Department Press Briefing – April 26, 2021
3:25 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: All right. Good afternoon. Our apologies for starting a bit late today. Couple items at the top. First, Secretary of State Blinken will travel tomorrow, April 27th, on his first virtual trip to Africa, where he will visit Kenya and Nigeria and meet with young people from across the continent.
He will begin his virtual travel meeting with Young African Leadership Initiative, or YALI, alumni. Through YALI, the United States signature effort to invest in the next generation of African leaders, we work with partners across the continent to develop initiatives and economic opportunities to support the creativity, innovativeness, and energy of Africa’s youth.
Secretary Blinken will then visit Nigeria, where he will meet with President Buhari and Foreign Minister Onyeama to underscore our shared goals of strengthening democratic governance, building lasting security, promoting economic prosperity, and defending human rights. Secretary Blinken will also participate in a health partnership event to emphasize U.S. health care support through the PEPFAR program and in response to COVID-19.
Finally, during his visit to Kenya he will meet with President Kenyatta and Cabinet Secretary Omamo to reaffirm our strategic partnership. Secretary Blinken will also visit Kenyan-based renewable energy companies and, in solidarity with Kenya amidst the pandemic, we will highlight a U.S.-donated mobile field hospital providing essential COVID-19 medical supplies via AFRICOM and the Massachusetts National Guard’s State Partnership Program.
Next, today, we remember human rights activist Xulhaz Mannan, who was murdered five years ago for his courageous work on behalf of marginalized communities in Bangladesh. At the time of his death, he worked in USAID’s Bangladesh Office of Democracy and Governance, where he helped lead programs to combat trafficking in persons, reduce gender-based violence, and promote human rights. Before joining USAID, he served for nine years as the protocol specialist for the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, where he was a founding member of the embassy’s diversity committee.
Xulhaz’s selfless dedication to advancing the principles of diversity, acceptance, and inclusion exemplified the best of Bangladesh, as did his generosity of spirit, devotion to family, and dedication to community. Today, we honor his fearless advocacy on behalf of his fellow Bangladeshis and recommit to upholding the dignity and human rights of people around the world.
So with that, happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks. Where to begin. Let’s start with East Africa or the – in addition to this virtual trip to Kenya tomorrow, Kenya is of course a key player in the whole IGAD process. The Secretary spoke with the prime minister of Ethiopia today, and the message seems to be getting increasingly impatient, perhaps, for the fact that there is still Eritrean troops in Tigray. And I’m just wondering, apart from the talk and the pushing, pressing for them to get moving on this withdrawal – if and when it’s going to happen – are you prepared to do anything else to make your case either with the Ethiopians or the Eritreans?
MR PRICE: Well, let me make a couple of broad points. As you noted, the Secretary did have an opportunity today to speak to Prime Minister Abiy. The message he conveyed, and we read that out, but the message he conveyed is one that we have made at many levels in recent days. We remain, of course, committed to building an enduring partnership with the Ethiopian people, and we remain committed to the territorial integrity and unity of Ethiopia. All that said, we are gravely concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Tigray and the reports of human rights abuses, violations, and atrocities that have emanated from there.
This administration has encouraged international partners, including the AU and regional partners, to work with us to address the crisis in Tigray, including through action at the UN and other relevant bodies. Now, of course, we have heard statements emanate from the region. We have heard the Eritrean Government’s public statement that will – that it will withdraw its forces from Tigray, but that must still be implemented in practice. There is no evidence that such a withdrawal is underway, and any such withdrawal must be immediate and verifiable.
We also call and continue to call for a withdrawal of Amhara regional forces from Tigray for an immediate end to the hostilities, all of which are critical to protecting civilians and ensuring unhindered humanitarian access.
We continue to raise our grave concerns over the abuses and violations, human rights violations that I mentioned before. We condemn in the strongest terms specifically the killings, the forced removals, the sexual violence and rape, and other human rights abuses that multiple organizations have reported on the ground in the region.
