NED PRICE, DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON
MR PRICE: Okay, good afternoon. As you see, we have a couple guests with us today. We’ll get to that in just a moment.
But first, today we celebrate 20 years of American leadership, cooperation, and support for the preservation of cultural heritage around the world through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. Since the fund launched on April 3rd, 2001, U.S. embassies have used this public diplomacy program to support disaster preparedness and response effort overseas, to spur economic development, to adapt to climate change, and promote American values, such as respect for cultural diversity. In the process, our embassies have provided educational and career development opportunities for American students and professionals from nearly all 50 states.
For example, in 2019, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit Albania and damaged three ancient fortifications. With a grant of nearly $800,000, the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation is supporting the emergency stabilization of the structures, a conservation analysis for each fortification, and reconstruction of the damaged sections. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and other post-conflict countries, embassies have incorporated the fund into the recovery and reconciliation efforts. In Rwanda, our embassy used the program to help preserve the memory and evidence of lives lost in 1994. And in northern Iraq, our embassy has used the program to mitigate the effects of genocide by preserving cultural sites of terrorized communities.
Through more than 1,000 projects thus far, the Ambassadors Fund continues to incorporate cultural preservation and protection into American diplomacy.
Moving on to the release of the department’s newly published report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, which those of you in the room have in front of you, and which is also available on our website www.state.gov, this annual report highlights the United States’ enduring commitment to making post-conflict communities safer and setting the stage for their recovery and development.
I would like to introduce Acting Assistant Secretary Tim Betts from our Political-Military Affairs Bureau, who will first make brief remarks along with Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Stan Brown, who is then prepared to take your questions.
So with that, Acting Assistant Secretary Betts, the floor is yours.
MR BETTS: Well, thank you very much, Ned, for that introduction and good afternoon, everyone. Today I have the pleasure to release the 20th edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety, the annual report of the U.S. conventional weapons destruction, or CWD, program.
For more than 25 years, the United States has demonstrated its commitment to protecting civilians through support for destruction of at-risk conventional weapons and the clearance of landmines, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance. Over that period, we have provided more than $4 billion in CWD assistance in more than a hundred countries.
The success of the U.S. CWD programs relies not only on the technical abilities of our implementing partners but also on the active support and participation of the affected states and communities.
Early on we recognized that every individual should be included in mine action activities for peace and security gains to be sustained. One way NGO implementing partners encouraged inclusivity was to recruit women deminers. Today women across the globe work in all aspects of mine action, making their families and communities stronger.
From leading survivor advocacy in the Democratic Republic of Congo to providing municipal government oversight in Bosnia and Herzegovina to training deminers in Laos, this edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety highlights the accomplishments of women in our “Improving lives Through U.S. CWD Programs” segments.
Protecting civilians is at the core of the U.S. CWD assistance. These programs help to protect our nation and our citizens, promote economic opportunity and prosperity, and build strong partners who will help us advance America’s interests on the global stage.
Projects to secure state-held small arms and light weapons from Africa to Europe to Central America supports security. The disposal of excess and unserviceable munitions reduces the risk of unplanned explosions at military storage sites located close to populated areas. For example, in – where did my prep go? Here it is.
For example, as illustrated in the report’s cover photo, ITF Enhancing Human Security, one of our longest-standing partners, in coordination with the Kyrgyz Ministry of Defense demilitarized more than 45,000 pieces, or more than 200 metric tons, of expired large-caliber ammunition.
Even with such assistance, unplanned explosions continue to happen, and we’re prepared to respond on short notice. Most recently our Quick Reaction Force, which is highlighted in the report, deployed to Equatorial Guinea to assist with ordnance disposal following the March 7th explosion at the military base in Bata.
Following the Port of Beirut explosion on August 4th of last year, State Department funded teams undertook a stockpile security assessment that led to upgrades to the Lebanese Armed Forces’ First Artillery Regiment ammunition depot to reduce the risk of another catastrophic explosion.
The Interagency Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS, Task Force supports MANPADS Recognition Training seminars to assist foreign security officials at airports, border crossings, and seaports in their advanced weapons systems counterproliferation efforts. Adapting the course curriculum to a virtual format enabled the training of officials from the Middle East and North Africa in our pandemic-constrained environment, providing them with the skills needed to reduce the threat to civil aviation from MANPADS.
