Department Press Briefing – February 27, 2023
2:18 p.m. EST
The United States is extremely concerned by the events of this weekend and the continuing violence in Israel and the West Bank. As we noted yesterday, we condemn the horrific killing of two Israeli brothers near Nablus and the killing today of an Israeli near Jericho, who we understand was also an American citizen. We express our deepest condolences to all of the victims’ families and their loved ones.
We also condemn the widescale, indiscriminate violence by settlers against Palestinian civilians following the killing. The attacks reportedly led to the death of one Palestinian man, more than 300 residents injured – four seriously – and the torching of an estimated 30 Palestinian homes and cars. These actions are completely unacceptable. The United States extends its deepest condolences to those affected by this violence.
We appreciate Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Herzog’s statements calling for a cessation of this vigilante violence. We expect the Israeli Government to ensure full accountability and legal prosecution of those responsible for these attacks, in addition to compensation for the lost homes and property. Accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of extremist violence, and equal resources dedicated to prevent such attacks and bring those responsible to justice.
These events underscore the fragility of the situation in the West Bank and the urgent need for increased cooperation to prevent further violence. That is exactly why the United States joined Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, and Egypt in Aqaba. It is imperative that Israel and the Palestinians work together to de-escalate tensions and to restore calm. The United States and our regional partners will continue to work with the parties to advance the commitments made in Aqaba, and in the meantime we call on everyone to refrain from actions and rhetoric that further inflame tensions. As we’ve said repeatedly, Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live in safety and security.
With that, happy to turn to your questions. Michele.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) pick up on that.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: So the Israelis arrested a handful of these vigilantes, and then have released most of them. So I’m wondering if you’re satisfied with the Israeli response to that settler violence?
MR PRICE: There’s an ongoing investigation. We wouldn’t want to get ahead of the investigation, but we think the equal administration of justice is important. It’s important in every context around the world. It’s important in this context. We want to see full accountability and legal prosecution of those responsible for these attacks and for compensation for those who lost property or were otherwise affected. And in the pursuit of that accountability and justice, we believe it should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of extremist violence. And with that in mind, we believe there should be equal resources dedicated to the pursuit of that justice.
QUESTION: Hi, I noticed in your tweet yesterday you referred to the shooting that – in which two Israelis were killed as a terror – or terrorism, whereas the settler violence was separated. Was that deliberate? And if yes, how do you differentiate or decide when to use the word “terrorism” versus when not to?
MR PRICE: I think it’s best not to parse and to go into definitions from the podium. We are condemning the extremist violence that we’ve seen over the past couple days. We issued a very strong condemnation of the killing of the Israelis that we’ve seen over the weekend. We’ve issued today a very strong condemnation of the violence that’s resulted in the death of Palestinians and destruction of property. In all of these cases, in all cases of extremist violence, we think it’s important that there be accountability, that there be justice – equal justice under the law.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions.
MR PRICE: Anything else before we leave the region? Okay.
QUESTION: I just wonder what that —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: I just wonder if any this undermines the Aqaba statement. I mean – or do you think that statement is really alive still?
MR PRICE: Well, the Aqaba statement is important in and of itself. It was a historic meeting between Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, senior U.S. officials were there. Our Egyptian partners were there. Our Jordanian partners were there. And the resulting communique and the commitments that Israelis and Palestinians made to one another, I think, speak for themselves. That’s important, but what is equally, if not far more, important is the implementation, is the follow through. And that’s where we want to see Israelis and Palestinians fulfill the commitments that they have made to one another in Aqaba.
Aqaba set out a path for both sides to de-escalate tensions and, over the longer term to, we hope, build additional levels of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. But this is not a path that the United States or any other country in the region can itself walk down. This is a path that Israelis and Palestinians laid out for themselves, for one another. We hope, we expect that Israelis and Palestinians will themselves walk down that path. But practically speaking, they will take the steps that they’ve committed to and that will be necessary to de-escalate tensions.
The de-escalation of tensions, especially now, is imperative. It was imperative prior to this weekend. It is even more important now given that – the violence that we’ve seen over the weekend. And now we have firm commitments from both sides and a clear roadmap from both sides that we think and we hope can lead to this de-escalation of tension that we so urgently need.
QUESTION: Will there be any other steps or follow-up steps after the announcement yesterday or the declaration, and what role did the U.S. play in convening this meeting?
MR PRICE: Well, the United States played the role that we typically do play. We played the role as a partner. We helped bring the parties together. We’re obviously grateful to our other partners in this, Egypt and Jordan, for the critical role that they’ve played. But we were there for the discussions; we supported the discussions. We welcomed the agreement that resulted from the discussions between Israelis and Palestinians and the other parties.
As to the next steps, the most important next step is follow-through, is to see to it that Israelis and Palestinians adhere to the commitments that they made to one another in Aqaba, they live up to the pledges that they have made to one another, but also importantly to the world. There is an agreement that emerged yesterday. It’s important that it emerge publicly because the entire world is now able to see what the parties agreed to, and the entire world will be able to determine for themselves whether there is broad adherence to what was agreed to in Aqaba. That’s certainly something we want to see, because we think the discussions that took place over the weekend and the resulting communique do put a path forward for Israelis and Palestinians to do what is precisely necessary, and that is to engage in de-escalation, to de‑escalate tensions. And over the longer term, we hope to build trust.
Anything else on the Middle East?
QUESTION: Re-launch talks between Israel and Palestinians was on the agenda yesterday in that meeting, or —
MR PRICE: Yesterday’s agenda was fairly narrow in that it was aimed at de-escalation. We think the communique that emerged from this session was a concrete manifestation of the desire of the parties represented at Aqaba to see de-escalation. This is not about setting out an entire path forward to negotiate a two-state solution. That is something we still believe in, of course. But what is most urgent, what’s most imperative at the moment is that the parties themselves move forward with these steps that will, in the first instance, de-escalate tensions.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, can you do something to make it imperative since it’s been proven that the two party were not able to do what you would like to see happening in terms of de-escalation and so on? So do you do have any anything to make it imperative?
MR PRICE: Well, the parties and much of the world recognize that it is an imperative. I only speak for the United States of America, and we have consistently spoken of the importance of de-escalation. But the fact that Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention Egyptians and Jordan – and Jordanians gathered in Aqaba over the weekend, we think, we hope, is a very concrete manifestation of the recognition on the part of the two parties but also on the part of two very important regional players that there needs to be de-escalation, that the imperative for de‑escalation is an urgent one. The fact that the parties gathered, the fact that the two parties in this case were able to make commitments to one another that, again, put out that path towards de-escalation, we think, is reflective of the fact that the parties themselves recognize the need to de-escalate.