As more information comes to light, the urgency to meet those commitments and to move forward with independent international investigations and accountability only increases. You probably noticed that at the end of the readout of the Secretary’s call today, he did note that our new special envoy for the Horn, Jeff Feltman – Ambassador Jeff Feltman – will be traveling to the region in the coming days, and, of course, we expect this to be a topic of his conversations there.
QUESTION: But are you not at the point where you’re warning them that there could be specific measures taken against either country?
MR PRICE: Well, I would say that, of course, there have been some private communications, including between the Secretary and the prime minister. Of course, Senator Coons recently undertook travel to the region at the behest of the President and the administration to convey similar messages to Prime Minister Abiy and others, and I would expect these will be conversations that the special envoy will have when he travels to the region in the coming days.
QUESTION: When that happens, can you give us like dates and —
MR PRICE: Certainly. We will provide more details on his travel before it takes place.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Great. Yes.
QUESTION: There’s been some news about vaccines and the White House saying that these AstraZeneca vaccines are going to start going to other countries. I wondered if you could give us a bit more on the process for deciding who’s going to get vaccines when the U.S. is giving them out. I guess – is this – you’ve talked before about giving money to COVAX. I think what the word from the White House today was that these would be distributed through direct partnerships. Does that mean not through COVAX? And are you choosing to give these to countries based on need or is this based on relationships and not – obviously, what the Secretary said – not political favors, but what is the basis for this?
MR PRICE: Well, I would say broadly that it’s based on a couple things. One is the broad recognition that as long as this virus is spreading anywhere, it is a threat to people everywhere. That point applies to COVID in India, it applies to COVID in the United States, it applies to COVID anywhere around the world. And so that is why we have consistently spoken of our efforts not only to get the virus under control here, recognizing that the United States has been the site of the world’s worst outbreak to date, but also recognizing that as long as the virus is circulating here, it poses a threat and continues and has the potential to continue to mutate to pose a threat well beyond our borders.
But that’s also why, since the very first days of this administration – in fact, the very first day of this administration – President Biden has committed the United States to be a leader when it comes to global public health, re-engaging with the WHO on day one; committing $2 billion to COVAX immediately, another $2 billion over time as well; the loan arrangements we have discussed and we’ve talked about in the context of Mexico and Canada; and, of course, our engagement with the Quad that will seek to increase production capacity within India itself.
Let me just spend a moment on the situation in India, which, of course, is of great concern to the United States, and we have always stood in solidarity with our friends and our partners in India. We are working nonstop across the government to do all we can to deliver on an urgent basis the supplies most needed within India, and that includes oxygen assistance and related materials, but it also includes supplies of therapeutics, rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators, personal protective equipment or PPE – all supplies to protect India’s frontline health care workers. It includes raw material urgently required for the manufacture of the Covishield vaccine, and we’ve also – deploying an expert team of public health advisors from the CDC to work in close collaboration with our embassy on the ground, India’s health ministries, and India’s epidemic intelligence staff.
Now, of course, these details that we’ve released in recent days follow regular consultation and discussions with our partners in the Indian Government. Of course, the President had an opportunity today to speak to Prime Minister Modi. The Secretary has had an opportunity in recent days to speak to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Jaishankar. Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, spoke to his counterpart; Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, spoke to her counterpart. And we’ve been doing that to demonstrate our solidarity with the Indian Government, with the Indian people, but also to hear about the needs of the Indian Government and to assess, based on our own capacity, what more we could do. We’ve always said that as we are in a position to do more, we will do more. And this gets back to the issue of President Biden’s commitment on the part of the United States to be – to continue to be a leader when it comes to humanitarian relief and a leader when it comes to global public health. What we are talking about today in the context of India is a natural complement to what we’ve been doing over the course of this administration, doing what we can to be a leader in terms of the global response to this virus, even as we continue to address it here at home with our vaccination drive.