Implementing partners have also adapted as traditional methods of in-person delivery are complicated by the global pandemic. For example, the Swiss Federation for Demining ran an Explosive Ordnance Risk Education campaign in Iraq on Facebook that reached more than 230,000 people.
The Department successfully partnered with Facebook and NGO Mine Action Group, or MAG, in 2019 to pilot risk education over social media in areas of northern Iraq liberated from ISIS. It was effective in reaching far more civilians than traditional methods – over 983,000 persons in three months. In November of 2020, we launched phase two of that program, which will deliver risk education to more than nine million at-risk civilians in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and Vietnam.
CWD assistance for the clearance of explosive hazards reduces the risk to civilians from accident or injury from unexploded ordnance or IEDs in post-conflict areas in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. As can be seen on the back cover, civilians often return home to a sobering reality in the search for – in seeing that their homes had been searched and marked “safe”. These projects provide safe access to buildings and other infrastructure, which is necessary to rebuild their communities.
Finally, the U.S. commitment is grounded in over 25 years of bipartisan congressional support combined with the experience and determination of our implementing partners. Together, we have worked with host governments as well as communities at the local level to create a resilient program that has evolved and adapted along with the explosive remnants of war threat.
Our CWD program has been flexible enough to continue performing and producing tangible results despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to seeing our programs running at full capacity again in the near future.
That’s all I’ve got as far as an overview of the report. Now Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Stan Brown and I will be happy to take your questions, mainly him. (Laughter.)
MR PRICE: Matt, do you want to go ahead?
QUESTION: Yeah, please. So last – and I’m sure you’re prepared for this, so I’ll expect a fairly concise recitation of whatever talking points you have down there.
MR PRICE: Are you saying we’re predictable?
QUESTION: I’m saying that what you’re going to say is predictable. (Laughter.)
MR BROWN: Okay.
QUESTION: So last year, the former administration rescinded the landmine policy as it relates to the Ottawa Treaty, and I just want to know if you guys are considering reinstating what that policy had been. And I’m familiar with what it was before and what it is now. Are you going back to that old policy, or are you going to stick with it?
MR BROWN: So right now, that policy is in effect, as you well know, and we haven’t had any discussions yet in the administration on changing the policy. So basically, it removed the geographic restriction of Korea and now geographic commanders can decide the use of land mines, which is a pretty high bar. So no decision has been made and no study has been done yet.
QUESTION: Is this something the administration is looking into? Is it prepared to review or what? Where does it stand? Or is it not an – is it not a priority right now?
MR BROWN: It has not been —
QUESTION: Because this is a long book, which 72 pages —
MR BROWN: Correct.
QUESTION: — including the back cover, which your colleague mentioned, about the problem that this —
MR BROWN: Right. No, I understand. So the United States will continue to be the largest donor. As you say – it talked about the book – we’ve donated 4 billion since 1993 to 100 countries. We continue to be the larger donor to this effort and have impacted countries – 49 countries around the world. I’m sure there’ll be a discussion on this, but we haven’t started that discussion yet.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Said.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Egypt is listed as one of the most contaminated countries with land mines despite the fact that the last war they had was in 1973. Why is that – why does it continue to be such a daunting task? I mean, there are something like 23,000 – maybe 25,000 mines and so on, despite these treaties, despite U.S. involvement.
MR BROWN: Right. So the process of removing land mines is – and if you look through the publication, you’ll see the work is very much done by individuals from the local communities. It’s very intensive. It takes a long time. It may vary from anything from a requirement for the host country to want to remove them, a request for assistance if they need assistance to move them, as well as looking at it from the type of devices, the type of geography, vegetation, and otherwise, and the tools that are needed to remove those things. So we are still removing ordnance from World War II in the Pacific Islands. And you’d think that, that would be done by now, but it’s – it takes a long time, and it’s very painstaking to do so.
QUESTION: Could they be banned? Could you envision a future without land mines? I mean, considering they’re a very cheap weapon.
MR BROWN: One hundred sixty-four countries have signed up to the Ottawa Convention Ban. The United States has not, I think as Matt has pointed out here. And – owing to our commitment to Korea under the last administration was where the restriction rest, or the requirements rest. And currently the Department of Defense owns the policy. So I would defer you to them for the operational reasons why they would still need them.
