12:29 p.m. EST
MR. TONER: Good afternoon, one and all, and very happy Monday. Just before we get started, I do want to welcome the group from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London – all you back there, wave your hands. Hi, welcome to the State Department -- who are visiting the U.S. at the invitation of the First Lady and are, I believe, a part of the state visit and are looking at the life of women diplomats. Is that correct? So I’m sorry you don’t get to see Toria in action today, but as the father of four daughters, myself, I believe I have a certain street cred when it comes to girl power. (Laughter.)
So just a couple things at the top. The Secretary, as you know, is in New York. Not to put us on a clock here, but I do understand she’ll be out in front of the press in about 35 minutes. So hopefully, we’ll be able to conclude and allow you all to watch that.
I do want to note two things briefly at the top. First of all, today in Geneva, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, delivered his first full report to the UN Human Rights Council. We welcome and support the work of the special rapporteur, who concluded that the Iranian Government is engaged in a, quote, “striking pattern of violations,” end quote, of its citizen’s human rights under international law. And we urge the international community to renew his mandate later this month. Just to note, that Iranian authorities have, to date, refused to work with the special rapporteur, denying him permission to visit the country and publicly undermining his credibility. We continue to call upon Iran’s Government to end its human rights abuses, grant Dr. Shaheed access to Iran, and cooperate with his future investigations.
I also do want to briefly note our concern about the so-called parliamentary elections held in the Abkhazia region of Georgia on March 10th. The United States does not recognize their legitimacy, and in fact, we want to take this occasion to reiterate our support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized border. We also urge Russia to fulfill all of its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement, including withdrawal of forces to pre-conflict positions and free access to humanitarian assistance to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That’s all I have.
QUESTION: Is – was “so-called” in the guidance or did you just add that yourself?
MR. TONER: I didn’t ad-lib it. It is actually in our statement here.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Obviously, the White House – the President has spoken on this, other people have, the shooting incident. But I’m wondering if anyone from here has been engaged in phone calls, particularly the Secretary, and then more broadly, what you hope or do not hope this will bring.
MR. TONER: Sure. Well, first of all, Matt, obviously we here at the State Department join President Obama, Defense Secretary, as well as General Allen, and numerous others in extending our deepest condolences over the – to the families of the victims, as well as to the Afghan people over this very horrible and tragic incident. As the Secretary of Defense stated in his statement, there’s going to be a full investigation into this event. It’s already underway, and a suspect’s in custody.
In terms of phone calls, engagement from this building, we’ve obviously kept in very close contact with the White House and Department of Defense. I’m not aware that the Secretary has called any of her Afghan counterparts. She may address it later on in the press conference that she’s giving up in New York. But obviously, our Ambassador Crocker, who was actually en route back here to the United States for a conference this week, has stayed in very close contact with the embassy there and his contacts in the Afghan Government.
QUESTION: All right. And then more broadly, what does this – what are the implications?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, it goes without saying that this is yet another challenge in the relationship. That said, it was an isolated incident. There are every indication that it was an isolated incident. Certainly, there’s an investigation into it that’s being carried out by the Department of Defense. But it does not in any way reflect the values that we share with the Afghan people and our joint resolve to work together. So we are committed to working or moving forward in the relationship. As you know, we’re working on the Strategic Partnership document and that work’s going to continue.
QUESTION: But there seems to be isolated incident after isolated incident after isolated incident. When is it that you realize the trend here?
MR. TONER: Well, again, there’s been, as you said, a series of challenges in the relationship. And this incident in particular is just horrific. It’s a terrible tragedy by any measure. But we have to look at the whole relationship and the whole history of our involvement in Afghanistan and what we’re trying to accomplish here. And when you look at it in its totality, then you’ve got to recognize that we’re moving forward, we’re committed to the Afghan Government and the Afghan people to working and building a stronger relationship. And that work is not going to end.
QUESTION: Right. And then just a last few. You said that it doesn’t in any way reflect the values that we and the Afghan people share? Is that what you said?
