1:28 p.m. EST
We are alarmed by the Government of Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil society. The Secretary raised our concerns in his December 21st phone call with President Aliyev. Since then, we have seen the closure of RFE/RL’s offices, the seizure of its property, and RFE/RL employees forcibly taken from their homes for questioning by local law enforcement on unspecified charges. Contractors and others tangentially connected to RFE/RL are also being interrogated by authorities. These actions, along with the denial of access to legal counsel during these interrogations, is further cause for concern. We call again on Azerbaijani authorities to adhere to their OSCE and other international commitments to uphold human rights and basic freedoms, including freedom of the press.
In this regard, President Aliyev’s decision today to pardon 87 individuals, including 10 considered to have been imprisoned for civic activism, is a step in the right direction. We urge Azerbaijan’s authorities to build on these pardons by releasing others incarcerated in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms.
That’s all I have for you at the top. For those of you who have – who were here last week, you know the drill, but please remember to push the button on your microphone in order to ask a question so we can accurately reflect it in the transcript.
QUESTION: Right. I may get back to Azerbaijan in a minute, but let’s start with the plane, the missing plane and what the U.S. role is, if any, in assisting either the governments of Indonesia or Malaysia with the investigation.
MR. RATHKE: Right. So, well, as we’ve – as you all are aware, there is an operation underway to locate AirAsia Flight 8501. We can confirm that there were no American citizens traveling on the flight. Our Embassy in Jakarta is in close contact with Indonesian officials, and today we received a request for assistance locating the airplane and we are reviewing that request to find out how best we can meet Indonesia’s request for assistance. We’ve just received the request today, so it will take us a little bit of time to decide.
QUESTION: Was it any – was the request any more specific than just a general request to help with locating the plane?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t want to go into too many details of the Indonesian request, but it was a request for assistance associated with locating the aircraft. I – we don’t have technical --
QUESTION: Which would be normally handled by who in this government? The TSB?
MR. RATHKE: Well, that’s one of the things we’re assessing, of course, is which agency --
QUESTION: But you don’t know if they specifically asked for military assets or anything like that that might be used in a search?
MR. RATHKE: Well, the Indonesians got into some details, but again, we’re reviewing their request to see how best we can meet it. So I don’t want to get ahead of our review of their request.
MR. RATHKE: Anything else on this topic?
Ali, go ahead.
QUESTION: To whom was this request made and from whom was it delivered?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we received a diplomatic note at our Embassy in Jakarta from Indonesian authorities. So our Embassy, of course, is focused on finding ways to be responsive. Of course, we’ve been in close contact with Indonesian officials since the disappearance of the plane.
Anything else on this topic? All right, Said.
QUESTION: Can we change topics --
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- and talk about the Palestinians’ effort at the United Nations? Today, they are submitting an amended version of their draft proposal. First of all, have you seen the amended version? And second, what will your reaction be?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’ve seen reports regarding Palestinian and Jordanian plans to bring their text to a vote at the Security Council. There are discussions still taking place in New York and we are – and with the Secretary, who has spoken with some of his counterparts, and we are therefore engaging with all the relevant stakeholders. As we’ve said before, this draft resolution is not something that we would support and other countries share the same concerns that we have.
QUESTION: Other countries that includes, let’s say, the Permanent Five at the UN?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t want to --
QUESTION: Or at least members of the Permanent Five?
MR. RATHKE: I’ll let other countries speak for themselves, but I simply want to make the point that other countries see similar problems to those that we see.
QUESTION: Members of the Israeli cabinet yesterday said that if the vote goes through, or brought to a vote, then they are going to collapse the Palestinian Authority. Have they discussed anything like this with you?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any conversations to read out about – on that score. I would say that, again, we don’t think this resolution is constructive. We think it sets arbitrary deadlines for reaching a peace agreement and for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, and those are more likely to curtail useful negotiations than to bring them to a successful conclusion.
Further, we think that the resolution fails to account for Israel’s legitimate security needs, and the satisfaction of those needs, of course, is integral to a sustainable settlement.
QUESTION: And finally on this issue, it seems that the Palestinians did not get the nine votes needed. Now, if this is the case, would it be prudent for the United States to sort of abstain if anything is brought to a vote?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to preview anything before a vote has been scheduled. But I would go back to my – the point I made at the start, which is that we don’t believe this resolution advances the goal of a two-state solution.
Other on this topic? Go ahead, Pam, please.
