The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.
1:13 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon, and welcome to the State Department. Happy Monday, everyone. The only thing I have at the top is just to point out for you all that we put out a Media Note just a little bit ago that the Secretary will be doing a Google Hangout on Friday here at the Department of State, so to highlight that social media engagement for all of you. And having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: What do you have to say about Mr. Maduro’s election?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for the question, Matt. So first of all, we congratulate the Venezuelan people for their broad participation in this electoral process. Given the extraordinary tightness of the result – around 1 percent of the votes cast separate the candidates – the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, and one member of the electoral council have called for a 100 percent audit or recount of the results. Governing party candidate Nicolas Maduro also welcomed the full recount. This appears an important, prudent, and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results.
We note that the opposition has called for an investigation into allegations of irregularities. The results reveal the Venezuelan electorate that is roughly evenly divided. In order to meet all Venezuelans’ democratic expectations, it makes sense that such a recount should be completed before any additional steps, including official certification of the results, occurs. So that’s our position on --
QUESTION: Do you have any concerns about the way the election unfolded?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, this recount process is ongoing, so I don’t it would be --
QUESTION: No, no, no, no. I mean, are you having concerns about alleged irregularities or fraud or anything like that?
MR. VENTRELL: While this recount process is going on, Matt, I don’t have anything for you one way or the other. I will say that while our Embassy is very active in Caracas in terms of outreach to the Venezuela people, the Venezuelan authorities do not allow for the full type of observation that some other countries do. So I’m not sure we would have a characterization one way or another.
I will say that it appears that we had somewhere around 14 million voters, nearly 80 percent of the population. So really the context is you have very high voter turnout, you have broad participation, and so we do congratulate the Venezuelan people for their broad participation. But in terms of making any judgments about how the vote happened, we’ll of course be in consultation with our regional partners and other interested parties, but I don’t think we’re going to characterize it one way or another.
QUESTION: Well, so – do you have any reason to believe that the votes that were cast, that it was a credible exercise?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, the recount process is going on, so let’s let that process continue.
QUESTION: Well, that’s – we’re not talking about the recount. We’re talking about the actual initial vote.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that there were – that it was problematic? You regularly comment on other elections about – even when they do go to a recount. I mean, do you think that the recount is important simply because the vote is so close, or do you think that there might have been some funny business going on and that that’s why the vote is so close?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I noted that the opposition has called for an investigation of allegations and irregularities.
QUESTION: Yes, and --
MR. VENTRELL: And so we encourage that investigation to happen. And Matt, we also very much note the broad participation.
QUESTION: But you don’t necessarily believe yourself that there were irregularities.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, let’s let the recount go forward. We’re not going to be making judgments one way or the other.
QUESTION: Can I just --
MR. VENTRELL: Shaun, go ahead, welcome back to the State Department. We haven’t seen you in a while.
QUESTION: Yes. Just to follow-up on that, would the United States not accept the election results if there’s not a recount?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, you’re – that’s a bit of a hypothetical. I mean, it looks like Mr. Maduro himself has said that he’s welcomed a full a recount. So let’s let the process play out a little bit here.
QUESTION: And just a follow-up: Has the United States been in contact with either party, with Mr. Maduro or Mr. Capriles, in the past --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if our Embassy has been in direct contact with either the parties here in this election. I mean, obviously throughout – broadly speaking our Embassy has wide outreach to Venezuelan society, but I’m not sure about particular communication with the parties. This is working its way through the Venezuelan process.
QUESTION: Are you concerned about --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Elise.
QUESTION: -- there’s a bit of a tense situation in the streets. There have been military tanks in the streets. And are you wonder – are you concerned that if the election does not go the way of Maduro that the Chavistas may make trouble?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, this is sort of putting the cart ahead of the horse. We want the recount process to go ahead, and we’re not going to make judgments one way or the other.
QUESTION: Well, it’s a very tense situation on the streets is my point.
MR. VENTRELL: We obviously call for calm and urge calm and restraint. But right now where we are is it’s working its way through the Venezuelan recount system and appropriate channels. So that’s what we encourage.
Let’s go to EFE in the back. Go ahead, Lucia.
QUESTION: Yes. Actually – thank you – actually the electoral national council has not said that there will be a recount. It’s something that the opposition has asked for and Maduro has said that he’s for an audit, which is a regular process that they do over there. But the electoral national council has not said anything on that, and actually they said today that they will announce Maduro as an official winner. So are you worried about that?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, it’s our opinion that it makes sense that a recount should be completed before any additional steps, including official certification of the results, occur. So that’s what we’re urging at this time.
QUESTION: So would it be worrying if they announce Maduro as a winner without a recount?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I think I’ve stated as clear as I can that any – the recount should be completed before any additional steps are taken. That’s the U.S. position.
QUESTION: Well, does that mean that the legitimacy – in your eyes, the legitimacy of the election will be compromised if the council goes ahead and certifies the vote before a recount?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, they haven’t yet, so we’re not there yet.
