the same thing that you’re complaining that China is doing?

MR PRICE: This is a case of the United States seeking to help advance the democratic aspirations of the people of Cuba. If you take a look at what we have done, including in recent weeks, we’ve taken steps that —

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PRICE: — seek to fulfill those aspirations: family reunification, visa processing, providing support to Cuban entrepreneurs, taking measures of accountability on senior Cuban officials who have been responsible for the repression, including the renewed repression that has followed the July 11th protests. So our approach to Cuba, I think, is the comparison you’re trying to make.

QUESTION: I’m not trying to make the comparison. I’m asking you if you – if there is a comparison to make.

MR PRICE: Okay. So I guess the answer would be no. Yes. Great.

QUESTION: You clearly would say no. Okay. Fine.

MR PRICE: Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m going to switch topics, Ned. On the Palestinian issue, the Israeli police won’t release findings of the internal probe into conduct at the Abu Akleh funeral. Apparently they have the findings and they found that the police probably conducted themselves wrongly, but they will not release it. And in fact, it seems that Haaretz is saying that they have decided not to press any charges against anyone before even the investigation. Do you have any comment on this?

MR PRICE: Well, I am not aware that we’ve seen any sort of formal statement regarding the outcome of any investigation, but let me just say this: The footage from the funeral procession – and we said this shortly after the funeral procession – showed disturbing intrusions into what should have been a peaceful procession. We urged respect for the funeral procession, for the mourners, for the family at the time. We made the point at the time that every family deserves to be in a position to lay their loved ones to rest in a manner that is dignified, in a manner that is unimpeded, in a manner that is peaceful. And we’ve seen media reports that you allude to about the reported conclusion of the Israeli police’s investigation. We are seeking further information about the investigation and its outcomes if it has in fact been completed. We continue to believe that accountability is an important component of these disturbing events.

QUESTION: All right. Let me ask one more question on the Palestinian issue. Is there – yeah.

QUESTION: Sorry, do you mind if I follow up on that?

QUESTION: Please, yes. Please, by all means.

QUESTION: When you say you’re seeking further information, do you want the Israelis to release it publicly, the report on the – or to the United States?

MR PRICE: We are seeking further information from our Israeli partners. So certainly, to us, typically these investigations, the findings of them are released publicly, but that’s, of course, not our call.

QUESTION: But would you like them to release it publicly? I mean, is that —

MR PRICE: We – transparency and accountability go hand-in-hand in this case.

QUESTION: I remember you saying that the Israelis have the wherewithal to conduct a very solid and truthful investigation. Do you still believe that?

MR PRICE: Still believe that.

QUESTION: Do you still believe that they have that wherewithal to do it?

MR PRICE: Certainly have the capabilities to do it.

QUESTION: They have the capabilities?

MR PRICE: And we continue to call on the Israelis to do just that, both in the case of the funeral procession and in the underlying event – of course, the tragic, horrific killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about Gaza. It’s been 15 years since Gaza became under siege basically – by land, by sea, by air, all these things. And there are reports that some 800,000 children in Gaza have never known anything but the blockade – but the blockade. Isn’t it time to really lift this blockade and allow some humanitarian supplies to go in, allow Gazans to go to school, allow them to go to – to travel abroad and so on, allow them to go to the West Bank?

MR PRICE: Said, when we came into office, we made a point of revitalizing relationships that had completely atrophied or disintegrated over the prior four years. Two of those relationships were with the Palestinian Authority but also with the Palestinian people. It is important to us that we are in a position to be a humanitarian leader around the world, and that includes for the Palestinian people, and that includes for the Palestinian people in Gaza. We are providing assistance, to include shelter, food, relief items, health care, as well as mental health and psychological support, for those who have experienced trauma. As we do around the world, we’ll provide this assistance in the West Bank and Gaza through experienced and trusted independent partners on the ground who distribute directly to people in need.

The point we’ve made consistently when it comes to this conflict and this dynamic is that Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of security, of stability, of peace, of freedom, and critically, of dignity. And by providing this humanitarian aid, not only is it the right thing to do, but our goal is to help foster the conditions so that we can move towards the prospect of a two-state solution. And of course, no one believes that the time is ripe now for such substantial movement. No one is confident that now is the right time that we are going to see progress in the next day or the next couple weeks.

But our goal, our charge has been to try to create those conditions, and part of that has been through the significant humanitarian support that we’ve provided, including in Gaza. We announced over the course of the last year hundreds of millions of dollars in support, including through UNRWA, a funding source that we’ve been able to revitalize and a funding source that is a critical source of subsistence of survival for many in Gaza.

QUESTION: Well, I am certain that many Palestinians are grateful to the restoration of aid to UNRWA, because it’s really UNRWA has kept the Palestinians educated and with health care available to them and so on. But deserving something, because you said the Palestinians and the Israelis deserve to be – to have the same opportunities and so on – deserving it, deserving something and getting it are two different things. I’m not letting anyone off the hook. Your allies – Egypt, Israel, and even the PA, the Palestinian Authority – have taken part in imposing this blockade on Gaza. I am asking you, hasn’t the time come to lift this blockade?

MR PRICE: The time has come to do all we can to support the people, the Palestinian people, in Gaza. That’s what we are doing, including through our humanitarian assistance.

Yes.

QUESTION: On this, Ned —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Please, did the administration ask Israel not to take any steps regarding the settlements before the President’s trip to Israel and the West Bank?

MR PRICE: Michel, you have been in this room long enough to know that we have consistently delivered a message, both in public and in private, that encourages both sides, Israeli and Palestinians, to avoid steps that only serve to exacerbate tensions and potentially move us even further away from the prospect of a two-state solution. So that has been a message that we have conveyed nearly since day one of this administration.

QUESTION: Although isn’t it also true that that message has been universally ignored?

MR PRICE: Matt, I would not —

QUESTION: By both sides?

MR PRICE: Obviously, we have worked closely with both sides to de-escalate tensions. We’ve done that, including in recent months. We spoke of a period of heightened tensions as the three major religions celebrated their holy days nearly simultaneously. It was during that period – it was – it has been in the weeks since that we’ve continued to work very closely. The Secretary has a number of – has had a number of calls with the foreign minister, Foreign Minister Lapid. He’s had a number of calls with President Abbas. As you know, Barbara Leaf was just in Ramallah meeting with President Abbas. Barbara Leaf was just in Israel meeting with our Israeli counterparts as well. So we continue to send that very clear message.

Yes.

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PRICE: Please.

QUESTION: You said you are encouraging always – you’ve been saying encouraging both sides to refrain from doing those kind of thing. But what if encouraging has been proven years and years is not working?

MR PRICE: I’m sorry. I missed the last part of the question.

QUESTION: What if encouraging – I mean, the Israelis in this case about the settlement. What if encouragement policy is not working? There is any alternative?

MR PRICE: We continue to believe that a two-state solution is in the best interests of Israel and the Palestinian people. Again, only through a two-state solution can we – can Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state be guaranteed living next to a sovereign, independent state for the Palestinians. That continues to be our long-term goal.

Of course, as I said before, it is a long-term goal because the conditions are not right for it at the moment. To your point, we are doing what we can in the moment to de-escalate tensions and to support those underlying conditions, including through our humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, so that we can one day – and hopefully one day before too long – get to a point where the time is right to engage in direct talks to move much more directly towards that two-state solution.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I have three questions on my favorite topic, on Iran.

So yesterday there was a hearing, a classified hearing, in Congress where Rob Malley attended and Brett McGurk. Senators were – when they came out after the hearing, they were pessimistic. And Marco Rubio said that it’s inevitable that Iran will have a nuclear bomb. Do you share this pessimism, and can you just update us on anything regarding potential talks or lack of them on the nuclear issue? That’s number one.

MR PRICE: So we do not believe it is inevitable that Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And in fact, President Biden has made a commitment that Iran will never be – never acquire a nuclear weapon. Senator Cardin, coming out of the briefing yesterday, he called it one of the more informative and significant classified briefings that he had experienced. He said as to the different options that are available, it was very informative.

There have been a number of senators, of course, who have voiced their opinions on the question of Iran’s nuclear program. The fact is that it’s a challenge and it’s a very – it’s an exceedingly difficult challenge where there are few, if any, good options. And we are where we are in large part because of decisions that were made before this administration came into office.