Again, however, what is most important is not the piece of paper that emerged – it is the follow-through. It is the test of whether the parties will be in a position to live up to the commitments that they have made to one another, that they have made to their regional neighbors, and that the United States was on the ground to witness. We certainly hope and expect that’s the case.
QUESTION: The Israeli press is already reporting that some members of Netanyahu’s government are saying that there will be no settlement freeze. Some of these members have been deemed outright fascistic; they’ve praised Baruch Goldstein who massacred Palestinians. Isn’t it imperative to address what they represent and what they are at this point?
MR PRICE: None of these members are the prime minister of Israel. We work directly with the prime minister, with his team, with our direct counterparts. We are going to – and this applies to governments around the world – judge governments on their actions. We think it is important that Palestinians live up to the commitments they made at Aqaba; we think it’s important that Israelis live up to the commitments that they’ve made at Aqaba.
QUESTION: Is that —
QUESTION: Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute just had a piece charging that the Biden administration has effectively given Israel a green light to possibly attack Iran. Is the administration in any way, shape, or form tacitly giving Israel a green light to attack Iran? And what would the administration response be to such an attack?
MR PRICE: I’m happy to come back to that, but before we move on to Iran, anything else on Is‑Pal?
QUESTION: Yeah, I do —
MR PRICE: I – let – we need to move around. Yeah.
QUESTION: Is your reading of that Aqaba statement a settlement freeze? Because I think Bibi Netanyahu also said that it was not a settlement freeze.
MR PRICE: The statement that was issued yesterday is one that the rest of the world can read. We think the statement speaks for itself. The Israelis agreed not to discuss any new settlements for at least four months, not to discuss authorization of any new outpost for at least six months. Just as we expect the Palestinians to live up to their commitments, we expect the Israelis to do the same.
Anything else – yes, go ahead. One final question on this.
QUESTION: Palestinian commitments – what are those Palestinian commitments?
MR PRICE: The statement at Aqaba is a document that the entire world can see for themselves.
QUESTION: But it doesn’t mention what the Palestinian commitments are, but —
MR PRICE: This is a communique that was signed onto by the parties themselves, so would refer you to that statement.
Janne, I know I called on you, and then we’ll come back to Iran.
QUESTION: All right, thank you – thank you very much. Yeah, thank you —
QUESTION: No, no – on Israel. Sorry.
MR PRICE: On – we’ll take a couple more questions on Israel.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you, Ned.
MR PRICE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. There is still report – one of them says they agree to hold discussion on building more settlement. And the other one, it says they agree to stop construction. Which one is do you think the true one, the real?
MR PRICE: The real one is the statement that was issued yesterday. This was a statement that was signed onto by the parties that you can read for yourself. We issued it from here, from the State Department. There was a statement from the White House yesterday welcoming the communique that was agreed to at Aqaba. That’s the one that we stand behind and that we hope and expect the parties will fulfill when it comes to their commitments.
Yes. Final question on this?
QUESTION: Yeah, I ask you about the apparent Israeli violations of the Arms Export Act a week or two ago, and you said you weren’t familiar with the laws that would cut off funding to any state that was a nuclear proliferator. Do you have anything further on that?
MR PRICE: I believe the team provided you some additional background on that. As in the past, we’re just not in a position to comment specifically on this. Would refer you and any questions you may have on this —
QUESTION: But how do you have – how do you expect to have any credibility on this subject when you can’t even acknowledge that Israel has a nuclear weapons arsenal?
MR PRICE: Again, I just don’t have anything to offer on this, so we’d refer any questions to the Israeli Government. As a practice, when it comes to just about any country, certainly any partner, we don’t speak in detail to the capabilities, to the programs of partners around the world, just as we would expect they would not speak to ours.
QUESTION: You’re referring me to the Israeli Government about their own nuclear program?
MR PRICE: That’s correct.
QUESTION: About their own nuclear program – you can’t acknowledge that Israel has a nuclear weapons program?
QUESTION: And one is China; one is North Korea. Do you know what kind of action did Chinese Government summoned the U.S. consul to Hong Kong?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry, what was the question?
QUESTION: Do you have anything about the Chinese Government summoned the U.S. consul to Hong Kong (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a specific reaction to that. As our representatives do around the world, our senior official in Hong Kong is representing the interests, is representing the values of the United States. This is not activity that we undertake in relation to the PRC or to any other country for that matter. These are affirmative activities that represent our interests and our values, and we’re pursuing that work in Hong Kong just as we are in places around the world.
QUESTION: On North Korea, North Korea has declared that if the United States continues to treat them hostilely, it will be considered war. How would you comment on this?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry, it would be considered —
MR PRICE: Janne, you know that we don’t respond to provocations and we don’t respond to propaganda. We have made our position on the DPRK, I think, crystal clear. We have a policy of seeking to bring about the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK’s nuclear weapons, its ballistic missile programs pose a threat not only to Americans in the region, but of course to our treaty allies, to whom we have an ironclad security commitment. It is the DPRK that, time and again, at a – in an unprecedented rate, has engaged in provocations, including multiple tests of ICBM systems, other ballistic missiles, and other provocative activities that have posed a threat to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and, in some ways, even well beyond.
Even as we have pointed out the threat that we and our partners in the region face from these programs and these dangerous provocations, we have made very clear that we have no hostile intent towards the DPRK. That is also why for more than a year now we have made very clear our willingness to engage in direct talks with the DPRK without pre-conditions to help bring about, to advance the prospects of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That remains our policy. It is the DPRK that, on the other hand, has only engaged in provocation after provocation, and has rejected our diplomatic overtures time and again.
Nevertheless, our diplomatic overtures remain. We would like an opportunity to discuss these issues face to face, if that’s the preference. But we believe in diplomacy, even as we have made clear, in word and in deed that we are going to stand by the security commitments that we have to our treaty allies, to Japan, to the Republic of Korea, to our allies around the world.