QUESTION: Well, yeah, but Patrick, this is one of those hypothetical questions that you’re inconsistently choosing not to answer.
MR. VENTRELL: All right.
QUESTION: You wouldn’t – so it would be fine with you if they go ahead and do the recount – don’t do the recount before certifying. Is that what you’re saying?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re not going to be getting into hypotheticals. I mean, your hypothetical had like a triple negative in there. I’m not even sure I followed it. But the bottom line is --
QUESTION: Oh, okay. So if North Korea tests a nuclear device, there won’t be any response from the U.S? That’s a hypothetical.
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for --
QUESTION: So why can you not answer? There’s certainly – you must have an opinion one way or the other. If you say that you think that it makes sense and there should be a recount before the vote is certified, surely you can say something about if there isn’t a recount and the vote is certified.
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we want --
QUESTION: Would that --
MR. VENTRELL: Matt --
QUESTION: -- be problematic for the United States?
MR. VENTRELL: Let me be very clear. We want the recount to happen.
MR. VENTRELL: If it doesn’t, then we’ll address it at that time. We’re not there yet. We’re very clear that we want the recount to happen.
QUESTION: Does Venezuela’s comparative lack of oversight of their elections – you said the – your Embassy is involved, but they don’t have this oversight. Does that give you any concern about the recount going forward?
MR. VENTRELL: Throughout the region, throughout the hemisphere, the inclusion of domestic and experienced international election observers like the OAS, the EU, and others, do help affirm a free and fair election process. We’ve wanted free and fair elections in Venezuela, but right now we’re calling for a recount. We think that’s what needs to happen.
QUESTION: If I could just check on something that you said --
MR. VENTRELL: Said.
QUESTION: -- if I may.
MR. VENTRELL: We’re outside of your normal area of the world of interest, but I’m happy to take your question.
QUESTION: That’s okay. I’m a man of the world, let’s put it this way.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. You said that you want the recount before the certification. Is there, like, a precedent where the recount happens before certification or after certification?
MR. VENTRELL: Historically speaking in Venezuela, or --
QUESTION: The way I understand it is that if you have certification, then it’s a done deal, right?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not familiar in the Venezuelan case exactly what the local electoral authorities’ processes are. But before they certify, we have the opposition candidate and we have the governing party candidate who are less than 1 percent apart, and they’re both agreeing that they’re willing to have an audit of the vote. So we’d like that to go forward.
Okay? Other topics?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: I know that you probably don’t react to things not happening, but today is Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Does the United States have any reaction to what appears to be no movement from the North Korean side? There are lots of speculation before that perhaps this would be the day that there’d be a test of some sort.
MR. VENTRELL: So, with Matt we’ve got to respond if there might be movement, and if there’s not movement we’ve got to respond as well. But --
QUESTION: Well, at least that’s something definitive that you can --
QUESTION: No, I just want consistency.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: I want you to – if – I don’t think it’s correct or appropriate for you to pick and choose which hypothetical questions that you’ll answer.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: That’s my position on this.
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks for your position, Matt.
On the D.P.R.K. – and you know the Secretary’s spoken extensively about the D.P.R.K. in his travels in the region, you know he’s en route back – but you know that the D.P.R.K. has committed on numerous occasions, including in the September 2005 joint statement of the Six-Party Talks, to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. And we want them to come into compliance with all of their international obligations. So that’s where we are, broadly speaking, with the D.P.R.K.
And you heard that the Secretary reiterated our longstanding position that we remain open to authentic and credible negotiations to implement the joint statement and to bring North Korea into compliance with Security Council resolutions through irreversible steps. So that’s our policy, but I don’t really have a specific message for their April 15th holiday one way or another.
QUESTION: And can I follow up on the last part, that he reiterated on the negotiations? Why is that the emphasis now? I mean, so much of the – I’m sure the United States has said consistently that it’s open to negotiations, but why is that message coming out now? Is that a way to try to deescalate the situation? Is there any need – is there any reason to think that the North Koreans are now open for dialogue?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it’s really not a change in position or message. We’ve said that. We’ve long said that. But as the Secretary emphasized, the burden remains on Pyongyang. They need to take meaningful steps to show that they’ll honor their commitments. But these are – this is longstanding U.S. policy. We need to see them be serious about denuclearization, indicate their seriousness, and start to reduce the threats and stop provocations.
QUESTION: Same topic.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: In the light of this kind of celebration of theirs, and that it’s going on for a few days, and that in the past they’ve used such national holidays as a reason or excuse to test something they shouldn’t, are you, or is this building, changing any of your security policy or recommendations for your Embassy staff or any Americans in the region?
MR. VENTRELL: We spoke to this last week. We have not.
QUESTION: Right, but has it changed (inaudible) that time --
MR. VENTRELL: It has not changed.
MR. VENTRELL: It has not changed.