We still believe there is the potential to conclude a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if Iran were to set aside issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA and to focus on the contours of the agreement that have been on the table for some time now. We are continuing to push for that and to work closely with our European partners towards that end, because we continue to believe, as do a number of lawmakers on the Hill – and you’ve heard from several of them yesterday – we continue to believe that it would be profoundly in America’s national interest if we were able to return to mutual compliance with the Iran deal, principally because it would require Iran to once again be limited by the strictest, the most intrusive inspections and monitoring regime ever negotiated and subject to the strict limits that the JCPOA places on Iran’s nuclear program.

Now, it’s an open question if we can get there. There’s a lot to suggest we won’t be able to. But we are and have been preparing equally for scenarios where there is a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA and the scenario where there is not, and a scenario where we will continue to work closely with our partners and allies, but working with those same partners and allies we will pursue a different approach that will nonetheless ensure that we’re able to live up to the commitment President Biden has made that Iran will never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: Okay. I’m not going to ask you about plan B because I know the answer. But we have seen widespread protests in Iran. I’m bringing you back to different administrations that Matt was alluding to. During the Obama administration there was a Green Movement. Do you think that this can be closer to anything that could be harnessed or be interpreted as a protest against the regime, or do you think it’s just basically it’s just people asking for basic demands, considering what’s happened in terms of prices, et cetera? And will the administration support these protests?

MR PRICE: Well, we’ve seen this dynamic previously in Iran, that they usually start with a proximate cause, and then they expand to take on a broader cause. What we’re seeing now is brave Iranians demanding that their government address their legitimate concerns. Iran’s government’s mismanagement and neglect have left the Iranian people with their most basic needs largely unmet.

And we condemn the use of violence against peaceful protesters. We support the human rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves without fear of violence or retribution. This is the very same message that we’ve delivered the world over.

The Secretary has made clear as well that we condemn the partial or complete government-imposed internet shutdowns, among other tactics that we’ve seen the Iranian Government attempt to resort to, to prevent the exercise of freedom of expression online and to restrict the ability of independent journalists to serve the public. As we do around the world, we support the right of peaceful protesters.

And since 2014, in this case, the Treasury Department has authorized the provision of a wide range of personal communications software and services to Iranians. This is something that we do around the world to see to it that efforts on the part of governments to stifle the ability of their citizens to communicate, to exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, to freedom of assembly, cannot be trampled. And we’ll continue to work with the private sector and the Treasury Department to identify additional measures to support and facilitate the free flow of information inside of Iran.

QUESTION: One last question on Iran. We have seen lately an assassination of many Iranian scientists. That cannot be a coincidence. So do you think this is, like, part of a containment policy on one of your allies, in the face of the much talked about there is – that Iran talks are not going anywhere?

MR PRICE: I’m just not in a position to comment one way or the other on that. But we have a commitment – it’s a commitment we share with many of our allies and partners around the world – that Iran will never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you about your choice of a senator that you wanted to quote after that hearing? Was Senator Cardin the only person who you could find who came out of that hearing having been impressed? And the reason I’m asking is because if you don’t remember, I’ll remind you how he voted on the JCPOA back in 2015. He voted against it.

MR PRICE: And Matt, the fact is that there are a number of – I don’t want to speak to lawmakers, but I will speak to —

QUESTION: Well, do you have anyone else there that you can cite?

MR PRICE: I will speak to —

QUESTION: Or is he the only one?

MR PRICE: I will —

QUESTION: And if he was the only one, I might – you might want to ask your people who gave you that —

MR PRICE: No, but Matt, I —

QUESTION: Why choose someone who voted against the deal?

MR PRICE: No, but I think that’s actually an important point.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR PRICE: There are a number of countries, there are a number of world leaders, who in 2015 weren’t enthusiastic about the JCPOA, but given where we are now, given the awful choices that were made before this administration came into office, there are a number of world leaders – and I don’t want to speak for lawmakers but there may be lawmakers in this country – who find the JCPOA as the best alternative to what we have now.

QUESTION: So you think that his comments were indicative of him potentially changing his vote?

MR PRICE: I am, of course, not speaking to Senator Cardin or —

QUESTION: Or Senator Menendez or Senator Coons or essentially everyone on the committee except for Senators Van Hollen and Murphy?

MR PRICE: Part of the – a part of our engagement with Congress has been to make very clear, based on the intelligence, the scale of the challenge that we face with Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, none of us wishes that we were in this position. We wouldn’t be in this position if the last administration had not decided to scrap the JCPOA that was manifestly working – working according to this building, according to our Intelligence Community, according to the IAEA.

But we don’t have the option of going back in time. We do have the option of going back into the JCPOA. If we were to go back into the JCPOA, we would be in a better position vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program. The fact is – and yesterday the briefers went into more detail and they have in the past as well – the breakout time has diminished significantly. It can now be measured not in months, not in a year as it was upon the implementation of the JCPOA in January of 2016, but in weeks or potentially even less. So the options we have, there is no silver bullet. But we do have an option that may still be in the offing – it is still in the offing if Iran decides to come to the table in a way that, that sets aside issues that are extraneous – to put us in a much more advantageous position when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.

Now, one final point on this. Iran’s nuclear program is the most proximate challenge and threat we face from Iran. But it, of course, is not the only one – its ballistic missile program, support for proxies, its support for terrorist groups, its exportation of instability throughout the region. All of these things are challenges, threats that we could address much more effectively were the challenge of a nuclear – unconstrained Iranian nuclear program no longer on the table. If we’re to set that aside, we would have much more – excuse me – bandwidth and ability to address challenges that are also urgent and important to us and our partners.

Yes, Shannon.

QUESTION: On sanctions levied against Russia, there are reports that some administration officials are increasingly questioning their efficacy, whether they’re hitting average citizens harder than the Kremlin, and whether they’re driving up – significantly driving up global inflation. Now, does the department still stand by its strategy, and what level of collateral damage is acceptable?

MR PRICE: We do still stand by our strategy, and it is a strategy that is not only targeted – it is targeted at the Kremlin; it is targeted at the cronies and support networks behind key decision makers in Russia – it is a strategy that entails not only financial sanctions but export controls that, both in the near term and even more so over the longer term, starve Russia of what it needs for its industrial base, for its technological base, for its defense base, and other critical and strategic sectors. I think you can look at a number of metrics that point to the effectiveness of this strategy. I saw a report today from the Russian central bank, the Russian central banker, in which he conceded the point that Russia’s economy would not be the same as it was prior to February 24th.

Prior to February 24th, we repeatedly made the point, together with our partners and allies, that we would enact measures that were significant and severe if Russia were to go forward with its invasion. Russia has made the choice that it did. We in turn followed through on the commitment that we made.

Now, there are important carveouts when it comes to our sanctions as well. We’ve spoken of the need to maintain a steady global supply of energy. So there are applicable carveouts there. We have spoken of the imperative of doing everything we can, contrary to what Vladimir Putin is doing, to combat this challenge, this growing challenge of food insecurity. It is President Putin whose forces are destroying grain silos, who have destroyed ships at sea carrying grain foodstuffs, who have destroyed agricultural fields and crops, and who are now continuing to enact a blockade that is preventing Ukrainian ships laden with 20 or more tons of grain from leaving port and going to destinations around the world. That is what Vladimir Putin is doing. What we have done is to ensure that all of our sanctions have applicable carveouts so that fertilizer and food is not subject to any of the measures that we have put in place. We’ll continue – this is an urgent challenge for us – to see to it that the impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine are –that we do as much as we can to address them.

Our goal is to make these measures – the financial sanctions, the export controls, the other applicable measures – as painful for the Kremlin, for key decision makers, while we do everything we can to dilute the costs not only here at home but to other countries, to other people around the world.

Yes.

QUESTION: On – a follow-up on Iran. You just said you believe that it’s hopeful that they return to the JCPOA if Iran come back to the table. The question: What are you doing to bring Iran back to table? We have seen that you just today imposed some sanction on Iranian petrochemical networks. What are you doing to bring Iran, and is there a deadline for that deal? Is there a deadline that if that deal has not been signed, then there is no meaning to go through?

