Department Press Briefing – March 15, 2021
2:15 p.m. EDT
MS PORTER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s press call. A few things at the top, and then we’ll get into your questions.
Today, Mathias Cormann of Australia was selected as the next secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD. As a former finance minister and elected official, Cormann brings a wealth of leadership and problem-solving experience to the role. And, as the first secretary general from the Asia-Pacific region to lead the OECD in its 60-year history, we’re confident he also brings a fresh perspective.
Cormann will lead the OECD as it navigates pressing international economic issues including addressing climate change, modernizing international taxation, tackling corruption, and strengthening labor rights.
The United States admires the OECD for its role in enhancing cooperation in the global economy and values it as a unique forum where the United States can work with likeminded, market-driven democracies in developing a shared approach to challenging issues and building a green and inclusive future together.
We also look forward to working with Cormann on the OECD’s 60th anniversary Ministerial Council Meeting, which the United States will be chairing this year.
We want to thank UK Ambassador to the OECD and Dean of Ambassadors Chris Sharrock for leading a well-organized, fair, and transparent selection process, one that resulted in consensus among 37 OECD member-states on the next secretary general: Mathias Cormann.
Congratulations, Mathias. We look forward to working with you.
Ten years ago, the Syrian people peacefully took to the streets calling for basic human rights and an end to government corruption. On this anniversary, we honor the many brave Syrians who spoke out a decade ago against oppression and who continue to act today – documenting atrocities, providing humanitarian aid and medical services, and demanding freedom and dignity for all Syrians.
The United States stands with the Syrian people. Under the Assad regime, they have suffered innumerable atrocities, and we will continue to work with the international community to promote accountability and call for the release of those arbitrarily detained, information on whereabouts of the missing, and unhindered humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.
We will also continue to promote a political settlement to end the conflict in Syria in close consultation with our allies, partners, and the United Nations. A political settlement is the only way to sustainably end the conflict, prevent greater suffering, and provide the peace and stability the Syrian people deserve.
This weekend also marked another new low, as Burmese security forces brutally attacked their own people, killing dozens throughout the country. The military junta’s violence against the people of Burma is immoral and indefensible.
The junta has responded to calls for the restoration of democracy in Burma with bullets.
These tactics are a reminder that Burma’s military conducted this coup for their own selfish gains and not to represent the will of the people.
The United States continues to call on all countries to take concrete actions to oppose the coup and its escalating violence.
The United States is following with concern developments surrounding the Bolivian Government’s recent arrests of former officials. We urge our friends and neighbors in Bolivia to uphold all civil rights and due process guarantees of the American Convention on Human Rights and the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Our concern joins those expressed by civic, political, and religious leaders in Bolivia as well as by those in the international community, including the UN secretary general, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bolivia, and the European Union. Many countries in our hemisphere, including the United States, have realized that at one time or another that democratic rule of, by, and for the people is a gift that must be respectfully handled.
And with that, we will go to our questions. Let’s go to the line of Nike Ching of VOA.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Jalina, thanks so much for the briefing. On North Korea, I take note that White House spokesperson has confirmed the Biden administration has reached out to North Korea but has not received a response. As Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are meeting with senior Chinese officials later this week, what does the U.S. ask from China regarding North Korea denuclearization? Is this something the U.S. envisioned it could cooperate with China? And separately, is there discussion to appoint a human rights envoy for North Korea? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thanks for your question, Nike. I’ll get to your question on North Korea.
So the Biden administration is conducting a thorough interagency review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, and that includes evaluating all options to address the increased threats that are posed by North Korea to its neighbors as well as the broader international community. We’re continuing to lead a structured and detailed policy process that has integrated a diverse set of voices from throughout the government and incorporates input from think tanks as well as outside experts.
We’ve also consulted with many former government officials, including in North Korea policy, and several from the previous administration. And throughout this review process, we will have and we will continue to engage with our Japanese and South Korean allies to solicit input as well as explore fresh approaches. We’ve listened carefully to their ideas, including through trilateral consultation.
Next, we will go to the line of Simon Lewis, Reuters.
QUESTION: Hi. Hi, can you hear me?
MS PORTER: Hi. Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Hi, yes. So I wanted to ask the – on Thursday this week, there is a Afghan peace conference in Moscow, and we wanted to know whether Special Envoy Khalilzad is planning to attend that. And if the U.S. going to attend this conference under Russian auspices, then what does that mean for the peace process in Afghanistan?