MR PRICE: Yeah, Conor.
QUESTION: Could you speak to U.S.-sponsored programming in Syria and whether or not this administration shares the view of the previous administration that such stabilization programs should be the job of other countries in the region and not the U.S. Government?
MR BROWN: Syria specifically is under review as far as what kind of assistance we might add there. We have provided the UN – I think it was a million dollars – for mostly risk education in regards to Syria. Prior to that, we did have extensive clearance operations on the ground basically around IEDs to clear the critical infrastructure and to provide for populations going back to Syria. That kind of work still continues on in Iraq after ISIS’s departure and clearing about 500, I guess, critical infrastructure type facilities there. So we’re still doing the work that has been, I guess, characterized as stabilization in some of these areas immediately after conflict and when conflict’s over.
MR PRICE: Any final questions? Okay. Gentlemen, thank you very much.
MR BROWN: Thank you.
MR BETTS: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Congratulations on the rollout. Do you have a question for them?
QUESTION: No. No, for you.
MR PRICE: Oh, okay. (Laughter.)
MR BROWN: He’s staying. He’s staying.
QUESTION: Well, I would like to congratulate you on this very glossy book.
QUESTION: This is very nice.
MR BETTS: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Hopefully, you’ll be able to —
QUESTION: Well, let’s see. I’ll have to delve into the content to see.
MR PRICE: Exactly.
MR BROWN: Well, thank you.
MR BETTS: Yeah, I think it has contact information if you have other questions.
QUESTION: Excellent. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you both very much. Congratulations.
QUESTION: Ned, do you have a topper?
MR PRICE: The only topper I had was what I delivered at first.
QUESTION: Okay. Can I go ahead?
MR PRICE: Sure.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Sorry. Thank you. I just got back from holiday and very keen, clearly.
MR PRICE: Well, welcome back, I should say.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. Just wanted to ask about Ukraine. So I just want to ask very clearly: What is the U.S. assessment on Russian troop movements near the eastern Donbas region in Ukraine? Do you believe Russia is getting ready for a fresh offensive? And what is the United States prepared to stop that? President Biden said – offered his unwavering support. In what form will that be?
MR PRICE: Mm-hmm. Well, it’s not my job to speak to what might be motivating the Russians. It is my job to speak to what the United States Government is doing about it. And let me say very clearly, as I did last week, that we are concerned by recent escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including the credible reports that have been emanating about Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and occupied Crimea. The movements were, of course, preceded by violations of the mid-2020 – the July 2020 – ceasefire that led the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers last month on March 26th, I believe it was, and the wounding of two other Ukrainian personnel. Russia’s destabilizing actions undermine the de-escalation intentions achieved through the OSCE-brokered agreement of July of last year.
In addition to our reassurances to Ukrainian officials, we’re discussing our concerns about this increase in tensions and ceasefire violations and regional tensions with NATO allies, of course. And the other week in Brussels, this was a broad topic of discussions.
We have asked Russia for an explanation of these provocations, but most importantly what we have signaled directly with our Ukrainian partners is a message of reassurance. You saw that in the readout that President Biden had of his call with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. Of course, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with the Head of the Presidential Office Andriy Yermak last week as well, Secretary Blinken in this building spoke with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba, and Secretary Austin spoke with Defense Minister Andrii Taran, and I believe the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also spoke with his counterpart.
So at the highest levels of government, literally, across multiple institutions, we have sent that message very clearly to our Ukrainian counterparts, and implicitly to the Russians as well, that we stand by Kyiv, we stand by our partner, Ukraine, in the face of this intimidation and aggression.
QUESTION: Can I have just a follow-up on that? Can I just ask you once again? I mean, do you believe that this build-up on the Russian side of the border, on Russian territory, is a provocation in that you think it’s some kind of build-up for an invasion? Or is it – do you have a – do you just have an objection to Russia moving its troops around inside of its own territory?
MR PRICE: What we certainly have an objection to, and what certainly is a cause for concern for us, is Russia’s escalating aggression in eastern Ukraine – including, as I mentioned, the troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and occupied Crimea.
QUESTION: Okay, but wait —
MR PRICE: But now let me just say I will leave it to Moscow to speak to what it is they may be in the process of doing, any signals they want to send. But I will say that the United States would certainly be concerned by any effort on the part of Moscow – whether it is within Russian territory, or within sovereign Ukraine – to intimidate our partner, Ukraine.