MR PRICE: There is a deadline. The deadline is the day upon which the benefits of returning to the JCPOA are outweighed and outgained by the advancements that Iran continues to make in its nuclear program. The reason we are pursuing a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is because it continues to be in the national security interest of the United States and in the collective interests of our international allies and partners as well. That won’t always be the case, and it won’t always be the case precisely because Iran is continuing to take steps that would be otherwise prohibited under the JCPOA – spinning advanced centrifuges, stockpiling levels of uranium, stockpiling heavy water, doing everything that were it to once again be subject to the strict limitations of the JCPOA would be off the table.

What we’re doing to entice Iran – this is – we have made very clear that we have a genuine intent to return to the JCPOA as long as Iran does so. We have worked together with our European allies and also with the original P5+1 partners, and that of course includes Russia and China, for 15 months now on these negotiations. The negotiations have, in many ways, culminated in the contours of an agreement that could be signed and could be implemented in short order if Iran made the decision to do so. It is up to Iran to decide if it wants to return to compliance or not. If Iran chooses not to do so, if it chooses to continue to raise issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA, we have other options that are available to us. These are other options that we’ve discussed with our allies and partners over the course of many months, and we’ll pursue them.

QUESTION: We are talking about weeks for breakout time. You have been from this podium saying that the Iranians are away just four weeks from acquiring it. When is that deadline actually? When is that deadline when the JCPOA is not going to work anymore? Iranians are just far away from the nuclear weapon four weeks.

MR PRICE: The deadline is when it’s no longer in our national security interest to pursue it. It continues to be the case that a mutual return to compliance would put us in a far preferable position to where we are now. But again, that won’t always be the case.

QUESTION: And also another topic?

QUESTION: Can I —

QUESTION: Yeah. Greece is increasingly arming the islands just miles away from Turkey that are limited under certain agreements. What is the U.S. position under – on this topic, and do you endorse this militarization of islands?

MR PRICE: Our position on this is the same one you heard a couple weeks ago, and the sovereignty and territory – territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and protected. We continue to encourage our NATO Allies – Greece and Turkey in this case – to work together to maintain peace and security in the region and to resolve their differences diplomatically. We urge our allies to avoid rhetoric that could further raise tensions. Greece and Turkey, of course, are both strong partners. They’re key NATO Allies to the United States, and we will continue to urge both of them to de-escalate tensions.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. This is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan. We have seen a rise in Islamophobia in India. A few weeks ago, members of Indian ruling party BJP made demeaning comments about Prophet Mohammed. On this, there are protests going on in India, while the houses of protesting Muslims are being bulldozed. Would you like to say something about these hate crimes committed by Indian Government against Muslims and other minorities?

MR PRICE: Well, this is something that we’ve condemned. We condemn the offensive comments made by two BJP officials, and we were glad to see that the party publicly condemned those comments. We regularly engage with the Indian Government at senior levels on human rights concerns, including freedom of religion or belief, and we encourage India to promote respect for human rights.

The Secretary said when he was last in New Delhi, last year, that the Indian people and the American people, we believe in the same values: human dignity, human respect, equality of opportunity, and the freedom of religion or belief. These are fundamental tenets, these are fundamental values within any democracy, and we speak up for them around the world.

QUESTION: Sir, India and other Asian nations are becoming an increasingly vital source of oil revenues for Moscow, despite strong pressure from the U.S. Are you still talking with the Indian authorities on that, offering something else then? You can sell more oil to them they don’t get from Moscow?

MR PRICE: We have had a number of discussions with our Indian partners, and the point that we have made is that every country is going to have a different relationship with Moscow. India’s relationship with Russia is one that developed over the course of decades, and it developed over the course of decades at a time when the United States wasn’t prepared or able to be a partner of choice for the Indian Government.

That has changed. This is a legacy of a bipartisan tradition now that has been the case for more than two decades. It goes back really to the Clinton administration, certainly to the George W. Bush administration, where the United States has sought a partnership with India, has sought to be a partner of choice for India, including when it comes to the security realm. Now, this is not a partnership that we were able to build in the course of days, weeks, or months. I mentioned before that India’s relationship with Russia was built up over the course of many decades. As countries reorient their relationship with Moscow, as we have seen many of them do, this will be a gradual process.

But throughout it all, we have made clear to our Indian partners that we are there for them, we are ready and able and willing to partner with them, and we’ve done just that. Of course, we had a 2+2 dialogue with our Indian partners not too long ago. We will see Prime Minister Modi once again in the context of the I2-U2, the arrangement we have with —

QUESTION: You need to come up with a better name.

MR PRICE: — with the UAE and Israel along with India, incorporating India into many of the partnerships we have, including, of course, the Quad. And that is a group that this administration has sought to revitalize and has done so at very high levels, including at the leader level on – four times and —

QUESTION: I have one last question. Has there been progress in U.S.-Pakistan relations under the very new Pakistani Government? Because we have seen the former prime minister Imran Khan still selling the conspiracy theories. So is there any progress or contact with the new Pakistani Government?

MR PRICE: Well, we have had a couple occasions now to meet with representatives of the new Pakistani Government. We – when we were in New York last month for the food security ministerial, Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to sit down with his Pakistani counterpart to meet him face-to-face in his position for the first time. It was a very good, constructive discussion regarding the full range of issues, including the issue of food security. We were there in New York at the time to deal with it and to deal with the many aftereffects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That was also a topic of discussion.

But Pakistan is a partner of ours, and we will look to ways to advance that partnership in a manner that serves our interest and our mutual interests as well.

Jenny.

QUESTION: Do you have any update on Brittney Griner or Paul Whelan? Has there been any contact between the U.S. and Russia since her pretrial detention was extended?

MR PRICE: So I mentioned this yesterday that we had not received any prior formal notification from the Russian Government before it was later announced that her pretrial detention had been extended by another couple weeks. Of course, what we heard yesterday was another injustice heaped upon what was already injustice: the fact that Brittney Griner has been in detention, wrongfully so, for months now; similarly with Paul Whelan, someone who has been in Russian detention for years.

We have called for the release of both of them beyond making these public calls. We are working assiduously behind the scenes, quietly, to do everything we can to see to it that they are released as soon as possible. And those are efforts that continue day in and day out.

QUESTION: So no conversation since the extension, then?

MR PRICE: I don’t have any to read out to you.

QUESTION: Can I quickly follow up on the third missing American in Ukraine? I know you’re limited by the Privacy Act, but does the State Department have an understanding of who this individual is, and are you in touch with their family?

MR PRICE: We are in touch with the family, yes.

Ian.

QUESTION: Can you give a sense of whether there’s any update on plans to free up the grain from Ukraine and what the assessment of the department is on the state of talks in terms of Russian security assurances or any – any talks?

MR PRICE: Sure. So as I mentioned before, this is something that we have been focused on because it is a very clear implication of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. We’re working tirelessly to help the Ukrainian Government assess alternative routes, to increase the capacity at cross-border points, and to explore the use of mobile equipment among other tactics, as well as temporary storage solutions, to help move some of this grain out from Ukraine.

In May – of course, don’t want to paint a rosy picture here, but in May these efforts, combined with the collaboration with the EU and other international partners, assisted the Ukrainian Government export 1.7 million metric tons of grain. That was more grain than had been extorted – exported the month prior. Now, it is nowhere near it needs – where it needs to be in terms of Ukraine’s export capabilities, and so that’s why we continue to look at alternative solutions.

As you know, Secretary-General Guterres of the UN has been working very closely with our Turkish allies, with our Ukrainian partners, and with the Russians as well to explore potential solutions and maritime routes.

The fact is that there is one individual who could have an overwhelming effect on the availability of Russia’s – excuse me, Ukraine’s grain today, tomorrow, and that is Vladimir Putin. If the blockade against the ports were to be lifted, that would free up tons of Ukrainian grain that has been sitting in ships that have been blocked in port for months now. We continue to call on the Russian Government to do what it can – and it can do a lot – to alleviate this growing challenge of food insecurity. Until and unless we see a change in Russia’s posture, we’ll continue to work with our Ukrainian partners. We’ll continue to support the efforts of our Turkish allies, of the UN secretary-general, to devise alternative solutions.

QUESTION: Ned, a question on —

MR PRICE: A couple – I’m going to move around so we – yes, please.

QUESTION: On a different subject.

MR PRICE: Okay, yes.

QUESTION: On Indo-Pacific region, White House Coordinator Kurt Campbell said today the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and France will announce the new Pacific Islands Initiative next week. Could you tell us a bit more about it?

MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to speak to it, but it sounds like we’ll have more details before too long.

A couple final questions. Yes.

QUESTION: Going back to human right violation in Iran, yesterday United Nations High Commission for Human Rights published a letter signed by 11 human right experts warning about a violent civil society crackdown happening in Iran. In recent days, we are witnessing a very widespread crackdown against different communities – teachers, retired communities. Any reaction do you have about the OFCHR’s letter?

MR PRICE: This is related to what we were just saying about the fundamental rights of the protesters in Iran to peacefully express and to exercise their basic and fundamental rights. We applaud the work of the UN human rights experts. They expressed, quote, “serious concerns” about a violent crackdown against civil society in Iran, including members of workers unions and teachers arrested for protesting their low salaries and their poor working conditions.

The experts urged accountability for those responsible for using excessive force against the peaceful protesters. They said that they were alarmed at the recent escalation of alleged – allegedly arbitrary arrests of teachers, labor rights defenders, union leaders, lawyers, human rights defenders, other civil society actors.

They went on to make the point that in the absence of meaningful channels of participation in Iran, peaceful protesters are now the sole remaining means for individuals and groups to express themselves and to share their grievances with the authorities. And they were deeply concerned that first response, the first response by the authorities, is that of excessive use of force against the protesters. That is certainly a concern of ours. It’s why we condemned the use of violence against these peaceful protesters. We made the point that we support the right of these protesters to peacefully exercise their fundamental freedoms.

QUESTION: So your hope for returning to talks, does it prevent you to impose human right-related sanctions against Iran? Are they related?

MR PRICE: Of course not. Of course not. We will continue to hold Iran accountable for human rights abuses that take place inside of Iran. We will continue to hold Iran accountable for every strain of nefarious activity that it undertakes.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR PRICE: Yes, Michel.

QUESTION: I have two questions. One, news stories that say that Senior Advisor Hochstein will be in Israel next week to discuss the border issue between Israel and Lebanon. Is that true?

MR PRICE: I don’t have any travel to announce.

QUESTION: Second, the Special Tribunal of Lebanon has sentenced to life in prison two Hizballah members for their part in the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Do you have any comment on that?

MR PRICE: We welcome the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s unanimous judgment that Hizballah operatives Hassan Merhi and Hussein Oneissi be sentenced to life in prison for their role in the 2005 terrorist attack. That attack killed 22 individuals, including the former prime minister. It injured a couple hundred more – 226 people. The judgment represents a significant overdue milestone in pursuit of justice for the people of Lebanon.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Said. Last question.

QUESTION: A quick question on the President’s trip. Yesterday, John Kirby said that it includes – we got an agenda – the portion in Saudi Arabia, I think suggesting that there may be some sort of announcement on Yemen. Do you expect anything regarding the war in Yemen on this trip?

MR PRICE: Sorry, I didn’t catch the last —

QUESTION: I mean, is there anything that we can expect, something big to be announced, like maybe in the war, kind of a thing?

MR PRICE: Well, I can’t speak to what will be announced a month from now when the President travels to the region. But of course, there recently was a big announcement, two big announcements, in fact.

For the first time in more than seven years, there is a humanitarian truce that has not only persisted, it was extended, and we’re now in its ninth week. But it has led to lower levels of violence, and it has also importantly led to humanitarian assistance flowing into parts of Yemen that had been bereft of humanitarian assistance for far too long.

We’ll continue to work with the UN special envoy. We’ll continue to work with our partners in the region, including our Saudi partners, who were indispensable in achieving this humanitarian truce, in achieving the extension to consolidate it, and to see to it that we can work together to bring greater levels of stability, security, ultimately peace and prosperity, to Yemen.

QUESTION: Can you comment on naming the street on which the Saudi embassy sits after Jamal Khashoggi?

MR PRICE: I cannot. I cannot.

Thank you all very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:19 p.m.)

Mass Sentencing of Opposition Activists in Cambodia

16 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

The United States is deeply concerned by the June 14 mass conviction of opposition activists in Cambodia, including Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng.  The sentencing of these opposition activists, many of whom are associated with the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), is the latest instance in an alarming pattern of threats, intimidation, and persecution of opposition political leaders and parties. These actions undermine multiparty democracy and the rule of law.

All Cambodians should be able to exercise their human rights, to express their views freely, to assemble peacefully, and to choose their leaders.  We call on Cambodian authorities to release all those unjustly detained, including Theary Seng, and protect freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, consistent with Cambodia’s constitution and its international obligations and commitments.

The United States stands with the Cambodian people and remains steadfast in support of their aspirations for democracy and human rights.

Designation of Anton Thulin as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist

15 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

The U.S. government remains deeply concerned about the evolving racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist (REMVE) threat worldwide.  An element of it entails violent white supremacists traveling internationally to train and fight with likeminded individuals.  As part of our efforts to counter this threat, the Department of State is designating Anton Thulin as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) pursuant to Executive order (E.O.) 13224, as amended, for posing a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism.

Additionally, the Department of the Treasury is designating, under E.O. 13244, Stanislav Shevchuk for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM); and Alexander Zhuchovsky for materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, RIM.

RIM, which was designated by the Department of State as an SDGT in 2020, is an ultranationalist, white supremacist group based in Russia that provides paramilitary-style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis and plays a prominent role in attempting to rally Europeans and Americans into a common front against perceived enemies.

In 2016, Anton Thulin, a Swedish citizen, traveled to St. Petersburg and received paramilitary training from RIM, including in bomb-making.  In 2017, a Swedish court convicted Thulin and sentenced him to 22 months in prison in connection with the detection of a powerful homemade bomb near a refugee residential center in Gothenburg, Sweden.  After serving his sentence, Thulin sought to receive additional paramilitary training in Poland, before he was expelled by Polish authorities who cited the “serious, real, and current threat to security and public order” he posed.

The United States is designating Anton Thulin because his continued pursuit of terrorist training, even after serving his prison sentence for his role in the 2017 attack in Sweden, demonstrates that he continues to pose a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism.

As a result of these actions, U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with those designated today.  Their property and interests in property subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked.  Terrorist designations expose and isolate entities and individuals and prevent them from exploiting the U.S. financial system.  Moreover, designations can assist the law enforcement activities of U.S. agencies and other relevant enforcement entities and governments.

Department Press Briefing – June 14, 2022

15 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, DC

2:24 p.m. EDT

MR PRICE: Just a couple things at the top. First, we are very pleased to welcome today five journalists visiting us from Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. These journalists are here part of the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship, a unique joint initiative between RFE/RL and the Czech Republic for aspiring journalists in support of pluralism, press freedom, and media independence everywhere. Welcome to you all. Welcome to the State Department.

And before we begin, allow me just a moment of personal privilege. And I need to stop making a habit out of this, but we have another very sad departure from my team. JT Ice, who has served as our deputy spox for the past two-plus years, just over two years, having started in June of 2020, will be moving on today. Today is his final day, I am very sad to say. JT, as you all know, is a career member of the Foreign Service. He has had a storied career overseas, here as well, and his tenure on the spokesperson’s team across these two administrations has been a fine example of that.

I met JT on January 20th around 8:30 in the morning or so, and he’s been by my side ever since. I could not have done the job without him, without his expertise, without his experience, without his wise counsel at every step of the way. So JT will be sorely missed, not only by me but everyone in the bureau, everyone on my team, and many, many people in this department. Of course, he’s not going far. He is going to the very pleasant confines of the Naval War College for a tour there before he continues with his next adventure in the Foreign Service.

So JT, thank you. And with that, turn to your questions.

QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. Welcome back. And JT, have fun in Rhode Island. I hope they’re ready for you there.

Can I just very briefly – is something wrong with the —

MR PRICE: I think the floor is yours.

QUESTION: There was – there was an echo. Before we – I just want to ask very briefly if you’re aware of Brittney Griner’s detention being extended by the Russians.

MR PRICE: So I’ve seen those reports. I’ve seen the reports emanate from Russia that her detention has been extended. Our position for some time on this has been very clear: Brittney Griner should not be detained. She should not be detained for a single day longer. We have characterized her, we have characterized Paul Whelan, who has also spent far too long in Russian detention, as wrongful detainees. The team here, individuals around the world, are working around the clock to secure and to effect their safe and prompt release and also the safe and prompt release of wrongful American detainees around the world.

