2:06 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Just a few things at the top today to get us started.
Yesterday, the world watched as a jury in Minnesota delivered its verdict regarding the murder of George Floyd. The outcome does not represent full justice, but it does represent accountability, which is a step towards dealing with institutional racism in America. The verdict also does not diminish the pain felt by Black and brown communities, which is a deep trauma to which people of color and marginalized communities around the world can relate.
As the Secretary has said, America finds strength in the fact that we are able to acknowledge our imperfections transparently and to grapple with them openly. It’s what sets us apart from our competitors and our adversaries and what allows us to advance the ideal of a more perfect union. Just as we defend human rights and hold human rights abusers accountable around the world, we will continue to strive to address racial injustice and inequities in our country, affirming throughout that Black lives truly do matter.
Next, today marks the two-year anniversary of the ISIS-inspired attacks on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. On this day, we remember the more than 250 victims – including five U.S. citizens – whose lives were tragically cut short by this horrific act of terrorism.
To the family and friends of the deceased, and to the survivors of the attacks: We mourn with you. We stand in solidarity with you. The United States recently charged multiple individuals in connection with these attacks, and we will continue to assist the Government of Sri Lanka in its own investigation. We promise that we will not rest in pursuit of justice in bringing the perpetrators of this violence to account.
Today in the Hague, the United States and 45 co-sponsors succeeded in passing a historic decision at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Conference of the State Parties that condemns Syria’s – that condemns the Assad regime’s continued use and possession of chemical weapons, in violation of its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The decision, which was adopted with 87 countries voting in favor of it and only 15 against, condemns Syria’s use of chemical weapons and suspends certain of Syria’s rights and privileges Syria holds under the Convention – most notably its right to vote – until the OPCW director-general reports that Syria has completed certain measures. For example, Syria must resolve all outstanding issues regarding the initial declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile and program.
The United States itself assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons at least 50 times since acceding to the CWC in 2013.
This is the first time such an action has been taken against a country at the OPCW.
The United States welcomes the OPCW’s decision and applauds the international community’s continued commitment to upholding the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. The use of chemical weapons by any state presents an unacceptable security threat to all.
Finally, I want to highlight the Secretary’s statement earlier today that we are pleased to announce that as part of our commitment to invest in and support the people of Afghanistan, we plan to provide nearly $300 million in civilian assistance for Afghanistan in 2021 from both the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
This funding will be targeted at sustaining and building on the gains of the past 20 years by improving access to essential services for Afghan citizens, promoting economic growth, fighting corruption and the narcotics trade, improving health and education service delivery, supporting women’s empowerment, enhancing conflict resolution mechanisms, and bolstering Afghan civil society and independent media.
As the United States begins withdrawing our troops, we will use our civilian and economic assistance to advance a just and durable peace for Afghanistan and a brighter future for the Afghan people.
So with that, happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks. I have a question on the Afghanistan thing, but I want to first start with your very beginning topper, George Floyd verdict. I appreciate the sentiment, I understand where it’s coming from, but the State Department’s portfolio is overseas, it’s not here. And I get how this has been a black eye, say, at the UN Human Rights Council, or with the Chinese or the Russians, and they talk about, well, when you complain about our human rights record, look at your own here. But are your comments meant to suggest that the State Department or the federal government had any role here in this?
MR PRICE: My comments —
QUESTION: Because if you – because if you’re going to take this verdict and go back to critics of the U.S. human rights record and say, well, see, look what happened here – I mean, this was a local jury, not a – it had nothing to do with the federal government, unless I’m wrong. Can you –
MR PRICE: Matt, what we heard – we heard yesterday from a local jury, but what we saw and what we have seen in recent weeks has been a national reckoning. And, of course, what happens here has implications around the world.
My point and the point that we have been making not only today but really since the start of this administration is that we have key and fundamental sources of national strength, and one of those sources of national strength that we can use vis-a-vis any competitor or adversary we face are our values, are our national character. And the values that we have seen on display in the context we’re talking about now – accountability, transparency, the rule of law, openness; our ability and our willingness, in fact, to grapple very publicly with our imperfections, with what we know we have to do, with what we still strive to do as a country – that is a source of our strength. It is what sets us apart from our competitors. It’s what sets us apart from our adversaries. And certainly, if we are going to stand for these values around the world, we need to exercise them here at home.