QUESTION: Okay, fair enough. So you think – you believe that their troop movements, Russian troop movements that are happening inside of Russia, are an attempt to intimidate Ukraine?
MR PRICE: I said we would be concerned by attempts on the —
QUESTION: I’m asking you whether you think that it is or not.
MR PRICE: This involves assessments that are in many cases going to be undergirded by non-public information. So I wouldn’t want to speak from here —
QUESTION: Well, then —
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t know. My point is I wouldn’t want to —
QUESTION: But you are speaking from here. So —
MR PRICE: No, I am speaking from here about our policy concerns.
QUESTION: Okay, fine.
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to speak from here about what it is that Russia may be attempting to do or attempting to signal.
QUESTION: I understand —
MR PRICE: I will say that if the implication of this is intimidation —
QUESTION: If —
MR PRICE: — intimidation of our Ukrainian partners —
QUESTION: Yes, but is it? Is that your assessment, that it is intimidation? Or is it just a country moving troops inside its own borders? Which you do, which China does, which Kenya does, which Brazil does. I mean —
MR PRICE: I think you are throwing a lot of apples and oranges together with this. I think —
QUESTION: No, I’m just trying to find out if you think that Russia moving its own troops inside its own territory is intimidation towards Ukraine, I mean, fine. But say that, don’t just say “If it is, then we would have a problem with it.”
MR PRICE: Obviously, there is a history here that goes back to 2014 —
MR PRICE: — and even before that.
MR PRICE: And so I think that is relevant context when we talk about, and when we think about, and when we respond on a policy basis to what we are currently seeing in eastern Ukraine, in occupied Crimea, and within Russia itself. Of course, the Russians have for quite some time sought to intimidate and to bully their neighbors —
QUESTION: I am not doubting that. I just want to know – I just want to know if you think that these specific troop movements that you’ve been talking about for the last ten days, or week now, you think that those are intended to be intimidation.
MR PRICE: Well, the message we are sending to Ukraine is one of reassurance. And you have heard that at the highest levels. The United States continues to stand by our Ukrainian partners. We will do that without exception.
Other questions – yes.
QUESTION: Can I move to Jordan, please?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Does the State Department have clear picture now of what’s going on in Jordan? I mean what the Jordanian officials described as plot to destabilize the country.
MR PRICE: Well, I would leave it to our Jordanian partners to speak to what they may have found. What I will say is that we are following the situation in Jordan closely – we made that very clear over the weekend – and we have been in touch with Jordanian officials because Jordan, of course, is a strategic partner of the United States. We value immensely our relationship and King Abdullah II’s leadership. We value his integrity, his vision. And as we said over the weekend very clearly, that the king has our full support. And that is in large part because Jordan is a close friend. It is an invaluable strategic partner. And it’s an indispensable partner on a range of shared concerns and challenges throughout the region. The United States and Jordan, of course, share the mutual goal of a negotiated two-state solution in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state. We support jointly an end to violent extremism that threatens security in the region, including within the kingdom.
And more broadly as well, of course, Jordan has also been an invaluable partner in addressing virtually all of the highest-priority challenges facing the region, including by helping to mitigate the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian conflict. Jordan has helped to make progress towards a political transition in Syria, ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS as well. We’ve said before that we value and appreciate the Jordanians’ extraordinary assistance to the Syrian people, including by hosting so many refugees. And we remain committed to working with Jordan to address the threat posed by ISIS and also supporting Jordan in any threats to its borders, including those posed by ISIS as well.
QUESTION: And I have another question on Iran. On the eve of Vienna talks tomorrow, I’m wondering who is going to participate from the American officials. Some media reports revealed that the goal is to achieve two separate deals with the U.S. and Iran agreeing on certain steps with clear timetables, so can you confirm that?
MR PRICE: Well, as we announced last week, as we announced on Friday, we have agreed to participate in talks with our European, Russian, and Chinese partners, the P5+1 partners who are – who remain party to the JCPOA to discuss the issues involved in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, “mutual” meaning on the part of Iran and on the part of the United States. That has long been the proposition on the table. I can confirm that Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley will lead the U.S. delegation to Vienna. These talks are scheduled to start tomorrow.