QUESTION: But were you aware – was the embassy aware that there was a hearing or that this was a possibility today? Was there an actual hearing that anyone was able to go to?

MR PRICE: My understanding is that we became aware through TASS.

QUESTION: So nothing?

MR PRICE: I was —

QUESTION: And subsequent to the TASS report, have you been able to confirm with Russian authorities that this is, in fact, the case?

MR PRICE: To confirm that her detention has been extended?

QUESTION: Right.

MR PRICE: Look, we are in constant contact regarding her case. We are in constant contact with her team and her network back here at home. I think you all have seen that yesterday representatives of the department, representatives of the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, and a senior representative from our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs met with the Phoenix Mercury, as they are here, so we are regularly keeping them apprised of her case.

We were last able to have consular access to Brittney Griner last month. We continue to press for regular, continued access to all American detainees who are in pretrial detention, whether they are unjustly detained, as is Brittney Griner, or whether they are facing criminal charges. This is a case that we are working assiduously behind the scenes. We’ve been in regular contact with Russian authorities regarding it.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I mean, is it problematic for you? Are you going to complain to the Russians that you were given no —

MR PRICE: Well, of course it’s problematic. Her detention —

QUESTION: No, no. Well, I get —

MR PRICE: Her —

QUESTION: I get the entire detention is —

MR PRICE: Let’s leave aside – let’s leave aside —

QUESTION: Okay. But what happened today – right, I get that the entire thing is problematic for you. I understand that. But I’m talking about specifically what happened today, the fact that you learned about it from a state news agency and there was no apparent – no notification to the embassy or the consular officials there. Is that in particular a problem for you?

MR PRICE: I don’t want to speak for the embassy and whether they had any contact prior to this. I can tell you that everyone I’ve spoken to learned of it today from the news reports. But to your question, absolutely this is problematic. This case is problematic from top to bottom. It is precisely why we have characterized Brittney Griner as a wrongful detainee. It’s precisely why we are doing everything we can to see and to effect her prompt release from Russian detention.

Yes, Francesco.

QUESTION: Yes, also on Russian detainees, do you have any comment on Navalny being transferred to a more strict colony and his lawyers saying they don’t know where exactly he is?

MR PRICE: Well, similarly, we’ve seen these reports that Aleksey Navalny has been transferred from the penal colony where he has been in prison and that his current whereabouts are unknown. We call on Russian authorities to allow Mr. Navalny access to his lawyers, to his legal representation, as well as to receive medical care. We have communicated to the Russian Government repeatedly that they are responsible for what happens to Mr. Navalny as he is in their custody. They will be held accountable by the international community were anything to befall Mr. Navalny while he is in their custody.

His exposure over many years of this government’s corruption and his pro-democracy activism prompted this politically motivated arrest. We have urged authorities to take all necessary action to ensure his safety and good health, and we reiterate our call for his immediate release, as well as an end to the persecution of his many supporters.

QUESTION: You have communicated that to the Russian Government even after February 24th?

MR PRICE: We have communicated this to the Russian Government previously, and I am confident that we will be in a position to reiterate that message soon.

Yes, Jenny.

QUESTION: On U.S. detainees, how many are in pretrial detention right now in Russia?

MR PRICE: So this is a figure, especially in a country as large as Russia, that is constantly changing. It doesn’t do us any good to release a particular figure on any given day. There are cases where Americans are detained and subsequently released in short order; there are cases where Americans are detained and are held for far too long, as is the case with Brittney Griner, as is the case with Paul Whelan, as was the case with Trevor Reed. So we are working and making the point relentlessly to our Russian counterparts that, consistent with their obligations under the Vienna Convention, consistent with their obligations under our bilateral arrangements, we expect to have regular access to Americans who are held in pretrial detention.

QUESTION: And when was the last time the embassy had access to Paul Whelan?

MR PRICE: We’ll get you the updated date there, but it was – we’ll get you the updated date.

Yes, over here.

QUESTION: Can we switch to Iran?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: The Iranian foreign minister has said that they put forward a new proposal to revive the JCPOA. Is that true, and if so, when did they make this proposal?

MR PRICE: As we and our European partners have made clear, we are prepared to immediately conclude and implement the deal we negotiated in Vienna, the deal that has been on the table for a number of months now for a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA. But for that to happen, Tehran needs to decide to drop demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA, needs to decide to drop issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA.

We have made very clear where we are. We believe that if Iran makes this political decision, we’ll be in a position to conclude and to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA very swiftly. If Iran does not do that, it will further imperil the odds that we will ever be able to reach a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.

QUESTION: But has Iran put a new proposal forward?

MR PRICE: We have been in regular indirect contact via the European Union, so we’re not going to speak to the specifics – specific dynamics of this diplomacy other than to say that Enrique Mora has been – has served as an important go-between role, and we await a constructive response from the Iranians, a response that leaves behind issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA.

QUESTION: So, Ned, you’re saying “extraneous.” What are the extraneous things that they are asking? Can you explain, please?

MR PRICE: Extraneous in this case means something that is not a part – should not be a part of the JCPOA.

QUESTION: I know perfectly well what it means. I’m just saying, what are these things?

MR PRICE: Look, I’m not going to get into the diplomacy. I’m not going to speak to proposals that the —

QUESTION: Okay. Is it something akin to the Iranians maybe demanding some sort of a guarantee that you will not have a new administration nullifying whatever deal you arrive at? Is that it?

MR PRICE: On that, Said – yeah, fancy, huh. On that, Said, we have made very clear to the Iranians – we did this in October of last year when the President met with our European – with his European counterparts in Rome on the sidelines of the G20. And if you take a close look at the readout that emanated from that meeting, we made very clear that our intention is and was – was and is – to effect a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA and that we intend to remain there, in so long as Iran would live up to its end of the deal. It would serve us no purpose to achieve a mutual return to compliance only to scrap it down the line.

Now, beyond that, I’m not going to speak to proposals that have been sent back and forth, other than to say we are prepared to re-enter the JCPOA on a mutual basis. That is to say, if Iran decides that it is willing to reimpose the nuclear restrictions that the JCPOA calls for, we are willing to do what is necessary in terms of sanctions lifting on our end to once again be in compliance with the JCPOA. That choice is now Iran’s. It has been Iran’s for some time. There has been a deal that has been on the table in Vienna for a number of months now. It is a deal that is still in our national security interest, because it is a deal that conveys nonproliferation advantages that are – that go beyond what we have now.

And what we have now – the urgency that we have now and the challenge that we face – is that, given the advancements Iran has been able to make to its nuclear program since May of 2018, when the last administration abandoned the nuclear deal, a nuclear deal that – with which Iran was in full compliance, by the way – Iran has advanced its nuclear programs in ways that are profoundly dangerous and that are profoundly corrosive to the global nonproliferation regime. We went from a breakout time that upon implementation of the JCPOA that was out at about 12 months, it is a breakout time that is now measured in weeks or less. To us, that is unacceptable. That is why we continue to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We will do that for as long as the deal that’s on the table conveys benefits that the present moment, in terms of Iran’s nuclear program, does not.

Michel.

QUESTION: Ned, until when will you keep talking to the Iranians? And second, on the deterrence front, is the U.S. trying to form a coalition in the region that includes Israel and Arab countries to counter the Iranian influence?

MR PRICE: So on the first part of your question, as you know, we’re not talking directly to the Iranians. As we’ve said before, we would prefer that. It would make the business of diplomacy much simpler. It would allow us to address complex and multifaceted issues in a more effective way. But of course, the Iranians have not been willing to do that, and so, as I mentioned a moment ago, we have been going through the – our European partners and allies to convey these messages.

In terms of the timeframe – and what I just said is the core point – we will continue to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA for as long as doing so is in our national interest. And right now, a mutual return to the JCPOA would convey nonproliferation benefits that we don’t have at the present moment. Again, the fact is that Iran’s breakout time is dangerously low at the present. It has dwindled by months and months since Iran began distancing itself from the stringent requirements of the JCPOA in mid-2018.