MR. TONER: Yes, I did.
QUESTION: That value would be the running into people’s homes in the middle of the night and killing them?
QUESTION: Mark, are you afraid that this incident, perhaps like the Qu’ran burning incident, may unleash significant Afghan protest or indeed violence against U.S. targets in Afghanistan?
MR. TONER: Of course it’s a concern. It always is. And I know that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued an emergency message to – warning American citizens about the risk of anti-American sentiment and protest in the coming days. We haven’t seen anything – I checked before coming down here – yet, but we’re certainly very much aware that that potential exists.
QUESTION: And aside from expressing your condolences and warning your own citizens about the danger of protests, is there anything the U.S. Government thinks it can do to try to forestall protest or violence in retaliation for this or to alleviate what would seem to be the very justifiable anger of Afghans about the killing of innocents?
MR. TONER: Well, I think you saw a little bit of that in just the very quick reaction on the part of Secretary of Defense and indeed the President yesterday to call, reach out to President Karzai, to express our horror at what happened and to pledge a full investigation into the incident. Obviously, we’re fully aware that this is going to raise or has the possibility of raising ire and emotions in a place where tensions are already running high. We would appeal for calm. We recognize that this is a terrible tragedy for the Afghan people, but we can also pledge that our commitment to building a better, stronger, more prosperous Afghanistan is going to continue, and also in this particular case that we’re going to pursue justice and accountability on this – on the part of the Afghan victims.
QUESTION: Just to pursue that a bit.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The fact that there haven’t been, as far as the reports that are out there, any major protests yet since the incident, does that show that so far the calls by the Afghan authorities or elders have been heeded or is it too early to tell at this point?
MR. TONER: We certainly hope so. Again, we don’t want to see any more violence in any way, shape, or form, generated by this terrible incident.
Yeah. Go ahead Michel.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
MR. TONER: Well, our answer is in part the action that’s taking place right now in New York. The Secretary is – spoke about the situation in Syria in her intervention, but also she plans to meet with – excuse me – Foreign Minister Lavrov. And obviously, topic number one, or at least one of the primary topics, is going to be how we can cooperate on Syria. As we said, the primary focus here is how do we end the ongoing violence. You saw Kofi Annan was there over the weekend. He’s also traveling to some other places and then returning, so we’ll wait for a full readout of his visit. But I think our immediate concern is how do we come together, speak with one voice, and stop the violence, and then, how do we get humanitarian assistance in.
QUESTION: Is military intervention is one of the options that Secretary Clinton is discussing with Lavrov and other foreign ministers?
MR. TONER: Well, you know where we are on this, Michel. We’ve said that we don’t believe further militarizing the situation in Syria is a good idea. That said, we never take any option off the table. But right now, our immediate efforts are aimed at ending the violence, having Assad pull back his forces, and in trying to get humanitarian assistance in where it’s desperately needed.
QUESTION: That means your answer to the council is that you are not planning to intervene at this time?
MR. TONER: Again, we’re looking at a variety of ways that we can provide assistance to the victims of Assad’s brutality. But at this point, we’re not looking to militarize the situation any more than it already has been. We don’t believe that that’s going to ameliorate the situation.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) with staying with the Secretary up in New York.
MR. TONER: Absolutely.
QUESTION: But it’s slightly different. In her comments before the Security Council, she called for an end to the – she condemned in the strongest terms and called for an end to the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. And then she called on both sides, all sides, to do everything they could to try to restore calm. Does that mean that she would like to see Israel cease its airstrikes?
MR. TONER: Well, I’m not going to parse the Secretary’s words, but I think we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to self-defense, but we certainly want to see an end to the ongoing violence. And I think as we said in our statement, we want to see both sides make every effort to restore calm.
QUESTION: So does the U.S. Government want both – whoever’s firing the rockets and the Israeli Government, which is launching the airstrikes – to cease and desist?
