SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it is such a pleasure for me to welcome back to the State Department High Representative Cathy Ashton.
The United States and the European Union are partners working together on, I think, every global issue and regional challenge that you can imagine. We’re doing the urgent, the important, and the long-term all at once, and we are united in a transatlantic community that is based on shared democratic values and limitless faith in human potential.
As always, Cathy and I had a lot to talk about because there is so much happening around the world at a time when people are standing up for their rights and demanding a say in their own futures. And both the European Union and the United States are very committed to advancing democratic values and universal rights, and we know how important that is over the long term. But we also know that right now those rights are under threats from repression and reprisals.
We expressed our serious concern about the continued violence in Syria. The Asad regime has responded to peaceful protests by launching a brutal crackdown that has killed, by our best estimate, nearly a thousand people already. They have embraced the worst tactics of their Iranian ally and they have refused to honor the legitimate aspirations of their own people in Syria.
President Asad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions. In response to the continued violence, both the United States and the EU have imposed sanctions against senior Syrian officials. And today, we discussed additional steps that we can take to increase pressure and further isolate the Asad regime.
Our message has been clear and consistent from the beginning: Stop the violence and the arrests, release all political prisoners and detainees, and begin to respond to the demands of the people by a process of credible and inclusive democratic change.
The High Representative and I also discussed efforts to protect civilians in Libya. The United States continues to support our efforts to implement the United Nations Security Council resolution. We’re working with the EU to support the Transitional National Council, and we welcome the EU’s decision to open an office in Benghazi and the ongoing EU support for humanitarian assistance. And for our part, we are working with our Congress to redirect some of Qadhafi’s seized assets toward immediate humanitarian needs.
Across the region, we are looking at many of the same issues from the very same perspective, and we have discussed a number of ways that we can promote investment and trade that would bring benefits to the people of the Middle East and North Africa. We also discussed Iran and, in particular, the efforts of the E-3+3 to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. We have been clear and united under Cathy Ashton’s leadership since the Geneva and Istanbul meetings that Iran has to meet its international obligations and negotiate seriously on the nuclear issue.
Lady Ashton is preparing a response to Iran’s recent letter, but let me make clear that the burden remains on Iran to demonstrate it is prepared to end its stalling tactics, drop its unacceptable preconditions, and start addressing the international community’s concerns.
Now, we’ve also discussed matters in Europe, and both Cathy and I are concerned about the crackdown in Belarus, and I commend her for the strong statement she made over the weekend. The United States considers the post-December 19th trials to be politically motivated, and we call for an immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners.
I also raised concerns regarding the political deadlock in Bosnia and Herzegovina and any efforts that could undermine the Dayton Peace Accords and the stability of the country. We fully support the authority of the Office of the High Representative Inzko in Bosnia and Herzegovina and want to see the people there realize their hopes for necessary reforms, effective government, and a European future.
Indeed, on all of these fronts, we have an indispensible relationship. And it’s wonderful to have Cathy as a partner in dealing with all of these pressing matters. To further strengthen our partnership, we just signed a framework agreement to expand U.S. civilian participation in EU crisis management missions. American civilian experts already participate in EU missions in Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and we look forward to working side by side to help more people in more places.
So again, on a personal note, let me thank Cathy for her friendship, and on a professional note, let me thank Lady Ashton – (laughter) – for her leadership and all of the work that she doing around the world.
MS. ASHTON: Secretary Clinton, Hillary, first of all, it’s always a pleasure to meet you anywhere in the world, and indeed we spend our lives finding ourselves in different parts of the globe. But it’s always been a special pleasure to meet with you here in Washington. And the reason for that more than anything is it’s our opportunity to have a little chance to reflect more on some of the big challenges that we are facing at the present time, and as you rightly said, looking at the important and the immediate, but also that opportunity to discuss a longer term.