QUESTION: Jeff, there are news reports that say --
MR. RATHKE: Oh.
QUESTION: Sorry. Is it on this?
QUESTION: Yes. There are news reports that say that the Secretary had a conversation with Mahmoud Abbas yesterday, and during that conversation it was, in addition to the Secretary saying that the U.S. would possibly veto such a measure, also he hinted at economic sanctions. Can you confirm that?
MR. RATHKE: Well, Secretary Kerry has been in touch both with President Abbas and with Prime Minister Netanyahu as well as with many other world leaders in the past few days, but I’m not going to comment on the content of his – of these private conversations.
Matt, did you have a follow-up on this topic?
QUESTION: Yeah, I just wondered who – you said the Secretary had been speaking with his colleagues. Who other than – since Abbas and Netanyahu are not his actual counterparts, who among his counterparts has he spoken to?
MR. RATHKE: Well, perhaps I was imprecise in my use of the word “counterparts.”
QUESTION: You didn’t say counterparts. You said colleagues. But I’m just wondering --
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Has he spoken with any foreign minister over the --
MR. RATHKE: The calls that are relevant to this topic that I have to read out are with those two. Yes.
Any further questions on this topic? No. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: On North Korea, North Korea’s internet outage. As you know, North Korea blamed United States cyber attack against North Korea last weekend and humiliated the President Obama. First of all, you have some comment on this?
MR. RATHKE: Well, this came up in the briefing last week as well. We have no new information to share regarding North Korea. And if there are questions related to the internet possibly being down in North Korea, I would refer you to them for details.
QUESTION: North Korea blamed the internet outage, it’s because of some U.S. action. You have some comment, response?
MR. RATHKE: No. As I say, I have nothing, nothing new to share on that topic.
QUESTION: And President – as President Obama mentioned, U.S. – United States will respond. And so have – has the United States already take any action against North Korea for now?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think as the President has said, we are evaluating our potential response and we’re not going to go into operational details of what the various options are. And the President also, I think, was pretty clear in saying that any response by the United States would be proportional and will do so at a time we choose. But I don’t have anything further to add about that.
QUESTION: Let me just confirm. Did you take some action from --
MR. RATHKE: I have nothing additional to say about that.
Anything further on DPRK?
MR. RATHKE: Please.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if you guys ever got answers to the questions that were left unanswered last week about the legality of accepting compensation to be – that you suggest should be paid to Sony by the North Korean Government.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think the DPRK hasn’t yet shown any readiness to admit culpability and to embark upon compensation. If we get to that stage, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a (inaudible).
QUESTION: Okay. You’re aware of reports that have surfaced over the last couple of days that suggest that North Korea might have actually had absolutely nothing to do with this and that, in fact, it was – it is more likely that it involved – that the hack involved disgruntled former Sony employees? Have you seen those reports?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we are aware that there have been some reports of that kind. However, as the FBI has made clear and the United States Government stands behind the FBI analysis, we are confident that North Korea is responsible for this destructive attack and we stand by that conclusion.
QUESTION: Are you aware of any time the U.S. Government has been – made such an allegation or accusation and has been wrong?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any specific examples to mind. Is there something you have in mind?
QUESTION: No. I’m just wondering how it is that you’re so sure of what they have come up with, what the FBI and the other investigators have come up with, when it seems that there are these reports suggesting a highly plausible alternate scenario that doesn’t involve an unpredictable and nuclear-armed country.
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I’d refer you to the FBI for questions about the details of their analysis. They’ve released some of the --
QUESTION: Okay. So you’re --
MR. RATHKE: -- some of their conclusions and – on which they’ve based their analysis. And I would also remind that the Government of North Korea has a long history of denying responsibility for destructive and provocative actions.
QUESTION: Right. But this building is comfortable with the – this building being the main building in Washington that deals with foreign governments is still --
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: -- remains comfortable with the FBI’s accusation that the North Koreans were – the North Korean Government was behind this?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
MR. RATHKE: Further on North Korea? Just – I think the gentleman here had a question before. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks. So Google’s Gmail is down, as you know, and I was wondering if the State Department could confirm that the Chinese Government is responsible for the blockage.
MR. RATHKE: You’re referring to in China?
QUESTION: In China. Yeah.
MR. RATHKE: Yes. So we are certainly aware of reports that Google’s Gmail has been blocked in China since December 26th. We continue to be concerned by efforts in China to undermine freedom of expression, including on the internet, and we believe Chinese authorities’ censorship of the media and of certain websites is incompatible with China’s aspirations to build a modern, information-based economy and society. So we encourage China to be transparent in its dealings with international companies, and to consider the market signal it sends with such acts.
