MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: Before I get to your questions, I would like to take just a moment to highlight an initiative that illustrates the U.S. commitment to pursuing accountability for war crimes and other atrocities committed by members of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, using every tool we have available.
Earlier today, with our European and UK partners, we announced the launch of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group for Ukraine, or the ACA.
This multilateral initiative directly supports ongoing efforts by the war crimes units of the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, the OPG, to document, preserve, analyze evidence of war crimes and other atrocities committed in Ukraine, with a view to criminal prosecutions.
As the Secretary said in a statement earlier today, evidence continues to mount of war crimes and other atrocities committed by members of Russia’s forces in Ukraine. In addition to continued bombardments and missile strikes hitting densely populated areas, causing thousands of civilian deaths, we continue to see credible reports of violence of a different order: unarmed civilians shot in the back; individuals killed execution-style with their hands bound; bodies showing signs of torture; and horrific accounts of sexual violence against women and girls.
The establishment of this multilateral accountability effort, therefore, comes at a critical time. The ACA will provide strategic advice and operational assistance to the war crimes unit of the OPG, the legally constituted authority responsible for prosecuting war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine. The ACA will reinforce and help coordinate existing U.S., EU, and UK efforts to support justice and accountability for atrocity crimes. It will demonstrate our international solidarity with Ukraine as it seeks to hold Russia accountable.
Although the United States and our partners are supporting a range of international efforts to pursue accountability for atrocities, the OPG will play a crucial role in ensuring that those responsible for war crimes and other atrocities are held accountable at the domestic level. The ACA is an essential element of the United States commitment to seeing that those responsible for such crimes are held to account.
With that, happy to take your questions. Shaun.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on Ukraine?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The – Ukraine has voiced unease. Russia has said it’s going to make it easier for people in parts of Ukraine that are under Russian control to obtain Russian citizenship. Does the United States have a view on that?
MR PRICE: We certainly have a view on some of the horrific tactics that the Russian Federation has employed in parts of Ukraine, eastern Ukraine, where its forces are present. We have seen Russian forces forcibly remove individuals from occupied territory. We have seen Russia’s forces transport Ukrainians to the so-called filtration camps. We have seen Russia’s forces attempt through other ways to subjugate, otherwise subdue the Ukrainian people in these areas.
So to the extent that this is an effort that is only loosely disguised as an element of Russia’s attempt to subjugate the people of Ukraine, to impose their will by force, that is something that we would forcefully reject. It is not entirely unlike Russia’s attempts to manufacture these fake referenda, referenda that are designed to offer the veneer of legitimacy to Russian rule over parts of what is sovereign Ukrainian territory; referenda where Russian-backed officials tend to somehow accrue 90-plus, 99 percent of the vote. It is a tactic that Russia’s forces, the Russian Federation have used in different contexts before – in Crimea in 2014, in Chechnya, more recently our concerns that we voiced with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in this phase, including in places like Kherson.
QUESTION: Ned, a follow-up. Shooting people in the back and things like this, tied behind – their hands – is that a new thing, or is that the Bucha massacre? Are you looking into old stuff, or all lumped together?
MR PRICE: The reference that the Secretary made in his statement today and the reference I made at the top of course includes Bucha. But we have seen reports of these types of summary executions in places well beyond Bucha. As the Secretary speaks to this, as he has talked about it, he has described a receding tide, a receding tide of brutality. And when Russia’s forces leave a city, a town, a place like Bucha, in the coming days a place like Mariupol, what we have found in its wake are additional reports of these types of atrocities.
QUESTION: Okay. And the ACA, is it going to be something akin or parallel to the ICC, for instance? How will it conduct its work?
MR PRICE: So what the ACA does is bring together multinational experts to provide strategic advice, operational assistance, and capacity building, including technical capacity building in areas such as crime scene and forensic investigations; the drafting of indictments; the collection, preservation of evidence; operational analysis; the investigation of conflict-related violence, including sexual violence; and cooperation with international and national accountability mechanisms.
