THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: All right. Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s briefing to highlight the annual To Walk the Earth in Safety report, which you have in front of you. You can also access it on our website, www.state.gov. My name is Zina Wolfington, and I’m the moderator today. This briefing is on the record. We will post a transcript of this briefing on our website, fpc.state.gov.
For the journalists joining us on Zoom, please take a moment now to rename yourself in the chat window with your name, outlet, and country.
I’m very pleased to introduce today Dr. Bonnie Jenkins. She’s our Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. We also have with us today Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Karen Chandler, who is prepared to take your questions. And with that, this is my great pleasure to welcome Under Secretary Bonnie Jenkins.
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Thanks, Zina, for that kind introduction. Today I had the pleasure to release the 22nd edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety, the annual report on the accomplishments of the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction program. I just want to show it because I’m so happy and proud of the hard work that my colleagues at my Political-Military Bureau at State is doing. So I just want to make sure everyone just sees that. And please, I recommend you to definitely read this when you have an opportunity after today.
So our To Walk the Earth in Safety report highlights many of the ways communities and individuals around the world have overcome the adversity of post-conflict challenges thanks to the generous support of the American people and the hard work of our implementing partners. With U.S. funding, our partners tirelessly find and destroy landmines, improvised explosive devices or IEDs, and unexploded ordnance or UXO. They also help us destroy or secure small arms and light weapons that could be proliferated illicitly, as well as unserviceable ammunition which poses the danger of detonating and causing catastrophic consequences for civilians living in proximity to these dangerous depots. It is a hard job, but one with a big payoff of people’s lives and well-being.
I have seen firsthand how our efforts do just that. During my visit last September to the State Department’s program in Vietnam, I was moved by the deep commitment and drive of all involved in such operation. I was impressed by this work by our partners and in awe of the
deminers who take pride in their jobs, since it is contributing to ending pain in their communities. The incredible work being done to remove explosive hazards and the resilience of the local communities is truly inspiring.
The United States is the world’s largest – single largest financial contributor and supporter of conventional weapons destruction. We have invested more than $1.6 billion [$4.6 billion] in more than 120 countries and areas since 1993 to promote international peace and security by addressing humanitarian hazards from landmines and unexploded ordnance in post-conflict countries. We have also partnered with countries to secure or destroy excess or improperly secured munitions in order to reduce the possibility that non-state actors, such as criminals and terrorists, could acquire small arms, light weapons, and ammunition.
In Fiscal Year 2022 alone, the United States supported conventional weapons destruction efforts in more than 65 countries and areas with more than 376 – worth more than $276 million [$376 million]. With this funding, our Conventional Weapons Destruction programs have accomplished a great deal. For example, they provided thousands of in-person lifesaving explosive ordnance risk education sessions globally, while reaching millions more through social media campaigns; returned more than 243 million square meters of land, roughly equivalent to the city of Milwaukee, to communities for safe and productive use; destroyed over 14,000 excess, obsolete, or improperly stored small arms and light weapons and over 3,900 metric tons of unserviceable ammunition; cleared or destroyed more than 246,000 explosive hazards; and destroyed 223 man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, and all-purpose or anti-tank guided missiles, or ATGMs, or components.
The Department of State, Department of Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development work together with foreign governments, private companies, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations to reduce excess small arms and light weapons stockpiles, implement best practices for properly securing and storing conventional weapons, and carry out humanitarian mine action programs.
As you review our report, you will call – we will call your attention to the human-interest stories in each of the six regional chapters. These stories about people who have benefitted directly from our programs provide tangible evidence of the success of the United States effort to improve security, including food and economic security, as well as resiliency to climate change, in a way that no dry statistics can.
For example, in Iraq, engineer Omar Al-Ani manages the restoration and cultivation of an oasis with an agriculture nursery and orchards. These were polluted by IEDs planted by ISIS, and then further damaged and polluted by unexploded ordnances generated during a fierce combat to drive out ISIS terrorists in 2017.