QUESTION: And Google says that the blockage is not due to any malfunction on its part. Has the State Department been in touch with Google on this issue at all?
MR. RATHKE: I’m happy to check and see if we have been. I don’t – I’m not directly aware but certainly know this is an issue of concern for us.
Further on this topic? Yes?
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on the Gmail. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson actually said she didn’t know anything about Google’s being blocked. What is your response to the Chinese Government’s reaction?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I would let them speak for themselves. Again, I think we’ve heard reference to Google’s own statements, and we’ve certainly seen reports about Gmail being blocked. I can’t speak on behalf of the Chinese Government, though.
QUESTION: But do you see this as a Chinese Government action to block Gmail?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t know. I don’t have – I’m not issuing a judgment about attribution. I’m simply stating that we’re aware of these reports. It’s been going on for several days and, as your colleague mentioned, Google has also spoken out about it.
Ali, did you have a question on the same topic?
MR. RATHKE: Okay. All right. Switch topics?
QUESTION: Yes. Can I ask (inaudible) about China?
MR. RATHKE: Oh, on China? Okay, yeah. Go ahead, Lesley.
QUESTION: Well, it’s not specifically that one. But have you seen the reports about China’s looking at signing an agreement with the U.S. to target assets illegally taken out by Chinese corrupt officials? These were reports – wondering whether that – whether the U.S. intends to sign those, whether that discussion has happened already, or you expect it to?
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, there’s – let me just clarify at the start: There’s no additional agreement currently being considered, but the United States and China are parties to a number of existing multilateral and bilateral agreements that touch upon mutual legal assistance and the recovery of criminal assets. So the United States is committed to fighting corruption and denying safe haven to corrupt officials or illegally acquired assets. And the – as far as the mechanisms, the United States has authority to recover proceeds of crimes, including proceeds linked to foreign corruption. But those would vary based on the details of each particular case and on U.S. law. So I don’t have any specific details to share in response to that particular story.
Okay. Change topics? Go ahead. Yes, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) back to Azerbaijan. I think in 2009, Azerbaijani Government first time shut down VOA, RFE/RL, and BBC on public frequencies. So ever since then, they – these media outlets have to function only in internet in Azerbaijan. And from that day, we see Azerbaijani human right activists and journalists and bloggers being chased, imprisoned. RX came under pressure recently, and now we have the situation with RFE/RL.
So throughout the course of this time, we see the Department of State expressing its concern, deep concern sometimes, but there was no further action, there was no real impact on U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. That’s what the observers noticed. My question is: If the Azerbaijani Government does not allow RFE/RL to function freely and properly in Azerbaijan and why not – is not allowed to return these channels – BBC, VOA – to public frequencies, do you think this may eventually have a real impact on U.S.-Azerbaijani relations, and this building, the Government of United States, may take certain actions to express its concern, rather than just making the statements? Thank you.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to prejudge any actions by the United States. I would simply reiterate that we are deeply concerned by these steps, and we’ve raised these activities – we’ve raised our concern about these activities with senior officials in the Azerbaijani Government, and indeed, the Secretary himself raised these concerns just a few days ago with President Aliyev. So clearly, this is a topic that we take quite seriously. It remains on our agenda and we will continue to raise it, but I’m not going to prejudge anything further.
Yes, Pam. On the same topic?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: A couple of additional questions. First of all, the journalists who were detained on Friday and – over the weekend when their homes were raided, did the State Department have any contact with them, and if so, did that contact help secure their release?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any conversations or contacts of that kind to read out. I simply don’t have that information.
QUESTION: And also, has there been any new U.S. effort to press for the release of the journalist, the RFE journalist who’s been detained since December, Khadija Ismayilova?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have new information to share about that case, but I think from what we’ve said already on the RFE/RL case, the United States takes freedom of expression and the freedom of the press very seriously, and so of course we raise our concerns when we have them.
QUESTION: On Azerbaijan.
MR. RATHKE: We’ll start here and then we’ll come over to you. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up with the reporter’s question. Are the calls you’re having with Azerbaijani officials, are they of concern or are you actually making efforts to tell them to stop doing this and coercing people?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think you can be assured that when the Secretary of State takes this under consideration and raises it with one of his foreign colleagues, including the president of a country, that he makes his view known. I’m not going to get into more details about the content of the conversation, but clearly it’s important to the United States Government, to the State Department, and to the Secretary as well.