MR PRICE: Well, I – we react to it by expressing our concern. And this is the concern that you heard Secretary Blinken articulate a couple weeks ago now, after his meeting with Wang Yi in Munich. We are concerned that the PRC is contemplating providing lethal assistance to Russia for Russia’s use in Ukraine for a number of reasons, including for the impact it would have on the battlefield inside Ukraine, but also because the PRC has attempted to maintain this veneer of neutrality.
The PRC has told the world that, essentially, it is not taking a position, but rather it has tried to portray itself as an honest broker. In word and in deed, however, the PRC has been anything but an honest broker. Leaving aside the question of lethal assistance – which we don’t believe the PRC has provided yet, but we do believe it is considering – leaving that aside, the PRC has already provided important forms of assistance to Russia, including in the context of its aggression against Ukraine. It’s provided Russia with diplomatic support, with political support, with economic support, with rhetorical support, including by parroting Russia’s dangerous propaganda, dangerous lies, and disinformation on the world stage.
That should be a concern, of course, to all of those who are standing with Ukraine and standing against Russia’s aggression. It should be a concern to all of those who are standing with the UN Charter, the principles that are at the heart of the UN system, the principles that are at the heart of international law.
The PRC, of course, issued a so-called peace plan in recent days. The first tenet in that peace plan was to call for the respect – respect for the sovereignty of all countries. If the PRC were to abide by that first tenet, it would fall clearly on the side of the UN Charter. It would fall clearly on the side of international law. It would fall clearly on the side of all of those who are standing with Ukraine, who are standing against Russia in Russia’s war of territorial conquest, Russia’s attempted land grab in Ukraine.
So we hope that the PRC uses – begins to use its influence in a constructive way. There are countries around the world that, if they sought to bring this war to an end, would have a significant amount of leverage with the Russian Federation, with other key countries. The PRC certainly falls within that category. But to date, at least, despite the PRC’s protests to the contrary, we have seen them very clearly take a side in this war.
MR PRICE: I don’t have an immediate reaction to that, other than the fact that it is very much in line with the concerns we’ve had. The PRC and Russia have deepened their relationship, a relationship that was already deepening in recent months and, in fact, over the past several years. But the fact that the PRC is now engaging with Lukashenka, who has, in effect, ceded his own sovereignty to Russia, is just another element of the PRC’s deepening engagement with Russia, with all of those who are engaged with and supporting Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on PRC please?
QUESTION: Follow-up on China.
MR PRICE: Sure.
MR PRICE: There have been a number of conversations at various levels. Of course, the most senior conversation that took place most recently was the Secretary’s meeting with Wang Yi in Munich.
But we believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication. We have an embassy in Beijing. The PRC has an embassy here. There are officials in this building who are in fairly regular dialogue with PRC officials, as well.
So those communications have continued, but we believe in communications at all levels. It’s why the Secretary felt it important that he saw Wang Yi in person in Munich, and it’s why the Secretary was prepared to travel to Beijing earlier this month to continue the leader-level discussion between President Biden and President Xi that they had in Bali at the end of last year.
We still believe in the need, of course, to continue these conversations. It’s why, again, the Secretary had a meeting, senior officials in this building have had various discussions. We believe in keeping those channels of dialogue open.
QUESTION: Will he meet with Qin Gang in India this week?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any meetings to preview or to forecast at this time. Obviously, the G20 brings together a number of countries from around the world. I think the Secretary has demonstrated, regardless of the country, if there is a message that needs to be conveyed he is prepared to convey it to the appropriate counterpart. But there is not a meeting on the books at this moment.
QUESTION: Can I ask, since it’s back in the news: COVID origins? Is this something you’ve brought up with the Chinese, or is it something the building is looking into? And do you have any comment on the Energy Department’s assessment that came out this week?
MR PRICE: It won’t surprise you to hear I don’t have any comment on purportedly classified assessments that may have been put forward. The National Security Advisor, others have spoken to this in recent days. It boils down to the fact that there are a variety of views within the Intelligence Community. There are some elements within the Intelligence Community that have reached conclusions on one side, there are others that have reached – come to conclusions on the other. There are a number of Intelligence Community agencies that have put forward an assessment that essentially makes clear they don’t have enough information to conclude, one way or another.
But to your question, we have repeatedly raised the underlying question with our PRC counterparts. For more than two years now, the PRC has been blocking from the beginning international investigators and members of the global health community from accessing information that they need to understand the origins of COVID-19. This is about the question of the origins of COVID-19, but just as importantly, if not even more importantly in some respects, it is about preparing the world to withstand and ultimately to prevent another global pandemic. In order to prevent a future pandemic, we need to fully understand the one we’re still emerging from.
The President and others have directed his team to do all we can to get to the bottom of the origins of COVID-19 – again, to garner a better understanding of how we can prepare ourselves to confront future pandemics. This is something that we have raised with the PRC repeatedly, because it matters to the American people, it matters to people around the world, and it should be of concern to the people of China, who have also suffered tremendously from this current pandemic.
QUESTION: Yeah, Ambassador Burns said this morning – the ambassador to China – that China’s going to have to be more honest about what happened three years ago at Wuhan for you to continue working together productively. Do you have any comment on that, anything to add to that? I mean, is there anything specifically you’re doing, other than just continuing to ask China to be more transparent? Because obviously, they’re not doing that, so —
MR PRICE: It is essentially what I just said, Dylan. We believe in the importance of doing all we can to understand the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the context of the pandemic we’re still emerging from, but also to better prepare ourselves for any future pandemics that are to come. We’re doing a couple things. We are – and the President has tasked the Intelligence Community now to prepare assessments, now multiple rounds of assessments, on the origins of COVID-19. And so that is an effort that is in-house, as it were. The Intelligence Community and all of its constituents, departments, and agencies are scouring the information that’s available to them to put together assessments about the most probable origins of this.
When it comes to those assessments, there have been some agencies within the Intelligence Community that have come down on one side, others have come down on another, and others have reported that there’s insufficient evidence to come to any firm conclusion at the moment. But as with any intelligence assessment, we are always incorporating new information, new facts, new details from every source of information available to the U.S. Government. Some of that is open-source information available to everyone, some of that is information that is available only to the U.S. Government. And we’ll continue to do that.
The other part of this is continuing to impress upon the PRC the importance of transparency. And this is an issue that we’ve been clear and candid with the PRC on from our earliest engagements at senior levels with the PRC. The President has raised this, the Secretary has raised this, the National Security Advisor has raised this. It’s been raised repeatedly and consistently at various levels because it is that important to us. Now, there are other multilateral institutions, like the WHO, that also have a role in this. Unfortunately, the PRC has been blocking from the very beginning the ability of international investigators and members of the global health community from accessing the information that they would need to form their own conclusions, to come to their own judgments.