QUESTION: Okay. So are your comments meant to suggest that if and when other countries take issue with your criticism of them, that you will go back and say, well, look at this case and this shows our transparency? Is that – so you’re going to take this case and use it on the international stage to show that the U.S. deals with its issues openly and transparently? Is that the – is that what you’re trying to —
MR PRICE: I think rather than talking about any particular case, we are talking about our values. And the reason we raise this today —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) – as a demonstration of American values. Something that you would use in international fora —
MR PRICE: As a testament to our values at work, on display, not only, again, as a moment of reckoning and attention here at home, but also around the world.
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: — by the Trump administration back in November, and I’m a little bit confused as to what – the language in this, which just says you are working with Congress to try and get it spent now. Does – that means that it hasn’t been approved yet, right?
MR PRICE: It’s a reference to the fact that we are notifying Congress of our intention to do this. The Secretary was on the Hill yesterday. He briefed all members of the House, all members of the Senate on the way forward in Afghanistan. He was joined by several of his counterparts. I understand that he did mention this to Congress yesterday. We will be continuing to work with Congress to make sure that Congress has a full understanding for our plans for these funds.
QUESTION: Okay. But they’re not out the door yet, is that correct?
MR PRICE: Not just yet.
QUESTION: Okay. And is there anything at all different in how this is – how this administration is going to spend this previous – this money that was notified by the previous administration? Is there anything – any different priorities, or is it going to go exactly the way the previous administration intended it to?
MR PRICE: Well, I can’t speak precisely to how – what the previous administration intended, but I will say that I’m sure we can get you more details on the specific programs through both the Department of State and USAID that this money will fund.
But I think it speaks to a broader point, and that is the point we have made since last week, that even as we withdraw militarily from Afghanistan, our partnership with the Afghan Government and with the people of Afghanistan, importantly in this case, is enduring. The people of Afghanistan have made tremendous strides over the past 20 years. They have made those strides with the support throughout of the United States. We have committed billions of dollars – $36 billion in civilian assistance and $3.6 in humanitarian assistance – to Afghanistan since 2002. That is just one metric that I think speaks to our commitment to the Afghan people. This sum today is a good reminder, just as the Secretary communicated to Afghans leaders last week and to a cross section of Afghan civil society last week that we certainly intend for this partnership and for this support to continue going forward.
QUESTION: Yeah. The Commission on International Religious Freedom Report came out today, and one of the recommendations that they’re making is that the government – U.S. Government – as well as publicly expressing concerns about the Winter Olympics in China coming up next year, they’re recommending that U.S. Government officials don’t attend the games. We’ve kind of discussed the discussions around a boycott, but I wonder on the specifics of a —
MR PRICE: Have we? I don’t recall.
QUESTION: — of a diplomatic boycott. Where do you stand on that, that they’re making quite a clear call that – and one of the commissioners said it’s hard to imagine government officials going given that you’ve said there’s a genocide going on.
MR PRICE: Well, what I would say is that the commission – it’s an independent federal commission. Its report represents the views of the commission. They do not clear the contents, they do not clear the conclusions of their report with the – with any executive branch agencies or departments. Again, it’s independent, the way it should be. They – their report is conducted annually. Obviously, we take their report into account as we take a look at our determinations when it comes to religious freedom designations that I expect we’ll speaking to later this year. But I wouldn’t want to go beyond that at this point.
QUESTION: On a diplomatic boycott, though, where do you stand?
MR PRICE: Again, if you’re speaking to the IRF’s report, it’s an independent commission, so I’m not going to speak to that. But we will be putting together our own findings that we’ll release publicly later this year, and we’ll be in a position to speak to it then. Yes.
QUESTION: Can we go to Russia? Do you ask, as the UN experts just did, that Aleksey Navalny be evacuated out of Russia for medical reasons? Or do you stand just to asking for medical access within Russia, as you did yesterday?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve been very clear and we have called on the Russian Federation, we have called on the Russian Government to allow Aleksey Navalny access to the necessary independent medical care immediately in response to the very disturbing reports that we have all seen and we have all heard regarding his deteriorating health. Again, let me just reiterate that we have communicated to the Russian Government both publicly as well as privately that what happens to Mr. Navalny while he is in their custody is their responsibility, and because of that, the Russian Federation will be held accountable to anything that happens to Mr. Navalny while he’s in their custody.
QUESTION: So you don’t go as far as asking that he is brought out of Russia?
MR PRICE: Our concern is that he has access to independent medical care.
QUESTION: And Russia-related. On Ukraine, there has been some public demands from Kyiv that U.S. send urgently more weapons, including Patriot missiles, that I quote a senior official there saying they should be in Ukraine and not in Poland. Are you considering those demands? Is there any process about sending more weapons, and particularly Patriots?
