The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.
12:45 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon. I have a couple of things here at the top before turning it over to all of you.
First of all, for today’s Free the Press campaign case for World Press Freedom Day, we’d like to highlight Jose Antonio Torres, a journalist for the official Granma newspaper in Cuba. He was arrested in February 2011 after Granma published his report on the mismanagement of a public works project in Santiago, the kind of reporting that promotes transparency and holds a government accountable to its people. He was subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison on charges of spying, and we take this opportunity to call on the Government of Cuba to release Jose Antonio Torres. You can learn more about this case, and again, the other cases that we’re highlighting at humanrights.gov.
Secondly, the United States condemns today’s attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, and extends its condolences to all those who were hurt as a result of the bombing. France is one of our closest allies in promoting peace and development around the world. Such violence is a direct attack on all Libyans who fought a revolution in order to enjoy a democratic future with security and prosperity. We look to the Libyan Government to continue its efforts to strengthen security across Libya and to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice.
And lastly, I just want to draw your attention to a statement our Embassy in Baghdad put out just a few moments ago. In it, we highlight that the United States strongly condemns the actions that resulted in the death and injury of civilians and security personnel in Hawijah, Iraq. We regret that this violence took place before ongoing efforts to reach a peaceful resolution of the situation were given sufficient time to succeed. All sides should immediately refrain from further violence or provocative actions, and we call for a transparent investigation with the broadest possible participation.
I will now turn it over to all of you.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you helping the French in any way? Do you know who’s responsible? Do you have any information on this attack?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any details on the perpetrators. We of course stand ready to assist our French ally, but I’m not aware that they’ve asked for any assistance at this time.
QUESTION: Do you have any capacity to help in Libya in any way?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, just to say that our mission in Tripoli remains open. Certainly, it’s, as you know, still an unaccompanied post, and we have some security restrictions there as well. But I’ll have to check and see if we have any update in terms of contact between our embassies in Tripoli or at the capital level.
QUESTION: And then just because this gives us an opportunity to ask about Benghazi, the Secretary said last week on his hearing – in his hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee that you guys were making progress in bringing people to justice. Do you have any information on that progress? As far as I recall, nobody had been detained, arrested or otherwise targeted for involvement in that attack. Is that still valid?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know that from the President on down, we’ve been clear that we will seek justice, and again, this is a law enforcement channel, so I’d have to refer them to you. But the Secretary – his words stand for themselves.
QUESTION: Well, not – they don’t stand for themselves if he states there’s progress --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have further information --
QUESTION: -- and you don’t have any progress to report (inaudible).
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any further information to read out from this podium, but it remains an active goal of the United States.
QUESTION: So, seek you may, but you haven’t actually done anything; is that right?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have an update for you here today, Brad.
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: Is there anything to be read into the fact that the U.S., the French, and I believe the UK embassies inside Libya have been targeted in the past eight or nine months or so? Does that give you any sense of who might be behind these attacks and what the efforts of the U.S. and its NATO allies might be in trying to help Libya stabilize itself?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, these attacks just happened this morning, so we want to be careful about immediately drawing conclusions. But as I said, this is an attack on the Libyans themselves who fought for a new future, a new democratic future for Libya. And of course, the French and British and others, we were very much supportive of the Libyan people and continue to be so.
QUESTION: But it’s a similar question. I mean, what are the broader implications of this if you have had not only this attack but previous attacks pretty recently?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, this particular attack just happened this morning. My understanding is it’s the first attack of this particular kind within Tripoli, although we’re all aware of the history of what’s happened in Benghazi with American and British interests there. But this is the first attack inside of Tripoli, so again, I hesitate to draw any immediate conclusions.
QUESTION: Patrick, you say that the mission in Tripoli remains open and so on. Can you share with us how it is conducting its business at the present time?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not going to get into specific security precautions. We obviously have changed our security posture, and you know that we had to make some changes after the Benghazi attacks. But in terms of how we’re operating, I don’t think we’ll get into the specifics for the sake of the mission, but we continue to have a mission that is in place and continues to do business with the Libyan Government and the Libyan people.
QUESTION: Okay. So do you continue to conduct, like, public outreach programs and so on with civil society groups or tribes and others in Libya?