I would also hasten to add, as we did late last week, that we don’t underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead. These are early days. We don’t anticipate an early or immediate breakthrough, as these discussions we fully expect will be difficult. But we do believe that these discussions with our partners and, in turn, our partners with Iran is a healthy step forward.
Now, you asked about how these talks will be structured and what they’ll be predicated on. They’ll be structured around working groups that our European – that the EU is going to form with the remaining parties to the JCPOA, and that includes Iran. The primary issues to be discussed are actually quite simple. They’re, on the one hand, the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order for Iran to return to that desired end state – and again, that is an end state of compliance with the JCPOA – and the sanctions relief steps that the United States would need to take in order for us to return to compliance with the JCPOA. So again, that is what we aspire over the longer term to achieve, that mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. It’s precisely what President Biden – then-candidate Biden – laid out on the campaign trail.
Now, we don’t anticipate at present that there will be direct talks with Iran, though, of course, we remain open to them. And so we’ll have to see how things go starting early this week.
QUESTION: I have —
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: I have two quick follow-ups on that. There was a Los Angeles Times report quoting some Pentagon officials saying that the tensions are so severe that it might not be possible to delay further without a deal, a deal restricting the Iranian nuclear program. And they are warning of a confrontation in case there is no deal. And also I – like, my question is: How urgent does the U.S. Government feel that it is necessary to reach a deal in the coming two months? And also, a Western official was quoted as saying that the aim during those talks is to reach an agreement within two months. Do you share this hope?
MR PRICE: Well, look, I’m not going to put a timeframe on it. We are conducting principled diplomacy. We are conducting that principled diplomacy in close coordination with our European allies, with whom we discussed the broad challenge of Iran the other week in Brussels. Of course, we do have some area of tactical alignment in this case with China and Russia as well. So the diplomacy will move at the speed that we deem it appropriate to move at.
To your question about the urgency of this challenge, look, there’s no denying that we are approaching this with urgency. And we are doing so because even in recent weeks, Iran has continued to take steps away from the JCPOA, and our concern with that is that over time, Iran’s – the so-called breakout time has continued to shrink.
Just a reminder that at the end of the Obama administration, the Obama-Biden administration, that breakout time when the JCPOA was fully in effect was 12 months. That breakout time into the last administration, the Trump administration, was 12 months when the JCPOA was fully in effect, with the – with both sides having distanced itself from the JCPOA and Iran taking these steps, including the steps that have been reported on in recent days.
That time has dwindled. Our goal is, of course, to see to it that that breakout time is as long as possible. Our overarching goal is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is permanently and verifiably constrained, and that on a permanent and verifiable basis, Iran will not be able to obtain a nuclear weapon. That is not just our goal. That is the goal of our remaining partners in the P5+1, it is the goal of our partners and allies in the region, and it’s certainly a goal that has broad support within Congress as well. So we are not seeking to drag these talks on any longer than necessary, but we’re also not going to cut corners given that – given the profound stakes that are at play here.
QUESTION: Well – but hold on a second, just on – your remaining partners in the P5+1? You guys are – no —
MR PRICE: The – the participants in the P5+1 and the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Yeah, well – you have no partners in the —
MR PRICE: We – well, we are a – we’re still in the P5. Let’s not —
QUESTION: Well, yes, but not in the deal. So can you say, though, that you are not prepared to lift any sanctions or ease any sanctions that are non-nuclear related?
MR PRICE: Well, I can be —
QUESTION: As part of this —
MR PRICE: I —
QUESTION: Because there are plenty of sanctions, as you know —
MR PRICE: Right.
QUESTION: — there are plenty of sciences that are non-nuclear related, that are not contingent on the deal.
MR PRICE: Right. What I can say is that we certainly will not entertain unilateral gestures or concessions to get Iran – to induce Iran to a better place. Our goal at these talks in Vienna, again, is to set the stage for that mutual return to compliance. The original formulation is one that still holds today. It’s the limited lifting of sanctions, nuclear sanctions, in return for permanent and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
QUESTION: Okay. But when you say —
MR PRICE: Now, I’m not going to preview from here what that look – might look like on our side, but I think that formulation is one that the JCPOA remains in existence. It is one that the JCPOA itself continues to call for. So I would imagine that as we look at the steps that we need to take, we’ll be guided by the original formulation that was in the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Okay. So when you say you’re not prepared to make any inducements, that means no non-nuclear sanctions relief?