We are constantly looking at the nonproliferation benefits that a mutual return to compliance would convey versus what we have now. Every week, every day that this goes on, those benefits are eroded. So we will reach a point where a mutual return to compliance is no longer in our interest. Even if we wanted to, that’s not – almost certainly not a date that I could give you right now because it is based on an assessment of where Iran’s program is. It is based on an assessment of what a mutual return to compliance would convey in terms of a resulting breakout time, and that’s an assessment that experts here, experts in our Intelligence Community and elsewhere, are constantly refining to determine what’s in our national interest.

QUESTION: On the second question?

QUESTION: And you expect – and you would expect Rob Malley and Brett McGurk, when they go up to the Hill for this closed hearing before SFRC tomorrow, to make the same case that it is still – that the administration still assesses that it is in the U.S. national interest to return to compliance?

MR PRICE: It is the —

QUESTION: Because if that’s going to be their message, it’s going to be a long meeting and not a very pleasant one for them.

MR PRICE: I can’t speak to the reaction that we’ll hear from the Hill, other than to say that we regularly engage with our counterparts on Capitol Hill. As you know, Matt, it was just last month that Rob Malley spent several hours in an open hearing before lawmakers.

QUESTION: Yes, but this one is closed, which means that it might – well —

MR PRICE: Well, and —

QUESTION: — I suppose maybe there might – that there might be less, like, public performance, but —

MR PRICE: Well, the message you heard from Rob when he was before lawmakers last month is consistent with where we are now, and Rob made the case —

QUESTION: Okay. So then what’s the point of going up there to do this classified briefing if your position is still the same?

MR PRICE: The point of going up there is that we want to ensure that we keep lawmakers fully and presently informed of what it is that we’re doing.

QUESTION: Since the appearance last month, there has been this IAEA report; there has been the Board of Governors resolution. So things have changed.

MR PRICE: Of course. And I am confident that every time we speak to lawmakers that they will pose those questions and that we will offer those answers.

QUESTION: So realistically, if the President goes to Israel, let’s say around the 15th of July and so on, as planned or scheduled, before arriving at a – or returning back to this deal, is it likely that it’s dead in the water and then would you – would it be dead by then?

MR PRICE: Again, we’re not going to put a timeframe on it, largely because we can’t. It is a —

QUESTION: If the trip is made before a deal is —

MR PRICE: It is an assessment. It is an assessment that is evolving as Iran’s nuclear program advances. And if Iran continues to make these advances, if it continues to spin advanced centrifuges, if it continues to blow beyond limits to its stockpile, this is a deal that, before too long, will not convey the nonproliferation benefits that we would need it to convey if we were to pursue it.

QUESTION: Ned, you didn’t answer my second question.

MR PRICE: Oh. On the – look, the – we are – and you’ve heard from – this from us before, consistently, and again today with the announcement of the President’s travel to Israel, but our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad. And we, in cooperation with our allies and regional partners, including Israel, we will use every appropriate tool at our disposal to confront the IRGC’s destabilizing influence in the region. You’ve seen evidence of that with the financial sanctions that we’ve imposed. We continue to coordinate closely with our Israeli partners on this, with our Gulf partners, with our – with other partners throughout the Middle East. And I have no doubt that the challenge that Iran poses to the region and beyond will be high on the agenda when President Biden is in Israel next month and when he is in Saudi Arabia next month meeting with the GCC and meeting with his Saudi partners as well.

QUESTION: So on the trip —

MR PRICE: Let me move around —

QUESTION: But since you are on the trip, what has changed, meaning – I mean, the President when he was running for office, he called Saudi Arabia a pariah and so on. What has changed since then that Saudi Arabia is recognized, as it is has always been, as a major partner of the United States?

MR PRICE: Said, this is a President as – who, of course, will not hesitate when we have an opportunity to engage in a way that advances America’s interests and in a way that is consistent with our values. I can tell you what hasn’t changed, and President Biden actually said this just the other week. He said, “I’m not going to change my view on human rights.” So in every relationship, of course, we bring our values with us, and human rights is always on the agenda. Human rights is always on the table. So, too, are the interests of the American people. And these two things can be – and I would say must be – complementary.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, this is a relationship where a multiplicity of interests are at play. Of course, there is the issue of extremism, of terrorism. We have worked side-by-side with our Saudi partners for years on this scourge, combatting it. There’s the issue of Yemen, and just the other week there was an extension of the truce in Yemen, a truce that is now in its ninth week, a truce that has allowed humanitarian access to parts of Yemen that have been bereft of aid and humanitarian assistance for far too long.

One of the first appointments from this administration was when President Biden came here early on. It was maybe the second week of the administration, and we made public our appointment of Tim Lenderking as a special envoy for Yemen. Over the course of these past 15 or so months, Special Envoy Lenderking and his team have worked assiduously with partners around the world, including the UN, now UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg, but also with partners in the Gulf and principally with our Saudi partners. Saudi Arabia was pivotal to getting to that humanitarian ceasefire and indispensable to extending it just the other week.

This is not only about a civil war in Yemen, which of course is a cause of great concern for the United States, both the violence, the instability, and the humanitarian implications, but this is also about our direct interests, our core interests, the number – hundreds – of cross-border attacks have emanated from Yemen in recent years. Of course, that is of concern to us for the threat that it poses to Saudi Arabia, but it’s also of concern to us because there are 70,000 Americans in the kingdom.

Beyond Yemen, there is the question of regional stability. There is the question of healing regional rifts, regional divides within the Gulf, within Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has been a partner on that as well. We’ve talked about the challenge that Iran poses. Not only are we working with Israel, we are working closely with our Gulf partners, including the Saudis, and the broader GCC, by the way, the GCC+3, which will be in Saudi Arabia when President Biden visits there.

There are also other interests, including energy, and we’ve spoken of our desire to see a steady global supply of energy. This has been a topic of discussion on a bilateral basis with members of OPEC. It will be on the agenda when President Biden meets with the GCC and meets with Saudi counterparts in Saudi Arabia next month as well.

So I think you can see the line through all of this is doing whatever we can to pursue America’s interests while not leaving by the wayside our values. And one of the first things that we did, one of the first marquee events – I believe it might have been his second visit down to this very room – Secretary Blinken came down, released the Khashoggi report, a report that was compiled under the previous administration, released it with the full imprimatur of the U.S. Government; in a powerful signal, and a signal of our commitment to human rights, our prioritization of human rights, announced the Khashoggi Ban.

We’ve implemented the Khashoggi Ban dozens of times. We’ve sanctioned the quick reaction force. We’ve taken measures to hold accountable those who have committed grave human rights abuses, and we’ll continue to do that. But we can have human rights at the center of our foreign policy, as they have been, as we continue to pursue the interests of the American people across all of these interests and the many other interests that we have and that we share with our Saudi partners.

Yes.

QUESTION: Following up on Michel’s question about the military defense system probably in the Middle East, I think he spoke generally, including the Arab countries of the region. You addressed Israel, but does the same policy apply towards the Arab countries of the region? And don’t you think – and last week, late last week, there was a bipartisan legislation both in the House and the Senate to arm – to bolster the military or defense capabilities of these countries vis-à-vis Iran. Wouldn’t that just aggravate things in the region and probably cause Iran to react in a more even – more disturbing way?

MR PRICE: Well, the shared interests that I mentioned a moment ago that we have with our Saudi partners, we have with the full array of our Gulf partners, and that is why we see this as an important moment to have high-level engagement with the GCC, with the GCC+3 in this case, because Iran does pose a challenge to the broader region. It’s also why Rob Malley and his team, not only have they regularly updated our Israeli partners on the progress, or in some cases – in most cases – lack thereof with regard to a potential mutual return to compliance, but Rob has briefed the GCC. And late last year, there was a statement put out by the GCC indicating their support for the prospect of a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, because these countries know the challenge that Iran poses. They know the nonproliferation benefits that a potential return to compliance with the JCPOA would convey not only for us, but also an arrangement that would have – that would redound positively to their national security interest.

So the answer to your question is yes, we work cooperatively not only with Israel, but our other partners in the Gulf on the challenge that Iran poses.

To the second part of your question, everything we’re doing is defensive in nature. Iran – it is Iran that is funding proxies. It is Iran that is fueling instability. It is Iran that is providing support to bad actors in places like Yemen and Syria and elsewhere. And it’s Iran that is supporting terrorist groups. So everything we are doing is with an eye to counteract the malign influence that Iran is in many cases exporting. Of course, we don’t seek conflict. We don’t seek to exacerbate regional tensions, and in fact, we have welcomed steps to de-escalate tensions in the region. We want to see tensions de-escalated. What we are doing is taking prudent steps together with our partners to help defend ourselves against the escalatory steps that Iran unfortunately has taken.

