Department Press Briefing
February 22, 2018
2:55 p.m. EST
QUESTION: I suppose just this once. Just this once.
MS NAUERT: Just this once what?
QUESTION: That I’m allowing Abigail to sit next to me.
MS NAUERT: Oh, yeah. There’s a real pecking order to this front row, I’ve learned. I’ve seen some of you get booted out if you sit in what other reporters think are the wrong seats. So Abby, welcome to the front row.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Thank you.
MS NAUERT: If I had my choice, I’d say you’re welcome there any time, any of you. Just go on up and grab a seat.
Good afternoon, everyone. I have a couple of announcements I’d like to make at the top before taking your questions, but first I’d like to address a serious situation that happened last night overnight, and I spoke with some of you over the phone last night about this very thing. And that is what happened at our U.S. embassy in Montenegro.
The U.S. embassy in Montenegro is working closely with the law enforcement officers there regarding the attack on our embassy compound shortly after midnight on Thursday, February the 22nd. We can confirm that the assailant was killed at the scene, apparently by his own explosive. I’ll refer you to the Montenegrin law enforcement officers for questions regarding the investigation itself, because they are handling that. Our embassy has no indication that the attack is part of an ongoing threat, although the investigation continues into the motives of the assailant.
Out of an abundance of caution, consular operations have been closed for the day today, although the U.S. embassy remains open for emergency services for U.S. citizens. For Friday, February 23rd, the consular section will continue to be open for emergency services only. Visa appointments canceled today will be rescheduled in the near future. The United States wants to express its gratitude for the close cooperation with our ally and longstanding partner, the Government of Montenegro. We want to thank local law enforcement officials for their quick response on the scene and their professionalism for the ongoing investigation.
The U.S. embassy has no changes to its standing travel advisory instructing U.S. citizens to exercise normal precautions when visiting Montenegro. For more information, you can go to travel.state.gov.
QUESTION: Was there anyone in – actually in the embassy when this happened?
MS NAUERT: Well, we typically have people in post – at our post 24/7.
QUESTION: Other than security.
MS NAUERT: Other than security, that I’m not aware of.
Second issue: I’d like to address something that took place in Ukraine. And as many of you know, our deputy secretary was just in Ukraine yesterday. I’d like to turn your attention to that matter, where Russia continues to perpetuate a conflict that has now claimed more than 10,000 lives. Yesterday we received new reports that a 23-year-old Ukrainian medic was killed while he was trying to aid civilians near the line of contact. The incident is a reminder that the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to rage on. Civilians and first responders face real dangers every day.
It’s also worth repeating that Russia manufactured this conflict in 2014 and continues to control its proxy forces in Donbas. Russia has demonstrated repeatedly that it can stop the violence whenever it chooses. The United States once again calls on Russia to order its proxy forces to implement a complete ceasefire, to withdraw its forces and heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine, and to agree to a robust UN peacekeeping mission.
I mentioned our deputy secretary was just there, and I’d like to read a quote from an address that he gave yesterday in Kyiv. Quote, “Given the high stakes, it’s important to be clear about U.S. policy toward the conflict: Crimea is Ukraine. The Donbas is Ukraine. We will never accept trading one region of Ukraine for another. We will never make a deal about Ukraine without Ukraine.”
I just mentioned the deputy secretary’s travel, so I’d like to give you a bit of a readout on some of the places that he’s visited so far. He arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday morning toured the Heavenly Hundred Memorial and the War Dead Wall of Honor, which memorialize those who lost their lives during the 2014 Euromaidan protests and thousands of soldiers who died as a result of Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine.
While in Kyiv, he held meetings with the foreign minister, the prime minister, and also President Poroshenko, with whom he discussed the importance of Ukraine continuing to implement reforms – in particular, establishing an independent anti-corruption court – as well as the United States support for Ukraine sovereignty and territorial integrity. He also gave a public speech at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Academy to underline the United States commitment to stand behind Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and he also pressed Ukraine’s leaders to redouble their efforts on critical reforms and renew their commitment to weed out corruption.
Early today in Latvia, the deputy secretary held meetings with the president, the – and the foreign minister. He congratulated Latvia on celebrating 100 years of independence in 2018, and announced President Trump’s invitation to host a U.S.-Baltic Centennial Summit on April 3rd this year. He also reiterated the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article V. He expressed appreciation for Latvia fulfilling its NATO defense investment pledge from the Wales summit, and discussed threats facing the transatlantic community, including corruption, and U.S. support of Latvian efforts to establish a well-regulated banking sector. Later, he joined a group of U.S. and Latvian soldiers and children from a local orphanage for a tour of a local museum.
Tomorrow, he’ll be in Brussels, where he will lead a U.S. delegation to participate in a G5 Sahel donors conference to discuss the support of development security and political goals in the Sahel. And finally, I’d like to bring your attention to Africa and something that took place in Nigeria. We’re still trying to get all the details about that, but I wanted to mention that we condemn in the strongest possible terms the terror attack on a school earlier this week in northeastern Nigeria. The choice of targets, including schools, markets, and places of worship, reflect the brutality of terror organizations. The victims in the attack were girls who were simply seeking an education. We want to extend our condolences to the students and to their families affected by these terrorist attacks and are concerned that some of the students are still not accounted for. We continue to support Nigerian efforts to counter the terror groups. We also support Nigerian efforts to enable more than 2 million displaced in the Lake Chad region to return home safely. The United States continues to provide humanitarian assistance to those who were affected by the violence.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: In both the Damascus suburb – suburbs and up north in Afrin. I’m just – and the developments at the UN, such as they are.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Do you have anything new to say about the situation in Eastern Ghouta today, where attacks seem to be continuing, first of all?