Now, thanks to the IED and UXO clearance funded by the United States, the Iraqi Government is reforesting this viable oasis and Mr. al-Ani and local farmers are once again growing olives, lemons, nuts, and date palms. He has even added a windbreak to combat soil erosion. This is just one of many examples of how the United States Conventional Weapons Destruction Program is fostering human security, food security, and economic prosperity across the globe.
Now, my remarks would not be complete without addressing Putin’s ongoing war in Ukraine and what we are doing to help the people of Ukraine. Since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, the United States has committed more than $91.5 million to help the Government of Ukraine address the urgent humanitarian challenge posed by explosive remnants of war. These explosive hazards block access to farmland, slow the distribution of humanitarian assistance, impede reconstruction efforts, prevent displaced people from returning to their homes, and continue to kill and maim innocent civilians. The Government of Ukraine estimates that 174,000 square kilometers of its territory may be contaminated. This is more than twice the size of Austria or slightly larger than the state of Florida.
This problem will, tragically, persist for a long time after Russia’s unspeakable brutality ends. But the international community’s attention to this issue and Ukraine’s prioritization of it means we’re on the right track. Our investment now will pay dividends long into the future and give the Ukrainian people another reason to hold onto hope.
When we review our progress for Fiscal Year 2022, we need to remember that our successes are not just about things such as landmines, UXOs, and excessive – excess munitions. The top priority for the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction program is people. This is reflected in our newest edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety. American taxpayers can be proud that they enabled the lifesaving and peacebuilding work.
Finally, the United States commitment to conventional weapons destruction is grounded in more than 25 years of bipartisan congressional support, combined with the experience and determination of our implementing partners. Together we have worked with host governments, as well as communities at the local level, to create a resilient program that has evolved and adapted along with the threat from explosive remnants of war. I hope you enjoy reading the stories in this report.
Now Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Karen Chandler, who is also the Director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement which produces this report, will take any questions you may have about the report, while Zina moderates the conversation. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you for those remarks, Under Secretary Jenkins. And now I would like to open it up for questions. A reminder for journalists joining us via Zoom: please be sure your screenname includes your name, outlet, and country. To ask a question, click on the “raise hand” icon to indicate you have a question. We’ll start with questions from the room. Dima*, please.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you very much. Dmitry Anopchenko, Inter Ukraine and television D.C. correspondent. We was already told about the huge territory which need demining in Ukraine. It’s more than Florida, actually. So one more figure which was released today in Ukraine: the country possibly, according to the World Bank, will need $37.4 billion to finish the humanitarian demining. It’s huge; it’s a lot. So how do you see the priorities? We got farmers who need to start their work. When will its civilians who just want to return to there will just – at the same time we’ve got a huge territory which may be liberated. So from which end to start? What is the top priority? How do you see it?
MS CHANDLER: Right. Well, I should say, first off, that we will follow the Ukrainian Government’s assignment of priorities because they are in the lead in this effort. But yes, I have seen these World Bank figures and they are absolutely astounding. Russia’s brutality has really just destroyed a huge amount of land in Ukraine.
The United States provided $91.5 million last year to Ukraine for assistance in this area. One of the things that we’re doing with that assistance is training and equipping new demining teams. So what we’re hoping to do and what we’ve been in the process of doing over the winter was to train and equip some of these new teams. We hope that over the coming year we’ll be able to send out 100 additional teams that have been trained and equipped with this money. And we have additional supplemental funding that the United States Congress has approved as well.
The State Emergency Services in Ukraine has really asked our demining partners at this time to prioritize farmland. They are working – the SESU, the state emergency services, has been working on a lot of the critical infrastructure sites and some of the sites that are very recently liberated from the fighting. So what they’ve asked our demining partners to do through the NGO community is to focus on some of this agricultural land, because at least 10 percent of the agricultural land has been contaminated as well. And so in order to improve economic prosperity and food security for the country, we would want that land cleared.
And another super-important aspect of it is the Explosive Ordnance Risk Education that we provide. So our implementing partners worked very hard last year even during the most intense, early days of the fighting to start providing in-person Explosive Ordnance Risk Education to people. And they did – they provided this training to several hundred thousand of people in person in Ukraine and 18 million different people on social media. So when you’re talking about contamination that is just that extensive that is going to take so many years to clear, we’re going to be at this for decades unfortunately.