MR. VENTRELL: We do the best we can given the security restraints, but certainly we continue our engagement with the Libyan Government directly, and we’re supportive of them as they continue to tackle these security challenges.
QUESTION: Okay. And lastly, on the issue of the proliferation of weapons into Libya, as we recall during the revolution, the country was flooded with weapons that were not vetted or controlled or anything, and now, obviously, it is a problem. Are there any lessons learned from this and other conflicts in the region?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’m not sure I’m going to make a broad sweeping assessment. I will highlight, as we have here before, Said, that we’ve committed almost $40 million to a robust program in Libya to secure and disable weapons and unexploded ordnance. So we’re – that’s something that’s been a particular priority of ours.
Go ahead. Tell me your name.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Joseph Khawly from Sky News Arabia.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Regarding Hezbollah and Syria, some Lebanese villages have been targeted by the Free Syrian Army, and George Sabra, the newly-elected president of the Syrian National Council – Coalition, I mean – warned Hezbollah to stay out of the conflict. Do you think that this will have a lot of repercussions on Lebanon itself?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, let me just say a few words about violence spilling over the border and Lebanon’s sovereignty. We have seen media reports that rockets from Syria again fell on the Lebanese side of the border near the town of Hermel. We condemn any violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty by Syria, including recent attacks on Hermel. The U.S. strongly supports Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and stability. So we’ve long spoken about our concerns about some of the spillover here, and we strongly condemn this.
I will say, since you’re asking about the new SOC interim president, Mr. Sabra.
QUESTION: George Sabra.
MR. VENTRELL: George Sabra. That we do note his announcement that he’ll be the coalition – that the coalition vice president has been designated as the acting president of the SOC. His service to the Syrian opposition is well known, and we look forward to continuing to work with him as he assumes his current functions.
And one other thing that I’ll say is that as they come into an upcoming election for the next coalition president, it’s important that their election is held in a transparent and credible manner.
QUESTION: But what are the repercussions like between Syria and Lebanon since the Syrian opposition is accusing Hezbollah of being part of this conflict?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’ve been very clear about the nefarious role of Hezbollah as well and the support that they’ve given to the regime and the violence that they’ve perpetrated inside of Syria as well. So that’s something we’ve been very clear about over many months here.
QUESTION: Can I just ask --
QUESTION: What is this – can we just finish this? What is this transparent and credible election? I mean, this isn’t a popular election. It’s people who’ve appointed themselves leaders of the opposition. So how do you even go about talking about a transparent and credible election with no – there’s no popular mandate in that, is there?
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Well, Brad, this is in the context of they’ve had some differences in leadership and this is something that they’ve had to sort out. And so we’re encouraging them to sort out those differences and to do so in a manner that is clear and credible. And again, this is not --
QUESTION: Well, what is --
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re not at a place where we’re talking about a democratic election for all Syrian people, which is where we want to get to. But in terms of their stewardship of the opposition, we do want them to resolve their leadership issues and do so in a way that resolves these issues.
QUESTION: So you don’t want them to kill each other to decide – just peaceful, basically – determine who is the leader. That’s it?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, Brad, the point is that we’ve gone through a process where we’ve had the president step aside. They now have a vice president stepping in in an interim role for a couple of weeks here. And now they need to, among themselves, resolve their leadership issues more clearly, and we want them to do so in a fashion that the rest of the opposition deems clear and credible.
Go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: Do you have any update about the kidnapping of two bishops in Aleppo yesterday?
MR. VENTRELL: We do have some information. We’re relieved by the announcement that the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi were released and are safely in the city of Aleppo. So we’re pleased by that. I don’t have any more information about the circumstances of how they were kidnapped, but we’re relieved that they’ve been released by their captors.
QUESTION: Just follow-up on Lebanese and Hezbollah thing, yesterday again seven Sunni sheikhs called on Sunnis in Lebanon to go to help basically Sunni brothers in Syria against Hezbollah that are clashing there for some time. Are you aware of this? And second question is: How significant or how scary do you think the scenarios are to spilling over to Lebanon from now on?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’m not sure of the specific details you’re referring to, to these particular sheikhs one way or another. But we’re very concerned not only about the violence spilling over into Lebanon and violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty and security, but also the nefarious role played by Hezbollah coming in back across the other way. So that’s been our concern, and we’ve been – had longstanding concerns and been clear about that.