MS NAUERT: Well, I think this is a good reminder as we watch what has unfolded in Eastern Ghouta over the past few days. More than 400 or so civilians have been horrifically killed by the Syrian regime, and as we all know, they are backed by not only Russia but also Iran. It is a good reminder that Russia bears a unique responsibility for what is taking place there. Without Russia backing Syria, the devastation and the deaths would certainly not be occurring.
This also brings to light something that we have discussed many times, but – although not recently, and that is also the Astana talks, the Astana progress or process. And that was something a lot of you asked questions about: Where are you on Astana? Is the United States participating in Astana? Is Astana a good thing? This shows the failure of the Astana process, and that is precisely why the United States Government and so many other nations stand by the Geneva process as the best way forward to eventually bring peace and eventually bring about a political solution in Syria.
Now, remember what Astana was about: Russia and Iran were guarantors for that. They developed de-escalation zones. One of those de-escalation zones was Eastern Ghouta. So much for that de-escalation zone. They have starved people there; they have prevented humanitarian aid from getting in. We have seen innocent civilians killed. We’ve seen barrel bombs. We’ve seen this devastation and destruction. That is certainly no de-escalation zone. They can get back to trying to create a de-escalation zone, but we want them to get back to the Geneva process, and it shows what a farce this de-escalation zone has become.
QUESTION: So both – the conflicts, then, from what you just said, in both Ukraine and Syria are all Russia’s fault. Is that the idea?
MS NAUERT: Not all Russia’s fault, but Russia is a guarantor of Astana. We’ve talked about this many times before, that Bashar al-Assad was back on his heels, and in 2015 Russia came in, swooped in and saved him. Now we see reports of Russian military potentially – although I can’t confirm this – coming in to provide additional air equipment to bolster the Syrian regime once again. We would say that Russia is certainly responsible for enabling.
MS NAUERT: Enabling is what they’re doing.
QUESTION: And then up north in the Afrin area, in your comments about Ukraine, you took note of the 20 – 20-something-year-old who was killed. There is a situation – there’s some video out now of FSA troops killing a civilian farmer, apparently; stealing his tractor. I’m just wondering if – what you’re – if you have any comment on that. These are your partners up there. If – do you have any comment on that, and also, do you have any comment on just the broader situation with the Turks?
MS NAUERT: To your first question about video, I’ve not seen that video, so I’m not aware of it. I’m not familiar with that situation that you’re describing, so I can’t comment on that.
Overall, as you all well know, we are not operating in Afrin. We don’t have U.S. forces on the ground there, so we don’t have a whole lot of visibility in terms of what is going on in Afrin. We continue to have conversations with the Turkish Government. The Secretary had constructive meetings with his counterpart as well as with the president of Turkey last week in which we talked about how we both agree that we need to get back to the focus on ISIS. What is going on in Afrin is taking away from the fight against ISIS. It is a distraction, as Secretary Mattis had called it. It is certainly not helpful to have people take their eye off the ball of ISIS. We’ve talked about that numerous times before.
Some of the forces that we are working with in the east – and as a reminder, we are there to fight ISIS; that’s exactly why we’re in Syria – some of the forces that we’re working with in the east we are seeing starting to go to Afrin. They have familial relations, familial ties there; perhaps that’s part of the reason why. That again becomes a distraction, because we can longer fight ISIS the way that we would fully like to be able to do that when we do have that type of distraction. So in terms of who was operating there, Matt, I can’t get into any of those details. But what I can say is that the more participants that get involved in that region, the far more complicated this entire situation becomes, the further we get from being able to solve this crisis and to solve the situation there.
QUESTION: Okay. Last one. The – when the Secretary was in Ankara, as you know, he announced that – or both he and the foreign minister announced the creation of this working group —
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: — that’s supposed to meet by the mid – or before mid-March, which is rapidly approaching, as you know. February is a short month. And I’m just wondering – it’s been almost a week since that announcement was made. Are you aware of any – has that progressed at all towards scheduling an actual meeting of this working group that was to focus on Manbij?
MS NAUERT: Well, we have people who – we have our colleagues who are in touch with the Turkish Government every day not just on the ground in Turkey, but also here at the State Department. So they’re working to set up some times and dates and locations —
QUESTION: But that hasn’t —
MS NAUERT: — for those meetings. I don’t have anything to announce formally at this point. But I can tell you that we are in touch with them to have conversations about when we – when exactly those meetings will be held and what the topics of the meeting will be. It will be a mechanism, and all the specifics of what the Secretary and what his counterparts – his counterpart agreed to will be further defined.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Could you comment on – do you have any comment on the apparent coordination in Afrin between your allies and the Syrian Government forces?
MS NAUERT: No. No. No.
QUESTION: You don’t have any comment on that? Is that —
MS NAUERT: And here – and let me go back to this once again, because we are not operating there, so we are limited —
QUESTION: I understand, I understand.
MS NAUERT: — in terms of what we can say about the situation in Afrin.