So one of the most important things that you can do is equip the local population, particularly children who might see something and want to go pick it up. Don’t touch that thing that looks like a plastic toy. That is not a treasure for you to take home. That could really harm you. We have to teach the children in schools and through these risk education programs and then you have to educate people who are working in the farmland as well what this – what they need to do if they come across an unexploded bomb, things like that. Because that way, they can then call the authorities and have those things removed.
MODERATOR: Any other questions in the room? Please.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Khemara Sok. I am a reporter from Voice of America for Cambodian service. Thank you for the report. And I would like to have questions about: The U.S. and ASEAN just had what we call comprehensive strategic partnership announced by the leaders – by President Biden and the ASEAN leader last year. And is that – the landmine is priority for the U.S. this time? And Cambodia also one of the Southeast Asian countries, so will the U.S. continue financial support for clearing the mines and also unexplosive devices there?
MS CHANDLER: Yes, absolutely. Our cooperation with Cambodia on landmine UXO removal goes back decades. We’ve provided approximately $180 million [$191.5 million] for clearance operations in Cambodia and about $9 million of that was just this year. So it is clearly a priority for us. We enjoy a really wonderful cooperation with the Cambodian Government on that – on this project. For example, the Cambodia Mine Action Center actually sent some of its people to train some of the Ukrainian mine action workers as well because in Cambodia, you’re using a very specific type of landmine detector that Japan has provided. And Cambodians are absolute experts at this, and so they were able to provide this training to the Ukrainians to enable them to use this new, more modern type of detector as well.
So not only is your government working with our government to begin the clearance operations, continue those clearance operations in Cambodia, but you’re also starting to spread the knowledge elsewhere and becoming known as an authority.
MODERATOR: Any other questions in the room for our speakers? Any questions on Zoom? I don’t see any, but we do have one pre-submitted question, which I will read right now: “How likely do you think North Korea will conduct seventh nuclear test this month? What will be the consequences?”
MS CHANDLER: I think I need to defer to the Under Secretary for that.
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Thanks for that. I don’t think it’s really possible to kind of prejudge or try to anticipate when North Korea may do a nuclear test. I think that the international community is aware that a test is possible and that there has been considerations by North Korea for a test (inaudible). We don’t know when that would happen. Of course, any kind of nuclear test is certainly destabilizing, certainly something that is not going to be very welcome, to say the least, in the region or internationally.
I would just also add that the U.S. has been very clear with North Korea and the international community as well that we are ready to talk with North Korea when – at a time that they’re willing to talk. We still are promoting denuclearization. That hasn’t changed. They have not approached us about having any kind of dialogue about the situation as it is now. But in answer, we don’t know, we can’t anticipate such a date, but we do know that such a test would be very destabilizing.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I see a raised hand on Zoom from Alex at Turan News Agency. Please unmute yourself and ask a question.
QUESTION: Hi, Zina. This is Alex Raufoglu. In fact, I have two questions, if you don’t mind. I’ll start with Ukraine. I was wondering how much of an accountability is or should be a part of approach when addressing Ukraine’s demining. I’m asking because we’re in midst of the war, and if I understood your reports correctly, it looks like Russia is – this is Russia’s war strategy, to hold on the occupied land as it’s planting fields of landmines; am I wrong?
And my second question is about South Caucasus regional program. The report says since November 2020 more than 280 people had been killed or injured in landmines accidents in the region. I assume this is – this is about Azerbaijan. Can you please tell us how much of this adds up to the urgency of your efforts? The report says – talks about 2 millions of funding that was, I think, announced last September, but when I go back to Azerbaijan section, I see only 36,000 was allocated. Could you please fill us in on how much of this is going to be allocated this year and how? Thank you so much again.
MS CHANDLER: Sure. So to address accountability for Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, I think this time that people in the UN, et cetera, are looking at that question. Certainly, the United States Government believes that Russia’s war has been incredibly brutal and uncalled for, and we call on Russia to remove itself from Ukraine because the atrocities that they’re committing are harming civilians and preventing peace in the region, and they are in a position to be able to stop this war at any time they want to.