QUESTION: And you mentioned communicating with Iran via the Europeans, the EU, the Europeans. How about the Russians right now, given the situation with the war and the tension here? Because for example, just today the Russian ambassador in Vienna met with his Iranian counterpart on the JCPOA, on the talks. Is the U.S. still communicating, consulting, talking to the Russian counterpart in Vienna on continuing or finalizing the talks one way or another?

MR PRICE: Rob’s engagements have primarily been with our European partners and allies. He does occasionally speak with other partners and allies around the globe. I believe recently he spoke to his South Korean counterpart. There are a number of global partners who are in some way part of this, whether or not they’re part of the P5+1 or have a stake in the outcome of this. But right now, our primary partners are our European allies.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Today the Iranian foreign minister said, quote, “The American side had told Iran the IAEA Board of Governors’ resolution would be void of any content.” A few days before this, another source close to the Islamic Republic of Iran said – claimed, quote, “Forty-eight hours before IAEA’s Board of Governors’ resolution, Biden sent a secret message to Iran that said, ‘The resolution’s text is toned down. Don’t retaliate as my administration’s hands are tied by Congress.’” Can you confirm sending this message to Iran?

MR PRICE: I can deny sending that message to Iran.

QUESTION: Okay. And this just came in —

QUESTION: You personally or the entire government?

MR PRICE: I am not aware that any such message has been sent, neither is anyone in this building.

QUESTION: But you can admit that you – your tone in the statement from Ms. Holgate, your representative at IAEA, the tone was very mild. Also, we can detect that in Mr. Sullivan’s words, Mr. Malley’s tweets, Mr. Blinken’s statement. You wanted to de-escalate. Is that true?

MR PRICE: We wanted to register our serious concern with the status of Iran’s nuclear program. That is precisely what this Board of Governors’ resolution did. It made clear our serious concerns that Iran has failed to credibly respond to the IAEA’s questions regarding potential undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. This is a step that the Board of Governors had not taken in some time. We thought it was important that the United States work closely with our European allies and our other partners on the Board of Governors to achieve this resolution precisely to send a message.

If Iran seeks de-escalation, there are certain steps that Iran could take in a number of different areas. One of those areas is its nuclear program. Rather than put the brakes on its nuclear program, Iran has continued to take steps that are only escalatory and further provocative. And in response to this very Board of Governors’ resolution, a resolution that calls for more transparency, Iran has come back and countered with less transparency and has actually committed to taking offline some of the important inspections and monitoring capabilities that the IAEA has long maintained.

QUESTION: Okay. Ned, this just came in. Mr. Grossi just said to Al Arabiya that in his belief you have reached a dead end in the negotiation. This is just few minutes ago. Considering how apolitical Mr. Grossi was always and IAEA, they never took any political stance, what do you think about this statement from Mr. Grossi? Where are we going from here? Is there a Plan B?

MR PRICE: What I would say is that the steps that Iran has taken, the steps that Iran has threatened, would vastly complicate a return to the deal, a potential return to the deal that was already vastly complicated by a number of issues, including Iran’s insistence on bringing in issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA.

Ultimately, however, we are going to judge the utility and the wisdom of a potential mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA on the basis of our national security interest. And if the deal that has been on the table for some time conveys advantages to us in terms of our national security – advantages that, by the way, would work to the benefit of our partners and allies throughout the region. We will continue to pursue it. If and when we conclude that the deal that is on the table does not convey these advantages, we won’t, and we will pursue an alternative course.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: Russian officials claim that Ukrainian forces struck within its borders, hitting near a military base. There seems to be some credible information backing up those claims. Is this something the department is looking into? And if it is confirmed, is there a concern for escalation?

MR PRICE: Well, as you know, we don’t typically comment on purported strikes or specific operations from here. I would leave it to others to update and to offer assessments on tactical developments on the battlefield. What we can say is that we are doing everything we can, and it is quite a lot, to provide our Ukrainian partners with what they need to defend themselves. Since the start of the invasion, since February 24th, we’ve provided some 4.6 billion in security assistance to our Ukrainian partners, $5.3 billion since the beginning of the administration. You see the delta between those two numbers – $600 million, indicating that – sorry, $700 million – I’m bad at math – indicating that we provided Ukraine with significant assistance well before Russia began its invasion on February 24th.

With the assistance of Congress, the passage of the emergency supplemental, we do have additional resources. We’ve had a first presidential drawdown the other week of nearly a billion dollars in additional security assistance to our Ukrainian partners. We will continue to provide our Ukrainian partners with the security assistance and with the forms of security assistance that they need contoured to the battle that they’re facing, and the battle that they’re facing right now principally in the Donbas, where Russia is continuing to inflict violence and to cause widespread death and destruction.

QUESTION: And that’s regardless of whether they’re striking into Russia, as these reports say?

MR PRICE: We will continue to provide our Ukrainian partners with what they need to defend themselves.

Yes.

QUESTION: If it’s okay, I’ll move on to Democratic Republic of Congo.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: M23 rebels in the DRC have seized an eastern border town. Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the M23. What is the State Department’s assessment of Rwandan support for the M23?

MR PRICE: Well, we spoke to this the other week, but we are alarmed by reports of cross-border violence between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, and the increasing tensions between those two countries. We’re deeply concerned by reports of Rwandan military personnel participating in this fighting. We urge both sides to exercise restraint and to engage in immediate dialogue to de-escalate tensions and end hostilities. We – as we’ve said before, we support the continuation of the Nairobi Process and mediation efforts by the African Union. And we encourage countries in the region to exercise responsible, constructive leadership and work together to advance peace and security in the eastern DRC.

We call on both sides to meet soon to reach a lasting resolution to this regionally destabilizing situation and to avoid rhetoric that could inflame ethnic tensions and hate speech and/or put UN peacekeepers at risk. And we’re saddened by reports of injuries and deaths caused by this cross-border artillery strikes in both directions, both this month and last month as well. We appreciate MONUSCO’s efforts in support of the armed forces of the DRC to protect civilians. We’re saddened to learn of injuries to UN peacekeepers in recent fighting.

M23 must terminate their offensive and immediately cease these attacks, which cause suffering, especially to vulnerable populations. And we continue to urge M23 and all non-state armed groups operating in this region, in the eastern DRC, to cease violence against civilians, to disband, and to lay down their arms. We know that the people of eastern Congo have suffered violence and displacement for far too long, and we’ll continue to do what we can, together with our partners, including those at the UN, to bring a halt to this escalation.

QUESTION: Sorry, Ned, isn’t that pretty much exactly what you said after the Secretary met with the – Congo foreign minister?

MR PRICE: Well, I would say that the underlying dynamics of this conflict have not changed, but —

QUESTION: Has your – has anything changed in your —

MR PRICE: Yes, there —

QUESTION: It has?

MR PRICE: It has, it has.

QUESTION: What has changed? What’s different about what you just said than what you said 10 days ago?

MR PRICE: The artillery strikes have continued, and I made reference to what we’ve seen this month as well. But as you said, Matt, the – as I said, actually, the underlying dynamics of this conflict have not changed.

Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, we saw that Special Envoy Carstens was in Mali and met with leaders there. Can you just share any readout or what he was there for?

MR PRICE: What I can say – and I will defer to my colleagues in his office if they have any more to say, but the special envoy routinely travels around the world. Sometimes we make that travel public, as we did in his recent travel to Lebanon. Sometimes we don’t. So I will defer to them if they have anything more to say on that potential travel.

QUESTION: On this, Ned —

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: — did the Senior Advisor Hochstein make any progress in his talks in Beirut? And what is the next step? Will he be going to Israel (inaudible)?

MR PRICE: Well, we announced last week that Senior Advisor Amos Hochstein was in Lebanon to meet with leaders and to facilitate and accelerate negotiations. We’ve called on all sides to seek a negotiated resolution to the maritime boundary dispute. We’re not going to get into the details of that diplomacy, but it is very much an effort that is ongoing and that Senior Advisor Hochstein will continue to be engaged on.

QUESTION: Is he going to Israel?