QUESTION: I mean, do you —
MS NAUERT: Certainly all of this going on, the conflict that is going on —
MS NAUERT: — is taking the fight away, taking the emphasis off the entire reason that the United States is there, and that is for the defeat of ISIS.
QUESTION: Okay. My question: Do you frown upon the apparent cooperation between your allies, the Kurdish forces, and the Syrian regime?
MS NAUERT: I think you’re trying to pin me into a corner, and I’m not going to —
QUESTION: Okay. No, I’m not. I’m not doing —
MS NAUERT: — step into that corner.
QUESTION: Okay. And one more last question regarding the 30-day ceasefire, I think that is being discussed at the UN.
QUESTION: Oh, I forgot about that.
MS NAUERT: I’m glad you brought that up. I forgot to mention that too.
QUESTION: Yeah. So could – yeah. Could you update us? What is happening with that? Is that something that you would support and on a 30-day interval, so to speak, all throughout the country or in east Ghouta?
MS NAUERT: We would very much like to see this 30-day ceasefire that is being discussed at the United Nations. We put out a statement a couple days ago, in which we called for that ceasefire. That is the only way we could start to get supplies and humanitarian aid into eastern Ghouta to try to help the people there. That has not yet come to fruition. We will continue to call for that and to put pressure on that.
I would urge all of you as journalists – there’s no one who has a bigger megaphone than each of you. I know many news organizations are interested in other things right now. I know you all are passionate about foreign affairs. You’re all passionate about world events and humanitarian situations across the world. There is no better advocate for what is going on and shining a spotlight on the horrors that are taking place in eastern Ghouta than each of you. If I can implore you – and I know you do this anyway as part of your jobs – talking to your editors, talking to your producers, saying this is important, this is something we’ve got to cover. Now is the time to cover it. So many people have come to us saying, “What is the United States doing about the situation in eastern Ghouta?” What can we do? The answer to that is we can shine a spotlight on that. That is what I’m attempting to do right now; that is what the government is attempting to do. And I hope you will be a part of that, shining the spotlight on that.
I want to thank Elise. Last night, she had included me in seeing a documentary. I’m not supposed to encourage people to go see things or do some things, but I don’t care. I’m going to break that rule, because I think it’s just that important. A documentary last night called the “Last Men in Aleppo,” and it was about the situation in Aleppo, Syria. And in there you saw the humanitarian disaster. You saw the selfless men who were leaving their families every day to go try to save those who were buried in the rubble or who had been victims of attacks. That situation is being replicated today in eastern Ghouta. We don’t have to see this happen this way. Shine a spotlight on it. Let the world know exactly what is happening. We will back you in this. I will assist you in any way I can in helping you to shine a spotlight on this important issue.
Elise, go right ahead. And I’d also like to mention one of your other colleagues, who moderated the panel yesterday from Al Arabiya. So she did a great job.
QUESTION: Point well taken, and thank you. I’m just wondering specifically what Secretary Tillerson is doing to try and negotiate some kind of – you talked about the failure of the Astana process. But it’s obvious that the kind of Geneva process has lost its way as well.
MS NAUERT: Well, the Geneva process hasn’t lost its way, and here’s why.
QUESTION: Well —
MS NAUERT: There are so many countries who have signed on to the Geneva process.
QUESTION: But the Geneva process is something like in terms of working towards a political transition, specifically in terms of trying to negotiate some kind of ceasefire or some kind of new de-escalation zone. Specifically, what is the Secretary doing to try and alleviate the situation?
MS NAUERT: Well, first, I can tell you we are – have regular meetings in Jordan and with the Jordanians as we review our ceasefire zone in southwestern Syria. Remember, that’s the one that’s worked; that’s the one that the United States put together with the Jordanians and handful of other countries on this de-escalation zone, ceasefire zone. That’s held since July, okay? That’s is a terrific model. If we could get that model elsewhere in other parts of the country, we not only think that that would save lives, but help bring in humanitarian aid and help settle the – help to better settle the situation. That’s one of the things we need to do.
The Secretary just had a meeting, of course, with the Turks, as you well know. The Secretary has meetings and conversations with many of our partners and allies all around the world to discuss this situation.
QUESTION: But specifically, when it came time – when it – when we were talking in terms of Aleppo —
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: — a lot of the negotiations were between the State Department and the Russians, and I know this – there’s a new Secretary of State, but specifically, the Russians are the ones that have – that not only are in terms – in some ways parties to what’s going on there, but also —
MS NAUERT: We have conversations with the Russian Government and reach out to the Russian Government to implore them to stop enabling the Syrian regime, to do what it’s doing to its own people. Is Russia listening? I’m not sure that they are. But I would encourage each of you to ask Russia – take these questions to Vladimir Putin. Take these questions to RT, to Sputnik. Ask them those very questions. What are they doing to stop the devastation, the deaths, and the murders that are taking place in Syria? I’d be curious to hear their answers. They could do a lot more. They certainly bear a unique responsibility. We’d like to see them do more.
QUESTION: Well, are there any – are you considering any more action at the UN Security Council? I mean, what is the diplomatic path forward, in terms of trying to negotiate an end to this? Because whether the Russians are a party to it or they’re just supporting the Syrians, clearly, they’re the power brokers in terms of the influence right now.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Well, they have their weapons; they have their personnel down there —
MS NAUERT: — that are participating in this. I have a list of 11 UN actions that Russia has blocked specifically on Syria, right here. I’d be happy to share a copy with all of you. Russia needs to cut this out. The Secretary has made that clear; the Secretary put out a statement. The White House put a statement out the other – just last night on this. This is something we are following carefully. Russia needs to step up; Russia needs to cut it out.