MR PRICE: Well, you know our commitment to Ukraine, our partnership with Ukraine, it’s deep. It is important to us. It’s enduring. That was the message that Secretary Blinken conveyed to his Ukrainian counterpart last week when we met with Foreign Minister Kuleba in Brussels. I will say that the United States has committed more than $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014. Of course, that’s a sum that spans now three administrations. And we will continue working to provide the security assistance that Ukraine needs to defend itself against Russian aggression, and that includes lethal defensive systems based on our continuing assessment of what Russia – of what Ukraine may need.
QUESTION: On Russia, just if I could ask: As a part of the climate summit, will the Biden administration have any opportunity to work with Russia on some of these other issues surrounding that summit, or is it strictly climate with this interaction this week with Russia? And also, there are concerns about access to the Black Sea. Saw the statement a few days ago. Are there concerns about Russia or even Turkey with some of its new regimes it’s putting in place restricting access for U.S. or allied warships to needed parts of the Black Sea?
MR PRICE: What I would say is that the climate summit is very much about climate. It is exclusively focused on climate. The point we have made repeatedly is that in any number of relationships, even when those relationships are primarily competitive or even adversarial, often times we do have shared interests, and climate happens to be one of those areas of shared interest, including with the Russian Federation. So that is why you will – as we have announced, President Putin will be speaking at, he’ll be present at the climate summit. And we welcome global participation in this given the stakes that we face when it comes to global warming and the existential threat it poses.
When it comes to the Black Sea, we are aware that Russia has announced its intention to block foreign naval ships and state vessels in parts of the Black Sea, particularly near the Kerch Strait, through later this year, through October, citing what they claim to be Russian military exercises. We are cognizant that Russia has a history of aggressive actions against Ukrainian vessels and impeding access to Ukraine’s ports in the Sea of Azov, impacting Ukraine’s international commerce. This would be only the latest example of an ongoing campaign to undermine and to destabilize Ukraine. This is something that we’ve spoken to in recent days. It certainly was a focus when we were at NATO last week with the Secretary and his foreign secretary and defense counterparts.
We call on Russia to cease its harassment of vessels in the region and to reverse its buildup of forces along Ukraine’s borders. Again, Ukraine is a partner. We have an unwavering partnership with Kyiv and we will stand by Ukraine and stand by its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that includes in its territorial waters.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, Ned, very much for the opportunity.
QUESTION: One more on Russia.
MR PRICE: Sure. One more on Russia, sure.
QUESTION: Just Russian state media reported that the deputy ambassador was summoned today to the foreign ministry, that they were notified of the 10 expulsions and that 10 Americans have to leave by tomorrow. Can you confirm that any of that is true?
MR PRICE: I’m not going to confirm any of the specific details. What I would say is that U.S. embassy officials in Moscow met today with Russian officials to discuss various bilateral topics, including the Russian response to our announcement last week, on April 15th. We expect these discussions will continue in the coming days. We’ll review the details of the Russian actions as we were notified officially of some elements today. At the same time, we continue to believe that the best way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic engagement going forward.
QUESTION: You can’t say which elements were actually discussed, then, the expulsions or the ban on Russian nationals working for the mission?
MR PRICE: What I would say is that we have received official notification, correspondence that lists the diplomats that the Russian Government has PNG’d.
QUESTION: Can I just have one follow-up on that? And the Russian Foreign Ministry also put out a statement on this saying that those 10 diplomats have one month to get out. So is it assured that the U.S. Government is going to be responding to Russia expelling these diplomats, or may you guys just leave this and carry on to other relations with Russia?
MR PRICE: What I would say is that we expect these discussions to continue in the coming days with the Russian Federation. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of those discussions and preview where we might be going. I think we’ll let those discussions take place and we’ll address it at the appropriate time.
QUESTION: Is Ambassador Sullivan back —
MR PRICE: Ambassador Sullivan is still in Moscow. I understand that his plan continues to be to return to the United States this week.
QUESTION: His plane? Plan.
MR PRICE: His plan continues to be to return to the United States this week.
QUESTION: Any chance of getting him to the podium?
MR PRICE: I – as we’ve said, Ambassador Sullivan has not had a break in I think it is about a year. I’m not sure the first agenda item would be to come here, but if he’s —
QUESTION: Not – it might not be his first.
MR PRICE: If he’s a glutton for punishment, perhaps.
QUESTION: But maybe his second.