MS PORTER: Well, to answer your question on the peace process in Afghanistan as well as Special Representative Khalilzad, as of last week the Secretary said we are engaging in the region and international partners to try to accelerate progress towards a political settlement, and as a part of our ongoing efforts to encourage this important peace process, Ambassador Khalilzad does plan to attend the meeting in Moscow. This meeting will complement all other international efforts to support the Afghanistan peace process and also reflects the international community’s concerns about the progress to date.
Next we will go to the line of Erin Ji, Radio Free Asia.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
MS PORTER: Hi, yes, I can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay. Great. Thank you. Thank you for doing this. My question is on North Korea as well. Would you – would you be able to elaborate on why the U.S. Government reached out to North Korea behind the scenes at this particular time? And how does diplomatic outreach fit into the ongoing policy review on North Korea? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thank you for the question. Again, I’ll just repeat what we said before that the Biden administration is conducting a thorough interagency review of U.S. – the U.S. policy towards North Korea. And we’ve continued to consult with many former government officials involved in North Korea policy as well as several from the previous administration. And again, through this review process we have and will continue to engage with our allies in the area.
Thank you. We’ll go to the line of Jiha Ham of VOA. Hello?
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me? Hi. Yeah, I have a similar question actually. I have a question on North Korea. So we learned that the U.S. has not received any response from Pyongyang. So a non-responsive North Korea, how would this affect to the ongoing policy review on North Korea? I mean, does it matter in how you shape the policy that they have shown no response? And would it change any directions of the policy towards North Korea?
And if I may, I have one more question. It seems like the U.S. has several channels that can reach out to North Korea. So would sending a direct letter to Kim Jong-un be one of the channels? We know the previous administration regularly exchanged letters with Kim Jong-un. So has President Biden written or will he try to maybe write a similar letter to Kim Jong-un? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Well, thank you. To answer both of your questions, to reduce the risk of escalation, we’ve reached out to the North Korean Government through several channels starting in mid-February, including in New York. And to date, we have not received any response from Pyongyang. This follows over a year without active dialogue with North Korea despite several attempts by the U.S. to engage.
We can now go to the line of Nadia Bilbassy.
QUESTION: Jalina, this is Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya Television. As you have seen today, the Houthi militias has launched another rocket towards Khamis Mushait in Saudi Arabia, targeting civilians. I’m wondering if you can update us on Mr. Lenderking (inaudible) an effort of trying to get the Houthis back to the negotiation table.
MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. Well, I’ll start off by saying that we strongly condemn all egregious Houthi drone and missile attacks in Saudi Arabia. And these attacks are unacceptable. They’re dangerous. They put the lives of civilians at risk. And we remain deeply concerned by the frequency of these attacks, including on Saudi Arabia. We strongly call on all parties to seriously commit to a ceasefire and engage in negotiations under UN auspices in conjunction with UN Special – U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking. And this is a time for, again, the Houthis to come to the table and to commit to peace and diplomacy in the region. Again, the Houthis’ attacks on Saudi Arabia – again, we’ll just repeat – are unacceptable and this – these are not actions of a group who say that they want peace.
We will go to the line of Laura Kelly from The Hill.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for taking my question. I hope you can hear me.
MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.
QUESTION: That’s wonderful. House Democrats sent a letter today to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for the State Department to pressure Israel to provide more vaccines and a vaccination campaign for the Palestinians. Have you received the letter? Do you have any comment on it? And if I may just ask a second question. Does the State Department have comment on the UK – the police in London breaking up the peaceful vigils for Sarah Everard over the weekend? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Hi, thank you for your questions. To the first question, I haven’t seen the report so I’m unable to comment on that. And when it comes to your second question about the vigil in London, we also don’t have any specific comment on that, but if we do, we’ll be sure to let you know.
Now let’s go to the line of Hiba Nasr.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I would ask about Sudan. Earlier today, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok called for a U.S. mediation to solve the issue of the Nahda dam. Do you have any comment on that? Are you willing to engage?
MS PORTER: So we’ve seen the breaking report, and we continue to support collaborative and constructive efforts to resolve the disagreement on the GERD. We understand the GERD is a major issue for the parties, and we certainly encourage the resumption of a productive dialogue.