QUESTION: Do you think it’s okay for Sunnis to go from Lebanon or from other neighboring countries to fight in Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, the Syrian people are the ones who are fighting for their future, and so we’ve been clear that the opposition needs to be working for a credible, democratic, inclusive Syria, and that’s the Syrian people who are seeking that.
QUESTION: But do you have a position on whether Sunnis in other countries should or should not cross the border and fight for their Sunni brethren in Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’re concerned about --
QUESTION: But did you have a position yet that whether that’s good or bad?
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, what we’re concerned about is an increasing sectarian nature of the conflict. I can’t speak in terms of every individual that comes in and out of Syria, but suffice it to say we don’t want an increased sectarian nature of the conflict and we do want the Syrian people to have a credible path to a new democratic future.
QUESTION: But Lebanese Sunnis who aren’t fighting for sectarian things in their mind, it’s okay if they come and help in the fight against the Assad regime? Is that --
MR. VENTRELL: Those are your words. I’m not characterizing it that way.
QUESTION: No, I’m asking you: What is your position? Do you have a position on foreign nationals coming to fight with the rebels?
MR. VENTRELL: Our concern with the Lebanese-Syrian border goes both ways. And one of the long – the things we’ve long explained up here is that we’re concerned about the spillover in terms of causing more instability inside of Lebanon. To the extent that that insecurity has caused a reaction by specific Lebanese who need to protect themselves, that’s one thing. But we have not been supporting sort of specific – we do have concerns about extremism and about foreign fighters coming from other destinations in terms of AQI and others.
QUESTION: But they’re not – but not all the foreign fighters are extremists, right?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I can’t characterize every single person who’s gone --
QUESTION: You just called them all extremists.
QUESTION: On the --
MR. VENTRELL: Said.
QUESTION: Yeah. On the issue of Hezbollah, Human Rights Watch issued a report yesterday saying that both the opposition and government forces attacked villages in Lebanon. Are you aware of the report?
MR. VENTRELL: This is a Human Rights Watch report?
QUESTION: That’s right.
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen that. Let me get some more information on it and get back to you.
QUESTION: Okay. And another thing related, yesterday Boogie Yaalon, Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli Defense Minister, standing next to the Secretary of Defense, the American Secretary of Defense, suggested that Israel bears a responsibility to striking a convoy back in January, basically acknowledged that, which was Hezbollah, under the pretext that arms were being transferred from Syria. Are you aware of that?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, am I aware of a press conference? I would refer you to the Israelis for more details.
QUESTION: No, I mean, are you aware of – that the Israelis did actually commit – they did conduct the strike against the convoys who were laden in – they were carrying arms into Hezbollah?
MR. VENTRELL: I refer you to the Israelis for more information on that.
QUESTION: Okay. And one last – one last thing on Sabra.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Sabra is seen by many Syrians to be a polarizing figure. He’s not like Moaz al-Khatib, his predecessor, who was conciliatory in many ways, that he is actually a divisive and a polarizing figure. Do you concur?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not going to characterize one way or another other than to say he’s somebody who’s well known within the opposition and we’ll work with him in this caretaker role. And I emphasized the importance of them resolving these leadership disputes. And what’s really important is that they begin to provide services to the Syrian people. That’s really the key standard that we’re looking at.
QUESTION: But are you concerned about his belligerent – I mean, his first day in office and he’s just issuing all kinds of bellicose statements about attacking Hezbollah villages and strongholds and so on?
MR. VENTRELL: I haven’t seen specific statements he’s made today. But we’ve been clear we’ll work with him in his caretaker capacity, and we look forward to them concluding their leadership process.
QUESTION: Israelis are – seem to be claiming that Syrian regime – Assad regime – has repeatedly used chemical weapons – 100 percent. So do you consider that they have crossed a redline right now?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, the Secretary answered this in a press availability already earlier today, and we’ll get the transcript to you shortly. But the bottom line is that continue to support an investigation of all credible allegations of chemical weapons used to establish the facts of exactly what did or didn’t happen. But in terms of new information today, I don’t have anything for you one way or another other than to say that we coordinate closely with our partners, including the French, British, and the Israelis.
QUESTION: But, like, you are saying that we are supporting these investigations, but we all know the Syrian regime has been refusing UN team. How you are going to able to investigate it if the regime is not allowing you to do that? Or how long you are going to use this rhetoric even though nothing is happening on the ground?