MR. TONER: Yes. We want to see an end to the violence. Yes. And again, it speaks to the broader need for a comprehensive peace settlement, that we need to get both sides back to the negotiating table so that we can come up with a comprehensive settlement.
QUESTION: On a different topic. Do you have any fuller readout of the mission of Robert King just with the --
MR. TONER: In Geneva, you mean? Or in – I’m sorry --
QUESTION: Yeah. And then also just in Beijing last week. I mean, just basically the question is is there any update on when food aid could get shipped out?
MR. TONER: I don’t know if I have an update from what the Secretary said on Friday, which is essentially she said we’re looking to move it forward soon, or as soon as possible. Obviously, he’s in Geneva, I believe, today. And then he’s on to Rome, where he’s going to talk more about the modalities of this assistance. But I think we’re trying to work out whatever the remaining logistical challenges are so we can get this food aid going.
QUESTION: Is this a rough time frame for this? (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: I asked, actually, and I was told, as soon as possible.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead over there.
QUESTION: On Sri Lanka?
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the resolution against Sri Lanka’s human rights violation in Geneva?
MR. TONER: Well, you saw – and I would refer you to the opening remarks by Ambassador Donahoe in – during the Human Rights Council. She gave a very extensive description of what our efforts are all about in tabling a draft resolution on Sri Lanka for consideration by the council. And essentially, our goal here is to get the countries of the world to join in encouraging the Government of Sri Lanka to take steps needed to ensure meaningful and lasting national reconciliation after this – their long conflict. This is something we’ve been asking the Government of Sri Lanka and its – through its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission to address for some time. So it remains a serious concern.
QUESTION: The government of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has asked the Indian Government to support that draft resolution and support the U.S. position. Have you heard anything from the Indian Government on this?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware that we’ve had – that we’ve gotten any communications from the Indian Government. I can check on that.
QUESTION: Different topic?
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: There have been reports that an investors conference scheduled on Sudan in Istanbul later this month has been called off because of U.S. concerns, in particular, over the situation in South Kordofan. Is that something that you could comment on?
MR. TONER: I don’t have any about the – you’re talking about specifically whether we have called this conference off?
QUESTION: Or postponed it.
MR. TONER: I’ll have to take – or postponed it. I’ll have to take the question. I mean, obviously, you know where we stand on the situation in Southern Kordofan. We want to see the violence end, and we want to see an investigation into the atrocities and we want to see humanitarian assistance allowed in. But as to whether this conference has been postponed, I’ll have to take that.
QUESTION: Well, are you aware of the conference?
MR. TONER: No. And if so --
QUESTION: Do you have – does the U.S. have any – is the U.S. organizing it?
MR. TONER: Again, I don’t --
QUESTION: And if you are, why would you be doing it in Istanbul?
MR. TONER: It’s a very good question. I’ll get more information. (Laughter.) All good questions, Matt.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you have any assessment of what happened on Friday, demonstration regarding the Embassy and the --
MR. TONER: I don’t have any further clarification. As you know, I think Toria said on Friday, that the Embassy was closed. It was unclear to us whether this was – these were demonstrations against the U.S., per se. I don’t know that they were – obviously, Fridays are a time for these kinds of demonstrations. But I don’t know specifically what the root cause was, or what they were demonstrating about, didn’t get any greater clarification.
QUESTION: So it was closed not because of the demonstration then?
MR. TONER: Just to clarify, the Embassy was closed on Friday. It always is.
MR. TONER: Yeah, Michel.
QUESTION: On Egypt. To – Egyptian parliament has asked the government on Friday, I think, to refuse the U.S. aid and ask the U.S. Administration to release Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Are you planning to release him, and what’s your reaction to that (inaudible) --
MR. TONER: The second part is news to me. I do know there was a motion to stop receiving U.S. assistance that’s being deliberated by the Egyptian parliament. It’s unclear whether or what that authority – or what, if any authority that motion would have. You know where we stand about our assistance. We believe it’s in the interest of the Egyptian people, but certainly it’s in the national interests of the U.S. to help Egypt in its transition to full democracy.