QUESTION: I hear you, but beyond kind of statements and asking them are there – is the Secretary going to go meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov and try and negotiate something? I mean, we saw with Secretary Kerry a lot of those efforts did not bear fruit, but there was a hardy effort in terms of trying to negotiate.
MS NAUERT: I don’t think that anyone could argue that we have not made very strong efforts, stronger efforts many would argue than the previous administration, on the issue of dealing with Syria. And that is – we’ve talked about that many times before. So the Secretary is fully committed to this. This is something that he is highly focused on and the conversations and the diplomatic discussions will not stop. But I’m not going to be able to read out every single diplomatic discussion or conversation that takes place on this.
QUESTION: Well, could you just – I mean, can you at least characterize what his discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov in the last week have been on this issue?
MS NAUERT: Elise, I’m not going to pin the Secretary down to reading out all of the diplomatic conversations. You know —
QUESTION: Well, is he talking to the Russian foreign minister about it?
MS NAUERT: — very well we are having lots of conversations with many other countries. We are calling out Russia for its responsibility that it has. I would encourage you to also ask these very same questions of the Russian Government: What is it doing to try to prevent the deaths of civilians in Syria? The Secretary is committed to this, and that’s – I’m just going to leave it at that.
QUESTION: Well, if you could take the question, because specifically —
MS NAUERT: I —
QUESTION: No —
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry. What is the question to take?
QUESTION: The question is: Specifically, what are the discussions with the Russians right now about trying to negotiate an end to this? Because it’s – I’m not saying that there —
MS NAUERT: I’m not sure that they are – based on their actions, I don’t think that they appear to be interested in ending this. However, I will go back and point to the President and Vladimir Putin’s joint statement that they put out in Vietnam late last year, and that is where they agreed to the Geneva process. Let me go back and quote some of this for you, as soon as I can find it.
The Presidents agreed that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. They confirmed that the ultimate political solution to the conflict must be forged through the Geneva process, pursuant to UNSCR 2254. They also took note of President Assad’s recent commitment to the Geneva process and constitutional reform and elections that’s called for under UNSCR 2254. Okay? Those are commitments that the Russians made; they’ve not lived up to those commitments.
QUESTION: Okay. The question, if you could take it, is beyond having conversations with partners and allies, specifically what is being done today —
MS NAUERT: Elise, I’m not going to have an answer for you on that, because the Secretary continues to have conversations. Some of those are private diplomatic conversations with the Russian Government and with other governments as well. That is my answer. Okay. Anything else on this issue?
QUESTION: Well I’m just – the previous administration also tried this tactic of calling Russia out, and saying they’re on the wrong side of history, they’re not doing – and it had zero impact. In fact, it – in fact, when it started in 2014 or even earlier, I mean it turned into a full-scale military operation from Russia in 2015, as you noted. So what makes you think this time this administration’s calling out of Russia is going to make the situation any better?
MS NAUERT: Matt, I don’t know what some of you expect us to do. We have a full range of options, through the interagency, that are available to us if we want to, or if we should need to use those. Our best tool, what we do out of this building, is an attempt at diplomacy, an attempt to shine a spotlight on things that are taking place around the world. That’s what I’m doing; that’s what many of my colleagues are doing all around the globe right now.
We will continue to do that. We will continue to take action at the UN Security Council. We will continue to have our people there on the ground, frankly. We have Americans who are there, who are assisting Syrians try to get back to a normal life. I don’t know what more you expect us to do. You have seen this government, this administration, go hard after ISIS. They have done that at a level that the previous administration did not do. We are —
QUESTION: We’re not – no one’s saying that, though.
MS NAUERT: Hold on. We are succeeding there in the fight against ISIS, okay? And that is the whole reason why we’re there. And then there’s this other issue, right?
QUESTION: No, that’s not the – I mean, that’s not the whole reason why this conflict started, I’m sorry.
MS NAUERT: No, I said the reason we are there is to defeat ISIS. That is the reason that U.S. forces are there. That is the U.S. Government policy. You may disagree with that, but that is what our policy is. We’re there to defeat ISIS. Okay.
QUESTION: No one’s saying that you didn’t make significant efforts and progress even in defeating ISIS. The question on the table is: What are the diplomatic efforts that this administration is —
MS NAUERT: Elise, I just described —
QUESTION: You haven’t – I’m sorry, you haven’t described.
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry you disagree with me, okay? I would encourage you to go talk to the Russian Government and see what they’re trying to do to save some lives. Okay.
QUESTION: Heather, can I just turn that – just flip it slightly? If the U.S. mission is to defeat ISIS, is that another way of saying it’s not the mission to deal with the violence and that this is Russia’s responsibility, which you stressed?
MS NAUERT: No. Russia has a unique responsibility.
QUESTION: But does the U.S. have —
MS NAUERT: Russia has a unique responsibility when Russia has air assets —
MS NAUERT: — in the air.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. see it as part of its mission?