And one of the areas that I’m most engaged in now is trying to develop, for what we describe in the European Union as our own neighborhood, a much longer-term strategy and policy around the concept of what I’d call deep democracy – helping people to realize that democracy is not just about what you do when you cast your ballot, but about the building of institutions and political parties, and the capacity to go on casting your ballot in years to come. And how we ensure that we’re able to support the people in Egypt and Tunisia I think of especially, but in other countries too as they go forward with this democratic process it’s going to be of enormous importance. And our commitment in the European Union, along with your commitment, is to be there for that long-term challenge.
But combined with that too, we also have the longer-term challenge of ensuring the economic stability and development of these countries as well. And that’s why for Europe, we’ve been developing a new program. I’ve called it the Three Ms. It’s about money – resources available for countries in the short term to deal with the economic difficulties and problems they’ve faced. Simply looking at Tunisia and Egypt, you have to just think of tourism alone, but also to think more creatively about using real investment from some of the institutions that we have, European Investment Bank being one of them. So those resources are there on the ground in the short term, but also for the long term.
Market access – the ability to use our trade to be able to support them in helping their economy develop. And that means not only opening markets but ensuring that people can take advantage of those markets, help them meet the standards that we all have for our citizens, helping them to produce the goods that we want to buy.
And then mobility, the third M. The capacity, particularly for young people – these are young societies – to be able to move around, to have education and support across countries in the European Union, many of whom have long histories of links with young people in those countries, and as well alongside young people, the business people that will need to be able to travel to support the trade that I’ve already described.
So those three Ms are the backbone of the kind of strategy that we’re trying to put together now to support the neighborhood. It’s new, it’s bigger, it’s bolder. It will, I hope, be a recognition that the European Union takes its responsibilities in its neighborhood seriously. And as I said I think in my second week in this job, Europe should be judged by its effectiveness in its own neighborhood, and I firmly believe that.
And as you’ve also pointed to, there are really serious issues for Syria. I spoke to the foreign minister of Syria last week and explained to him very – in a very detailed way how important it was to take this closing window of opportunity and change course. And we will see whether any recognition of what I said comes forward, but I have to say that we will look again at the sanctions that we’ve taken to ensure that they are as strong as they possibly can be.
And we worry too about Yemen and call upon the president there to fulfill his obligations and to sign the agreement.
We talked as well about other areas, and I think particularly about Bosnia-Herzegovina, as you’ve said, where I went last week to make it perfectly plain to President Dodik that the Dayton Agreement is here to stay and that there is an expectation that he will play his full part as a politician in that country in helping to try and move forward for the country as a whole. And it will be very important, as I said in Bosnia, that for the people of that country that the government is formed as quickly as possible and takes its responsibilities. Rising unemployment – real challenges that are being faced there – need a government to lead for the future.
And finally, as you indicated with Iran, where I had a recent letter from Dr. Jalili, it’s taken three months for the reply to come. I had wished for a stronger and better letter from them to recognize that the offer on the table is an offer they should look at very carefully. I will be sending a reply. We’ll be consulting with our partners, not least with the United States, before we do so. But I do urge Iran to think again and to consider coming back to the table.
So a whole range of subjects, but always a great pleasure. And it’s great to sign an agreement as well, so thank you very much for your hospitality.
MR. TONER: We have time for two questions. The first is Elise Labott of CNN.
QUESTION: Thank you, Lady Ashton, just a quick follow on your Iran – you said you would be sending a reply. Do you anticipate a new round of E3+3 talks?
And then on Syria, you say you spoke to the Syrian foreign minister last week. But for both of you, since then there have been reports of mass graves, rounding up of individuals, not just shelling or opening up tanks, but rounding up of individuals, a real systematic going after the people in Syria. Do you think that this raises the bar for referral to the ICC, for referral to the UN Security Council? And it’s pretty clear if this was a conversation last week, that the Syrian regime has shown that it has made the choice not to follow the path of reform, so how much longer do you think this can go on? And is the government effectively crushing the opposition?