But we will keep pursuing all of these avenues knowing that, yes, it’s important in the context of COVID-19 and the importance of – in the context of this particular pandemic; but it’s also important in the context of preventing and being able to respond to a future pandemic should one emerge.
QUESTION: Just to be a little more specific, though, he said there’s going – they’re going to have to be more honest. So is there going to be any consequence at any point for them not being honest? Because you said you’ve been raising this issue, and you have been raising the issue, but there’s just been no movement whatsoever from them despite how much you’re raising it.
MR PRICE: Well, across the board, Dylan, regardless of what the issue is, we typically don’t get ahead of policy responses before they are announced publicly. But we are going to do what is more effective – what’s most effective to protect the American people, to protect people around the world from the emergence of future pandemics. In the first instance, we believe international cooperation is the most important element. It’s why this department has invested so much in something we call the Global Action Plan, bringing together dozens of countries from around the world to respond to the current pandemic, but also to build up the infrastructure that will allow the international community to respond much more effectively should, God forbid, another pandemic emerge.
There are conversations and steps that we’re taking with the World Health Organization. There are conversations and steps that we’re taking with the United Nations more broadly. And yes, there are conversations that we’re having with the PRC, chiefly because transnational threats like the threat of a pandemic, whether it’s COVID-19 or anything else, doesn’t adhere to borders. It doesn’t respect international borders or lines on a map.
So it’s important for our own sake, it’s important for the sake of people around the world, it’s important for the sake of the Chinese people that we are doing all we can through every conceivable forum that is available to us to take steps now, not only to put an end to this pandemic but to better prepare ourselves should another one emerge.
Anything else on China?
MR PRICE: Go ahead.
MR PRICE: Alex, at this point I’m just going to have to reiterate what we’ve said. We have concerns that the PRC continues to consider the provision of lethal support to Russia for use against Ukraine. We haven’t defined with any more granularity or detail what that lethal support could be, but in some ways that’s a question that is much less important than the strategic one we’re talking about, the question of whether or not the PRC moves forward with providing lethal assistance.
The provision of any lethal assistance by the PRC to Russia for use in Ukraine would be a step with potentially dire and tragic implications for, in the first instance, the people of Ukraine; but it would be a very clear signal to countries around the world of the hollowness of the PRC’s claims that it is not taking a side in this war. We believe that countries around the world should and must take a side.
But even if the PRC wants the world to believe they’re not taking a side, they will have to answer the question of why, then, they would provide lethal assistance, the same question that countries are asking about why the PRC is providing other forms of assistance to Russia – economic assistance, diplomatic assistance, political assistance, and rhetorical support as well. These are all questions that a country that professes to be neutral in this brutal war of aggression, this brutal territorial conquest, should have to answer.
QUESTION: And given that, it’s my understanding that it’s your position that China has no credibility in inserting itself as a peacemaker at any point.
MR PRICE: Well, look, I don’t want to be categorical about it because there are countries around the world that have leverage with Russia that we just don’t have. It is undeniable that the PRC has a relationship with Russia that the United States does not have at this moment, it didn’t have prior to February 24th of last year, it hasn’t had in recent years. When it comes to the PRC and Russia, that’s a relationship that has been deepening in recent years.
So if China were serious about seeking to bring an end to this war, it would have influence, it would have leverage over the government in Moscow that we would hope it would use in a constructive way. It does give us pause, concern, that Russia – excuse me – that the PRC has engaged with Russia, including with high-level visits, Wang Yi’s visit to Moscow just within recent days, even while the PRC is not engaged symmetrically with Ukraine.
That speaks, to us, to the fact that this may not be a serious proposal, but it all really boils down to the fact that if this were a serious proposal and if the PRC were serious about the 12 ideas that it put on the table, there’s only one that would call for the PRC to stand against what is very clearly a war of aggression, what is very clearly a war of territorial conquest, and that’s the very first point: the point in the PRC plan that calls for the respect of the sovereignty of countries around the world. Russia is not respecting that, and we certainly wish the PRC would use that influence to encourage Russia to adhere to that first principle.
QUESTION: On military support from Beijing for Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Secretary said on Friday that it could make a material difference on the battlefield. Do you have any more on that assessment? What kind of impact would that have on the conflict? And is there a possibility that that kind of legal aid coming from Beijing could severely undercut the sanctions strategy, maybe rendering it ineffective altogether?
MR PRICE: Well, a couple things. One, the strategic course of this war has been set from the earliest moments of President Putin’s invasion. This has been a strategic failure from the earliest days when President Putin sent his forces across the border in an effort to topple the Ukrainian Government, to subjugate the Ukrainian people, to erase Ukraine’s identity, and to deny its democracy and its freedom. Of course, that has failed, it will continue to fail, and we don’t envision anything changing that strategic outcome for Ukraine or for Russia, for that matter.
Nevertheless, if a country like the PRC were to provide lethal assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine, it would obviously have dire consequences for the people of Ukraine. We’ve seen the impact that the provision of UAV-produced – excuse me – Iranian-produced UAVs has had in Ukraine, the way in which these drones have targeted civilian sites, have targeted energy transformers, energy production facilities as well; the way in which President Putin has sought to enlist them in his effort to weaponize winter against the people of Ukraine.
Now, of course the PRC has at its disposal technology and resources that Iran doesn’t have, and so one could imagine the implications of the provision of significant amounts of lethal assistance. It’s for that reason that we don’t want to see it happen. We’re continuing to warn very clearly about the consequences that would befall Beijing should it proceed down this path. Ultimately, Beijing is going to have to make its own sovereign decision. Our goal is to see to it that Beijing makes informed decisions. These decisions need to be informed by very clear and direct warnings from senior U.S. officials, including Secretary Blinken when he met with Wang Yi in Munich, that there would be costs and there would be consequences if the PRC were to go down this route.
To your second question about sanctions evasion, this is something that we are always taking a close look at. Sanctions and sanctions enforcement – it’s an iterative element; it’s an iterative activity in which we engage. We are constantly looking at our sanctions. We are regularly rolling out new sanctions in response to information that becomes available to us as we see trend lines, as we see the actions of entities and actors around the world. In fact, you saw a number of those, to put it mildly, rolled out on Friday. But we’re also always working with countries around the world on the question of sanctions enforcement – that is to say, not new sanctions, but working with allies and partners to see to it that we are all enforcing the sanctions that we have collectively put on the books.