MR PRICE: I will leave it to the negotiators to detail positions.
QUESTION: Well, that’s not going to – that’s going to be a problem. If you say that you’re prepared to lift non-nuclear sanctions —
MR PRICE: I am not. I am absolutely not saying that. I am saying that our —
QUESTION: Yeah, you’re saying you’re going to leave it to the negotiators, so it seems it might be open.
MR PRICE: I am saying that our negotiators will go to – are headed to Vienna to take part in talks with our partners, starting tomorrow, to discuss how Iran might get back into compliance with the JCPOA. And Iran getting back into compliance would mean the strict and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program, permanent limits on Iran’s nuclear program. They will also discuss the sanctions relief that the United States would be prepared to take. And, of course, we’ll continue to be guided by what the original JCPOA called for.
MR PRICE: Which is nuclear sanctions, so I, again – yeah.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: Said.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Couple questions on the Palestinian issue. Couple —
MR PRICE: Anything else on Iran before we move one?
QUESTION: Can I ask one more thing on Iran?
MR PRICE: Sure, yeah.
QUESTION: So I’m just wondering what a productive result from these meetings would look like. Is it that the U.S. writes down exactly what concessions they’re willing to give and Iran writes down what nuclear concessions they’re willing to give? Like, what should we be looking for at the end of this?
MR PRICE: I think we are looking for a better understanding of how we might arrive at that desired end state, and that desired end state remains compliance for compliance. Of course, we haven’t had direct discussions with the Iranians about this. We’ll be working indirectly through primarily our European partners on this. But if we come away from Vienna with a better understanding of how both sides can get there and – the result of which would be how Iran could move back into compliance with the JCPOA and what we would need to do to see to that. I think that’s what we’re after.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. A couple days ago, Secretary Blinken spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Ashkenazi, but he has not – maybe for the third time. I think this was his third conversation with him as Secretary of State. He has not spoken to any Palestinian leader. Why is that? Why has he not reached out to Dr. Riyad Maliki, the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority?
MR PRICE: Well, we have been clear that it is a priority of this administration to engage the Palestinian people as well as the Palestinian leadership. And we’ve talked about resuming assistance to the Palestinian people and the priority that we attach to it. Just the other week, of course, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced $15 million in humanitarian assistance to provide relief to Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza who are currently suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue to provide assistance to benefit all Palestinians, including refugees, and we’re determining at the moment how to move forward with that.
Look, I would fully expect that there will continue to be engagement with the Palestinian people and Palestinian leaders as well.
QUESTION: Are you engaging with any Palestinians? I mean, what level of engagement do you have right now?
MR PRICE: Yeah, I – we typically don’t read out conversations at the working level, but certainly we are prepared to continue to engage the Palestinians, including Palestinian government officials, on ways we can provide assistance to the Palestinian people.
QUESTION: So during the campaign, there were unambiguous statements by – by candidate Joe Biden then about resuming aid to UNRWA and so on. We have not heard anything since the administration has assumed office, and —
MR PRICE: Well, that’s not true. That’s not true. Of course, you heard from —
QUESTION: On UNRWA. On UNRWA. I know that there’s been aid for – to combat COVID. There’s probably been an increase in aid to the PA. But on UNRWA, there has not been any clear messaging.
MR PRICE: It is certainly true – it remains true today – that we intend to provide assistance that will benefit all Palestinians. We’ve – Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield spoke to that the other week, and that includes, of course, refugees. We’re in the process —
QUESTION: You keep saying “refugees,” but UNRWA is —
MR PRICE: We are in the process of determining how exactly we’ll move forward on providing that assistance, of course, at all times consistent with U.S. law.
QUESTION: Will you resume aid to UNRWA?
MR PRICE: We are looking at the ways we can provide assistance to Palestinians, including Palestinian refugees.
QUESTION: Can I ask three questions where – they’re yes or no, very easy – on this issue?
MR PRICE: These are – yes-no questions are usually not the easy ones.
QUESTION: Yes. Oh, yeah, they are. You said that you’re not going to move the embassy out of Jerusalem, but does this administration still regard Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and do you still believe that a two-state solution would result in Palestinians having a capital in East Jerusalem?