QUESTION: Will you have a readout of the conversation at some point?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to get into more detail of the conversation than that --
MR. RATHKE: -- but I want to highlight that this is something that we’re addressing at the highest levels.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) talking about Azerbaijan, I would like to ask a question here. You know Azerbaijan have two hostage in Armenia from July: Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev. Today was illegal trial in Armenia, and Dilgam Asgarov was sentenced to life and Shahbaz Guliyev to 22 years in prison. I would like know to your opinion about this.
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any information about the case here. I’m happy to look into that and see if we can get you something after the briefing.
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
MR. RATHKE: Change topic?
QUESTION: Change topic.
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Iraq. A couple days ago, an Iranian general in the Revolutionary Guard, Hamid Taghavi, was killed in a battle near Samarra. First of all, do you have any comment on the participation of the Iranians, apparently, in the fight against ISIS, or is that something which you welcome or that you don’t encourage?
MR. RATHKE: -- an IRGC – the IRGC commander. We have expressed our concerns about Iranian activity in Iraq for some time, and also our concerns about the flow of Iranian arms into Iraq, and of course that applies here as well.
QUESTION: But the Iranian acknowledge, basically – I mean, they held like a state funeral for him.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have any --
QUESTION: Okay. And also --
MR. RATHKE: I think, clearly, we’ve been concerned about that. And I don’t have additional statements to add to it, though.
QUESTION: Also, news from Turkey says that Turkey’s going to send in advisors and so on. Is that something that is being coordinated with you as perhaps Turkey becoming a more active member of the coalition in this case, to send in advisors into Iraq to aid the Iraqis in the fight against ISIS?
MR. RATHKE: Well, clearly, the United States and Turkey and many other countries in the region share the goal of strengthening the Iraqi Government in its fight against ISIL. So that is something that we continue to talk to our Turkish partners about. I’d refer you to the Turkish Government for more details on the precise nature and location of the assistance that they’re going to provide. But it’s certainly consistent with the five lines of effort in the fight against ISIL, and Turkish support to the Iraqi authorities is something that is a positive thing.
QUESTION: And finally, on the downing of the Jordanian pilot, has there been any kind of – sort of change in the bombing strategy or anything that the coalition is conducting against ISIS as a result of that, fearing that perhaps they could bring down an American airplane, capture an American pilot?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we continue to work closely with the Government of Jordan concerning the captured Jordanian pilot. And our thoughts and prayers, of course, are with the pilot and his family and the Jordanian armed forces as we work for his safe return. And – but beyond the fact that we are working closely with the Government of Jordan, I don’t have further details that I’m going to offer on that matter.
Okay. Yes, Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah. On Iran, but also then on Turkey.
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: The President gave an interview a while ago but it just aired this morning, I guess, on NPR in which he talked a little bit about Iran and a little bit about a lot of other stuff. But on Iran, there were a couple of things he said. One is that he would not – he said that it was a possibility or he was open to the idea of reopening an embassy in Tehran during the next course – over the course of the next two years of his two years in office. And since there is no White House press briefing that I’m aware of today and you’re the foreign policy guy this week --
MR. RATHKE: That’s a ringing endorsement, I think, from --
QUESTION: Well, no, I mean, normally I’d ask – have the people at the White House ask --
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: -- because it was the President’s words. But is that this building’s understanding of the way the negotiation – the nuclear talks with Iran are going on is that they are not an end to themselves – i.e., to get rid of any ability Iran might have to build a nuclear weapon – but they are actually aiming towards normalization of the sort that you are looking for with – that the President is looking for with Cuba?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think I would encourage folks to read the entire text of the President’s interview, in particular with respect to Iran. He was – in response to a question, he – about the possible opening of a U.S. embassy, he said, “I never say never.” And then he proceeded to lay out the fact that right now the focus is on the – getting the nuclear issue resolved, and that’s a question of whether Iran is willing to seize the opportunity that the nuclear talks represent. So the – if – and then he describes that as the first big step, and then there would then perhaps be a basis over time to improve relations. But I think, reading the President’s answer to that question, it’s quite clear that the focus is on the nuclear negotiations --
MR. RATHKE: -- and that is --
QUESTION: But my question is, is that – given his comments, is the specific – the nuclear negotiation – is that just a part of what the Administration hopes will be a broader reconciliation or rapprochement with Iran that ends up with normalization of relations by 2016 when the President leaves office?