MS NAUERT: When Russia is bolstering the government of Bashar al-Assad, they have a responsibility. We are not providing weapons and material to the government of Bashar al-Assad. We are not aiding in the killing of innocent civilians as Bashar al-Assad is doing. Our —
QUESTION: Does the U.S. think —
MS NAUERT: –forces are there in the east.
QUESTION: — it has a responsibility to help ease the violence?
MS NAUERT: And our forces are fighting ISIS.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. feel like it has a responsibility to help ease the violence and what’s happening in east Ghouta? Is that seen as part of the mission?
MS NAUERT: Some of these things are things that we will not be able to talk about, okay? Some of these things will become intelligence matters and other issues as well.
QUESTION: Sounds like a no.
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: That sounds like a no.
MS NAUERT: No, you cannot take that as a no. You cannot take that as no.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Heather —
QUESTION: One more on this —
MS NAUERT: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Last week, I asked you – I’m sorry.
MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.
QUESTION: I asked whether or not you had a responsibility —
MS NAUERT: Conor, hold on. Go —
QUESTION: — to protect civilians —
MS NAUERT: Conor, excuse me.
QUESTION: — in Syria though.
MS NAUERT: Excuse me. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. I’m Paul Handley from AFP. You said that we have a whole range of options, and then you said, “I don’t know what else you expect us to do.” So, those don’t square up, and there’s like 400 people who have been bombed, who have been killed over the past few days, and —
MS NAUERT: Yeah, we do have a range options.
QUESTION: What are those range of options?
MS NAUERT: When I say – hold on.
QUESTION: Or what can you do?
MS NAUERT: Hold on. Hold on. When I say I don’t know what you expect us to do, I don’t know what you expect me to do here, from this podium.
QUESTION: We expect you to tell us what the diplomatic efforts are.
MS NAUERT: Elise, and some of these are private diplomatic conversations, okay? I’m not – enough of this already, because I already said UN Security Council resolutions – I’ve detailed those; I’ve detailed some of the conversations we’ve had with other governments; I’ve detailed our statements that we have provided, not just here at the State Department, but also the White House as well. So we are fully engaged. We have, as you know, a very large government with a lot of various departments, and we have a full range of options before us and ahead of us that we can use. It is not my position, not my role, to be able to say what we will do. Some of those can be defined by other agencies that I can’t speak to.
QUESTION: Okay. Can I follow that up? Can you say – can you give us any information about whether there’s a possibility at the UN to reach a ceasefire? What the Russians —
MS NAUERT: I certainly hope there would be.
QUESTION: But what are the Russians asking for? What are they standing up – standing this up for?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have all the details about what precisely the Russians are asking for in UN actions, but we have seen when Russia has tried to develop its own mechanism, like when they tried to develop their own mechanism for the equivalent of a joint investigative mechanism, they throw a wrench into it. With the joint investigative mechanism, for example, they wanted to give themselves the ability to veto it, to veto the decision by the new version of the joint investigative mechanism. So we’re a little skeptical that Russia is going to be an honest broker in a UN-led ceasefire. We want a UN-led ceasefire; we’ll continue to call for that.
QUESTION: One final thing. The – Raj Shah just referred to the Assad government with Russian backing as guilty of war crimes, but not in this specific case. In the case of eastern Ghouta, do you find that Russia – that Assad is guilty of war crimes?
MS NAUERT: Last I checked, I’m not a judge. That would be up for a court to decide. But, certainly, the crimes that he is accused of committing could potentially meet that standard.
QUESTION: Do you think he needs to be pursued to a court?
MS NAUERT: I’m not – that would be me creating policy, and I’m not in the position to create policy on behalf of the U.S. Government. Okay. Laurie.
QUESTION: Yeah. I wanted to follow-up on a topic Matt raised about Turkey. And The Wall Street Journal had a big report about how you’re concerned that Turkey is drifting towards Iran and Russia. Is that correct? Are you concerned about Turkey’s drift towards Russia and Iran?
MS NAUERT: Well, Turkey is a NATO partner of ours. They are a NATO ally of ours. We certainly have disagreements with the Turkish Government. You know those disagreements just as well as I do, but we think that we have a relatively strong alliance with them and that we are NATO allies and partners. It is going to be natural that they will want to have relationships with other governments and we’re not going to step in between that, but I think we’re confident in our relationship with Turkey.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me ask you about Iraq. It’s getting – you’ve described the terrible things that Russia is doing in Syria, whether Russia’s activity in Iraq would be deny – benign. Iraq recently received Russian tanks, T-90 tanks, and it’s reportedly considering the purchase of the S-400 air defense system. What is your comment on that and would those transactions make Iraq susceptible to CAATSA sanctions?
MS NAUERT: Well, first of all, we are communicating with governments all around the world, such as Iraq and others, about the CAATSA law, and making those governments aware of how they could run afoul of the CAATSA law and the potential repercussions as a result. So we made it clear to all of those – all of – many of the countries that we work with – information about our new law. So let me – I just want to be clear about that.
Secondly, I don’t know if this deal that you speak of is a done deal or not, so I’m not going to get ahead of what that may be, but I can just tell you that we make it clear with our partners and allies.
QUESTION: So it sounds like, from what you’re saying, if this S-400 deal were to go ahead and be concluded, they could be in violation of CAATSA?
MS NAUERT: Look, that’s a hypothetical, but we have made it clear to countries around the world this is our law, this is what will cause your country, your government to run afoul of the law, and countries then need to make a choice.