MR. VENTRELL: We talked a little bit about this yesterday, Ilhan.
MR. VENTRELL: We are encouraging the Syrians to allow the team in, but we’ll be looking at all sources of evidence in terms of chemical weapons use. And we are strongly urging the regime not to use chemical weapons.
QUESTION: Do you – I mean, how long you are – do you have any kind of timetable? I mean, if they – if the regime doesn’t – keeps refusing that for two more months, are you going to just use same arguments that it should be happening but it’s not happening?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not going to preview any potential next steps, but we’re closely coordinating with our allies and watching the situation --
QUESTION: On Hezbollah --
MR. VENTRELL: -- very carefully.
QUESTION: On Hezbollah, it’s widely commented that Hezbollah militias have been pouring in Syria for months now. Funerals are going back to Lebanon, so whole world knows that. Are you considering any specific action in any way to stop this Hezbollah militias are coming into Syria to fight with the Syrians?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve been very clear about the destructive role that Hezbollah is playing, also the Iranian role, and we’ve been clear about that from the beginning. So we’ve been loud and clear about that.
QUESTION: So do you think that the Israelis are making it up with respect to the chemicals since you didn’t concur with the report?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I’d really refer you to the Israelis for more information. I think the Secretary also talked about a phone call he had with Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning. So again, I refer you to the Israelis for more details about who it was in the government that spoke at what level, but I refer you to them for clarification.
QUESTION: But they said they conveyed it to Washington and Washington didn’t agree with. So again, do you have any suspicion that the Israelis are making it up or something?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think we’d characterize it that way. I think you need to look at the Secretary’s transcript where he talks about his discussion with the Prime Minister of Israel, which we’ll be releasing shortly. That was in a press availability just a few minutes ago.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. determination on whether chemical weapons are used or not a political determination or a technical determination?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I think I would describe it as a technical determination in terms of the various materials that may or may not have been used. And so we’ll continue to look at that very closely.
QUESTION: But then the decision on whether a redline has been crossed, is that a political determination or is that also strictly whether chemical weapons were used or not?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we’ll look at all the facts and the evidence and take them into account.
QUESTION: And how come it’s taking you so much longer than some of your allies to make this determination? Because three of your allies now, three of your closest, have gone on and said that they believe, in fact, chemical weapons are being used. What is – do they have greater technical know-how than the United States now?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not going to get into intelligence assessments here from this podium, but at this time we are continuing to monitor and we’re continuing to look at all available evidence.
QUESTION: So does past experience make you less confident in Israeli sources or allegations, or more confident?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, we’re in consultation with all of our allies. I think we’ve done what we can on this one. Do we have other topics?
QUESTION: I have one final Syria question. There were news reports last week, leading newspapers that the U.S. Administration currently is basically not okay with the opposition, Syrian opposition, winning against the regime as of now. Is this your position right now? Are you supporting total victory of the Syrian opposition as of now?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Ilhan, if you read all the way to the bottom of that article, I think you will see that we responded on the record and very clearly that Assad needs to go, and the sooner the better. So that’s what we said last week and I’ll say it again here.
MR. VENTRELL: Shaun, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: There was movement of Chinese ships near the disputed islands. It’s characterized as one of the largest movements there. Meanwhile, you’ve had some developments also between Japan and the Republic of Korea regarding the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine. I guess to begin with, with these ships, is there anything the United States has to say about that? Have you – how have you assessed the situation? How serious does it seem?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, you know our position on the Senkakus. We’ve said it here clearly many times that we do not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty over the islands. We do urge all parties to avoid actions that could raise tensions or result in miscalculations that would undermine peace, security, and economic growth in that vital part of the world. So that’s really our reaction and it’s something we’ve said in the past.
QUESTION: Does it seem as if it’s escalated at all with the current movement of the Chinese ships? Is there a sign that that message has been getting through?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure that there’s been any development overnight, but we do believe that good relations between Japan and China benefit everyone in the region. That’s true also for Japan and South Korea, as I said yesterday.
QUESTION: Sure. Regarding the shrine visit --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- I don’t imagine you want to – I mean, that the U.S. has a position on that. But regarding the cancelation of the Foreign Minister’s visit, the South Korean Foreign Minister, his cancelation, is that – these are two of the closest U.S. allies. Is that – are there concerns about what that says about the relationship between them?