MR PRICE: I understand. Okay, I understand. We’ll let you know.
Yes, I’ll go back. Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Going back to the climate summit. During the campaign, President Biden criticized the Brazilian Government on deforestation and environmental policies. And so what’s going to be his tone towards Brazil during this climate summit? We know that he’s receiving a lot of letters in the last few days from the civil society and also 15 senators here in the United States criticizing President Bolsonaro on his environmental records and urging President Biden not to close a deal with Brazil. So is the administration paying attention to these demands, these recommendations? And also, will President Biden use this summit to join them and pressure the Brazilian Government, the Brazilian president directly?
MR PRICE: Well, we absolutely are paying attention to what we’re hearing from the Hill, and I would add that we’re paying attention to what we’re hearing from our partners in the Brazilian Government, and we’re also paying attention to what our partners in the Brazilian Government are committing to doing and what they are in fact doing. And that’s the case because we know that tackling the climate crisis requires global cooperation and global partnerships, and of course Brazil will be a key partner in finding and implementing – helping to implement, I should say – solutions to this crisis. Brazil is one of the world’s top 10 economies. It’s a regional leader. It has a responsibility to lead, including on climate.
Now, with every country – and this is true of Brazil as well – we respect Brazil’s sovereignty in dealing with environmental challenges, and we can build on our strong track record of environmental cooperation with Brazil to accomplish more, to do more, to raise that level of ambition. That’s precisely the point of the summit that will take place tomorrow. We do see Brazil as an important partner in putting the path on the world to net zero emissions by 2050, and that’s precisely because of the size of Brazil’s economy and the impact that its cuts can have, especially as it continues to transition to emissions-free energy sources, as it reduces emissions from forests, from agriculture and other land use, and as it creates incentives to conserves – conserve forests.
A key focus of this administration is encouraging Brazil’s actions to reduce deforestation and to implement ambitious emissions reductions targets consistent with that overall goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to lock in a pathway to a strong net zero emissions future. We believe all of this is realistic for the international community. We believe all of this is realistic for the Government of Brazil as well.
QUESTION: So Ned, in response of Presidents Bolsonaro’s letter to Joe Biden last week, Secretary Kerry said he would like to see immediate actions from Brazil. What would be these immediate actions? And also, would the administration like to see tomorrow, during Bolsonaro’s speech, more details on how to reach his commitment to zero illegal deforestation by 2030?
MR PRICE: Well, I’m certainly not going to tell President Bolsonaro or any other world leader what we would like to see in his or her speech tomorrow, but we look forward to hearing from all of the world leaders who are taking part in this. We’re really gratified by the global participation that this summit has engendered precisely because it underlines the global nature of this challenge. When it comes to what we would like to see broadly speaking from Brazil, and I spoke to this a bit yesterday – Secretary Kerry tweeted on this a couple days ago on April 16th, I believe it was – but we do want to see clear and tangible steps to increase effective enforcement and a political signal that illegal deforestation and encroachment won’t be tolerated. Certainly we’ll continue to work closely with the Brazilian Government on this.
QUESTION: Can I just ask another question on Brazil in a different topic?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: So this administration is putting strengthening democracy abroad at the center of its foreign policy, so I wonder what is the administration reaction on the current arrests in Brazil of protesters or critics of the president, President Bolsonaro. Is the administration concerned about these arrests?
MR PRICE: Well, we do – the United States and Brazil, we do have a strong partnership that has been based on human rights, the rule of law, and democratic principles. Brazil as one of the region’s largest – one of the world’s, I should say, largest democracies – Brazil has the potential to be a leader in helping to promote human rights and democracy, both in the hemisphere and far beyond. We are committed to working with Brazil to advance those shared values, including the respect for human rights, and we’ll continue to engage the Brazilian Government to promote human rights for all, including for vulnerable minority and marginalized populations, LGBTQ individuals, Afro Brazilians, and others – and others as appropriate.
QUESTION: But is the government aware of these arrests of protesters?
MR PRICE: Look, I – our embassy in Brazil, as they do all over the world, monitor developments when it comes to human rights very closely.
QUESTION: Is this something that concerns this administration, the arrests?
MR PRICE: We are an administration that puts human rights at the center of our foreign policy. Every time human rights are encroached upon around the world, it’s a matter for concern. Said.
QUESTION: Thank you. A couple of questions on the Palestinian issue. I wanted to ask you: What is your position on the Palestinian elections? There has been talk that they may be postponed. I don’t believe that you issued any statement regarding the elections, I mean, altogether. So what is your position? Would you understand whether it’s – a decision is taken to postpone it? Would you push for Palestinian – Jerusalemite Palestinians to participate in the process? What is your position?