QUESTION: Can we move on for the – yeah.
MS NAUERT: Hi, Said. Yeah.
QUESTION: Very quickly on —
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: — Palestinian-Israeli issue. First of all, yesterday, the Palestinians said that they would like to see the Quartet expand to include countries like China and maybe India and other major countries. Do you oppose that?
MS NAUERT: I think we discussed this the other day —
QUESTION: I understand, but —
MS NAUERT: — that the United States and – we missed you the other day, by the way —
QUESTION: Well, thank you, I wasn’t there (inaudible).
MS NAUERT: — but the United States is committed to trying to assist with the peace process. That will require the Palestinians and the Israelis coming together to work together on this. If it could be helpful, when the time is right, perhaps other countries could participate and help bring countries – help bring those two sides to the peace process. In terms of any kind of formal mechanism, I’m just not going to be able to address that today.
QUESTION: And one other —
QUESTION: Heather, is that because you don’t — because you like the Quartet at four and don’t want to make it an octet – (laughter) —
MS NAUERT: And we’d have to rename the whole thing.
QUESTION: Octet or —
QUESTION: — or a septet?
MS NAUERT: Then we’d have to rename the whole thing.
QUESTION: A nonet?
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to box in some of our people who are negotiating on these very things.
QUESTION: Heather —
QUESTION: I have one more question. I have one more question.
QUESTION: Actually, let me just finish here. Today, the Israeli – the Israelis arrested a Palestinian man, Yasin al-Saradih, and they literally beat him to death after him being arrested. And earlier in the day, they demolished the homes in East Jerusalem. Is that, in your opinion, falls under war crimes? Is that – could that be considered a war crime considering that it is conducted by a military occupying force?
MS NAUERT: No, look, I’m not – I’ve seen a report.
MS NAUERT: I just glanced at it. I have not seen the video, is that – same answer as Matt earlier today. I’ve not seen the video.
QUESTION: I mean, but even the Israeli army —
MS NAUERT: I’m not a judge. I’m not going to be able to make a determination about what happened.
QUESTION: But even the Israeli army acknowledged that – that he died in their custody, they beat him to death. So is that extrajudicial execution, in your opinion?
MS NAUERT: Look, Said, any issue where excessive force is used is always a concern of ours. I’m not saying it was. I’ve not seen the video. I’m not an investigator. I’m not involved in that process.
QUESTION: Heather —
MS NAUERT: We continue to call on the Israelis and Palestinians to do things that are constructive that can help bring both sides back to the peace table.
QUESTION: Heather —
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: On South Korea and North Korea —
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: — I hope you answer these questions for me.
MS NAUERT: Okay. I will do my best.
QUESTION: Okay. North Koreans’ military commander, his name is Kim Yong Chol, reportedly comes to South Korea for Olympic Closing Ceremony. He’s the man who had lead Cheonan navy ships and also Yeonpyeong province Island in South Korea, he – the provocations. So – and Kim Yong Chol is currently subject to sanctions by United States and United Nations and South Korea. Will the U.S. allow this terrorist guy enter South Korea?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I think first, we would hope that he would take the opportunity to go to that memorial, to go to the memorial and see what he is believed to have been responsible for. I think that was part of your question. Secondly, we have a close relationship, as you know, with the Republic of Korea. The Republic of Korea has worked with the United Nations to have various sanctions waived, to have certain individuals be able to visit their country during the Olympics. Our role in this is working as a close partner and ally with the South Korean Government, also in supporting and ensuring a safe and good and positive Olympics. We’ve been very pleased with the Olympics, although we are rooting for our athletes to continue to try to grab on some of those golds.
I don’t have anything more for you on that, but I would just have to refer you back to the Government of Korea on that matter (inaudible).
QUESTION: But you have sanctions. United – have sanctions. What your opinions – I mean, U.S. position of these guys coming to the —
MS NAUERT: This would be – we are in close coordination with the Republic of Korea, and this would fall under that, just as it did when Kim Jong-un’s sister came to South Korea for the beginning of the Olympic ceremonies and other – and when other officials are.
QUESTION: But that’s different. This military guy. This is military guy who is a terrorist guy. It’s more – so U.S. say that U.S. never negotiation with any terrorist peoples.
MS NAUERT: We’re not involved in any conversations with the Government of North Korea on this, okay?
QUESTION: On Iraq. On Iraq.
MS NAUERT: I can refer you to the Government of Korea, and I – and if I get anything more for you, I’ll let you know, okay?
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On Iraq.
MS NAUERT: Okay, Abby, go right ahead.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: I’m just trying to understand whether or not some of the reporting that people within the bureau were asked to cut back on references discussing women’s reproductive rights and removing sections specifically describing a country’s societal views on family planning and access to contraceptions and abortion. Is that something that occurred? Were they asked to cut back on those references?
MS NAUERT: Okay, let me start by sort of trying to explain this from the very beginning.
QUESTION: Well, not from the very beginning.
MS NAUERT: From the very beginning, back 60-some years. The Human Rights Report is required every year by Congress, so the State Department, we have lots of people – our embassies across the world are involved in compiling information, asking questions in all countries to pull together this Human Rights Report. The Human Rights Report here is something that’s constantly being edited and worked on. It’s not complete just yet. The Secretary has not signed off on the Human Rights Report at this point, so I’m not going to have a ton of information that I’m able to provide until the Secretary gets a final report and then signs off on a final report.
