Department Press Briefing – March 19, 2021
2:01 p.m. EDT
MS PORTER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s press briefing. I have two quick updates I’d like to share at the top, and then we will go into taking your questions.
During his remarks, Under Secretary Hale announced then more than $80 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to the crisis in the Sahel region.
This lifesaving assistance is critical for the survival of nearly three million refugees and internally displaced people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. It will provide them with vital protections, economic opportunity, shelter, essential health care, emergency food assistance, safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene services. It will also help host communities across the Sahel.
The United States is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance both in the Sahel region and globally, and encourages other donors to contribute to these lifesaving efforts.
We remain deeply concerned by the frequency of attacks on Saudi Arabia. We have seen that the Houthis claimed responsibility for these attacks and condemn the Houthis’ attempts to disrupt global energy supplies by targeting Saudi infrastructure. This behavior shows an utter lack of concern for safety of the civilian population either working or living nearby the sites.
International voices have called for an end to the attacks and an end to the conflict in Yemen. Last week, the United States joined the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy in condemning Houthi aggressive acts directed toward Saudi Arabia and within Yemen itself.
This week, the Gulf Cooperation Council called for an end to the attacks and a return to the negotiating table to resolve the conflict and bring a lasting peace the Yemeni people deserve. And yesterday, the Members of the UN Security Council also condemned the Houthi offensive on Marib and the cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia.
These attacks threaten peace efforts at a critical moment when the international community is showing an increasingly united front in resolving the conflict in Yemen.
We call on all parties to seriously commit to a ceasefire and engage in negotiations under UN auspices, in conjunction with U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking.
With that, I will wait a few minutes while our queue populates and start taking your questions.
Let’s go to the line of Casey O’Neil, please.
QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thanks so much for doing this again. Happy Friday. So just two quick questions for you, the first on Burma: Can you provide any update on the Department’s review, the interagency review that they’re undertaking – that you’re undertaking, excuse me, with regard to the Rohingya?
And then second question on Senator Coons’ trip to Ethiopia. I know I asked about it yesterday, but just wanted to follow up: Can you provide any additional information on State Department involvement in the trip, if any State Department officials are accompanying him and the like? Thanks.
MS PORTER: Thank you, Casey, and a Happy Friday to you as well. To answer your first question, Secretary Blinken has committed to reviewing whether the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Burma constitute any specific atrocity crimes and has also expressed deep concern over the Burmese military’s longstanding impunity for past and ongoing abuses. And I’ll also say that the State Department continues to review information related to the military’s abuses against all Burmese people, which includes the Rohingya, to inform and develop policies that help address these abuses and also prevent their future occurrences.
To your next question about the – Senator Coons going to Ethiopia, again, there – we’ll just say that, again, he is there at the request of President Biden, and as you know, they have a close friendship and relationship. And he entrusts him to convey our concerns about the humanitarian crisis ongoing in the Tigray region in the Horn of Africa.
Let’s please go to the line of Simon Lewis.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Alaska, if you’re able to talk about that. Obviously, there’s been a lot of reporting since yesterday about how sort of tense the initial encounter was. And there’s been discussions of – I think both sides have accused the other of breaking protocol in those initial exchanges. But I wonder if – does the State Department – based on the tone of that first meeting, does that give you any concern for the future of the relationship with China and the possibility of reaching some agreements or getting some achievables out of these meetings? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thank you for your question, Simon, and just as a response to that, of course, as you know, Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan had their first meetings with Director Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, and of course, are in sessions this morning. And these were serious discussions. Again, I’ll just reiterate something that NSA Sullivan said. And of course, to your point about it, the – being contentious or not, again, we – he said we don’t see conflict, but of course, welcome stiff competition.
Again, this was a single meeting, and again, we know that sometimes these diplomatic presentations can be exaggerated or maybe even aimed at a domestic audience, but we’re not letting the theatrics from the other side stop us from doing what we were intending to do in Alaska, which is lay out our principles as well as our expectations and have these tough conversations early that we need to have with the PRC.
Let’s go to the line of Edward Keenan.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) of the Alaska meetings, the two Michaels, Kovrig and – the two Canadian Michaels who are being held as political prisoners in China, widely perceived as leverage against the United States, who are going to trial now as these meetings take place. Secretary Blinken and President Biden expressed their desire to see those two Michaels released when they met with the Canadian prime minister recently. I wonder to what extent those cases are up for discussion in Alaska right now, and if so, like, to what extent and how?
MS PORTER: Well, let me start off by saying that the United States continues to publicly call on the PRC to end the arbitrary and unacceptable detentions of the Canadians citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. And again, the United States is deeply concerned by the PRC’s decision to hold a closed-court hearing with the Canadian citizens. Obviously, no one from – no diplomat from Canada or the U.S. were involved in that. And we’re also deeply alarmed by a report that the PRC will commence the trial of Canadian citizen Michael Kovrig on March 22nd and we renew our call for PRC authorities to attend this trial.
We’ll always just reiterate that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada in calling for their immediate release, and we also continue to condemn their lack of minimum procedural protections during their two-year arbitrary detention.
Let’s go to the line of Rosalind Jordan.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) question about North Korea. Earlier today, the First Vice Foreign Minister of the DPRK, Choe Son-hui – and I may be saying his name incorrectly – issued a statement rebuffing the U.S.’s efforts to recommence contact. And I’m going to read a couple of quick quotes from his lengthy statement: “We make it clear…we won’t give it,” meaning the U.S., “such opportunities [for engagement],” again, my words, “as in Singapore and Hanoi again.” And the final statement: “[W]e will counter the U.S. on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill.” All of that to say that the U.S. needs to stop its hostile actions. In the DPRK’s views, it needs to stop spying, military actions, sanctions, the whole list, before Kim Jong-un will decide to engage again with the Biden administration. Is there a response from the administration to this rebuffing? Does the U.S. believe that this is simply a way of the government trying to build domestic political support for its untenable position, as the global community has suggested?