MR. RATHKE: Well, as the Administration has said, we are not closing any doors. But our concerns on Iran are well known, and our focus now is on resolving the nuclear issue. There’s a chance to do that, but that’s a question of Iran --
QUESTION: All right.
MR. RATHKE: -- taking that opportunity.
QUESTION: Another thing he said in the interview about Iran is that if they went ahead and reached an agreement – if they got a deal, a nuclear deal, and if the Iranians actually complied – that Iran would be in a position to become a successful regional power, and suggested that that was – that’s something that the United States would like to see. And you guys have made no secret of the fact that it is not just the nuclear issue that is a problem for you with Iran; that there are numerous other things, including the fact that it is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, as identified by you guys. I’m just wondering, does the Administration want to see Iran become a “successful regional power,” given the fact that since 1979, American foreign policy with respect to Iran has been designed to keep it from becoming a successful regional power, has been designed to keep it from exerting its strength over your – or exerting pressure on your allies in the region, both Israel and the Arab states?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, the President’s answer to the question and U.S. policy is focused on resolving the nuclear issue. That is our focus, and that’s why we have the P5+1 talks going on. Now the --
QUESTION: Well, right, but why bring in all this other stuff, then? If the focus is just on the nuclear issue, why even broach the idea that you want to see Iran become a successful regional power and leave the door open to normalization of relations to the point where you could open an embassy?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think the point is that Iran’s behavior is the factor that drives that, and it’s – Iran’s behavior needs to change not only on the nuclear issue, where we have been involved in --
MR. RATHKE: -- the negotiation process, but in other respects as well.
QUESTION: All right. I get all that, but I’m just wondering when – I guess I’ll have to – I need – someone needs to ask the President why he answered the questions the way he did, to leave this thing open. Because it sounds as though that – it sounds as though the Administration sees, or at least he sees the nuclear negotiations as a path to bring Iran back into the fold, and not just with the United States, but to – for it to become a --
MR. RATHKE: That’s not the way I interpret the transcript.
MR. RATHKE: I think it’s quite clear that the focus is on dealing with the nuclear issue.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. So first on Iraq, yesterday, General Allen told Der Spiegel that an Iraqi ground offensive will occur when the time is right. What is your current assessment of Iraqi forces, and do you have an update – a timetable for any kind of ground offensive? And a separate one on Russia/Syria.
MR. RATHKE: Well, of course we are engaged with Iraqi forces to help improve their capacity. We’ve already seen Iraq take the initiative in places like Sinjar, where now the siege has been broken, and in a variety of other places where they have taken the fight to ISIL. I’m not going to get ahead of their decisions about further military activity, of course. That’s – that is something that one wouldn’t want to telegraph, and it’s also a question for the Iraqis to decide first and foremost.
QUESTION: Okay. And on Russia/Syria – sorry – do you have any comment on reports that Russia’s planning to host a Syria peace conference possibly next month? Over the weekend, Syria expressed a willingness to join those talks.
MR. RATHKE: We are aware of these discussions and we reiterate the need for a political solution to the conflict which is compatible with the Geneva communique. So we certainly call on the regime to cease atrocities against the Syrian people and to enter into a peaceful political process.
As far as Russia’s initiative, we’re aware of it but we’re not involved in the planning of it. So we hope that Russia’s engagement reflects a sincere intention to seek a political solution that’s compatible with the Geneva communique.
QUESTION: Seeing how it’s been a year since Geneva II, isn’t it – is it perhaps time to sort of launch some sort of a negotiation that can lead to a peaceful settlement? Isn’t that something that you are pushing for?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we support a political solution that is compatible with the Geneva communique. So that’s our goal.
QUESTION: But is the United States likely to sort of launch its own initiative to get the process going again, to bring some life into it?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think we’ve certainly been focused on Syria over the last many months, including through our support to the opposition and the train and equip program, which is coming online soon. And so our efforts have been focused there, in addition to supporting the political process, but I think the Syrian regime has shown no real indication of willingness and desire to participate.
QUESTION: Turkey? (Inaudible)?
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the prime minister of Turkey meeting and spending significant time with a senior leader of Hamas?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t think I have any comment to offer on that.
QUESTION: No comment?
MR. RATHKE: I’m happy to see if we have more of a readout, but the – nothing to add right at this point.