QUESTION: But you still expect that they could take something? Just because it didn’t happen on the actual day of Kim Il-sung’s birthday doesn’t mean that they’re --
MR. VENTRELL: They could still do this test, and we continue to urge them not to do that. We think it’s a provocative action.
Michel, go ahead.
QUESTION: Change subject?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: A Libyan security official has said that Sufyan bin Qumu, the leader of an Islamic extremist militia in Libya suspected of involvement in an attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. Ambassador, has been shot on Sunday. Do you have any information about this incident?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks for your question, Michel. We have seen these press reports, but we don’t have any information on this particular case at this time. You know where we are in terms of how the democratically elected Government of Libya is working to establish effective national security services. We support those efforts. But on this particular case, I just don’t have further information.
QUESTION: You haven’t heard anything from the Libyan Government?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that we have information one way or another on this particular case.
QUESTION: And did you ask them if they have any information --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if our Embassy in Tripoli has checked one way or another, but I’d be happy to look into it.
QUESTION: But do you know this name?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve seen the press reporting on this particular name. Are we aware of the individual?
MR. VENTRELL: Do you mean in law enforcement channels? Is that what you’re trying to get at, or, what’s the focus of your question?
QUESTION: Do you know this leader? Or have you heard anything about his involvement in the incident in Benghazi?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, in terms of the investigation, I have to refer you to the FBI, but this is an individual we are aware of. I don’t have any specifics on the press reports that he may have been shot in Libya.
MR. VENTRELL: Yes. Just to say that we do recognize the important roles played by both President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. We appreciate both of their efforts, and we and others – as we and others work to establish – as they and others work to establish a viable, independent Palestinian state. We understand that Prime Minister Fayyad will temporarily remain in a caretaker capacity, so I refer you to the Palestinian Authority with more details on that.
But just to note that under Prime Minister Fayyad’s leadership, the Palestinian Authority has made tremendous strides in revitalizing the Palestinian economy and reforming its institutions to better serve the Palestinian people. So he’s been a strong partner. He’s somebody we’ve worked very well with, and the international community has worked well with. So – but as Secretary Kerry has made clear, the Palestinian aspirations remain, and the aspirations of the Palestinian people to work are bigger than any one individual. So we’re committed to moving forward. We’ll wait to see what the next step is in terms of a prime minister.
QUESTION: Well, I understand that they’re not only about one individual, but don’t you think this is a serious setback for the Palestinian aspirations for a Palestinian state, considering even though I know you recognize the contributions of President Abbas, you pretty much have credited Salam Fayyad with most of the improvements and – whether they be security, economic, corruption, anything that the Palestinians have made under his tenure.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Prime Minister Fayyad, as I said, he’s been a key partner of ours. He’s someone we’ve worked very well with, the international community has worked very well with, and he’s been highly effective at helping to move forward the Palestinian economy and build institutions and --
QUESTION: So you don’t see his resignation as a setback for Palestinian aspirations?
MR. VENTRELL: Having said that, he’s one individual, and it’s the institutions themselves that have to remain strong, and it’s important that the institutions can survive the movement from one leadership to another, and so we’ll continue to support our Palestinian partners in that process.
QUESTION: I want to follow up on Lisa’s question.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Nicole.
QUESTION: Sorry. Could you give us the State Department’s assessment of the Palestinian leadership? Because the bench is pretty thin. I mean, with the prime minister gone, that leaves President Abbas, whose democratic mandate ran out almost or around three years ago, and there don’t seem to be people in the wings who can take up the mantle of Palestinian leadership. And yet the Secretary has embarked on this push to renew talks. What does the State Department think of the partners they’ve got on the Palestinian side?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, there are many Palestinians we can work with. We engage --
QUESTION: You’ve got one right now.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, this is really a Palestinian decision as they move forward with the leadership change. Right now, he’s in a caretaker capacity. But we’ll continue to work with the Palestinians, and obviously, there’s a whole generation of young and talented and upcoming Palestinians who have – are very focused on the results of building institutions. And there are many people that he’s mentored and trained through the years, and I’m not going to name individuals one way or another other than to say that there are more Palestinians. There’s a swell of young and very educated Palestinians who are willing to rise to the challenge of improving the lot of all Palestinians.
QUESTION: So --
QUESTION: I just – I really do need to follow up, Said. I’m sorry. The assessment of western embassies around town is pretty starkly different about the number of young Palestinians ready to sort of step into the shoes of people like the president and the prime minister. And if you won’t – what I asked for was an assessment of the leadership right now, and if you won’t give me that, could you at least comment on the fact that their democratic mandate expired years ago?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, this is indeed a work in progress, and obviously, these institutions and the quality of democracy is something that they continue to work on, but – Prime Minister Fayyad is one of the best, but we’ll continue to work with our partners moving forward.
QUESTION: Would you call Abbas one of the best?
MR. VENTRELL: He’s been a good partner as well.