QUESTION: Does that mean India is a priority, or how are you prioritizing the – those?
MR PRICE: Well, it is – it certainly goes without saying that India is enduring a horrific outbreak. India is a global – we have a Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with India. But the Secretary has been clear: This is not about shots in arms in return for political favors, in return for any sort of transactionalism. This is about America’s humanitarian leadership, the commitment that this administration has, to help those most in need. And, of course, what India is enduring now is profoundly concerning on so many levels.
And so that’s why you’ve seen not only the United States stepping up, but other countries in the region and well beyond stepping up to attempt to help and do all we can to help India in its time of need.
QUESTION: Yeah. Yeah, why is it taking so long? You say you have these public health advisors and intelligence people on the ground. We – presumably they saw this coming. Is it China’s criticism? Is it – what’s causing it? Is it the stories in the press? Is it – it seems like the Quad would be monitoring this. Isn’t disaster relief one of the founding parts of the Quad?
I’m just wondering why we’re just seeing this surge of attention on India right now when we talk about this deep and strategic partnership?
MR PRICE: Well, I would take issue with the premise that it has taken us a long time. I would note that, of course, we have talked about our stepped-up assistance to India in recent hours. And we’ve always said as we assess we’re in a position to do more, we will do more, and you have heard us make good on that pledge.
But from the earliest days of this pandemic, we have provided much-needed assistance to India, just as India came to our aid when we were enduring the worst of the pandemic here in this country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the United States has provided more – nearly $19 million in total assistance, and that includes nearly 11 million in health assistance to help India slow the spread of COVID-19. We have – our assistance has helped India provide care for the affected, disseminate essential public health messages to various communities, strengthen the epidemiological surveillance capabilities, mobilize innovative financing mechanisms for emergency preparedness in response to the pandemic.
These funds – this nearly $19 million in support that we’ve provided since the start of the outbreak – have also supported Indian state-specific COVID-19 challenges and addressed bottlenecks in supply chains that stemmed from the lockdown on India’s border. Two million dollars in that assistance is also supporting micro and small and medium enterprises in areas hardest hit by COVID-19. And as I alluded to before, the CDC has committed $3.6 million to assist the Government of India’s response to the epidemic. Those resources are trained at prevention, preparedness, and response activities in India.
So it is certainly not the case that what we have spoken to in recent hours is the start of our engagement, but we recognize that as the current outbreak has taken incredibly concerning turns in India, that there was more we could do. And we, in consultation with our Indian partners, have determined that the steps I referred to earlier are available to us and they would be of great benefit to our partners in India.
QUESTION: I mean, is there more to come? You talk about 19 million here and 3.6 million there in a country of – that measures population in terms of a billion. Is that going to be enough to stop or to address the pandemic there?
MR PRICE: Well, I think the two premises I referred to earlier: As we are able to do more, we will be doing more – we are making good on that promise now; and also the recognition, again, that as long as the virus is circulating unfettered anywhere, whether that’s here in the United States, whether that is around the world, that poses a threat not only to the American people but, in turn, to people well beyond our borders with the ability to redound back on us.
So we are doing what is in our national interest, but we’re also doing what’s in the collective interest. And it just so happens when it comes to global health, oftentimes what’s in our national interest is also in the collective interest, and that’s what we’re seeing here.
QUESTION: Ned, what does the State Department – does the State Department have any specific role in getting the vaccines out to the – or is – are you —
MR PRICE: In terms of the logistics of that?
MR PRICE: So I would refer you to the White House to discuss logistics. They’ve obviously talked about AstraZeneca in the context – in today’s context.