MR PRICE: These are not yes-no questions, Matt, just to clarify.
QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s a – yes or no. I mean —
MR PRICE: There has been no change on our position in Jerusalem, and, of course, Jerusalem is a final status issue that is to be negotiated by the two parties.
QUESTION: But the previous administration declared – said that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. And that —
MR PRICE: That’s – and I said there’s been no change on our position in Jerusalem.
QUESTION: There’s been no change? Okay. And on the Golan?
MR PRICE: There has been no change in our position.
QUESTION: And then back on Jerusalem, on the passport issue?
MR PRICE: There has been no change in our position.
QUESTION: There’s no – is there any thought of changing it?
MR PRICE: We, of course, don’t discuss internal deliberations, but there’s been no change in our position.
QUESTION: But you know what I’m talking about?
MR PRICE: I do know what you’re talking about.
MR PRICE: And I will just note we unfortunately need to conclude here in the next few minutes given the event with the Secretary, but yes.
QUESTION: A couple questions on Ethiopia.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Last – at the end of last week, Amnesty International, CNN, BBC verified videos that they say show a massacre by Ethiopian forces. Do you have any response to that? And is it something that the U.S. Government has confirmed as well?
MR PRICE: Well, we are gravely concerned by reported human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. We strongly condemn the killings, the forced removals, the sexual assaults, the other human rights abuses that multiple organizations have reported.
QUESTION: But any word on whether or not you believe Ethiopian forces have conducted these particular massacres?
MR PRICE: We are, of course, looking into these reports. We have taken close note of them and we’ll continue to pay close attention.
QUESTION: And then on Saturday, the Ethiopian foreign ministry said that Eritrean forces have begun to leave the country. Is that something that you’ve been able to verify as well?
MR PRICE: Well, we have taken note of the – what we heard from Ethiopian authorities. We are encouraged by the prime minister’s announcement that the Government of the State of Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces from Ethiopia. The immediate and complete withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray will be an important step forward in de-escalating the conflict and restoring peace and regional stability.
QUESTION: But you haven’t seen whether or not they’ve started that process?
MR PRICE: We’ve – we’ve – encouraged by that report and we’ll be paying close attention, of course.
QUESTION: Can I – just one other quick question on the special envoy for the Northern Triangle’s visit. He’s traveling to Guatemala and El Salvador but not to Honduras. And so far at least, Vice President Harris hasn’t called President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras as well. Are you trying to isolate or send some sort of message to his government given the allegations against him by U.S. federal prosecutors?
MR PRICE: I fully expect that we will be engaging with appropriate Honduran Government officials, including upon their return. There will be a meeting, I expect, with the Honduran foreign minister, who will be visiting the United States upon their return. As we’ve said before, we are deeply concerned about the challenges that the people of Honduras are facing right now –the effects of COVID-19 compounded by the impacts of not one but two hurricanes. It’s led to a 15 percent economic contraction as well as food insecurity.
We continue to stand with the Honduran people as they confront these challenges. We will continue to stand with the Honduran people and civil society and those members of the Honduran Government that are committed to fighting corruption with us, because we know that our goal has to be to address these root causes, these root drivers of migration if we’re going to find a long-term solution to this challenge.
QUESTION: Does President Hernandez present one of those challenges?
MR PRICE: Hearing a lot of things coming at me.
QUESTION: Sorry. Does President Hernandez present one of those challenges?
MR PRICE: I will say that corruption continues to be a challenge when it comes to our relationship with Honduras. We are committed to partnering with the Honduran people, with elements of Honduran civil society, and with those in the Honduran Government that are committed to working with us to root out the corruption that has become really endemic to that country.
QUESTION: Yeah. My question is regarding El Salvador, too. President Bukele announced a couple of hours ago a series of donations that it will receive from the Chinese Government. And on the other hand, in recent days we have seen evident distancing of the Salvadoran Government with the Biden administration. We even saw President Bukele insult and attack Congresswoman Norma Torres, and he also asked Latina community do not vote for her in California.
What is the position of the Biden administration regarding this relationship between El Salvador and China? And China’s approach with the Northern Triangle region represent any concerns for you?
And the other question is regarding the combat to the root causes on immigration. President Bukele said that he will veto a law that was approved last week for the National Assembly to punish all the smugglers and in Central America. So what’s the position?