MR PRICE: Well, our position on this hasn’t changed, and I think we’ve actually discussed this in the briefing room before. The administration has taken a consistent position that the exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian government and for the Palestinian people to determine. It’s not up to us. That remains our position. It’s up to the Palestinians to determine how to proceed.
QUESTION: So if, let’s say, Hamas, whom you consider a terrorist organization, wins with a majority in the legislative election, would you recognize that? Because the – past experience has shown that the United States and the rest of the world has taken a very hostile position towards Hamas that resulted in this siege and this semi-division and civil war among Palestinians.
MR PRICE: Of course, our position vis-a-vis Hamas is well known. I’m not going to entertain a hypothetical when it comes to elections for the Palestinian people. That’s up to them to decide.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me ask you a couple of things. There is a UN report on settler violence against Palestinians – are rising drastically. Are you doing anything about rising settler violence?
MR PRICE: Well, we have been consistent in our condemnation of any steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, and that includes settlement activity and violence. Again, a two-state solution remains at the center of our approach to this issue, and anything that sets that back is something that we will speak out against and do so consistently.
QUESTION: So you do expect your ally Israel to hold those who perpetrate crimes against the Palestinians, be it settlers or soldiers or security men and women, to be held accountable, as you began today to talk about accountability on yesterday’s verdict?
MR PRICE: Justice, accountability, rule of law – those are hallmarks of any democracy.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Africa questions on – one on Chad, and this is a question from my VOA colleagues. Yesterday, you said that you support a peaceful transition in accordance to the Chadian constitution. However, the speaker of the National Assembly has been sidelined. Deby’s son is now in charge of this transitional council. Doesn’t that violate Chad’s constitution? Are you raising any concerns?
MR PRICE: Well, look, again, we offer our – we offer the people of Chad our heartfelt condolences on the death of President Deby. We continue to stand with the people of Chad during this difficult time. We condemn recent violence and loss of life in Chad. And as I said yesterday, we support a peaceful and democratic transition of power to a civilian-led government. Obviously, developments in recent days and hours are a cause for concern, but we will continue to call for and support a peaceful democratic transition to a civilian-led government.
QUESTION: Can I – and my Ethiopia question is from – my colleague on the ground has seen that Eritrean troops are still in Tigray and the humanitarian access is still quite limited, with some key roads that have been blocked. What is this administration doing about that? What’s your message to Ethiopia?
MR PRICE: Well, you’re right, we haven’t seen any evidence that Eritrean troops are withdrawing from Tigray despite the commitments made by both Ethiopia and Eritrea. We urge their immediate full withdrawal, as we believe it is critical to restoring peace and security and critical to that issue of humanitarian access that you raised.
QUESTION: And has Coons stayed involved in this or are you getting – I mean, who’s taking a lead diplomatically on this?
MR PRICE: This is something that the department has been taking a very clear and decisive leadership role. Obviously, the Secretary of State has had occasion to speak to Prime Minister Abiy. That engagement at various levels has been consistent and ongoing. As we have more details to share here in terms of our structure, I’ll be sure to let you know.
MR PRICE: Well, look, we have spoken to the violence. We have spoken, of course, to the death of President Deby as well. We have long encouraged a move toward democracy and representative government in Chad. We’ll continue to do that. Now we will support and do everything we can to support a peaceful democratic transition of power to a civilian-led government.
QUESTION: Right, but what specific – so just the death of the president and the violence, meaning – I think that you mean the rebel attack. Is that you’re talking about? You’re not talking about the sidelining of the parliament chief, you’re not talking – speaker – you’re not talking about the elevation of the son? What are the recent developments?
MR PRICE: Certainly, the violence in Chad that we’ve spoken to is gravely disturbing. But we’re watching closely as the political situation evolves. The situation is fluid. We want to see a peaceful democratic transition of power to a civilian-led government. We would be concerned by anything that would stand in the way of that.
QUESTION: Now, when you say that you continue to, quote-unquote, “stand with the people of Chad,” how does your – how does that manifest itself?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve provided significant support over the years to the people of Chad.
QUESTION: Well, you said – it says – you continued on to say during this time of transition, so how are you – what’s the physical demonstration of your standing with the people of Chad during this time of transition?