MS PORTER: Thank you for the question, Rosiland. We’ll – I’ll reiterate what we’ve said a few times this week in that the United States is conducting a thorough interagency review of the U.S. policy towards North Korea, and we’re also evaluating all the options available to address the increasing threat posed by North Korea as well as to its neighbors and, quite frankly, our international community. And we’re going to continue to lead a structured and detailed policy process that has an – integrated a diverse set of voices from the government as well as outside of the government, which includes think tanks and outside experts.
Let’s go to the line of Jeongeun Ji.
MS PORTER: Hi.
QUESTION: Hi. I also wanted to ask about North Korea’s statement yesterday about Malaysia and the U.S. So North Korea said it will cut off diplomatic relations with Malaysia and the U.S. will pay a price because of the extradition of a North Korean to the U.S. So I wanted to see if you have any comments on this North Korea statement and the ongoing extradition process. Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. When it comes to the extradition and just all of that tied to your question, I would have to refer you to the Department of Justice.
Let’s go to the line of Pearl Matibe.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, and good morning to you, Jalina. My question is regarding the security trainings for forces in Uganda and Nigeria. Can you speak a little bit about the status of your relationship now? There was a report this week in a press conference accusing Uganda of more than 400 abductions, arrests, and so on. So I was wondering, do you feel that the trainings that were taking place in Uganda and Nigeria to take out the LRA and Boko Haram, respectively – do you think that that is working? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. I won’t comment specifically on trainings that are happening in country, but what we will say when it comes to just overall safety and security in the region, specifically to Nigeria and Uganda, that we will continue to support safety and security when it comes to – especially when it comes to children and people who have been targeted for kidnappings. And we remain concerned, especially in Nigeria, when it comes to an uptick in their kidnappings, especially for ransom.
We’ll also say that the United States remains engaged to respond to all the security challenges in Africa, specifically when it comes to Nigeria and Uganda as well, and the State Department currently funds the majority of U.S. Government peace and security assistance in Africa and remains committed to these efforts. Diplomatic and security engagement with U.S. partners in Africa, quite frankly, advances our interests and values. Enhancing our alliances and partnerships in Africa through diplomatic development and security initiatives only enables us to better protect and serve interests – U.S. interests in Africa.
Let’s go to the line of Beatriz Pascual.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I wanted to go back to China. The talks in Alaska are set to conclude today, so I wanted to see if you could please provide us some details about what specific issues are on the table today or some detail about the issues that were discussed yesterday. And also, what specific outcome does the U.S. hope to achieve out of these dialogues? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. Again, we’ll reiterate that Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan are in Anchorage having serious discussions. And the goal of the United States delegation coming to Anchorage was to lay out our principles, interests, and values, and that we animate our engagement with Beijing.
Knowing that the exaggerated diplomatic presentations in front of the media are aimed at a domestic audience, we will continue to map out our planned agenda. And again, as I said earlier, that’s to make sure that we will still come from a position of strength and, again, lay out our common interests and principles from the United States.
And again, as Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan have already emphasized, America’s approach will be undergirded by confidence in our dealings with Beijing, even as we have the humility to know that we are a country that’s eternally striving to become a more perfect union regardless of any of our shortcomings and challenges we’ve had. We’re always open to meeting these challenges, even in an open forum where everyone’s watching globally, and we know we’ll come out better because of that.
Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.
QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thank you. On your Human Rights Report on South Korea, not North Korea, there’s one part talking about South Korea’s law abandoning leaflet-sending activities. Some NGOs and North Korean defectors in South Korea argued that they were providing outside information to North Korean people by sending leaflets. What’s your view on this? Do you support these kinds of efforts – maybe not just the leaflets, but overall activities and efforts providing outside information to North Korea?
Also, could you tell us about the new Human Rights Report on North Korea? What’s the State Department’s position when it comes to improving the situation in North Korea? Thank you.
MS PORTER: I thank you for your questions. So we actually have not yet rolled out our Human Rights Report. We’ll actually – hopefully that happens soon. And we won’t, again, get ahead of that, and you’ll have an update when that does come out. But we’ll say more broadly speaking, as a global policy, we advocate for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. When it comes to – with regards to the DPRK, we continue to campaign for the free flow of information into the DPRK.
We’ll take one final question from Hiba Nasr.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thanks for doing this, Jalina. I want to go back to Yemen. I heard your statement, your opening statement, and we had several statements calling for the Houthis to stop attacks against Saudi Arabia. What is the next move? What’s your next move? Are you considering designating the Houthis again? Are you waiting until you sit with the Iranians?
MS PORTER: Thank you for your questions. Again, we will always condemn the Houthis for their attacks on Saudi Arabia. And again, we will always call on them and all parties to commit to a serious ceasefire and engage in negotiations that are specifically UN auspices and also in conjunction with U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking.
I’ll just reiterate that President Biden made it one of his first foreign policy priorities to end the terrible war in Yemen, and in doing so, of course, appointing Special Envoy Lenderking. And he has been engaged with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in Saudi Arabia and regional states to put together elements to put together a nationwide ceasefire.
And when it comes to Lebanon, again, we remain deeply concerned about the developments in Lebanon and, of course, the apparent inaction of the country’s leadership that face multiple ongoing crises. Lebanon’s political leaders need to put aside their partisan brinkmanship and form a government that will quickly implement critical and long-needed reform, restore investor confidence, and as well rescue the country’s economy.
That concludes today’s briefing. Thank you again for joining me this Friday. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you next week.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:25 p.m.)