MR. VENTRELL: I really addressed this yesterday and have the same thing to say today, which is that we encourage those two allies to work through their issues and have a good dialogue and a good relationship. But I don’t have anything – a specific reaction to this canceled meeting one way or another.
MR. VENTRELL: I think we have some other colleagues here. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. His meetings are ongoing so I’m not sure I’m going to have a final full readout, but --
QUESTION: He had a round yesterday.
MR. VENTRELL: The Chinese MFA Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei had a productive set of discussions on North Korea yesterday with a range of U.S. officials including Special Representative for North Korean Policy Glyn Davies, Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks Clifford Hart, and Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King, also Coordinator for Sanctions Policy Daniel Fried.
Today, later in the day, he’s going to meet with Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Yun, and NSS Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel over at the White House. So his meetings continue today, but we said he’s had a productive set of discussions so far.
QUESTION: And yesterday, Ambassador King mentioned that the U.S. would still be open to possibly providing food aid to the North. So I’m wondering what kind of conditions would have to be met for something like that to happen.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, first of all, Ambassador King was very clear on raising our human rights concerns with the DPRK and made some very clear and strong statements about that. But in terms of food aid, we’ve long said that we have no ill will toward the North Korean people, and first of all, we want the regime to make the decision to spend money on its people and better feed and take care of its own population. But on – if we were to have confidence that they would – the food aid would actually get to the people, that’s something we’re willing to consider. But the actions they’ve taken have not engendered or generated that kind of confidence in the near past.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry said in Beijing that high-level discussions with Chinese, or the purpose of the discussion is to feel out exactly what steps they can take together to make sure that it’s real closely that can be implemented. So by when does the United States want to agree with the Chinese on next steps?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, we’re working with our Chinese counterparts. This meeting is part of an intensive dialog we’re having among our experts about how we can get the North Koreans to not only change their position, but work toward a denuclearized North Korea and come in compliance with their obligations. So that’s what we’re working toward very intensively with the Chinese.
QUESTION: Yeah. U.S. food aid to North Korea is a humanitarian issue. How different humanitarian issue and North Korea threatened with nuclear weapons to United States, it’s two different issues you handle that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we haven’t tied the two in the past, but the concern has been the confidence we have in terms of their ability to comply with and deliver the food to people that they’re supposed to.
QUESTION: But they’re using that --
MR. VENTRELL: Let’s go ahead to Roz.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, this is just to confirm, as you’ve seen, that the U.S., Afghan, and Pakistan Governments have all spoken about our interest in a stable, secure Afghanistan, including progress on Afghan-led reconciliation. So to that end, Secretary Kerry has offered to host a meeting with Afghan and Pakistani officials on Wednesday, including President Karzai and Defense Minister Muhammadi, as well as General Kayani and Foreign Secretary Gilani for the Pakistani side.
So this is part of an ongoing trilateral dialog that has been underway since 2009, including the core group, which has met regularly at the Special Representative level and is focused on the specific topic of Afghan reconciliation. So I don’t think we’re going to preview the results of a meeting beforehand, but that’s our – the general description of what the meeting will be tomorrow.
QUESTION: How realistic is it that talks between the Taliban, the Afghans, and the Americans will get going sooner rather than later?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, you heard going back to January when President Obama and President Karzai were together, our – that we reaffirmed the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation, that that’s the surest way to end the violence and ensure lasting stability of Afghanistan. So we continue to support that. It’s really about Afghans talking to Afghans about their future. But I don’t have a specific timeline for you other than to say that the Taliban knows what it needs to do if we’re going to get forward with this office opening in Doha and moving forward.
QUESTION: Was that January 2013 or January 2012?
MR. VENTRELL: That was this year, Brad.
QUESTION: Okay. But that was the same thing they said last year, right?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m referring specifically to the Oval Office meeting here a couple of months ago, this year.
QUESTION: Well, given the complexities of the alliances, both political and ethnic, in that region, is it realistic to assume that there could be some sort of peace accord reached between not just the U.S., the Taliban, and the Afghan Government, but also the Pakistani Government before U.S. troops leave at the end of 2014?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure I’m going to look into the crystal ball and try to predict the potential for success here in terms of Afghan reconciliation, but --
QUESTION: Wouldn’t that be desirable?