In some cases, we’re doing that to make sure that there’s not overcompliance, especially when it comes to the flow of humanitarian goods and humanitarian services, and we’ve been very clear about that when it comes to fuel and fertilizer – excuse me, food and fertilizer emanating from Russia. But in some cases we are working on sanctions enforcement to make sure that everyone is living up to the commitments that we have made using our domestic authorities or that blocs of countries have made collectively.
MR PRICE: This is something that we very much welcome. We very much welcome the visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to Kyiv along with a senior Saudi delegation of humanitarian and energy officials. We also welcome the arrangements announced during the meetings in Kyiv for Saudi Arabia to provide Ukraine more than $400 million in energy and other forms of essential supplies, and for which deliveries are expected soon.
We have taken actions to provide assistance to Ukraine that will advance its overall security, its economic recovery, its energy security and capacity to cope with the ongoing humanitarian crisis created by Russia’s attacks, and we warmly welcome the actions of a party like Saudi Arabia with similar ends in mind.
QUESTION: Does it help the rapprochement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?
MR PRICE: Well, look, this is a relationship that is eight decades old. It’s an important relationship. It’s one that we value. We have a multiplicity of interests when it comes to Saudi Arabia. We always appreciate it when our partners are in turn providing important forms of support to our other partners. We look at it in that regard.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’ve got a question about Sweden and the NATO application, as we also know now that the trilateral talks are going to start on March 9th. So there’s this statement from the deputy head of counterterrorism at SAPO. The Swedish security service told the state television that the PKK receives a significant amount of funding in the country, and that’s a quote from the deputy head. And it’s been nine months since the trilateral memorandum that where they pledged that they’re going to eradicate the PKK funding and activities in their own Swedish soil. Is it not concerning from the U.S. perspective that even nine months later they’re still struggling with the PKK challenge?
MR PRICE: So a couple things on this. Number one, this is not a bilateral issue for the United States. From our perspective, we’ve been clear that Finland and Sweden, we believe, are ready to join the Alliance. They’re important partners of ours in many respects. They’re advanced democracies. They’re important security partners whose militaries have exercised with our military over the course of decades now.
This is a question for NATO. This is a question for Türkiye. This is a question that we understand will be on the table when representatives from Finland, Sweden, and Türkiye engage again next month on these accession talks. Finland and Sweden have taken important steps in line with the commitments, the trilateral communique signed between Türkiye, Finland, and Sweden that emerged from Madrid in June of last year. Finland and Sweden have taken these steps. Ultimately, this is going to be a question for Türkiye. Ultimately, this is going to be a question for Türkiye as to whether the steps that they have taken fulfill the trilateral commitments that they have put forward. We —
QUESTION: That’s – sorry, that’s why I’ve been asking this question, actually. You and I have been over this issue for a couple times now because the United States makes it really clear that they are ready to join NATO, but the Swedish Government itself is actually reiterating that they are struggling with the PKK challenge on their soil. So that’s why I keep asking, since you – since you keep saying that they’re ready to join NATO, so it’s kind of become a dilemma between the United States and the NATO accession process that you’re making a very clear judgment that they’re ready but they’re actually admitting that the activities have not been stopped yet.
MR PRICE: We are saying they are ready because these are advanced democracies with advanced militaries and capable militaries, militaries that have exercised with United States military for decades now. From our perspective, they are ready. From our perspective, they should be admitted to the NATO Alliance. But in line with NATO’s founding documents, it‘s incumbent on each individual NATO Ally to approve the accession. For our part, this administration and the U.S. Congress acted in what I believe is record speed, sending the ratification treaty forward for the President’s signature quickly over the summer. Other NATO Allies have done the same.
When it comes to Türkiye, this is a sovereign decision that the Turkish Government is going to have to make. We have discussed this with our Turkish partners. More importantly, Secretary General Stoltenberg, our Finnish counterparts, our Swedish counterparts have discussed this with their Turkish counterparts. We —
QUESTION: So would you say that those concerns are legitimate, especially given the Swedish statements?
MR PRICE: This is going to have to be a sovereign decision on the part of our Turkish Ally. We understand and we respect the legitimate security concerns that Türkiye has. We’ve spoken at some length about the fact that Türkiye has faced more terrorist attacks on its soil than any other NATO Ally. At the same time, we want to see steps that strengthen the Euro-Atlantic security environment. We believe that the admission of Finland and Sweden to the Alliance, to what is the strongest defensive alliance in the history of – in modern history, would strengthen the Euro-Atlantic security alliance. Ultimately, however, this is going to have to be a question for Türkiye when it comes to timing, when it comes to the decisions that they are going to need to make.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. The Egyptian foreign minister today visited Türkiye to show solidarity in the aftermath of the earthquakes, and during a press conference the Turkish foreign minister said that the two countries were opening a new chapter in relations. I was wondering if you would have any comment on that, any take on the normalization process between Türkiye and Egypt.
MR PRICE: I understand from the foreign minister, from his public statements, that this was a humanitarian visit. He traveled, as he said, to work on and to contribute to the response to the devastating earthquake that has taken tens of thousands of lives across both Türkiye and Syria and that’s affected tens of thousands of more across both countries.
The United States, for our part, has engaged in similar humanitarian activities. We have announced tens of millions of dollars to support the earthquake response. Secretary Blinken announced an additional $100 million on top of the $85 million that we initially put forward in the hours after the earthquake when he was in Türkiye just a couple of weeks ago now. There are countries around the world that are stepping up. The needs are tremendous.
Our position on the Assad regime has not changed. Now is not the time for normalization. Now is not the time to upgrade relations with the Assad regime. We believe we can fulfill and that countries around the world can fulfill both of these imperatives, addressing the humanitarian needs of the Turkish people, addressing the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people, without changing or upgrading their relationship with the Assad regime.
The immediate humanitarian imperative is our focus right now. That’s why we are – we have dispatched dozens of individuals, we’ve supported the provision of support to tens of thousands of individuals across Türkiye and Syria, and we’re encouraging countries around the world to do everything they can to assist the Turkish and the Syrian people.
QUESTION: Any take on the Türkiye-Egypt normalization?