We go to the line of Simon Lewis – oh no, we already went and got him. Right. Simon, are you back on the line or is that – he’s back? Okay. The line of Simon Lewis.
QUESTION: Question if you don’t mind. Just you mentioned the violence in Myanmar over the weekend, in Myanmar, Burma over the weekend. Specifically, a lot of the killings happened in the Hlaing Thar Yar neighborhood of Yangon on Sunday. And that seems to be connected to these Chinese diamond factories that were set on fire.
And the Chinese Government has responded by – well, calling for the security forces in Myanmar to handle the situation and protect the Chinese businesses there, and state media in China is sort of warning of more drastic action to protect its interests in the country.
Given the talks that are about to happen with the Secretary and Chinese counterparts, I wonder if the U.S. had some warning or comment to make about China’s seeming involvement in backing the security forces in this case, and any concern that outside foreign actors are getting involved in this situation in Myanmar.
MS PORTER: So I’ll just start off by saying that, again, we are deeply concerned and saddened by the reports and strongly condemn the use of violence in Burma security forces against their people. When it comes to your question about China and the Chinese-owned factories in Burma, we certainly have to refer you to the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs for more information on that, but we again certainly don’t condone any use of violence in Burma. And again, we’ll continue to call on all countries, including neighbors of Burma, to take concrete actions to oppose the coup and urge a return to civilian governance and stability.
Can we go to the line of Jennifer Hansler on CNN?
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this, Jalina. I have two questions. One, it appears that Ambassador Khalilzad is back in Afghanistan meeting with Afghan Government officials. I’m wondering if you have any more information on that stop.
And then separately, there are reports in Hong Kong that two employees of the consulate there tested positive for COVID but refused to be quarantined, citing diplomatic immunity. I was wondering if you could confirm that or if you have any comment. Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thank you, Jennifer. Going back to Ambassador Khalilzad, he departed Doha today after several days of meetings with negotiating parties and other stakeholders to encourage progress on political settlement and a comprehensive ceasefire as well as immediate reduction of violence. And I’ll repeat what we said earlier about his participation in Moscow, which he plans to attend.
Is she still on the line? What was your second question, Jennifer? Are you still there?
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay. On the second one, there were reports that two Hong Kong consulate workers tested positive for COVID but wouldn’t quarantine and they cited diplomatic immunity. I was wondering if you could confirm that or if you have any comment.
MS PORTER: Yes, so we’ve been informed that two consulate general employees have tested positive for COVID-19, but due to privacy concerns, we’re not able to share additional information. When it comes to disinformation about these two not complying to quarantine, that is absolutely false.
Can we go to the line of Michel Ghandour?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for doing the call. I have two questions, one on Libya and one on Lebanon.
And second, on Libya, do you have any comment on the new government that swore in today? And how do you view the future of Khalifa Haftar?
MS PORTER: So on Lebanon, generally speaking, we’re concerned about the developments in Lebanon and the apparent inaction of the country’s leadership in the face of multiple ongoing crises. Lebanon’s political leaders need to put aside their partisan brinkmanship and form a government that will quickly – quickly implement critical and long-needed reforms, restore investor confidence, and rescue the country’s economy.
All right. So we will take one final question from Hadil.
Also I have a question about Syria. Are you considering lifting the sanctions applied on Assad regime, especially Caesar Act? And do you think the sanctions have been viable to pressure Assad’s regime to accept the political resolution? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Hi, thank you. To address your first question on Syria, President Biden has made it one of his first foreign policy priorities to end the war in Yemen, and by doing so, appointing a high-level envoy dedicated to that purpose, U.S. Special Envoy Lenderking, who has also been engaged with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths on this effort. We now have a sound, fair plan for a nationwide ceasefire with elements that would immediately address Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation. And that plan has been before Houthi leadership for days. Again, the United States is building on a UN framework and amplifying it through our own diplomatic engagement and expanded regional support. And again, we will routinely call on the Houthis to seize this moment and come to the table to diplomacy.
To your second question on Syria, I believe, we’ll just say generally speaking that we believe that stability in Syria and the greater region can only be achieved through a political process that represents the will of all Syrians. And we’re committed to working with allies, partners, as well as the UN to ensure that a durable political solution remains within reach.
All right. That ends our call for today. Thank you for coming and we’ll be back here at this same time tomorrow.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:36 p.m.)
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