MR PRICE: So obviously, the time of transition is now – we’re just hours into it, and we’re watching very closely. But let me just say that last year alone, we provided $130 million in humanitarian assistance and development aid to the people of Chad. I know that our support for and partnership with the people of Chad will continue to endure. We know that especially during this time of transition, that our support will be especially important. And that’s why we are committed to it.
QUESTION: On Chad, about (inaudible).
MR PRICE: I’ll do one follow-up on Chad.
QUESTION: On Chad. Within hours of the coup in Myanmar, you began to review whether or not a coup had been committed. As we’ve said, the opposition, the major opposition parties have called this a coup. Are you undertaking a review?
MR PRICE: It’s a fluid situation I wouldn’t want to characterize it in any way just yet. What I would say to your question, though, is something I’ve said before, is that we have long encouraged a move towards democracy and representative government in the context of Chad. That is something we’ll continue to do.
QUESTION: Still on Chad. Do you – are you fine with the idea that your very cautious response on this being a coup or not gives the impression that you’re ready to accept this military transition just to avoid any vacuum that could profit to the jihadist groups in the region?
MR PRICE: Look, we are not going to let any single issue trump other interests, and that applies to Chad, that applies to our foreign policy around the world. I’ve been very clear today that we support a peaceful and democratic transition of power to a civilian-led government. Obviously, we have multiple interests in Chad, just as we do anywhere else. Certainly an interest of ours – in this case, it happens to be very consistent with our values – is to see a transition of power to a civilian-led government. We’re watching very carefully.
QUESTION: I just want to ask about the Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan citizens for working with the U.S. over the last few years. So according to the State Department, there are about 18,000 Afghan citizens who are awaiting approval in this program. And I’m just wondering if there’s any possible way that all of those Afghan citizens, once they get through the background security process, are going to be – clearance process – are going to go be able to get into the U.S. before September 11th?
MR PRICE: Well, the Special Immigrant Visa program is something that we are deeply committed to, as I think you have heard Secretary Blinken say and other administration officials say. We will work with Congress to see if there is more we can do to help protect those who have helped the U.S. military and the U.S. Government, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves, over the years. We take very seriously our role in administering and managing the Special Immigrant Visa program, and we’re engaged at the highest levels to ensure that we’re serving SIV applicants as promptly, as effectively as possible. We’re looking at ways to improve the program while also ensuring that we maintain the highest degree of integrity within the program.
It is also true that COVID-19, of course, has slowed some of the progress we would like to see in clearing the backlog. We have increased resources to the SIV program. We have taken steps to prioritize applications from interpreters and translators, and we have given extra consideration to those who have helped in combat operations. This will absolutely remain a priority going forward.
QUESTION: And what kind of approval exactly do you need from Congress in order to speed up the process more quickly?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to get into any discussions with the Hill on this. What I would say is that this obviously is a priority of the Hill, of members of Congress. There is a good deal of consensus around this, and I think this is an area where we will continue to engage Capitol Hill given the priority we attach to this program.
MR PRICE: Iran?
QUESTION: The Wall Street Journal in an exclusive report an hour ago reported that negotiators in Vienna began this week drafting texts of potential agreement, and that U.S. officials in Vienna outlined the sectors that may be subject to sanctions relief without offering a detailed proposal, and that include oil, finance sectors, steel, as well as Iran central bank. Would this fall within the positive progress that Iranian and Western officials talking about?
MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to Iran, you’re right, there have been some signs of progress, but I wouldn’t want to overstate it. I think what I said yesterday certainly remains true, that we probably have a longer road ahead of us than we do in the rear view mirror at this point. And that is because of the inherent challenges in this process. And those – many of those challenges at least are not going away.
Again, these are indirect talks. The logistics of them are difficult. The issues are not simple or uncomplicated, which is another wrinkle in this. And of course, there is no lack of distrust between and among the parties. That includes between the United States and Iran and between Iran and the other members of these negotiations. So to be sure, there is a lot to overcome. These talks have been constructive. They have been business-like. We have been able to see some signs of progress, but we’re certainly a ways off from anything concretely materializing.
When it comes to sanctions relief, let me say that we entered these talks, and these talks have been organized around those two working groups, and those two working groups represent the big pieces of business that we have before us. One is predicated on what Iran would need to do to resume its compliance with the JCPOA – in other words, the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take to once again have it subject to the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated. The other working group is what you’re referring to. These are the steps that the United States would need to take to resume its compliance with the JCPOA.