QUESTION: And do you expect Abbas to appoint – to steer away from, let’s say, his clan Fatah, because he’s under a lot of pressure to pick someone from within the clan? And do you encourage him or counsel him to pick someone who is independent, much like Fayyad was?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, these are really Palestinian decisions, and they’ll make those decisions going forward.
QUESTION: But would it bother you if he was – if he were to pick someone from, let’s say, within the inner circle of the Fatah leadership that has proven to be either inept or encumbered by political consideration in the past?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, these aren’t decisions for us to make, but certainly, the model that Prime Minister Fayyad has shown of building up institutions, focusing on the economy, and being a very competent and strong administrator of institutions is a good model. Again, I can’t parse it further than that.
QUESTION: Okay. And lastly --
QUESTION: You can’t answer if his departure will complicate your efforts on – to convince the Hill to continue or increase funding for the Palestinians?
MR. VENTRELL: I think you guys are getting three or four steps down the road here on this one.
QUESTION: How is that three or four steps down --
QUESTION: Well, no, no, no. That’s not even one step down the road. It is right now. It is current. Do you have any concerns that his departure will complicate your efforts to convince people on the Hill to continue or to increase or – aid to the Palestinians?
MR. VENTRELL: Matt, we’re going to make the same point to the Hill that I’ve just made publicly here, and that is that --
QUESTION: That is nothing. You’re not able to tell them anything?
QUESTION: Hopefully, it’ll be more. (Laughter.)
MR. VENTRELL: As I just said, Matt – can I finish, please?
MR. VENTRELL: Can I finish my sentence? That we are – that the Palestinian people and the work of the Palestinian Authority are bigger than any one individual, and we’re committed to moving forward with economic and institution-building efforts in the West Bank, and we’ll make that clear to Congress as well.
QUESTION: Okay. But maybe my question wasn’t clear enough: Do you have concerns that Salam Fayyad’s departure as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority will make it more complicated for you to sell the Hill, to convince lawmakers on Capitol Hill, to support the Palestinian Authority?
MR. VENTRELL: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. That’s your characterization.
QUESTION: You do not have concerns?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ll continue to work with --
QUESTION: I’m not characterizing anything. I’m asking you to tell me if you are concerned that his departure will complicate your efforts on the Hill to get funding to the Palestinians.
MR. VENTRELL: We’ll continue to consult with the Hill about the best way that we can support --
QUESTION: I don’t know. Patrick, this is an answer that requires a yes – it’s a question that --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. No, Matt.
QUESTION: It’s a yes – you don’t have concerns? Okay.
MR. VENTRELL: We’re not concerned.
QUESTION: You’re not concerned. Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Okay. I have a follow-up. Today, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who in many ways behaves like he’s second in command, said that the focus and the purpose of the next prime minister will be reconciliation with Hamas, and second, to organize for the election. Do you support those priorities for the Palestinians?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen those comments. I think I laid out some of the areas that we’re very focused on.
QUESTION: Do you believe that reconciliation with Hamas and the elections are the Palestinian priorities of the present time?
MR. VENTRELL: You know where we are on reconciliation; you know where we are on Hamas, and that has not changed.
QUESTION: Where are you on reconciliation? Could you remind me?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, yeah, I’d be happy to. Hold on one second. I want to get you the precise language.
So on reconciliation, any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties, including the roadmap. That’s what – President Abbas has been committed to these principles, and those are the principles that must guide a Palestinian government in order for it to play a constructive role in achieving peace. And so that’s been our long-stated policy.
QUESTION: But I didn’t ask about a Palestinian government. The idea of reconciliation is that all Palestinians must kind of accept the principles that one government laid out. And so do you think that you can continue to negotiate with President Abbas without having some input from a group that represents half of the population?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it also happens to be a terrorist group. And that – we’ve been clear what Hamas is. And if they’re willing to meet these principles, that’s one thing. And if they’re not, that’s another thing.
QUESTION: Then if they don’t, then you don’t support Palestinian reconciliation?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’ve been clear that those are the principles.
QUESTION: No, no, no. I mean, you’ve been clear that those are the principles of a government. But when you talk about the Palestinians being divided for, I don’t know, seven or eight years, do you think that that’s healthy for a Palestinian people that are completely divided?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, we would assess any Palestinian government, if it were formed under reconciliation, about its adherence to the stipulations above. So its policies and actions would determine the implications for our engagement and assistance.
I think we’ve done what we can on this.
QUESTION: I have a quick question on Hamas.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Because basically they’re on your side as far as what’s going on in Syria is concerned. They are training and arming, apparently, the Syrian opposition. I mean, don’t you find commonality there?
MR. VENTRELL: Our policy on Hamas has not changed.