MR PRICE: Don’t have any travel to announce at the moment. As I understand it, he’s on his way back to the United States right now.

Jenny.

QUESTION: Ned, thank you.

QUESTION: Turning quickly back to Iran, the satellite company Maxar has images from today that it says are probable launch activities. Do you have any comment on the specific probable launch and how the U.S. would respond?

MR PRICE: I don’t beyond what I said previously, that it is Iran that has consistently chosen to escalate tensions. It is Iran that has consistently chosen to take provocative actions. We urge Iran to de-escalate, to cease with its provocative activities, but not going to entertain a hypothetical like that.

Yes, and then I’ll go to you, Said. Yes.

QUESTION: Ned, any update about reopening the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem? Should we expect any announcement during President Biden’s trip to the West Bank?

MR PRICE: I don’t have any update for you beyond what we’ve said previously, and namely that we are committed to reopening the consulate in Jerusalem. In the meantime, we have a team on the ground that manages our relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people.

QUESTION: Just to follow-up on this —

MR PRICE: Said, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Today there was a meeting between Barbara Leaf with the Palestinian prime minister, and he in fact demanded that the consulate be open. So is there a timeframe? I know I asked you this question, and forgive me because I asked it so many times. But are we likely – are we getting closer to sort of a timeframe for reopening the consulate?

MR PRICE: There’s not a timeframe I can provide you other than to reiterate what I just said, that we remain committed to reopening the consulate in Jerusalem. It is part and parcel of our effort to re-engage with the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian people. You have to remember that when we took office in January of last year, there had been almost a complete rupture, a complete severance between the United States Government and the Palestinian Authority, and in some ways the Palestinian people.

So over the past 15 months, we have invested in recreating, re-establishing that relationship – that relationship between the U.S. Government and the PA. But importantly, that relationship between the U.S. Government and the Palestinian people, a relationship that has allowed us to provide significant funds of humanitarian assistance directly to the Palestinian people in a way that will tangibly improve their lives.

QUESTION: Now also, the PLO office in Washington, any prospects for reopening that office?

MR PRICE: I don’t have an update for you there. This is a complex issue, as you know. It’s one we continue to discuss with our Palestinian counterparts but also with Congress as well.

QUESTION: Okay. I have a couple more on the Palestinian issue. On – the other day, Secretary Blinken said that he would support an independent investigation of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. Could you explain to us what is that? What form would that independent investigation take?

MR PRICE: There has been no change in our approach, and we’ve been consistent on this since the earliest hours after learning of the tragic and reprehensible death of Shireen Abu Akleh. We continue to call for a thorough, credible investigation that culminates in accountability.

QUESTION: Okay. But he said the word “independent,” so is that independent as perhaps a third party – not Israel, not the Palestinians, someone else?

MR PRICE: Our approach remains the same. We continue to call for a thorough, credible investigation that culminates in accountability.

QUESTION: There was a thorough report in The Washington Post that was published on Sunday, and basically it shows that it was an Israeli soldier who shot the shot that killed Shireen Abu Akleh. I mean, all the evidence is there, but the Israelis are saying there was no criminal intent, that – they closed the book – almost they’ve closed the book on that. Would that cause you to be outraged if they closed the book on investigating —

MR PRICE: Would it – sorry, would it cause —

QUESTION: The Israelis are – they’re saying – in fact, the chief of staff of the Israeli army, Kochavi, he said there was no – there will not be any sort of criminal pursuit of whoever did that. If it happened, it may have happened accidentally, or so is the suggestion. Would that be satisfactory to you?

MR PRICE: We – look, Said, we want to see an investigation that is thorough, credible, that culminates in accountability, and that does so on a swift basis. We’ve been in close contact with our Israeli, with our Palestinian counterparts as well to urge authorities to fully cooperate in investigating the circumstances of Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing, and that includes to share forensic evidence. We have – we’ve made clear our view to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that we expect, as I’ve said before, this thorough, transparent, and impartial investigation into the circumstances of her killing and in a manner that culminates in accountability.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Okay. Thank you very —

QUESTION: I have one more about the trip.

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: The President’s trip, that is.

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: In this call that was done last night by a White House official, it talked about this meeting between India, Israel, the U.S. and —

MR PRICE: The I2-U2.

QUESTION: Yeah. Who the hell comes up with these names?

MR PRICE: (Laughter.) I think that one’s – I actually like that one a lot.

QUESTION: You do? Really?

MR PRICE: Yeah. It’s good.

QUESTION: Is it like a – it’s like faux Star Wars thing?

MR PRICE: Matt, you know some of our acronyms. They’re – many are as good as that one.

QUESTION: Well, I know. But this one seems too – I2-U2. Really?

MR PRICE: That’s what’s —

QUESTION: Anyway, that’s not my question.

MR PRICE: Okay.

QUESTION: But what is the intent? What’s the reason behind this?

MR PRICE: Well —

QUESTION: Not the acronym, but the actual formation of it.

MR PRICE: Yeah. So part of our approach is – from the start, not only to revitalize and to re-energize our system of alliances and partnerships around the world – and I think we’ve done that to a good degree – but also to stitch together partnerships and alliances that didn’t exist previously or that previously weren’t utilized to their full extent. The Quad is a good example of an alliance that previously may not have lived up to its full potential, and of course, we’ve invested heavily in the Quad with virtual meetings at the leader level, in-person meetings at the leader level, and with Secretary Blinken convening his Quad ministerial counterparts on a number of occasions as well.

AUKUS, another good example, taking a key ally in the Indo-Pacific —

QUESTION: Another ridiculous acronym.

MR PRICE: — taking a key ally in Europe, stitching those together in a way that will work to our benefit but will also help our allies help each other in a number of realms, not only in the —

QUESTION: Yeah, but what – specifically what does India bring to the table in this group? What do the Emirates bring to the table in this group? What does Israel, other than being the host of this —

MR PRICE: Well, on their own, each of these countries bring to the table a number of interests —

QUESTION: Okay. But – all right. So if you wanted a second U, you could have invited Uzbekistan. So why not Uzbekistan instead of the Emirates? What specifically do they —

MR PRICE: I’ll make a couple points. Each of these countries are technological hubs. Biotechnology, of course, is prominent in each of these countries as well. Deepening trade and economic ties between these countries is in our interest when it comes to the relationship between Israel and the UAE. That’s something we have sought to deepen. These two countries have, of course, deepened their relationship in recent years, including in the economic realm.

India, of course, is a massive market. It is a massive consumer market. It’s a massive producer of high-tech and highly sought-after goods as well. So there are a number of areas where these countries can work together, whether it’s technology, whether it’s trade, whether it is climate, whether it’s COVID, and potentially even security as well, so —

QUESTION: Okay. I should just note that the second U could have been Uruguay too, so I don’t want to leave anyone out.

MR PRICE: Well, don’t want to rule out any potential future groupings. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:11 p.m.)

World Day Against Child Labor

12 Jun

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

On World Day Against Child Labor, we renew our commitments and efforts to combat child labor and protect children.

The United States was one of the first countries to sign the international treaty against child labor.  When President Clinton signed what is known as the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention in 1999, he recognized that to address child labor, governments, companies, and workers must promote core labor standards and workers’ rights to raise living standards around the world.

Since then, many countries have made progress to eliminate child labor.  Unfortunately, school closures and worsening health and economic conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic forced more children back to work.  Many are still not in school.  It is up to us to stand up for them.

That is why World Day Against Child Labor and our continued collaboration with global partners like the ILO are so important.  This cooperation includes new commitments made at the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor in South Africa last month, which the United States fully supports.

For our part, the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons combats child trafficking, including forced child labor, through the We also do so through the Child Protection Compact Partnerships with governments which strengthen our partners’ efforts to prevent child trafficking in all forms, effectively prosecute and convict child traffickers, and provide trauma-informed care and services for victims and survivors.

The U.S. government also works to end child labor by funding projects across the globe to eliminate child labor, providing technical assistance to governments, addressing child labor in our trade policy, and engaging with companies and trade associations to keep child labor out of U.S. supply chains.  We will not stop, because these investments in our children create better futures for everyone.

To learn more about global trends, data and countries’ efforts to combat child labor, and actions you can take, read the State Department’s Country Reports on Human RightsTrafficking in Persons Report, and the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor portal .