MR PRICE: Again, the statement that I saw from the foreign minister spoke to this as a humanitarian gesture. Our position on this has been longstanding. We do not believe that it is the time to upgrade or to normalize relations with the Assad regime. What we are focused on is addressing the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.
And as countries around the world focus on the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people in the context of the earthquake, we think it’s important still that countries remember that this humanitarian plight, this humanitarian emergency, long predates the earthquake from earlier this year. The humanitarian emergency that the Syrian people have faced for more than a decade now is largely a manmade one. It’s a manmade one owing to the actions of the Assad regime, the brutality that the regime has inflicted on its people. And even as the world reacts with historic levels of generosity towards the people of Türkiye and the people of Syria, we think it’s important that the Assad regime’s track record not be forgotten even as we prioritize this humanitarian response.
Let me move around.
QUESTION: She meant the Egyptian foreign minister – because you were talking about the Assad regime, I think there was some miscommunication there, because the Egyptian foreign minister was in Türkiye.
QUESTION: She meant the rapprochement between Egypt and Türkiye, not Egypt and Syria.
MR PRICE: Oh, I thought you were talking about Egypt and Syria.
QUESTION: No, no.
QUESTION: Egypt and Türkiye.
QUESTION: The Egyptian foreign minister was in Türkiye for the first time in 10 years.
MR PRICE: Got it.
QUESTION: She was asking about —
MR PRICE: On that question, of course, both Türkiye and Egypt are partners of ours. We always encourage the improvement of relations between important partners. It is, of course, a fact that Türkiye and Egypt are important partners of the United States.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Today, Iran’s foreign minister spoke at the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. I’m going to read two quotes from him, and then I’ll ask my question. Quote number one, “Human rights is at the – are at the core of our values;” and quote number two, “No state should coerce others to self-styled interpretation of human rights.” Are human rights open to interpretation, or is it a basic, fixed set of standard principles?
MR PRICE: So first, Guita, Iran’s human rights record is deplorable, and the foreign minister’s appearance in the human rights council, we think, serves as a disturbing reminder to the world of the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime as it continues to violently suppress what are peaceful protests, and flout the international community’s calls for accountability. In light of this, we did not have our ambassador in the chair when Iran spoke. Only a U.S. notetaker was in the chamber at the time.
To your broader question about human rights, look, this is an excuse that we often hear from countries with the worst human rights records around the world, claiming that human rights are subjective, and they need to be context-dependent. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights – the first word is universal. There are rights that are universal to people around the world, meaning they belong, and neatly belong, to every individual around the world, regardless of whether that person is in the United States, whether that person is in Iran, or any other country. There is nothing subjective about that.
Iran is a member-state of the UN. The UN Charter is predicated on some of the same ideals that are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea of universal rights around the world. Iran can’t have it both ways. Iran cannot purport to be a member, a member-state of the UN, while making these arguments that these universal rights don’t apply to the people of Iran.
MR PRICE: I did call on – yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. China, pandemic origins. Many have reported the NIH role with EcoHealth Alliance and work done to make coronaviruses more dangerous at Ralph Baric’s lab at the University of North Carolina, as well as with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But USAID, which is part of the State Department, funded – funneled far more money to EcoHealth Alliance, especially through its PREDICT Program, than the NIH did. I have a couple of questions on this. When will USAID release proposals, progress reports, and correspondence for USAID grants and contracts to EcoHealth Alliance with subcontracts and/or other passthroughs to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other relevant entities?
MR PRICE: I’m not immediately familiar with this contract. These are the types of questions you’re welcome to send in to us.
QUESTION: Let me – I mean, you did – when you were addressing China, you did say you’re doing all you can to address the pandemic origins issue, and you called for transparency. So if I might get these on the record, why does USAID fund bioweapons agents’ discovery research? In particular, why has USAID funded bioweapons agents’ discovery research performed in collaboration with China?
MR PRICE: We have – and again, if we have anything to provide on these specific questions, be happy to provide that. We have an abiding interest in working with countries around the world on issues of global public health. We have had far too many reminders — of course, most notably the emergence of COVID-19 and its spread from an outbreak to an epidemic to a pandemic – of the need to see to it that global health infrastructure is as strong and as – and robust as can possibly be. We have an interest in working with countries around the world on transnational challenges. By their very definition, they are transnational. They do not respect borders. They are not confined to one country or a bloc of countries.
And again, COVID‑19 was as good a reminder as any other illustration that we’ve had in recent years of the imperative of working with countries, even when we have profound differences, profound disagreements with a particular country, working together when we can on transnational threats. Public health, infectious disease, these are transnational issues. Infectious diseases are a transnational threat. It’s incumbent upon the United States, as a responsible country, to do all we can when it’s in our interests, the interests of the American people, but also when it’s in the interest of the global community, as is the case with infectious disease, to work with countries around the world to strengthen this global health resilience.
QUESTION: But the stipulation here is that this collaboration could have caused the problems. Specific question, has Dennis Carroll, who headed the PREDICT Program, been investigated and held accountable for unlawfully diverting USAID funds to the Global Virome Project, the private organization he would formally join after leaving USAID?
MR PRICE: I am not familiar with this individual or with the facts of the case. I’m also not sure these questions have universal interest or applicability, so I would —
QUESTION: You don’t think pandemic origins has universal interest?
MR PRICE: I would encourage you to send in these questions, and if we have anything, we will get back to you.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: I’d love to get something on the record.
MR PRICE: Yes. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Similar topic. I know that you don’t want to get into the intelligence behind these reports about the COVID origins, but I’m wondering if the State Department can respond to comments made by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, who said that certain parties should stop rehashing the lab leak narrative, stop smearing China, and stop politicizing origins tracing. Does the State Department have a response to those comments?
MR PRICE: I don’t want get into back-and-forth with the PRC over this. Our interest in this is an affirmative one. Our interest in this is understanding the origins of COVID-19 so that the world – and the United States, of course – can be better prepared to respond should another infectious disease emerge, should an outbreak become an epidemic – God forbid – should it become a pandemic. This is in our interest in the questions of the origins of COVID-19 and in better understanding the emergence of previous infectious diseases, how the world has responded well, where there are areas for improvement, all with an eye to saving lives going forward.
QUESTION: Broader picture with China: Are you concerned that this new reporting – in light of the spy balloon, in light of China’s concern about providing lethal weapons to Russia – are you concerned that bringing this COVID origin back into the light is going to exacerbate tensions with China even more, given that this was their response to that?