Regarding funding for the South Caucasus region, since November 2021, we’ve provided about $2.5 million for the areas that were affected by the Fall 2020 intensive fighting. Congress has actually provided an earmark in the FY22 appropriation for the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and so we will be in the process of obligating that funding in the coming months. Currently, the money is being notified to the Congress. So we’ve provided $2.5 million already for the entire region to be equitably distributed by our implementing partners that are working there, and then in the coming months, then we will have another $2 million that was part of the FY 2022 budget.
MODERATOR: I see there is a follow-up question from Zina.
QUESTION: Oh, thank you, if I may. More policy question. Ukrainian Government talked today about the necessity on their view to create an international coalition to demine Ukraine. So I’m really interested in your opinion. Do you think – do you believe that we need some formal structure like it was a coalition against ISIS or any other coalition United States leads? Or it’s more the coalition which is doing it by common principles but not the formal organization, formal structure, something which could meet – schedule some meetings or have a head or a lead? So what’s your vision? Thank you.
MS CHANDLER: So I don’t have a personal view on whether or not a formal coalition is needed. I think that if the Ukrainian Government calls for that, then we certainly support it. And in
terms of the international donor community right now, what we’ve seen is about 23 different countries have come forward and said that they want to provide demining contributions to Ukraine. And those come in different amounts, depending on the size and the budget of that country, but the international response has been quite remarkable.
And what we do is we coordinate with those different donors through the Mine Action Support Group, which is an international meeting that exists to discuss mine action more broadly around the world. We also have regular donor calls with different donors that are facilitated by the Ukrainian Government and also by UNDP. So there is a lot of discussion that’s happening right now more informally by the donor community, but certainly if the Ukrainian Government wants to push for a more formal coalition, then I don’t see how that could be harmful.
MODERATOR: And we have time for one more question. Anybody in the room? Okay. Please.
QUESTION: Yeah, Khemara again from VOA Cambodian Service. My follow-up question: Cambodia is in the state – like embargoed by the U.S. So is there any chance or possibility when is the – Cambodia should be removed from the embargo status?
MS CHANDLER: I can’t predict the future, so I can’t say exactly when Cambodia might be removed from the embargo list. What I can say is that the United States is committed to the prosperity of Cambodia but also the freedom of Cambodia and the democratic freedom. When President Biden was in Cambodia last November, he encouraged Prime Minister Hun Sen to open up the political and civic engagement and allow people to have free exchange of views before the 2023 elections.
Part of that being open to democracy also means re-examining the relationship that Cambodian Ministry of Defense officials have taken with the People’s Republic of China. So one of the main concerns that the United States has is this relationship and particularly the presence and potentially sharing of sensitive technology at the Ream Naval Base because of the presence of the PLA that’s in Cambodia. And the United States believes that you should re-examine your – that the Cambodian people should re-examine those ties because it will not help the sovereignty of the Cambodian people.
MODERATOR: This concludes the Q&A session. I will now turn it over to Under Secretary Jenkins for any last thoughts.
AMBASSADOR JENKINS: Just want to say thank you for coming and listening and receiving a direct copy of this wonderful report. I certainly want to again thank my colleagues for all the work that they have done to pull this together. And just to say that the – what you’re reading are words and looking at it in a book, but as I said earlier, it really can’t capture the impact of this work in countries and on the ground. And I can’t say enough about the men and women who are actually doing the demining work, the dedication that they have, and also for the wonderful NGOs that are doing this work. It’s really yeoman’s work. It’s very important for so many issues, not just security – we talked about things like food security and reconstruction and people being able to get their – get back to everyday life and going to schools and the
things that we’re able to do many times we take for granted here in the U.S. And just want to commend the work that’s been done all around on these issues; it’s very important.
So thanks for coming and listening.
MODERATOR: And I would like to give special thanks to both our briefers for sharing their time with us today and to all the FPC accredited journalists who joined us today, both in person and virtually. This concludes our briefing today. Thank you.