MR. VENTRELL: What we want is the Afghans talking to Afghans about their future to move toward a reconciliation that will end the violence.
QUESTION: What is the progress of the U.S. engaging with the Taliban? It seems that there may be some new olive branches being extended from the Taliban side. Do you have anything on that?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything for you in terms of direct contact, directly between the U.S. and the Taliban.
QUESTION: Is that something that the U.S. would be willing to engage in?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, this is something that they broke off many months ago, so I don’t have anything for you, new, at this time. The core goal is to get the Afghans talking to the Afghans about their future. To the extent we can be supportive, we said that we would be. But I don’t have anything specifically now.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up. In Afghanistan, there are eight Turkish nationals held captive since Sunday night.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you talking to Turkish officials and do you have any update from your --
MR. VENTRELL: I really refer you to ISAF on this. This has been something that ISAF has spoken to earlier. I don’t have anything for you.
Go ahead, Paul.
QUESTION: Any follow-up on the Human Rights Watch report on Burma with the reported ethnic cleansing, and any more clarity on that from your people on the ground there in the country? And the follow-on question is, does it affect the pace of your rapprochement, the way the sanctions are being lifted in a phased --
MR. VENTRELL: I think you heard me talk about this yesterday a little bit, Paul, and I was very clear that the U.S. remains deeply concerned about the situation facing minority populations. I don’t have any new information in terms of the Human Rights Watch report today, but it’s something that, in terms of minority rights and stopping ethnic divisions, that’s something that we do raise with the Burmese Government.
I do want to, since we’re on Burma, say a quick word about political prisoners, just to note that we understand the Government of Burma has ordered today the release of over 93 prisoners, including about 50 political prisoners. So we welcome and encourage the unconditional release of all prisoners, but we do note that they have released about 50 today.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, the European Union made a decision to end most of its sanctions on Myanmar – on Burma. Is that a decision that the United States sees in one way or the other? Is that a – does the United States think that was an appropriate step at this point?
MR.VENTRELL: Well, I’ll let the Europeans speak for themselves, but we have taken some measures to authorize the export of U.S. financial services, allow for new U.S. investment, but we have a calibrated policy that includes sanctions authorities and leaves them in place as a means to encourage continued progress on reforms. So while we have a calibrated approach in the sense that we have taken some measures, but some of the policies are still in place if we need to use them.
Okay. Jill, go ahead.
QUESTION: In the wake of that human rights report, have you had any feedback from the Russians, officially or otherwise? Because they, of course, did not come out very well on that report.
MR. VENTRELL: You heard our Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor speak about the case of Russia here last week, and we were clear about our concerns about the situation. But I am not aware of any particular feedback we’ve gotten or reaction from the Russians directly to us. I can check into it, but I’m not aware they’ve said anything to us one way or another.
Go ahead, you’ve been – oh, go ahead, Shaun.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Foreign Minister, Minister Jaua, was threatening countermeasures if, as was asserted, the United States imposes sanctions on Venezuela. To begin with, is there any effort on the part of the United States, any proposal to impose any type of sanctions? And what’s your general response to this?
MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware at this time. I’m not sure exactly what he’s referring to. But I’m not aware of any particular effort afoot in terms of sanctions in Venezuela at this point.
QUESTION: So there’s no – that’s not something that’s under consideration?
MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware of, no.
QUESTION: I think he was – there was a report that was quoting the Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, as being quoted talking about the consideration of sanctions.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, I think this was a specific interview she had given. But I think her position was not indicating one way or another in that interview. I’d have to go back and look at the transcript, but that’s my understanding.
QUESTION: Wait, how can she not indicate one way or another whether she was considering it? Like, by nature, you are considering it if you have been talking about it.
MR. VENTRELL: Right. Let me clarify. My point is I think the Venezuelan side may have looked at that and read into we’re considering something, and I’m saying that that’s not something that we’re currently contemplating at this moment.
MR. VENTRELL: Sanctions.
All right. Go ahead. Tell me who you are?