MR PRICE: I can only speak to you about our intent, and we think it is imperative that we do everything we can to understand the origins of COVID-19, to protect our people, and to protect people around the world going forward. That is why the Intelligence Community engaged in this work, why the President directed the Intelligence Community to prepare assessments, to update those assessments.
There is nothing political about this. This is a question of national security. Public health and national security have a very close nexus. I think we saw the nexus of public health and national security when it comes to COVID-19, because the emergence of a disease like COVID-19 that spreads around the world, that knows no borders, quickly moves from the world of public health to the broader realm of national security.
We would wish to see from the PRC a greater degree of responsibility, a greater acknowledgment that it’s in the interest of the Chinese people, yes, to better understand the origins of COVID-19, but it’s in the interest of people around the world to understand the origins of COVID-19, again, because this is not about a question of – this is not just about a question of what happened three or four years ago in a part of China. This is about what we can do as an international community right now to prepare for the possible emergence of another round of infectious disease, something that we hope doesn’t happen, that – but hope is not a strategy, and we need to be prepared should one emerge.
QUESTION: I have – if I may, sorry – I have a quick clarification question from earlier in the briefing about the U.S. citizen killed in Israel. The ambassador to Israel just tweeted that he can confirm a U.S. citizen was killed in one of the terror attacks in the West Bank region. I just want to confirm that that’s the same one that you referenced earlier.
MR PRICE: That’s correct. That’s correct.
QUESTION: And it’s one of the two brothers, not the Palestinian who was also killed?
MR PRICE: That is correct, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian said that his counterpart Fuad Hussein had a message for him from United States. The message is about United States readiness for an agreement over the nuclear deal, and Americans are saying that they are ready to pursue the talks. Is this true? If yes, what is the message? If not, why time to time we are hearing this from Iranian sides, that they are claiming that U.S. is interested and they are sending us messages?
MR PRICE: I can’t answer the second part of your question. Only Iranian officials can speak to why they continue to tell these lies. Iranian officials can repeat their line as often as they want, but it doesn’t change the underlying facts. A revival of the JCPOA has not been on the agenda for months. We have not conveyed any message to the contrary. I can’t speak to why Iranian officials may be trying to deceive the rest of the world; that’s a better question for them.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, it’s a whole different topic, Mexico. Do you have any reactions to the massive pro-democracy demonstrations of yesterday? These are the largest demonstrations in years in favor of democracy in Mexico. And is there any reason why the Secretary has not addressed the issue of democracy erosion in Mexico publicly?
MR PRICE: So I expect you will see from us, if you haven’t seen it already, a formal statement on this today. But let me just say in the interim that we are very closely following the latest developments with Mexico’s electoral reforms. We of course respect Mexico’s sovereignty. Mexico is an equal partner, and we believe a well-resourced, independent electoral system and respect for judicial independence support healthy democracy around the world and, of course, in Mexico as well. Independent institutions free of political influence constitute a cornerstone of democracy, again, around the world. Nonpartisan, well-resourced electoral institutions in particular ensure that all voices are heard in fundamental democratic processes.
QUESTION: Any reason why the Secretary personally has not addressed this issue publicly, the democracy erosion in Mexico?
MR PRICE: We – the Secretary is very focused on the erosion of democracy around the world. He’s very focused on the principles that have come under threat around the world. So oftentime he – oftentimes he expresses it in the abstract, and it’s a affirmative statement of the principles that the United States stands for, the values that we support and we promote around the world. And of course, those principles, those interests and values, are all at play with our bilateral relationship in Mexico.
MR PRICE: I understand that as of last week, we learned of Russia’s stated intent to suspend the New START Treaty from President Putin’s address. We later saw clarifying remarks from the ministry of foreign affairs, from other Russian officials, but it was not a topic of discussion, it was not something that the Russian Federation had notified us beforehand.
QUESTION: Also, the Ukrainian defense ministry today said that Kyiv has concentrated its armed forces along the entire border with Transnistria. Should Transnistria be alarmed with this development? Are you aware of this development?
MR PRICE: We firmly support Moldova’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity. On that basis, we support the OSCE-led 5+2 process to find a comprehensive, peaceful, and lasting settlement that will provide a special status for Transnistria with the territorial whole and sovereign Moldova. We continue to encourage Chisinau and Tiraspol to work together to identify solutions to pressing concerns of communities on both sides of the Dniester, and we’re pleased to see the sides continuing to meet to discuss these very concerns. We support the critical role of the OSCE mission to Moldova in advancing the Transnistria settlement process, and it’s ultimately up to Chisinau and Tiraspol to identify a suitable political solution that respects Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with a special status for Transnistria.
Since you raised it, the – there is a broader concern that we have, that our Moldovan partners have, and that is with Russia’s intent, its malign influence in and around Moldova. We know that Russia has a long history of malign influence both in Moldova and the region, and we’ve worked closely with Moldova to build its resilience and to be able to counter longer-term efforts by Russia to undermine Moldova’s democratic institutions.
So that is a concern to us, it’s a concern we have heard very recently from Moldova’s democratically elected government, from President Sandu, from the new prime minister, and it’s something we’re continuing to work with our Moldovan partners to counteract.
QUESTION: But it’s not Russian forces that are currently lined up against the Transnistria region. Do you agree with that?
MR PRICE: I agree with the fact that Russian influence and Russian-backed forces have been operating on sovereign Moldovan territory for some time now. That is why we have thrown our support squarely behind the OSCE-led 5+2 process. We believe there needs to be a comprehensive, a peaceful, and a lasting settlement that will provide this special status for Transnistria within a territorial whole and sovereign Moldova.
QUESTION: A quick question about Secretary Blinken’s travel to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. He is going there soon. Do you have any more details about his agenda there? And will he raise the issue of the Russian sanctions implementation with the leaders in —
MR PRICE: So we did a pretty comprehensive call late last week where we laid out the Secretary’s agenda. As you know, he is currently on his way to Kazakhstan, he’ll go to Uzbekistan, he’ll go to India before returning back to D.C. later this week. This is his first travel to Central Asia as Secretary. He’ll focus on energy and facilitating the critical minerals to the market, upholding the independence, the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of our Central Asian partners, and promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
In Astana, he’ll meet with senior Kazakh officials to further our cooperation on matters of joint interest to us. He’ll then participate in a forum that we have invested quite heavily in, the C5+1, in the form of a ministerial to reaffirm our commitment to, again, the independence, the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of our Central Asian partners, as well as to collaborate on regional solutions to shared global challenges. This forum will focus on the economy, on energy, on environmental and security cooperation between the United States, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Republic of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the Republic of Uzbekistan. He’ll also have an opportunity to meet bilaterally with all the members of the C5 to discuss some of these very issues before traveling to Uzbekistan and later to India, where he’ll attend the G20.