The legislation or the law that we have to adhere to from Congress requires the report to address state action or state inaction on human rights issues. Every year, that report is edited by various bureaus that all have input into this. It is all under the leadership of our Bureau DRL, Democracy, Labor, and —
QUESTION: Democracy, Rights —
MS NAUERT: Democracy, Rights, and Labor, right? Yeah, there we go. Got it. Then it’s submitted to the Secretary once they’re finished with that. Those edits are still ongoing at this moment. We want to make sure that the report that is provided to the Secretary is clear, that it’s readable, and that it’s usable, and that it uses language that is in keeping with the statutory requirement, what is required of us.
I should point out that this over the years, including in the past administration, the report has been reformed and revised. Things have been pulled out of the report; things have been edited out of the report. A couple examples of those in the past have included labor and prisons and some of those things have been pared back in the report. This year, we are changing some of the terms that are being used in the report, but not our commitment to women’s rights, women’s health, or to human rights whatsoever. Make no mistake: Human rights is a top priority here. This is something that the Secretary finds to be incredibly important, and it’s a value that my State Department colleagues value here as well.
So nothing is being substantively stripped out of this report. There are some instances in which this report has become duplicative of other reports, such as the Trafficking in Persons Report or the Religious Freedom Report. In some instances, some information has been trimmed and then you can get it in those other reports. So we want to make this as readable and as simple and adhere to the actual statutory requirements of what is required of us.
QUESTION: Can you explain a little more about the —
MS NAUERT: Hold on.
QUESTION: Sorry – a little more about the change in language, moving from the idea of using reproductive rights to coercion and population control. Is there – what is the reasoning behind switching that language?
MS NAUERT: Sure. This gets a little legalese, so I’ll do my best to try to answer it. So the requirement of the U.S. law – it’s Section 502b (b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 – the requirement is that we report on coercive family planning practices such as coerced abortion and involuntary – pardon me – sterilization. Beginning in 2009, the wording of that – the nomenclature – was actually changed and reporting on that issue was placed under a subheading that was entitled “reproductive rights.” That also incorporated a lot of data that was drawn from various UN websites and other government websites. So we continue to report on the issues required under U.S. law regardless of the words or the phrasing or the title used within the reports. We have not changed our commitment to human rights, okay?
QUESTION: So this is not representative of a policy shift.
MS NAUERT: No, there is not a policy shift. There is not a policy shift. This is simplifying the report. The information is still available. This is truly about human rights issues and what a government is or isn’t doing to advance or to stop human rights abuses.
QUESTION: So where will one find the reproductive rights information?
MS NAUERT: I will – I will go —
QUESTION: Is that going to be in the trafficking report, the terrorism report?
MS NAUERT: I will go back – well, no, I will go back and see what more I can find for you. But again, the report has not been signed off on by the Secretary.
MS NAUERT: It is still being edited.
QUESTION: Does the administration believe that there is such a thing as reproductive rights? Is that a human right? Is it?
MS NAUERT: I think you can define reproductive rights in a lot of different ways. It is something that the United States certainly hotly debates. We’ve had Supreme Court cases; we still have ongoing court litigation. We have litigation between the private sector and the government and individuals on this very matter. If the United States is certainly having these kinds of conversations here at home, they will be having those conversations abroad as well.
QUESTION: But, I mean, it seems like if this in fact correct – and I’m just reading over – I haven’t seen this, so I’m reading over Abby’s shoulder here – if it’s changing from reproductive rights to coercion and population control, that seems to suggest that the only right that this administration believes that there is in reproduction is to actually reproduce, and to – not – and not to reproduce is not necessarily a right. Is that correct? I mean —
MS NAUERT: Here is the requirement under U.S. law, okay: that we report on coercive family planning practices such as abortion and involuntary sterilization. So that is actually the language that is used in the statutory requirement; we are adhering to that. And I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: Well, I understand that. But I mean – so – but I’m asking you, though, it’s – since it was changed at one point to include presumably access to contraception and access to abortion —
MS NAUERT: It had also —
QUESTION: — if —
MS NAUERT: It had also included things like the size of a prison space, a prison cell. It had also included things like labor issues. Over the years, under many administrations – and this is like a piece of legislation in Congress; you have a different congressman who will come in and he’ll add things on or she’ll add things on. A lot had been added to the Human Rights Report over the years.
QUESTION: Right. So —
MS NAUERT: So we’re paring it back and getting back to basics of the original intent of the law.
QUESTION: Right. But things are added into it to show certain administrations’ emphasis on or their particular interest in something. And so when you change something like this, it suggests – or maybe more than suggests, it demonstrates that you don’t think that reproductive rights is a priority or may not —
MS NAUERT: Human rights is a priority for this administration and for this Secretary. I’m not going to get ahead of what the Secretary’s ultimate determination is or the editing of this. So that’s all I’m going to have for you on that. Okay?
MS NAUERT: All right, so – okay.
MS NAUERT: Go ahead. Go ahead. We’ve got to wrap —
QUESTION: Thank you, Heather. You just mentioned that the report would change some of the terms, but not commitment to women rights, in the Human Rights Report. Could you please elaborate on that?
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question.