QUESTION: Can you push really hard to get an answer on this because it seems kind of unusual that the prime minister of a NATO ally of yours is meeting with the head or the political chief of --
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: -- an organization that you designate as a terrorist group, and you guys don’t have anything to say about it.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, no, we’ll come back with something this afternoon for you. Yeah.
Go ahead. I’m sorry, I overlooked you there on the side. You’re in the second row, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. From the cheap seats. Today marks one year since Egypt has held three Al Jazeera journalists in prison. I’m wondering if you have anything on that, and I have a follow-up. Thank you.
MR. RATHKE: Right. So we continue to express our deep concerns directly to the Government of Egypt about the detained journalists. We are watching the trial closely. There is an appeal hearing that is scheduled to happen shortly. We believe that all journalists should be able to do their jobs free from intimidation or any fear of retribution, and we continue to urge the Egyptian Government to respect the freedom of the press, protect civil society, and uphold the rule of law, which is crucial to Egypt’s long-term stability. Further, we call on the Egyptian Government to consider all available measures for redressing these verdicts.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for that. Do you – does this building see anything positive in the – what’s been characterized as a thaw between Qatar and the Egyptian authorities? Is there anything to be made out of recent moves to repair their relationship?
MR. RATHKE: Well, certainly, we support improved relations but would refer you to the governments themselves for further comment on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Can I stay on this just for a second?
MR. RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: This “consider all available measures to redress these verdicts,” that’s exactly the same language that Ambassador Power used a little bit earlier today. Or what? I don’t understand what this Administration is using as leverage if it really wants to see these people released, considering the fact that the President signed a law, the appropriations bill, which removes the human rights criteria from sending aid to Egypt. You went ahead and delivered those 10 Apaches back in November without seeing any demonstrable improvement in the human rights situation. Why should anyone in Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter, take you seriously when you say that you are concerned about the human rights situation and you want – and you would like to see Egypt fix these things?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’ve raised this case at the highest levels and --
QUESTION: Yeah, and then the other side, you give them millions of dollars and flood them with helicopters. They’re getting – or – if they don’t consider all available measures to redress these verdicts, what are you going to do, send them 20 more Apaches?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to prejudge future actions, but we take the human rights situation in Egypt seriously, as we also take --
QUESTION: I don’t see how you --
MR. RATHKE: -- our alliance and partnership very seriously.
QUESTION: I don’t see how you can say that with a straight face when you’ve done every – you’ve gutted or you went along with language in a bill on the Hill, and the President signed, that removes the requirement that you certify that Egypt is making progress on human rights to give them assistance.
MR. RATHKE: Well --
QUESTION: How can you possibly explain that? Or how can you square that with calling on them to improve their human rights situation when you’re not prepared to do anything at all to put any pressure on them to do --
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’d dispute that we’re not prepared to do anything at all. I wouldn’t accept that characterization. The bill --
QUESTION: Well, okay, you’re prepared to give millions of dollars in aid and give them military equipment.
MR. RATHKE: Well, the bill that was approved by Congress was a comprehensive bill; it was not the only aspect of the bill.
QUESTION: Well, I know, but --
MR. RATHKE: So, again, to suggest that that was the Administration’s goal and intent, I think, goes a bit far. And we’ve – continue to make a point of stressing the importance of human rights with Egyptian authorities. We do that publicly, we do that privately as well, and we’ll continue doing so.
QUESTION: Are you suggesting that that wasn’t --
MR. RATHKE: Sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: Are you suggesting that wasn’t the Administration’s intent, that the Administration actively opposed removing those restrictions?
MR. RATHKE: No, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that. I said this was a bill with many components --
QUESTION: Well, I’m asking you: Is it the – what is the Administration’s position on human rights criteria as part of Egypt’s aid? Do you support human rights criteria without waivers, or are you against that?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’d refer you to the White House for legislative – for details involving legislation and their interaction with Congress.
QUESTION: Well, you just --
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on Egypt: Would you say that U.S. considerations – or the U.S. gives higher consideration to its security arrangements with Egypt, let’s say, over human rights? Would you say that?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to prioritize one over the other.
QUESTION: But seeing that you maintain the security relationship and in the fight against terrorists in the Sinai, and perhaps the Israeli-Egyptian agreement – you give that as a top priority in your relations with Egypt, over human rights.
MR. RATHKE: No, I’m not going to give – to assign numerical rank orders.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Good. Can we stay on human rights in the region? Bahrain?
MR. RATHKE: Sure. Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the arrest in Bahrain of the secretary-general of Al Wefaq?