In that context, what we said is that we’re prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance to the JCPOA, including lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with it. Now, the precise nature of those sanctions, the precise nature of those steps, that’s precisely what’s being discussed in that second working group, and so we wouldn’t want to get into that publicly at this point. What I will say is that Rob Malley is on his way back from Vienna, as we noted yesterday, as a joint commission statement itself noted. The negotiators are returning home. We expect these talks will resume in the coming days, probably within the course of a week, and we expect – we’ll do everything we can to offer some more detail on the process shortly.
QUESTION: Is it true, though, that all sanctions that have been imposed since the deal was signed are really inconsistent with the deal itself? So, I mean, you keep saying that those are not inconsistent or —
MR PRICE: Broadly speaking, there are different categories of sanctions that successive administrations have placed on Iran. Now, what we are focused on are those sanctions that are inconsistent with the deal itself. I would hasten to add, however, that we have profound areas of disagreement and concern when it comes to Iran’s behavior, and the – Tehran should be under no illusions that we will let up in our efforts to hold Iran accountable for its human rights abuses, for its ballistic missiles program, for its support for terrorism, for its support for proxies in the region. Now, of course, terrorism – excuse me, sanctions can be a key tool in all of that. There is nothing in the JCPOA that says that the United States or any other country around the world can’t enact sanctions to hold Iran accountable for other areas of its malign behavior, malign influence.
QUESTION: I have questions about South Korea. There was a report says that Korean Government is discussing a vaccine swap with U.S. Government. I know it’s a very private diplomatic conversation, but I’d like to ask you if it is technically possible to do vaccine swapping and how seriously U.S. Government can consider it. And second question is about the summit between two countries next month. What would be the primary topic to be discussed at the summit? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you for those. So I’m not going to get into any private diplomatic communications with the Republic of Korea, or any other country for that matter. What I would say broadly is that, and you’ve heard me say this before, but first and foremost we are focused at this stage on the vaccination effort here at home, and we’re focused on that for a couple reasons. Of course, we have a special obligation to the American people, and that is why we have invested such tremendous resource in this vaccination effort to provide hundreds of millions of vaccines, safe and effective vaccines to the American people as quickly as we can, and of course, we’re recording excellent progress there.
But two, as long as the virus is spreading within this country, as long as the virus is spreading anywhere for that matter, it has the potential to mutate. It has the potential to threaten people everywhere. So we certainly have an interest in seeing the virus contained around the world, but the rest of the world has an interest in seeing the virus contained here in the United States. Because after all, the United States has been hardest hit of any country in the world – more than 550,000 deaths, tens of millions of infections. And so what we need to do both for our own health and our own safety, but also for the collective good, the collective interest, is to get this virus under control here.
We recognize that we do in public health, as in any other sector, have a leadership role to play, and we have played that leadership role already through our contributions to COVAX – $2 billion initially, $2 billion over time – re-engaging with the WHO on day one of this administration, what we’ve talked about in terms of our arrangements with Canada and Mexico and we’ve talked about in our arrangements with the Quad.
As we are in a more comfortable and confident position here at home with our own vaccination effort as we have been able to address contingencies that may arise, I expect we may be able to do more, but right now, that’s our focus.
QUESTION: Ned, President Biden just mentioned now that he could be sending vaccines to Latin America. Which countries in Latin America other than Mexico would be receiving it first?
MR PRICE: I just briefly saw the President’s comments before this. I’m just not in a position today to go beyond where we’ve – what I just said.
QUESTION: Can I – quickly one on the travel ban? Because – is there any consideration to update the international travel ban now that the CDC updated the guidance for – on travel for fully vaccinated people here in the United States?
MR PRICE: These are decisions that are informed by science, that are informed by medical professionals, including at the CDC, so we’re always going to defer to the science. So I wouldn’t want to weigh in on that from here.
QUESTION: I also asked about the summit meeting.
MR PRICE: Yes, you did, and that’s – I will leave that to the White House to speak to. Obviously, the travel of President Moon is – underlines and underscores the alliance that we have with the ROK. It’s precisely the reason that Secretary Blinken traveled to South Korea as well as to Japan on his first physical overseas travel, to make clear that our alliance with our treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, including the Republic of Korea, is strong, and we’re looking for ways to build on that. And I would fully expect that will be the focus of President Moon’s upcoming meeting with President Biden.
QUESTION: The Secretary was meeting today with Caribbean counterparts. The past administration put a lot of the focus on its dealings with that region on trying to counter China and the influx of Chinese money, basically, into the region. Does that remain this administration’s sort of priority of dealing with that region?