Now, of course, we do have Gayle Smith who is playing a key role in all of these efforts, but I would make the point, I would hasten to add, that her role goes well beyond vaccines. And I know there has been a lot of attention paid to vaccines, but that’s really just one element. When you talk about Gayle’s role as coordinator for global COVID response and health security, she has a role that involves diplomacy; that is to say, leading engagement for the U.S. Government with foreign governments and partners around the world, multilateral entities, other executive branch agencies, Congress, the private sector, and the general public. There is a strategic element to all of this as well, providing strategic guidance, coherence, and prioritization for the formulation and implementation of an effective global response to COVID-19.
Of course, that requires coordination, which is also a big part of her role, driving that coordination, driving that prioritization within the department and throughout the interagency, pursuant to what’s most effective for global response efforts. And she’s also undertaking and participating in the department’s structural review of the longer-term organization of State’s global health security portfolio. We know that COVID, unfortunately, will not – it was – is not the first outbreak or epidemic, and unfortunately, we know it won’t be the last. And so we want to ensure that this institution, both now and going forward, is best structured to respond effectively. And that’s part of Gayle Smith’s role here as well.
QUESTION: One more on India?
MR PRICE: One more on India? Sure.
QUESTION: Can you speak to reports of a outbreak among U.S. diplomatic staff in India, say how many are affected, and if perhaps, considering that, the U.S. might be looking at authorized departure?
MR PRICE: So I’m not in the position to confirm any cases within our staff. Obviously, privacy considerations limit what we can say. But as I have mentioned during the course of this briefing alone, India is enduring a deeply concerning outbreak, and the entire country has been affected. We obviously do have a large diplomatic presence within India. It is tantamount to the deep engagement and partnership we have with India. But I’m not in a position to speak to any cases within our staff or embassy community.
QUESTION: Two questions. The President, and by extension this administration, will be marking hundred days in office on Thursday. What would you say have been the biggest or the top achievement of this administration in the past hundred days —
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: — in terms of Africa?
MR PRICE: Oh, for Africa. Well, certainly, of course, the Secretary will have much more to say on this in the course of his virtual trip tomorrow. We’re also – and I’m mindful of the clock, because we are doing a preview of that trip at 4 o’clock, where you will hear more. But what I will say is that we have engaged the African continent deeply during the course – during the short course of this administration. You may recall that President Biden addressed the African Union Summit, his first direct address to foreign leaders in this administration. And I think that was noteworthy not only because of its – because of how early it came within this administration, but as a signal to our commitment to our partners on the continent and to the AU as a multilateral institution in this case.
We’ll continue to engage regularly, openly, and candidly as partners in pursuing those shared interests and shared values. We have much in common that goes well beyond security and includes global health and includes climate change and includes freedom and democracy and shared prosperity.
We have engaged deeply within the Horn of Africa, of course, and we’ve spoken already to Senator Coons’ engagement. We announced last Friday the appointment of Ambassador Jeff Feltman as a special envoy for the Horn of Africa, which is emblematic of the level of priority this administration is attaching to issues on the continent and issues that affect the totality of the continent.
We also – and Secretary Blinken will have an opportunity to engage tomorrow – will continue our people-to-people programs. With a population of 1.3 billion and a median age of some 19 years, we recognize that Africa’s youth are one of the continent’s most important resources, and that’s why programs like YALI, that is why the public diplomacy work that takes place within and on the part of our embassies and posts throughout the continent are so important, and we’ll continue to develop those going forward as well.
QUESTION: Okay. The second question. On Nigeria, I don’t know if you are aware, the Nigerian Government today suspended Channels TV, one of the most wide TV station in Nigeria. I would like you to react to that. And also, if the Secretary would discuss human rights abuses in Nigeria with President Buhari tomorrow.
MR PRICE: Well, human rights are always on the agenda when it comes to this administration’s foreign policy. Whether that is Africa, whether that is any other region. So I can guarantee you that issues of democracy and human rights will be on the agenda in both countries.