QUESTION: But you don’t know what authority the parliament of a country has?
MR. TONER: This specific motion, or this specific – yeah --
QUESTION: All right. Well, and I realize this --
MR. TONER: And Matt, I’ll just say it’s hard to – I don’t have any details whether this is a – for example, in our own system, a sense of the Senate or something like that.
QUESTION: Right. But even if it does pass, considering you praised the elections as being representative of the people, if the Egyptian people don’t want this money, why do we force it on them?
MR. TONER: Well, again, let’s --
QUESTION: I mean, there are a lot of taxpayers in this country who don’t – who won’t understand this, why we would – why you would continue to push money, their money, on a country that doesn’t want it.
MR. TONER: Well, first off, the Secretary spoke to this just a little while ago in New York.
QUESTION: She did?
MR. TONER: Well, she spoke about the democratic transition underway in Egypt.
QUESTION: But I don’t think she talked about foisting money. I mean, hell, I’ll take the money.
QUESTION: I want half.
MR. TONER: We obviously – (laughter) – let the record note – but this is obviously – we move with extreme caution whenever we’re dealing with American taxpayer money and offering it as assistance. We never offer assistance unless it’s in the very clear national interests of the United States. So let’s be, first and foremost, very clear about that.
Secondly, I think we all agree that Egypt is undergoing a democratic transition, that it’s important for us, for the region, that this be successful. But this is a sensitive and difficult time for Egypt, and we’ve pledged to work with the Egyptian people. And certainly, it is, as you said, within their own right to decide whether or if they want this assistance. But my understanding is that has not yet been decided.
QUESTION: Is it possible to release Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman if the Egyptian Government asks for?
MR. TONER: You’re asking me to speculate, but I would just refer you to the Department of Justice on that.
MR. TONER: I’m sorry. Just rewind a little bit. You said where did – where they met?
MR. TONER: Oh, in Syracuse.
MR. TONER: You know what? I have not gotten a readout from that meeting, so I don’t have any comment on that. But as you know, that was – there was no official U.S. delegation to that meeting.
QUESTION: Yeah. Did they – North Korea ask for the peace treaty, the United States high-level --
MR. TONER: Again, just to clarify, you’re talking about at the conference in Syracuse, did they ask for this?
QUESTION: Yeah. Bilateral talks with the U.S. and North Korea, not with South Korea.
MR. TONER: Right. But you’re – again, just to clarify, you’re talking about did they raise this point at this conference in Syracuse --
MR. TONER: -- where we had no official representation? I can’t speak to that. You’ll – I’ll have to refer you to the Maxwell School.
QUESTION: Kurt Campbell and Peter Lavoy are meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai today. I was wondering if you could give me any information on the purpose of the meeting and what it’s going – what the main topics they’re going to raise, and also if there’s going to be a readout.
QUESTION: One more on Yemen.
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: A Yemeni political leader in the joint meeting parties has said that the U.S. Administration is pressing Yemeni President Hadi to keep Saleh’s sons or some – and relatives in power because of their role in fighting terrorism. Is that accurate?
MR. TONER: You’re saying that we’re pressuring Hadi to --
QUESTION: The president – the Yemeni president to keep Saleh’s son --
MR. TONER: Oh, Saleh.
QUESTION: -- and his relatives in charge, in power, in Yemen.
MR. TONER: Look, I’m not aware of that. We are supportive of the GCC process that’s already underway. The Secretary noted the progress that’s been made in Yemen. But throughout this process, we’ve been very clear that our counterterrorism cooperation continues, that it’s not tied to one individual.
Yeah. That it, guys? No? Yeah.
QUESTION: I just want to know if – has there been any movement yet on the P-5+1 talks?
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: Any date, time?
MR. TONER: No, no. My understanding is Ashton’s folks are still working out the modalities with the Iranians.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep. Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 12:50 p.m.)