QUESTION: On the India trip. It looks like he has three elements of that trip – G20, Quad, and the bilateral. Can you give us a sense of what he’s going to talk on the bilateral issues, and about the Quad as well?
MR PRICE: Well, I don’t want to go too far into this because the Secretary has a couple stops before he gets to India. He’ll also have an opportunity to address all of this before he gets to India and from the ground in New Delhi. But India is a global strategic partner of ours. We have a wide, broad, deep relationship with India. There will be a lot on the agenda in the bilateral relationship and in the multilateral engagements he takes part in on the margins of the G20. We share a vision with India of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and India is a key partner of ours bilaterally, in the context of the Quad as well, other international groupings, even as we’ve attempted to stitch together some of the partnerships in which India has been a key player. We’ve spoken a lot – quite a bit recently of I2U2, a new partnership that involves India, it involves the UAE, it involves the United States as well.
So there are a number of elements on the agenda, and you’ll have an opportunity to hear from the Secretary as he travels there.
QUESTION: But are your defenses with India on the issue of Russia being resolved? Or what, are you on the same page on Russian war?
MR PRICE: You’ve heard very firmly from Prime Minister Modi the belief on the part of the Indian Government that this is not an era of war. There are countries around the world, notably Russia, that are challenging the rules-based order, the principles of the UN Charter, the principles of international law, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We’ll continue to discuss these issues with our Indian partners. I have no doubt that they’ll be on the agenda for and around the G20.
QUESTION: And one last question. To what extent China would be a discussion in the bilateral talks with India?
MR PRICE: Again, I don’t want to get ahead of the bilateral talks. We share a number of important interests, a number of important values with our Indian partners, but principally we share a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. There are countries in the region, namely the PRC, that have posed a consistent and in some ways even a systemic challenge to the vision that we share with India of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Without going into specifics, those issues will certainly be on the agenda at the G20 but also in the bilateral context.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. My question is about G20 ministerial meeting in India. The G20 finance ministers couldn’t reach a consensus on describing the war in Ukraine last week. At the G20 foreign minister meeting this week, how important does the U.S. think to reach a consensus and issue a joint communique? And also, at the G20 ministerial meeting, does the U.S. plan to discuss the concern that China might provide lethal support to Russia?
MR PRICE: So the G20 meeting is late this week. We’re at Monday right now, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of where we are. But to your question, what I saw from the foreign – from the finance ministers meeting over the weekend was a G20 that was on the same page, with two notable exceptions: only with the exception of Russia and the PRC. Other countries, as you can see from the statement that emanated from the finance ministers meeting, roundly condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It was only Russia and China that equivocated or that were not in a position to offer that firm condemnation.
In the case of Russia, it’s no wonder that they weren’t prepared to condemn their own government’s actions in Ukraine against the people of Ukraine. When it comes to the PRC, that’s a question for the PRC – a country that purports to believe in the principle of sovereignty, that purports to believe in the principle of territorial integrity and independence. Why it is not living up to those principles in this context, that’s a question only the PRC can answer.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for taking my question. I have a question for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. It seems like she is planning to meet the United States by the end of August this year. Do you have any information for this, or is there any discussion going on right now?
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything to offer on that. As you know, we have a robust unofficial relationship with Taiwan. Everything we do with our Taiwanese partners is consistent with our “one China” policy, but I just don’t have anything to offer on that right now.
A quick final question? Okay.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) the South Caucasus, but previously – back to the previous question very quickly, because it was about evasion, sanction evasion in Central Asia. Russia’s Transneft oil company today said that they are starting to pump oil from Kazakhstan to Germany through Poland. Is it something bothering you at all? Is the Secretary going to raise this issue?
MR PRICE: I’m not aware that that’s on the agenda, but if we have anything to offer there I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Okay. To the South Caucasus – thanks so much. In Georgia, it looks like Georgians are moving forward with their foreign agent draft law. I’ve seen so many personal statements, even blaming you, attacking on you. (Inaudible) wondering where this is coming from. Is there any consultation, negotiation going on between Washington and Tbilisi, and do you have any concern that this might derail the relationship?
MR PRICE: So on the new law – and I think I’ve spoken to this before – we’re aware of the draft legislation in the Georgian parliament. We’re deeply concerned about its implications for freedom of speech and democracy in Georgia. We’ve expressed these concerns – to your question, Alex – directly to the Government of Georgia now repeatedly. The proposed law would stigmatize and silence independent voices of citizens of Georgia who are dedicated to building a better future for their communities, and we believe it’s – we believe such a law could potentially undermine Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and the Euro-Atlantic aspirations that the people of Georgia have so clearly expressed time and again in recent decades.
Statements that this legislation is based on our own Foreign Agents Registration Act – those are patently false. In fact, the legislation as we read it seems to have roots in similar Russian and Hungarian legislation, not American legislation.
QUESTION: Thank you. And moving to Azerbaijan, on Bakhtiyar Hajiyev’s case, not only they refused to release him, they even added up two more months last weekend to secure his jail time. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PRICE: This is a case, again, that we’ve engaged directly with our Azerbaijani partners on. Around the world, we speak up for what are universal rights, going back to a question from one of your colleagues earlier in the briefing – the right to freedom of expression is a universal right. It does not apply to people in only certain countries and a certain bloc of countries. These are rights and this is a principle that applies to people around the world. And anytime we see a universal right come under threat, whether systematically or in specific cases, we don’t hesitate to raise those concerns. We have raised these concerns publicly, as we’ve discussed in this briefing room, but we’ve also raised them privately with our Azerbaijani partners.
Jenny, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. Belarusian opposition leaders are saying that a group of, quote, “partisans” have destroyed a Russian military aircraft outside of Minsk. Has the U.S. been able to confirm this, and is this something you condone?
MR PRICE: I’ve seen the reports. I don’t have anything for you beyond the reports that we’ve all seen.
Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:30 p.m.)
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