When it comes to the suspension of the channel you noted, I don’t have a specific response except to say that it is a hallmark of media freedom, plurality of media venues. Those are hallmarks of any democracy, and it – those are important. We will continue to advocate for them in our foreign policy going forward.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. You’ve probably seen these leaked remarks by Iran’s foreign minister in an interview that he evidently did not think would become public for a long time. One of his key points was that the Iranian military, the IRGC, according to him, is basically calling the shots in Iranian foreign policy. So does that give this administration any pause about Mr. Zarif as an interlocutor in the nuclear negotiations? He also seemed to suggest that Russia had been essentially trying to sabotage the nuclear talks during the Obama administration. Do you – does that give you guys any concern about Russia’s intentions? Do you believe that Russia is fully supportive of restoring the JCPOA and the larger process with Iran?
MR PRICE: Well, I will start by saying – and you won’t be surprised to hear – that we don’t comment on purportedly leaked material. Of course, we can’t vouch for the authenticity of it, for the accuracy of it, and so of course I’m not going to comment directly on what’s on that tape, on that recording.
The broader point is that with any negotiation, we don’t have control of the internal decision-making process of our counterparts. In this case, through our partners – because these negotiations continue to be indirect – we’re communicating with the officials the Iranian Government has put forward to take part in these talks in Vienna. You mentioned the talks in the previous iteration. When it comes to both Iran and Russia, for both of those, I would say there is a proof point here that we point to, and that gives us some degree of confidence that there is potential here. And it’s the JCPOA itself. Whatever the internal politics that were involved, whatever the geopolitical dynamic in – that culminated with the July 2015 agreement, we were able to negotiate successfully with Iran in the past, in the context of the P5+1. It’s precisely the context we are in now. Our focus today remains on determining, through these indirect talks in Vienna, whether we can do so again.
QUESTION: If I could just follow up on that. I understand you can’t address the comments directly, but maybe you would find a way to help provide some context. There’s been some criticism of John Kerry, who, according to Mr. Zarif, when he was secretary of state, had spoken to Mr. Zarif about 200 Israeli operations in Syria. And Foreign Minister Zarif said he was astonished to hear about this. Can you say anything about whether John Kerry, as secretary of state, was talking about Israeli operations in Syria that were not supposed to be discussed?
MR PRICE: Again, these are – this is purportedly leaked material. Can’t speak to the authenticity, can’t speak to the accuracy of it, can’t speak to any motives that may be behind its dissemination. I would just make the broad point that if you go back and look at press reporting from the time, this certainly was not secret, and governments that were involved were speaking to this publicly on the record.
QUESTION: What’s your understanding of what’s going to happen this week in Vienna?
MR PRICE: So in terms of what’s next, Special Envoy Malley is returning to Vienna early this week, I expect as soon as tomorrow. He will be on the way back to Vienna. We have completed two rounds of negotiations, indirect negotiations. Special Envoy Malley will be back on the ground with his team in Vienna to start a third round this week.
QUESTION: How long will it last? You’re not expecting anything to be finalized at this third round?
MR PRICE: Well, I think you heard from State Department officials last week that there remains a long road ahead of us. We expect it to be a long road, at least. I think what I said last week remains true today, that we probably have more road ahead of us than we do behind us. We’ll just have to see what Special Envoy Malley and his team find on the ground in Vienna.
QUESTION: Ned, staying on Iran, I kind of want to just reiterate my colleague’s questions, but with the preface that the Iranian Foreign Ministry appears to have said that the recording “was by no means an interview” or “supposed to be an interview…it was part of a routine and confidential dialogue that takes place within the administration.”
So they appear to be confirming the authenticity of the tape, but saying that some parts are taken out of context, and I – and so I then kind of wonder, once again, as was asked here, one, do you see the Russians as a credible partner here in good faith working to advance a common goal? And also, then, as you engage with the foreign minister, do you see him as – is the organizing dynamic here that this is somebody who you need to give some – give talking points to go back home to manage pressures domestically, or is he somebody who is not a decision maker?