MR. VENTRELL: Yes. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Today, the United Nations is saying that Afghanistan is going to have higher poppy cultivation this year. This does not bode well for Afghanistan and the region in the context of nexus between Taliban insurgency and poppy. Why – U.S. being there for more than a decade, what are the reason the international community has not been able to provide alternative to Afghan people?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, the U.S. Government is committed to working closely with the Afghan Government, regional partners, and the international community to reduce the flow of Afghan narcotics. Durable reductions in poppy cultivation derive from comprehensive efforts to lift rural incomes and provide licit alternatives. So the UN study was an early warning tool for the Afghan Government and international donors. And in light of this report, we’re actively working with the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics, provincial governors, and other donors to deploy resources, including crop eradication, crop reduction incentives, and public information campaigns.
So we’re the largest donor of counternarcotics assistance to Afghanistan, and our work in this area will continue. But we are obviously looking at the results of this study.
QUESTION: But don’t you think that in the run-up to 2014 drawdown this will strengthen Taliban, further reinforce their hold on the areas where poppy is cultivated?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’ve long been concerned that the Afghan narcotics trade, including the planting and harvesting of opium poppy crops, is a key source of funding to the Taliban. So that’s been one of our deep concerns.
Scott, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: You had a statement last week about the U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue that took place in Hanoi on Friday. Apparently, two people who were invited to that meeting were prevented from attending, Pham Hong Son and a Nguyen Van Dai. Are you aware of that, and have you raised that issue with the Vietnamese Government?
MR. VENTRELL: We are aware, and we have. Just to give you a little context, as you mentioned, the U.S. and Vietnam held a candid and constructive human rights dialogue on April 12th. The April 12th dialogue with Vietnam covered a number of issues, including religious freedom, rule of law, prisoners of concern, labor rights, and freedom of expression.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Baer was able to meet with Father Ly in prison, but we are troubled that Vietnamese authorities reportedly prevented activists Nguyen Van Dai and Pham Hong Son from meeting with DAS Bear as planned. So this really underscores the need for Vietnam to make continued progress to comply with its international human rights obligations and commitments.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) subsequently on the part of the U.S. Embassy, for example?
MR. VENTRELL: I believe our Embassy has been in touch with these individuals, but this particular meeting was blocked. But I’d have to check if they’re regular interlocutors of our Embassy.
QUESTION: On Guantanamo. While the office to close the detention center at Guantanamo is no longer here at the State Department, there are still officials working on that issue. And I wondered, in light of all the recent things that have been happening, the hunger strike and what happened over the weekend, can you give us any sort of update on where this Department is on closing Guantanamo?
MR. VENTRELL: You are right, that our Special Envoy’s office was closed, but the responsibility for that function is now with our Legal Adviser, and we do have staff that continue to work on it. But we’ve made clear in the past our concerns that legislation and restrictions by Congress make it very difficult.
QUESTION: Sorry, who is the Legal Adviser right now?
MR. VENTRELL: Right now we have an Acting Legal Adviser.
QUESTION: I know. Who is it?
MR. VENTRELL: Mary McLeod is our Acting Legal Adviser.
QUESTION: So there’s no one? There is nothing from the last time this question was asked?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we have a staff that continues to work on these functions, but I don’t have a specific update for you.
QUESTION: Well, but I mean, just in general, with the situation that’s going on right now between the hunger strikes and the clashes over the weekend at Gitmo, and then you have this New York Times op-ed kind of really illustrating the hopelessness that the detainees feel because their cases aren’t being reviewed. And the president of the ICRC was here last week and said that this is a major concern of the organization because these detainees don’t seem to have any hope that there is – not only that they’ll get out, but their case will even be reviewed.
MR. VENTRELL: The President has long been clear that we want to close the facility at Guantanamo. He’s been clear, the Secretary’s been clear, the government’s been clear. We’ve also been clear what the congressional restrictions are. Our efforts – I refer you to DOD about the specific actions over the weekend, but our efforts here at the State Department to diplomatically find solutions where we can find a place for some of these folks continues.
QUESTION: Can we go to Syria?
QUESTION: Sorry. Wait, wait, just on that.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: It does continue?
MR. VENTRELL: We still have staff who continue to work on this account.
QUESTION: Is it not the Administration’s position that you’re – that it’s completely – been completely hamstrung by Congress in trying to relocate these people? So it’s essentially illegal, right?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I think I said --
QUESTION: No, I know. But, so why do you have people --
MR. VENTRELL: So, I expressed some of our concerns about that.
QUESTION: Why do you have people wasting their time on this if it can’t be done legally?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, the President’s commitment to closing it continues, and so while we have closed the Special Envoy’s office, we do have staff that continue to explore potential.
QUESTION: But why do they continue to explore if they can’t be done – if it can’t be done without changing the law? I mean, are they working on it by trying to convince lawmakers to lift some of the restrictions?
MR. VENTRELL: Matt, let me check in with our Legal Adviser staff overnight, see if we can get you an update. If there are specific cases that we are able to work on given the restrictions, I’m just not aware.