Madam Secretary, there have been some more talks about stepped-up talks with the Taliban, if you could bring us up to date. And do you think that the death of Usama bin Ladin gives a new impetus for political negotiations between the Afghan and Taliban? Thank you.
MS. ASHTON: I mean, on Syria, I’ve very worried about what’s happened in the last few days, as I was worried about what was happening the last week. The number of people that we know have died, the number of people that we believe are in detention, is extremely alarming. And what’s happening as – while I’m here is that the 27 ambassadors in Brussels are meeting to discuss on a daily basis what more we should and could do.
The point I wanted to make really was that we also make contact directly and make these points, very clearly and very openly, that this is extremely urgent and that if the government really does – as it keeps telling us it does – want to see some kind of change, it’s got to be now. I think we’re all very aware that the situation is so grave that it’s now in a situation where we need to consider all of the options, and I think there will be a number of moves in the coming hours and days that you will see.
In terms of Iran, I would like to say there will be a new round of talks. From the letters that I’ve received, I don't see that at the present time.
SECRETARY CLINTON: With respect to the Taliban, we have consistently supported an Afghan-led process of reconciliation. And currently we have a broad range of contacts that are ongoing across Afghanistan and the region at many different levels in order to support the Afghan initiative. President Karzai has taken a number of steps. He held a broad-based peace jirga. He formed a high peace council that includes representatives from across Afghanistan. Their leadership has actually traveled around Afghanistan as well as to a number of other countries. President Karzai himself has held meetings across his own country, and we support this. We think this is a very important development.
And we have outlined our red lines for the Taliban: They must renounce violence. They must abandon their alliance with al-Qaida, which it would certainly seem as would be an easier step for them to take now, post the death of bin Ladin. And they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan. That’s the price for reaching political reconciliation and bringing an end to the military action. And I’m not going to get into any detail about any contacts, other than to say we have repeatedly supported, in word and deed, an Afghan-led process.
QUESTION: On Syria, Madam Secretary?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I agree with what Cathy said, that we will be taking additional steps in the days ahead.
MR. TONER: Next question by Brian Beary of Europolitics.
QUESTION: Representative Ashton, you said during your comment that Europe should be judged by the effectiveness of its – its effectiveness in its own neighborhood. In the Libya crisis, yourself and Mr. Von Rompuy were criticized for not being at the center of activities and being accused of being marginal figures in the whole NATO operation. I’d just like to give you a chance to respond to that.
And looking to the future on Syria, do you think you’re – in what way are you trying to get ahead of the curve in this situation, from the EU’s point of view, that the EU is not a marginal figure in this – in Syria?
MS. ASHTON: Well, I think, first of all, in terms of what was happening in Libya, we were very much engaged through the European Council and through the 27 member states in determining what the European Union could and should do. It’s always worth remembering what the European Union is and what it is not, and it’s bringing together the 27 member states to support action and activities in a recognition of the principles that we hold dear. It doesn’t mean that on every issue all 27 countries start or end in the same place. What it does mean is we try and build a common view of where we can make a difference.
And that’s why in Libya we’ve been engaged now in trying to support Security Council resolution, why we’ve been engaged, as we’ll see shortly, in the opening of an office in Benghazi, why we’ve been working close with international partners to develop ideas for how to support humanitarian aid, and why we’ve been the biggest funder of humanitarian aid – 100 million euros gone in, 55,000 people, third-country nationals, have been removed out of Libya safely with the help of the European Union. Those are things that we do and we’ve been at the center of doing that. And I don't think for one moment that that’s a marginal activity.
We also work very closely with NATO in support of what they’ve been doing, and you’ll have seen last week there was a NATO-EU meeting to discuss what we’re doing in Libya. But what we do is different, and that’s also important to recognize.
And in terms of Syria, as I’ve indicated, what we’ve been doing is looking at what sanctions we can take, what political pressure we can put on, in what is an increasingly alarming situation and to try and offer support to the people in whatever way we can. But doing that too, again, with our international partners, because that makes a big difference if we’re able to put that pressure on together.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you all.