MR. RATHKE: Yes. We’re concerned by the arrest of opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, and we’re following this case closely and working to gather more information. We’re urging all parties to avoid taking any actions that escalate tensions, and we urge specifically the Government of Bahrain to follow due process and to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings in full accordance with Bahraini law and with Bahrain’s international legal obligations.
QUESTION: Okay. And if they don’t, they can expect to get --
MR. RATHKE: This is your favorite question today.
QUESTION: -- 10 Apache helicopters and --
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’d say we’re looking --
QUESTION: -- millions of dollars?
MR. RATHKE: We’re looking for more information on the charges associated with the case. Those are not clear at this point. So we’re trying to gather more information about that. Again, we call on Bahrain to ensure equal treatment under the law and to advance justice in a transparent and fair and predictable way.
QUESTION: You have been – you – not you personally, but the Administration has been expressing concerns about the human rights situation in Bahrain for some time now.
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Has it improved at all? Can you point to any sign that the situation is improving, or that your entreaties to the Government of Bahrain have done more? And when I say “any sign,” I mean more than allowing back in a senior U.S. diplomat who they deported earlier in the year.
MR. RATHKE: Well, we have – as you allude to, we have an active dialogue with Bahrain. We raise these issues with them regularly and at high levels. That’s part of our bilateral relationship and it will remain so.
QUESTION: So no, you can’t point to any progress?
MR. RATHKE: I’m happy to look through the history and we can come back with some specifics, if that’s what you’re looking for.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. I was just wondering if you had any reactions to the news coming out of the Greek parliament today about the – their failure to elect a president and hold elections next month.
MR. RATHKE: Well, we understand that according to Greek law, the – they will hold a general election within the next 30 days. So we will continue to follow those developments, but I’m not going to speculate about the outcome of them.
QUESTION: I have a question about a completely different topic, but --
MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to add to President Obama’s statement about the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan?
MR. RATHKE: Well, any question that starts off, “Do you have anything to add to the President’s statement” – (laughter) – you can – you’ve kind of telegraphed what answer (inaudible).
QUESTION: Or anything you’d like to re-emphasize, perhaps?
MR. RATHKE: Well, no. The President said yesterday that this ceremony marks the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan, and it’s a milestone for bringing to an end the longest war in American history and bringing it to a responsible conclusion. But the end of the combat mission means also that we have a continuing support – we have continuing support to the Government of Afghanistan, and that was reaffirmed most recently not only by the United States, but by the international community in Brussels and in London. NATO and the international community have renewed their commitment to a sovereign and stable and unified Afghanistan, a democratic Afghanistan. We’re part of that commitment, and we look forward to maintaining both the training and assistance component, but also the broader engagement with Afghanistan that is a key part of that.
QUESTION: And related to that, the Taliban put a letter out sometime overnight saying that they would continue to wage jihad in the region and that the change of mission and turnover to Afghan forces was meaningless. I’m just wondering if the U.S. has any reaction to what the Taliban said.
MR. RATHKE: No, I think we’re focused on our partnership with the Government of Afghanistan and the growing capability of Afghan Security Forces and their growing leadership role.
Yes, go ahead.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: On Friday, Russian court extended arrest of Ukraine citizens who had been detained in Crimea in May this year. Today, the Ukrainian Government called the international community to condemn these actions. Do you have any statement on this issue?
MR. RATHKE: I’m sorry. Can you repeat the question? I want to be sure I’ve got it.
QUESTION: Yeah. On Friday, Russian court extended arrest of Ukrainian citizens who had been detained in Crimea in May this year. Today, the Government of Ukraine called the international community to condemn this action. Do you have any statement?
MR. RATHKE: So you’re talking, though, about the Russian authorities extending the detention of Ukrainian citizens detained in Crimea?
MR. RATHKE: Well, the United States does not recognize the attempted annexation of Crimea by Russia, and so naturally we would oppose any such steps such as you’ve described. Now, I’m not familiar with the particular details of that decision or that order, but certainly we support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and we would call on any Ukrainian citizens who were detained in Crimea during Russia’s invasion to be released. So that would be our position on that.
QUESTION: Do you have any other statements on the situation in Ukraine?
MR. RATHKE: Well, you will have noticed that there was recently an exchange of detained persons between Ukrainian forces and the Russia-backed separatists. We believe that these exchanges, along with the decrease in violence, are positive steps and they are also an opportunity to advance the prospects for a lasting political solution consistent with the Minsk agreements.