QUESTION: Well, because as far as I can – I mean, at least from this podium, at least from this room, I mean, the last thing that would – the last progress there was on this was you denying the Russians permission to see the Russian detainee.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I --
QUESTION: So I – it’s just unclear to me what exactly the staff is working on if it’s illegal to transfer them under law.
MR. VENTRELL: Let me check with our experts on this, Matt, and see if I can get back if there are specific cases.
Sonia, you’ve been patient.
QUESTION: Hi. How are you? I’m sorry I am late, and I know that you already talked about Venezuela, but I would like to know if – probably the OAS already spoke about the recount of votes in Venezuela. I was wondering if the U.S. is going to take a more strong position in that regard.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I think we took a very strong position, which I already said here. I have not seen the OAS statement since I came down here. It must have been very recently. Maybe you were just receiving it as news moments ago.
QUESTION: But General Secretary Insulza, he said he’s for a vote recount, so I wonder because the U.S. is also member of the OAS, so it’s going to support this position, it is trying to get some support from other countries like showing more support for the democracy?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I stated our position already. I haven’t seen the OAS comments, one way or another.
QUESTION: But this could change the position of the U.S. or in that regard?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’re certainly consulting with the OAS, with regional partners, with countries in the hemisphere about the situation, absolutely.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Over the weekend, there was an attack on a major Sri Lankan newspaper, Tamil newspaper in northern parts. Do you have anything to say on that? Do you see these attacks – constant attacks on the media over there in the country?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Lalit, we condemn the reported attack against the Uthayan newspaper in Sri Lanka. This incident is the latest in a series of attacks against this outlet and media organizations in general. And as we have said many times, we remain extremely concerned about threats to freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. We urge the Sri Lankan authorities to protect freedom of expression, to conduct a credible investigation, and to hold perpetrators accountable. Support for media freedom was one of the many recommendations of the LLRC report and a component of the recent UNHCR resolution in Geneva.
QUESTION: And has the U.S. raised this issue with the Sri Lankans directly in their communication or --
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is we have raised it from post with our Embassy in Sri Lanka.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Can you confirm a trilateral agreement – American, Saudi, Jordanian – to control the flow on training of the – flow of arms to the Syrian opposition and training them in Jordan to sort of guard against the proliferation of arms into entities like Jabhat al-Nusrah and others?
MR. VENTRELL: Said, I don’t have anything for you on that, one way or another.
But while we’re on Syria, I did just want to briefly mention that we’re horrified by the reports that at least 30 children were killed in violence across the country yesterday, including many who were subject to the regime’s aerial bombardment in the Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus. The regime’s actions show not only disregard for the lives of its most vulnerable citizens, but a complete disregard for international conventions on the rights and protection of children.
QUESTION: Okay. But to follow up on my earlier question, you would like to see sort of the concentration of efforts and arms and so on into entities that are not like likely to be against the United States in the future, much as the extremists of Jabhat al-Nusrah and others, right?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve been very clear about the nefarious role of extremists and our desire to empower a moderate opposition that wants a unified, peaceful, and democratic Syria that protects the rights of all citizens. And that hasn’t changed and it’s not – and that’s true about all of the support that is being given by the international community.
QUESTION: Sorry. Can you just repeat that? You said that it shows the lack of – a disregard for the most vulnerable citizens, and what was the rest of that?
MR. VENTRELL: And a complete disregard for international conventions on the rights and protection of children.
QUESTION: Okay. Has the U.S. signed on to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child? Did that happen while I wasn’t looking?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think so, Matt. I wasn’t referring --
QUESTION: Ah-ha. Is Syria a signatory to the --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware. I was not referring necessarily to one UN convention, but in general --
QUESTION: I’m sure it was written very carefully to avoid having to say that.
MR. VENTRELL: This is conventions with a small "c", Matt.
QUESTION: Okay. Are you aware if Syria is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know. I don’t know. But what is clear is that their treatment of children right now is appalling and horrific and horrendous.
QUESTION: Fair enough.
MR. VENTRELL: And it’s something that we are clearly condemning and it must stop now.
QUESTION: Can I --
MR. VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: Just staying in the region, but not Syria. The Turks have said now that Erdogan is going to visit Gaza at the end of May, which would be after his trip here to see the President in early May. Does this – do you have any thoughts, one way or the other, about whether or not this is an advisable trip, especially because the Palestinian Authority, which now doesn’t – has only a caretaker prime minister doesn’t like the idea and you haven’t in the past?
MR. VENTRELL: Matt, just to say that we’d refer you to Turkish officials to discuss their proposed travel, but our longstanding policy is the travel should be coordinated through the Palestinian Authority and its legitimate leadership. So that’s --
QUESTION: Travel to Gaza should be?
MR. VENTRELL: It should be.
QUESTION: Even though they don’t run Gaza?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, our policy on Hamas is consistent. It’s a foreign terrorist organization. It remains a destabilizing force.