MR PRICE: To punish all the – I’m sorry, I didn’t hear.
QUESTION: The traffickers —
MR PRICE: Traffickers.
QUESTION: — and coyotes, yeah, in Central America.
MR PRICE: Well, Secretary Blinken spoke to this broad challenge the other week in his remarks from Brussels, and he said at the time that it would not be the policy of the United States to force our partners to choose between the United States and China. We will offer a partnership that works in our interests and also that works towards the interests of our partners, including our partners in our own hemisphere, the Western Hemisphere.
When it comes to El Salvador, we enjoy a strong relation – relationship with El Salvador and its people. We’ll continue to work closely with our Salvadorian partners to address the challenges we’ve talked about in this broader realm. That includes irregular migration, it includes corruption, it includes impunity, governance, respect for human rights, economic opportunity, and security as well.
We’ll also focus on preserving democratic standards, and we look forward to President Bukele to restore strong separation of powers where they’ve been eroded and demonstrate his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability to the people of El Salvador. We’ll continue to emphasize to political leaders the importance of appropriate democratic institutions as we partner with them. And, of course, we’ll also engage with civil society groups and to promote freedom of expression and, independent media, and the protection of journalists. Our goal in all of this is to create the conditions where the people of El Salvador can live healthy, successful lives and to thrive. We value this relationship. We value this partnership. It’s a partnership that is not only in the interests of the people of El Salvador, but it’s also in the interests of the American people.
I’m sorry we have to cut this short, but —
QUESTION: Ahead of the 2:00 p.m. coronavirus conference, do you have an estimate on how many State Department staff globally, including local staff, have been vaccinated?
MR PRICE: I don’t have that number in front of me. What I can say is that we will soon have an update on our efforts to provide the vaccine to embassies and missions worldwide. I think we have made tremendous progress. As you know, some 80 percent of our vaccine supply has been sent to missions and to embassies around the world, and I think within weeks we will be in a position to say that all of our officials around the world have received access to the vaccine.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on Yemen?
QUESTION: Can we get back here?
QUESTION: On Iran, how long —
MR PRICE: Sorry, we haven’t gotten to the back.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Following the Human Rights Report detailing egregious abuses in China, do you think that American companies should re-evaluate their participation in the Olympics next year in a sponsorship role?
MR PRICE: Well, look, I will – the Human Rights Report was quite strong when it came to what we are seeing in China, what we have seen in China. It, of course, called what has transpired, what is transpiring in Xinjiang, genocide. I’m not going to offer advice to U.S. companies from this podium.
What I can say is that when it comes to the issues of – the issue of the Beijing Olympics, that’s something that we’re consulting closely with our allies and partners. We are consulting closely with them not only on that specific issue but also on the broader issue of China’s human rights record. You saw a concrete manifestation of that when together with our Canadian, Brits, and European partners we rolled out sanctions in recent days targeting those who have been responsible for some of the most egregious abuses of human rights when it comes to Xinjiang.
So we’ll coordinate with them very closely on the question of the Olympics, but I don’t have an update to share at this time.
QUESTION: On Yemen, please. Is there any update about the diplomatic efforts about Yemen, and when would the Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking go back again to the region?
And on Afghanistan, there are some reports that the upcoming Istanbul – the conference will begin April 16 and would last 10 days. Do you confirm the date and the —
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to confirm anything about an upcoming conference in Turkey vis-a-vis Afghanistan.
Very quickly and finally on Yemen, we released statements last week to note that Special Envoy Lenderking returned on March 31st, late last week, from his travel to Saudi Arabia and Oman. He held productive meetings with Omani, Saudi, and Yemeni senior leaders in coordination with UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths. Special Envoy Lenderking and the UN special envoy continue to work side by side to help bring about a ceasefire, inclusive political talks, as well as a durable agreement that addresses the needs of all Yemenis.
They also discussed the dire humanitarian needs for the people of Yemen. To that end we – and I said this the other week – we welcomed the Saudis’ announcement last week to provide more than $400 million – I believe it was $422 million – in support for fuel products in Yemen. That, of course, is in addition to what we announced in the not-too-distant past regarding our own support to the people of Yemen as well.
Thank you all very much. We have to rush up to get to the Secretary, but we’ll do this again tomorrow, of course.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:50 p.m.)