MR PRICE: Well, I expect we’ll have a readout of that session for you today. What I would say is that there’s no one single interest when it comes to CARICOM, when it comes to our relations in our own hemisphere or anywhere else, for that matter. We share much in common with our Caribbean partners. The discussions today were broad-ranging, and I will leave it to the readout to offer more detail there.
QUESTION: Can you say – the administration before last, meaning the Obama administration, during that administration, then-former Secretary Kerry, who is now – occupies a significant role in this administration, declared that the Monroe Doctrine was done, over. So as it relates to CARICOM, but also more broadly to Latin America and the Caribbean, does this administration agree with that? Because the most immediate past administration took extreme issue with the idea that the Monroe Doctrine was over.
MR PRICE: The way I would characterize it is one of partnership. We see ourselves partnering with our neighbors in this hemisphere because we understand that only through partnership can we achieve our national interests and the collective interests. We have spoken a great deal about this in the context of the Northern Triangle, just to cite one example in this hemisphere. It’s a partnership with the countries of the Northern Triangle that, over time, will help us undermine the root causes, the drivers of irregular migration, and that’s precisely what we intend to do throughout this region.
QUESTION: But are you prepared to use your leverage, influence, or whatever – even physical force – to prevent outside countries from other hemispheres from trying to exert influence here? Now, obviously, it’s a little bit different when – from the time of James Monroe when we were talking about Europe, but as his question refers to, China. And no doubt they are trying to increase their influence in this hemisphere. Is that something you guys are willing to forcefully push back against?
MR PRICE: I would say that we are very fortunate that we have common values and common interests, that we share them with members of CARICOM, with other of our neighbors in this hemisphere. I think that is ultimately what will unite us. That will – is what will lead us to work together when it comes to a collective challenge.
QUESTION: Last one, just extremely quickly on Belarus. I notice that your non-resident ambassador to Minsk met today in Lithuania or Estonia, one of the Baltics, with the Belarusian opposition leader. Is there any movement on getting her in – actually into Minsk, into a resident – a resident ambassador role, or is she still just kind of floating around Europe?
MR PRICE: Well, what I would say is that obviously, Ambassador Fisher continues to do excellent work. Although she is based here, you’re right that she is in Europe, where she is having consultations. She is – this is not her first trip to Europe during this administration alone where she is able to further our interests and our values in the context of what we are seeing in Belarus.
The United States has always sought to have a stable and predictable relationship with Belarus ever since Belarus’s independence in 1991. It sits at the heart of Europe. It holds potential for its people. And despite the ejection of the American ambassador in 2008, we continue to maintain diplomatic relations with the Government of Belarus. It’s always been our hope that we could turn that into a more normal diplomatic relationship. That continues to be our goal. An ambassador in Minsk is vital to this effort, and being able to return an ambassador to Minsk would send a powerful signal.
But as long as what we have seen in Belarus continues – the human rights violations, the repression – there can be no business as usual, and that’s precisely what Secretary Blinken said when we spoke to the general license this week. It’s exactly what we said in the context of the crackdowns and the detentions of those who do nothing more than aspire for democracy in their country.
QUESTION: But does that mean the holdup is on this side, that you don’t want her to go back, or is the holdup on the other side? Because I had understood it was the other side initially.
MR PRICE: It is absolutely the case that this administration does not believe there can be business as usual.
QUESTION: Yeah, but does that mean returning an ambassador?
MR PRICE: I will – I’m not going to define precisely what that means in every aspect, but we have been very clear, as you – again, you saw with the general license and a revocation of it this week, or I should say Treasury’s revocation of it this week that we supported, there cannot be business as usual unless we see a change in behavior on the part of the Lukashenka regime in Belarus.
QUESTION: On Mr. Navalny’s health status, you said that he should be allowed independent medical care. What does that mean? Does that mean, like, Russian medical teams? Who would determine that they’re independent? To whom would they turn the report?
MR PRICE: Well, Mr. Navalny has a team of lawyers. He has been seen by a team of doctors before. What we want is for him to have access to an independent medical team, a team that those around him see fit, not that those who are holding him see fit.
QUESTION: Two question about East Asian region. So a few days ago you released a press statement about the Japanese Government’s decision on the Fukushima waste water. So may I take the statement as the U.S. Government supports the Japanese Government’s decision and reached to the conclusion that there will be no pollution-related environment issue in —
MR PRICE: I won’t go beyond what’s in that statement. That statement lays out very clearly our position on that, but I will leave the statement to speak for itself.
Thank you very much, everyone.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:55 p.m.)
# # #