QUESTION: No, no. I don’t want to get into the argument about Hamas.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: I just want to know whether you think – I mean, you’re saying that if it’s okay with the PA, it’s okay with you.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, our policy on engagement with Hamas is we think – we’ve long said that that’s something that we have concerns about.
QUESTION: Well, I know. But --
MR. VENTRELL: But in terms of --
QUESTION: My --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: You mean other people’s engagement with Hamas?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re opposed to engagement with Hamas, and we think that --
QUESTION: By anyone, not just yourself?
MR. VENTRELL: By anyone.
MR. VENTRELL: And we think that aid should be channeled through longstanding and available channels.
QUESTION: Well, I understand. But does it say in your guidance there – I mean, do you – if – you say it should be coordinated with the PA, so if it is coordinated with the PA then you don’t have a problem with it? Or you still do have a problem with it?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I think our broader policy on Hamas and engagement remains the same and our concern is the same, but very much we think that anything should be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority.
QUESTION: Well, but --
QUESTION: So – wait, just let me – so when Secretary Kerry was in Istanbul or – yeah, Istanbul – and when he goes there for this Syria meeting upcoming this weekend, if this – I don’t want to assume that this issue is going to come up, so let’s make it broader. When U.S. officials talk with Turkish officials about this subject, do they say hey, we think it’s a bad idea for you to send – for senior Turkish officials to go to Gaza? Or do you say we think it’s a bad idea for them to go to Gaza without consulting with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah first?
MR. VENTRELL: Our position is that engagement with Hamas is counterproductive, and we don’t think it should continue. But in terms of this, they should coordinate with the Palestinian Authority.
QUESTION: Why would it be counterproductive, if they’re going, as I assume that you asked them to do, to go and deliver a message that they should adhere to the principles that you just laid out? I mean, you certainly don’t have any influence on them. It doesn’t seem that that many people do. So why not your allies that have a better relationship with them be able to deliver that message?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, our policy on Hamas hasn’t changed. They’re a terrorist organization.
QUESTION: I understand your policy on Hamas hasn’t changed. But if Turkey could use its influence with Hamas to get it to change its position, why is that a bad thing?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the Turkish leadership has expressed that a big concern of theirs is the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and there are established channels for that. But moves must be – anything related to this travel should be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority.
QUESTION: But that’s not my question, though. You don’t think that Turkey could play a useful role if it could help get Hamas to kind of change its position?
MR. VENTRELL: Anything that would get Hamas to change its position would be a good thing. They haven’t done that, and there’s been --
QUESTION: Okay. But you just said that anything that could get Hamas to change its position could be a good thing. So then if Turkey could go and use its influence to get Hamas to perhaps come more along towards the international position, then that would be a good thing, right?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure that’s what is at stake here. They’ve been very clear that they have a humanitarian concern. There are other ways to engage, and – rather than sort of providing the legitimacy that Hamas so dearly desires.
QUESTION: So can I just – there is one more on this.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: And that is: As seen through the prism of your desire to get Israel and Turkey back into normal relations, how does such a – do you have concerns that such a visit is actually counter to Prime Minister Erdogan’s promises or pledge?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure I’d characterize it that way. I’d really refer you to both the Israelis and the Turkish side about their normalization.
QUESTION: Well, I understand, but do you, the United States, have concerns that a visit like this runs counter to the – at least the spirit, if not the letter, of the alleged promise from the Turks to improve relations with Israel?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, the visit hasn’t even happened, but --
QUESTION: No, I understand.
MR. VENTRELL: -- we’d like them to continue to take constructive steps to get their bilateral relationship fully back on track.
QUESTION: Patrick, can you clarify something that you said? So the visit is not okay if Erdogan goes directly to Gaza, but it is okay, let’s say, if he stops in the West Bank? Is that what you’re saying?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, he has traveled to the West Bank in the past and --
QUESTION: Or he coordinates with Abbas.
MR. VENTRELL: -- I think that would be part of the trip, but I refer you to the Turkish side.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: I have one more.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Go for it, Lalit.
QUESTION: On Tibet, there’s – four more Tibetans have been sentenced to six years of imprisonment because the allegation is that they were spreading the news about self-immolation, which normally – which anyone does, sending photos overseas about those self-immolations. Do you know anything about it? Do you have any concerns on this?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we are very concerned by the self-immolations, detentions, arrests of family members and associates of those who have self-immolated, so we call on the Chinese Government to engage in substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama, his reps, with his representatives, and without preconditions. So that’s our longstanding policy. I’m not sure if there’s a specific case that you’re interested in here. I didn’t hear the top of your question.
QUESTION: Thank you. And was the Tibetan issue raised by Secretary Kerry when he was in China?
MR. VENTRELL: I wasn’t in the meeting, but human rights concerns broadly were raised, so --
QUESTION: Not on specific (inaudible) --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, the traveling party is en route back. I wasn’t in those meetings, but human rights concerns were very much raised in the meetings.