QUESTION: You just mentioned that in this report would change some of the terms, but not the commitment to women rights.
MS NAUERT: That’s correct.
QUESTION: Would you please elaborate on that? What terms has been changed? And then is there any change in the terms against the LGBT people’s rights?
MS NAUERT: No, no. Nothing has been stripped with regard to LGBT rights at all. In terms of the other things, I think I addressed those questions and said that some of this is being edited, and so I’m going to wait until a final – we have a final product, and the Secretary will sign off on that final product and it’ll be presented, okay?
MS NAUERT: Let me just do one other question on another —
MS NAUERT: I don’t have anything for you on Afghanistan, Nazira.
MS NAUERT: Okay, go right ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. So going back to North Korea.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: So it was reported in The Washington Post that Vice President Mike Pence, while he was there, was going to meet with the North Koreans, which when we were discussing with you the potential for meetings before the Olympics happened, you were saying that there was no plan to meet. So why was that not announced? Was it just diplomatic secret? And then second thing is: Why did the U.S. agree to – I mean, the meeting was canceled eventually because the North Koreans decided to cancel it. But, like, why did the U.S. agree to go to the meeting when we’ve previously said that we would only talk to them if denuclearization was on the table?
MS NAUERT: The Vice President, Vice President Pence – and I can’t speak for the Vice President, but I can tell you what his intent was, and his intent was to discuss and lay out our requirements – and it’s not just U.S. requirements; it’s the world requirements, denuclearization – and make that very clear, make that very crystal clear, that that is our policy goal and that is a goal that’s shared by many around the world.
The North Koreans apparently didn’t like that. I’m not going to speak on behalf of their government, but apparently they didn’t like that. They chose, unfortunately, to cancel that meeting. I think a lot of people would have been happy if that meeting had gone off and we had been able to deliver that message to them in a very strong way face to face.
Okay. I’ve got to go, guys. Thanks.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: — and he was about to be sentenced. And on Wednesday he was in fact sentenced to five years. So I’m wondering if you have anything to say about the sentencing.
MS NAUERT: Certainly. A couple things, and I don’t know if many of you have been following this, but it’s certainly an important matter. Nabeel Rajab, Matt has asked about him before. Let me just reiterate who he is. He’s a long-time Bahraini human rights activist. He frequently uses his international following, he has a broad international following; his social media platforms, he tweets. He uses those platforms to talk about nonviolent methods of bringing attention to human rights causes around the Gulf. Bahrain’s high criminal court sentenced him to five years in prison on February the 21st for comments that he posted on his Twitter account. There was an unrelated case, and the Bahraini Court of Cassation upheld a verdict that sentenced him to two years in prison on January the 15th simply for criticizing the Government of Bahrain during foreign television interviews. U.S. representatives were able to attend both of those – the hearing and the sentencing – the hearing on January the 15th and the sentencing on February the 21st.
I want to make it clear that we are disappointed by both of those decisions. The United States Government wants to reaffirm our previous calls for his release. We’ve repeatedly expressed our concern about those cases. We continuously – continue to strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to abide by its international obligations and commitments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression. We understand that he may, Matt, be able to appeal the decision of the February 29th sentencing. If he is able to do that, we call upon the government to conduct an appeal in a fair way that provides him his fair trial.
QUESTION: Right. I actually think that he has opted not to appeal and has instructed his lawyers not to —
MS NAUERT: Okay, okay.
QUESTION: — go take it further. But more broadly, so Bahrain is home to the Fifth Fleet. Then you have in Turkey, the Secretary goes, he leaves. Within hours, they sentence six journalists to life in prison. Turkey is a NATO ally. What does this say, if anything, do you think about your leverage with countries that you are very close with both militarily and politically?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Certainly with these countries, we have areas where we agree, but we also have areas of disagreement. And those are two good examples. The example of what has happened to Mr. Nabeel Rajab in his case, and the instances of what has happened to journalists. And I can’t speak to their specific cases but in Turkey. We have those types of disagreements all around the world with many nations and those conversations about our viewpoints are brought up often privately. Sometimes, I’ll speak about them here; sometimes my colleagues will speak about them publicly. Sometimes the Secretary will, but other times he handles those situations privately because he feels that that’s most effective.
QUESTION: Yeah, but it doesn’t seem to be working.
MS NAUERT: Not every time. That’s the reality of this. Not every time do we get our way. Not every time do governments listen and comply with what the United States asks them to do.
QUESTION: That’s true.
MS NAUERT: It’s unfortunate, but it is certainly – it is certainly their right. All we can do – and this gets back to something that we were talking about earlier – all we can do is shine a light on some activities that are taking place around the world. And that is where – and I’m not asking you this as a – well, I’ll say this to you as journalists: You have the ability to make a difference. You have the ability – and I’m not being – don’t take this in a condescending way; you know how much admiration I have for what all of you do – but you have the ability to appeal to your editors, to your producers, to your colleagues to get these stories out there; to get the stories out there about what is happening in Eastern Ghouta, to get the stories out there about what is happening to the human rights activist in Bahrain and other places around the world. The Rohingya Muslims. I would encourage you – and there’s nobody better than you all to do it. You know foreign policy, you love this stuff. I’d just encourage you to keep on pushing. Thank you.
QUESTION: Can you take one on Pakistan?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: No. I’ve got to go. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:43 p.m.)
DPB # 12