QUESTION: David Ivanovich with Argus Media.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: As was just mentioned, the Foreign Minister suggested that Venezuela might respond to this perceived threat by stopping oil sales to the U.S. Do you have any reaction to that threat?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen that specific threat. But we have continued to have our economic and commercial relationship with Venezuela despite some of the ups and downs of the relationship over time. And that’s one area that we said we’re looking to improve potentially with the Venezuelan Government going forward.
QUESTION: Can we change topic?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay, Said. Go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry said that we had – that the window on a two-state solution was closing, that perhaps we had anywhere between one and two years. Could you tell us how he arrived at this sort of timeframe?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I think the Secretary’s point has been that given all the issues in the region, given all the change that has gone on, this is really a critical moment and we have an urgency here to getting the parties back to negotiations. I’m really not going to parse it beyond that. He was clear in what he said.
QUESTION: Okay, well, this new angle of urgency, does it make you sort of pressure the Israelis to stop the building of settlements or settlement activities?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we need both sides to not take provocative actions and to try to get back to the table. That’s what we’re looking for.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the Palestinians are not building any settlements where the land is allocated for the creation of a Palestinian state.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the bottom line, Said, is that all sides have expressed a belief that a two-state solution is possible. And the Secretary’s diplomacy and our wider diplomacy is working to get them back to the table.
In the back, go ahead. Tell me your name.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can we do Gaza?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, no, I just called on – let’s let our colleague finish her question.
QUESTION: Thank you. So the Canadian authorities have confirmed that they were working with the U.S. on these terror plots yesterday in Toronto. Can you give more details on the U.S. involvements? And also, what do we know about al-Qaida operations in Iran?
MR. VENTRELL: Sorry to disappoint, but I really refer you to the Department of Justice and the FBI in terms of law enforcement cooperation.
Ilhan, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yesterday, you were asked about the Turkish reaction to Secretary Kerry’s suggestion that the Turkish Prime Minister shouldn’t go to Gaza. You said that you did not see it. Since yesterday, the Prime Minister himself also said that Secretary Kerry’s advice is not appropriate. What is your reaction now? Basically, the Turks say that this shouldn’t be said in Turkey by another country’s Secretary of State – to tell another country not to go and do something.
MR. VENTRELL: Our position is the same. The Secretary’s words stand that we believe it would be better if his visit did not take place at this time. So our position is really the same.
QUESTION: This time – you mean any time, right?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we talked about this yesterday at some length, Brad. So – in terms of we do oppose engagement with Hamas.
MR. VENTRELL: And the Secretary had been clear about – in particular at this delicate moment – why it was a bad idea.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any – again, I can’t get into intelligence from this podium, but you know that these types of provocative actions, this type of testing, whether it’s ballistic missiles or potentially a nuclear test, are something that we’ve long opposed.
Yeah, go ahead, (inaudible).
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The human rights groups were not very happy with what was seen as an effort to drop the idea of monitors, human rights monitors, as part of the UN mission in Western Sahara. Morocco was quite unhappy with this idea, which had been proposed by the U.S. Can you say what the U.S. thinking was in terms of moving forward in Western Sahara?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, as you know, the diplomacy is actively going on up in New York. You know that we’re actively reviewing the mandate of MINERSO. We’re working closely with our UN Security Council partners on the issue. We continue to support the UN-led process designed to bring about a peaceful, sustainable and mutually agreed solution to the conflict whereby the human rights of all individuals are respected. So the diplomacy continues in New York, I think, as they work toward a resolution on the mandate. I don’t think we’ll have further comment while they continue negotiations.
QUESTION: (Inaudible), is that still alive, or is that something that’s been dropped?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t gotten an update this morning on how the diplomacy was going in the Council. I’d have to refer you up to our mission in New York. But that’s currently being negotiated up there.
QUESTION: Staying in Africa.
MR. VENTRELL: Brad, go ahead.
MR. VENTRELL: Just to say that a senior-level delegation from the Government of Sudan, led by Presidential Advisor Nafi Ali Nafi, intends to travel to Washington for discussions here with us, with the U.S. Government. We plan to receive this delegation for a candid discussion on the conflicts and humanitarian crises within Sudan, including in Darfur and the two areas, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, counterterrorism, human rights and other issues of concern to the U.S. Government.