QUESTION: I have two questions, one on Egypt and one on Saudi Arabia. On Egypt, Representative Frank Wolf has issued a statement last week. He said that he was disturbed by attacks in Egypt against Coptic Christians, and he added that religious freedom is daily under assault throughout the region. There is perception that the U.S. is either disengaged or simply uninterested in advocating for this and other basic human rights.
What are you doing to protect minorities in Egypt and the Middle East?
MR. VENTRELL: So I think you heard me say this last week, that we’re very concerned about the recent sectarian violence in Egypt. Details continue to emerge of the horrific violence that has claimed the lives of six Coptic Christians and two Muslims. We again express our condolences to the families and friends of the victims of these heinous crimes. The Egyptian Government has an obligation to protect all of its citizens.
So as we await the results of the investigation that the Egyptian Government promised last week, we again call on the government to expeditiously conduct a credible, transparent investigation and to prosecute those responsible, whether they’re members of the public or of the security forces. So we urge not only the Egyptian Government, but all Egyptians to respect the universal rights of fellow citizens and the freedom of religion.
QUESTION: Representative Wolf suggested to create a high-level State Department special envoy to protect the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. Do you support such a suggestion?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen that specific suggestion by the congressman, but we already have an ambassador, we have an envoy, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Issues, who works very actively on these issues at the State Department.
QUESTION: And on Saudi Arabia, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has supported the right of Saudi women to drive. He tweeted, “A woman driving will result in dispensing with at least 500,000 foreign drivers, and that has an economic and social impact for the country.” How do you view this statement?
MR. VENTRELL: Let me take that question and get back to you. I had seen those news reports, but I want to clarify what the position is because I’m not sure in the Saudi system what the ramifications are. So let me take that question and check on it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Lalit.
QUESTION: Pakistan Foreign Ministry today issued a very strong statement on the drone attacks in Waziristan yesterday, saying that this is a violation of their sovereignty. Do you have anything to say to that, please?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any reaction.
QUESTION: Do you have any update on the Palestinian American teenager being held by the Israelis?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have an update from what we released last Friday, Matt.
QUESTION: Do you know if – okay. Could you take the question, just so – one, on the Privacy Act issue, and second – and two, on whether there have been any additional meetings?
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll look into whether there were additional meetings, but my understanding is that due to privacy considerations, we still don’t have additional comment.
QUESTION: No. The question is going to be not – well --
MR. VENTRELL: What is your question exactly, Matt?
QUESTION: The question is whether he was given the opportunity to sign a waiver, whether he was told or advised not to sign one, whether he was advised to sign a partial one, and basically, just if there has been an update. Have you gone back to him to see him, to say – well, to find out whether he would sign one, so that’s --
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll take it and look into it. I know that a 14-year-old can sign their own privacy waiver, but --
QUESTION: I know. We had that discussion last --
MR. VENTRELL: All right. We’ll look into it.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Authorities in Baku last week closed Free Thought University, which is partially funded by AID, apparently. Is that something that you are aware of, and did you raise that issue with the authorities in Azerbaijan?
MR. VENTRELL: We are aware, and the Ambassador out in Baku made a clear statement this morning, Ambassador Morningstar. He spoke and made very clear our support for the organization and for civil society. As he said, respect for peaceful protests, independent and transparent courts, and government engagement with citizens, especially young citizens, to address their legitimate concerns are the best and most effective ways democratic governments can ensure their fundamental stability.
So we urge the Government of Azerbaijan to uphold its international commitments and ensure its citizens universal freedom of assembly and expression without fear of arrest or detention. So we did make those concerns clear from the Embassy, and I’m reiterating those here today as well.
QUESTION: There are two Iranian parliamentarians who are suggesting the annulment of 19th century treaties that separate the South Caucasus, and suggested that Iran annex Azerbaijan. Is that something the United States would support?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, my understanding is this is a legislative tit-for-tat that has taken on both sides and has been done in the past. So I don’t really have a reaction to the tit-for-tat.
Nicole’s been very patient. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: In terms of – I mean, do you – what kind of Keystone update are you looking for?
QUESTION: Well, what has been said publicly by the Secretary about where he stands on the decision and their timing? And if there’s anything else you want to throw in there, I’m happy to hear it.
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, other than to say this week there’s going to be a public meeting in Grand Island, Nebraska, this is part of the public reaction to the draft SEIS, which is the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, and that we continue our rigorous and thorough review, I don’t have really specific information beyond that. We continue our rigorous review and it continues to move forward.
QUESTION: Sorry, where is it?
MR. VENTRELL: Grand Island, Nebraska.
QUESTION: There’s an island in Nebraska?
MR. VENTRELL: I think that’s the name of the city. (Laughter.) I’m not sure exactly where it is, but we will have State Department officials present there.
Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:57 p.m.)
DPB # 62