We would also highlight that as a signatory to the Minsk agreements, Russia is committed to release those hostages that it holds. And so in that regard, we continue to call on Russia to release Ukrainian member of parliament Nadia Savchenko and film producer Oleg Sentsov. We understand that Ms. Savchenko is suffering health problems as a result of her detention.
And more broadly, we call on Russia to use its leverage and influence with the separatists that it supports to implement the commitments of the Minsk agreements immediately, including returning control of the international border to Ukraine and working towards a peaceful resolution.
QUESTION: So I --
MR. RATHKE: Oh, yes, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, I just – did you – you consider these people to be hostages?
MR. RATHKE: Nadia Savchenko and Oleg Sentsov?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Last week, the Ukrainian parliament voted on removing the nonaligned status. You had – there was some brief comment at the time from here, but today President Poroshenko has signed that law.
MR. RATHKE: He signed it, yes.
QUESTION: So now that it is official – he didn’t veto it, in other words – do you have anything more to say about this and what it might mean for tension between not just Russia and Ukraine, but between Russia and the West?
MR. RATHKE: Well, our policy on the future of NATO enlargement hasn’t changed since this first came up in the briefing last week. The door is open, and countries that are willing and able to contribute to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area are welcome to apply for membership, and any application will be considered on its merits. So we support the open door policy. But NATO invites countries when they are ready, and any decision is one for NATO and Ukraine to make. This is a process that takes some time, but it’s a decision that Ukraine and NATO should make free from any outside interference.
QUESTION: Well, does the United States Government, as a leading member of NATO, have a position on whether Ukraine is now or will be in the very near future ready to join the alliance?
MR. RATHKE: Well, there are a variety of criteria, some quite detailed. I don’t think we’ve got a scorecard right now to share. But clearly, it involves a lot of measures and so the United States along with our NATO partners will continue working with Ukraine. And it’s Ukraine’s sovereign decision what kind of a relationship it wants to pursue with NATO.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. Government on its own, aside from NATO, have any kind of criteria or requirement that a country applying for membership in NATO that is in a situation where part of it – you say part of it is illegally occupied, right?
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: In this case, Crimea.
MR. RATHKE: Right.
QUESTION: Is that a hindrance to, in the eyes of the U.S. Government, to membership? Because it would seem to me that if Ukraine did apply and get in, while you still say that Crimea has been illegally taken over by Russia, that that would put them – or you – put NATO almost instantly in a state of war, no?
MR. RATHKE: No, I – well, I understand your question. I’m not aware of any legal restriction. Happy to look and see if there’s more to be --
QUESTION: Well, not a NATO restriction. I’m just wondering if the U.S. Government --
MR. RATHKE: No, I said a legal restriction.
QUESTION: Right, right, but not a NATO one. I’m looking for what the U.S. Government would think about that as a member of NATO.
MR. RATHKE: Right, I understand.
QUESTION: Also sticking on Ukraine, you probably saw Poroshenko’s statement today of talks on January the 15th with the leaders of Germany, Russia, and France. Is the U.S. going to be part of those discussions? I believe that he has invited specifically the President, but do you know of anybody else as far as the diplomatic side?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not familiar with whether there has been such an invitation, so I’ll have to confirm details and get back to you on that.
QUESTION: Could I ask a quick question on the arms trade treaty?
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: That actually went into effect on Christmas Eve on the 24th. The U.S. is a signatory to that, but it’s not ratified. Could you tell us what is the – what will you do to sort of help ratify it on – by the Senate?
MR. RATHKE: I’ll have to check and see what more detail we can share. I just don’t know where the – where it stands. And of course, we depend on the Senate to ratify international agreements and treaties, but where they stand in their – what they’ve got on their docket and how quickly they may get to it is something I don’t have at my fingertips.
Ali, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just really quick on Scotland. Since we’ve been in here, I think there’s news that there was a confirmed case of Ebola in Scotland from a worker who went from Sierra Leone to Scotland. I’m just wondering if the – if you were aware of that before you came out, and whether or not the U.S. might be providing any expertise or guidance to the Scots, given our experience in that realm.
MR. RATHKE: Well, I wasn’t aware of that. But certainly, if the United Kingdom were seeking to consult based on the United States experience with health care workers who have come back from Ebola-affected regions, of course, we would stand ready to do that. But I’m not aware of a pending request.
Okay. Thanks, everyone.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:18 p.m.)