So contrary to some reports, this visit hasn’t been scheduled, but we’re at a stage where we’re working through some of the dates, and this is something that we said we would welcome. So --
QUESTION: Well, why would you welcome it? What have they done that in recent times along their border and along the two areas that makes you want to welcome this delegation?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, part of it is in the context of they have continued, and we continue to encourage the Government of Sudan to sustain recent progress in implementing its agreements with South Sudan, and to making progress on Abyei, the joint administration per the AU roadmap. So that’s been some of the engagement. We’ve also continued to express our deep concern about a number of other issues. While we’ve had some progress here, you have ongoing aerial bombardment of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and some other areas in terms of Darfur that we’re still concerned about. So we’ve seen some progress but we still have some concerns, and we’ll raise those directly with the government.
QUESTION: So this is – so you’re rewarding them for the limited progress that they’ve made?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure I would characterize it that way, but I think we do think it’s useful to have this level of engagement directly with the Sudanese to express our concerns where we have them and to encourage further progress where there has been progress.
QUESTION: Does that include telling them that they should stop shelling people in the northern part of Darfur as well as in the Nuba Mountain region?
MR. VENTRELL: I think I was very clear about not only the two areas in terms of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, but also Darfur as something as a concern that we’ll be raising.
QUESTION: Let me put it this way: If they don’t stop the offensive actions against these people who are under-armed, or unarmed in some cases, would that mean that the visit is off?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I said at this point we’re at a point where we welcome a delegation coming. We don’t have a date yet set. We always are looking very carefully at human rights violations at the areas where we have concerns, so we’ll continue to look at it.
QUESTION: It’s not scheduled, but is it, like, next month?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a date one way or another. It’s something that we said we’re willing to accept this delegation at this time, but I don’t have a date for you.
QUESTION: You keep saying we’re willing to accept. You have to invite them. They have to get visas to come to this country. It’s not as if they’re coming and you have decided we’re not stopping you at the border. You invited them, correct?
MR. VENTRELL: This is an invitation to have this engagement here in Washington.
QUESTION: Do you know when the last high-level engagement was with the Sudanese? I know that the Foreign Minister was here around the time of South Sudan’s independence.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure the last time we’ve had a high-level Sudanese figure here. It could also have been at UNGA. I’m not sure. But we’ll have to check the last time we had a bilateral engagement with a senior Sudanese official.
QUESTION: All right. Is this going to be paired with a similar visit from the South Sudanese at the same time or a nearby time?
MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to check on that. I’m not aware that we have – when our next engagement with the South Sudanese at that level is.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: One is that last week, pianist – Turkish pianist Fazil Say was convicted over a tweet, and actually this was – made reference into Human Rights Report that was released by Secretary of State Kerry last Friday. My specific question is --
MR. VENTRELL: Is this the pianist, Fazil?
MR. VENTRELL: Okay, yeah.
QUESTION: My specific question is that this was asked to U.S. Ambassador in Ankara Ricciardone, and Ambassador’s quote is: “Pianist hit the wrong key.” And he has not clarified his position and this was widely understood as Ambassador was making joke of this freedom of expression sentence in Turkey. Do you – what’s your position? Are you supporting your Ambassador in --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I haven’t seen the context of the Ambassador or the Embassy’s reaction, but let me be clear. We’ve been 100 percent clear about our concerns about freedom of expression in Turkey. We’re concerned by any attempt to punish individuals for practicing their right to free speech, which of course is an internationally recognized right. So we do not believe such laws are consistent with core human rights practices. And while we do condemn hateful speech, we deplore speech that deliberately denigrates people of any religion. At the same time, we’re strong supporters of the right of freedom of expression. So we believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security, and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. They’re crucial to the health of any democracy.
QUESTION: So it’s clear that you are – you don’t agree with joking about this freedom issue when he’s asked about it?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I hadn’t seen the Embassy’s comments. I’m not sure if this is was something the Ambassador said or was on Twitter or one way or another. I’d have to check into it. But we’re very clear both from our mission in Turkey and here from the State Department about our concerns, and we make them clear when we do have concerns on freedom of expression regarding Turkey.
QUESTION: About the pipeline between the Turkey and KRG, it was reported yesterday – last week that it was signed between the Turkey and KRG about a month ago, a few weeks ago. Are you aware, have you been able to verify whether this pipeline is indeed signed between these two entities?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware. I can look into it after the briefing, but I’m not aware one way or another. Okay? Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:27 p.m.)