MR PRICE: What I would say generally is that it is not for us to comment on any sort of political pressures that may be on Foreign Minister Zarif. What we are focused on is one thing and one thing only, and that is achieving and securing an agreement that verifiably and permanently prevents Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would not be in the interests of the United States, it would not be in the interests of our European partners, it would not be in the interest of the Chinese, it would not be in the interest of the Russians. And so to – as you reiterated the previous question, I would again point to the fact that we were able to achieve the JCPOA in 2015 and implement it in early 2016 with this same set of partners, the P5+1. And I think that speaks to some potential possibility of us being able to do this again if we find that commitment on the Iranian side, and that remains an “if” and we’ve been able – we’ve been speaking to that in recent days.
But when you ask about the Russian motivation, I’m going to let the Russians speak for themselves. I would just add the point that a nuclear-armed Iran is not in Moscow’s interest.
QUESTION: Sorry, one more on Iran, unrelated to this, though.
MR PRICE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Last week, Iran was elected to the commission – at ECOWAS, to the commission on the status of women. How did the U.S. vote?
MR PRICE: I will have to get back to you on that.
QUESTION: A question from a colleague who couldn’t be here today on China. She says: What is the Biden administration’s view of – does it agree with the previous administration that the policy of engaging China to spur liberalization was misguided? And how does the Biden administration look at engagement now, broadly speaking?
MR PRICE: Right. Well, we have spoken broadly to our approach to Beijing, and what we have always said is that it is a relationship that is multifaceted. It is a relationship that will have competitive elements. It is a relationship that will have adversarial elements. And it is a relationship that will have some cooperative elements.
When you look at the totality of that relationship – and it is quite an expansive bilateral relationship – on balance, it is a relationship that is predicated on competition. Our goal in not only engaging with Beijing, but also with our partners and allies and also here at home, harnessing our domestic sources of strength, is to be able to compete and ultimately to outcompete with China. This is an approach that in – that, while it has human rights at the center, it is not an approach that requires any rose-colored glasses about the nature of the PRC, the nature of its leadership.
We are focused first and foremost on competing with and outcompeting the PRC, and that’s what we’re doing, calling upon those sources of strength, our allies and partners, our values, our domestic sources of strength to use them in this relationship that is fundamentally one of competition.
QUESTION: But do you think that the previous policies of engagement were misguided?
MR PRICE: I’m not going to speak to previous administrations. I’m going to speak to this administration’s approach, and that’s precisely our approach. It is a clear-eyed, principled approach to the PRC that recognizes competition at the center of that relationship.
We can – have time for a quick final question. I know we’re running to another engagement.
QUESTION: Just following up on that. So by stressing this competition is clear-eyed and there’s no rose-colored glasses, you’re basically saying you don’t expect China to change; when Special Envoy Kerry goes there, he’s not going to win change in China’s energy policies; when our trade officials go there, they’re not going to get a reform in China’s economy? Is that —
MR PRICE: No, I’m not saying that at all, and in fact, I said at the outset it’s a relationship that has competitive aspects, adversarial aspects, and also cooperative elements to it as well. When you think about the – those areas of shared interest that we have, you named a couple of them. Climate, of course, is one. Secretary Kerry was just in China several days ago and you saw the joint statement that emanated from that visit. Nonproliferation is another one. Iran, we’ve talked about in this context already, is another one. There may be others as well.
And so we certainly do hope and expect that we’ll be able to achieve progress vis-a-vis all of those priorities, not because it’s in the PRC’s interest, but because it’s in our interest. It’s in our interest to see the world’s largest emitter curb its emissions and it’s in our interest to see Beijing play a productive and constructive role, as it has in the context of the P5+1 with Iran. It’s in our interest to see other cooperative aspects of these – of this relationship be furthered.
But what I’m saying is that at the core, we recognize this to be a relationship predicated on competition, and our goal throughout is to compete and to call upon our sources of strength to outcompete with Beijing going forward.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:59 p.m.)