It specifically includes two key elements. The first is an advisory group to the OPG, the Office of the Prosecutor General, made up of experienced war crimes prosecutors, investigators, and other specialists, based in the region to provide expertise, mentoring, advice, and operational support to the OPG. And the second component is something known as MJTs, or Mobile Justice Teams, composed of both international and Ukrainian experts. These experts will be deployed at the request of the OPG to increase the capacity of the war crimes unit and regional prosecutors to assist the investigation on the ground.
We’ve said this before, but the reason we are focusing at least in the first instance our efforts on the Office of the Prosecutor General and her war crimes unit is precisely because they have the capacity, they have the determination, and importantly they have the jurisdiction to bring these cases to trial, including criminal prosecutions, one of which we have already seen result in a guilty plea.
QUESTION: It is U.S. Government officials who will be working in those Mobile Justice Teams?
MR PRICE: Right now these are non-official American experts, individual who bring expertise, knowledge, and know-how, as well as experience in all of these areas.
QUESTION: So they – so those are civilians, but they will travel into Ukraine sort of despite the current warnings of —
MR PRICE: As part of the Mobile Justice Teams, there will be international experts who will be on the ground at the disposal of the Ukrainian prosecutor general and her team whose expertise then can be deployed as appropriate.
QUESTION: Hold on —
QUESTION: Will the ACA – will the ACA be able to advise to investigate Putin?
MR PRICE: The ACA is focused on war crimes and potential war crimes in Ukraine, so they will be looking at reports, reports that may well entail much more than reports and could constitute evidence of war crimes. Now, of course, in the first instance they are going to look to criminally prosecute those who are in Ukraine, as is the case now with the Russian soldier who has recently undergone trial. But we have made the point clear that under international humanitarian law it’s not only the individual that pulls the trigger or conducts the war crime on the ground, but it is anyone in the chain of command who was witting and part of a war crime. And so that’s something that more broadly we will look to as well.
QUESTION: Ned, I’m sorry, I missed the top. I’m beginning to think there might be something of a conspiracy with no two-minute warning, or at least I didn’t hear if there was one, so anyway, I apologize.
MR PRICE: I will just – I will make the point, Matt, that everyone else was here on time.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, I apologize for missing the very top, and I hope that you’re prepared to answer this question. And I want to preface it by saying I am not suggesting that it is a waste of time or money to investigate war crimes allegations at all, wherever they take place, whether it’s in Burma, whether it’s in Iraq, whether it’s in Afghanistan, whether it’s in the West Bank, whether it is in Ukraine or Syria. I – that’s fine.
But since the President – President Biden – first said that he believed war crimes were being committed by Russia in Ukraine, there have been, by my counting – correct me if I’m wrong – at least three different initiatives that the United States has either begun, launched, or taken part of to investigate war crimes in – allegations in Ukraine. This latest one says in the joint statement – it says it seeks to streamline coordination and communications efforts to ensure best practices, and most critically, avoid duplication of efforts.
Now, less or just a week ago – like eight days ago – you guys announced that there was this – the creation with $6 million of this new conflict observatory, which is basically going to do the same thing as what this ACA thing is, unless you can tell me that I’m wrong and that it doesn’t.
MR PRICE: I can —
QUESTION: But you had already, when – but you – even before then, after the President’s comments, when the Secretary made his announcement that he had concluded that war crimes were being committed, you guys had also pledged additional funds to NGO investigators who were going to be in the region – maybe not necessarily in Ukraine, but traveling in and collecting evidence and sharing it with the ICC and others.
So this latest thing, which – I’m sure that there’s – it’s being done with good intentions, but how is it not duplicating efforts that you guys have – are already spending millions of dollars on?
MR PRICE: If your point, Matt, is that we are heavily —
QUESTION: I don’t have a point, I just want to know how this is not duplicative of the other three – two – at least two, and maybe three, initiatives that you guys are already doing.
MR PRICE: Well, the premise of your point or perhaps your question seems to be that we’re heavily invested in this. We absolutely are. We are committed to working with the Ukrainian prosecutor general and her team to see to it that we can do everything we can to be helpful in the effort to bring to justice those who are responsible for war crimes. You raised a few different mechanisms; let me see if I can offer some clarity on that.
You are correct that we did launch something called the Observatory in recent weeks. That is —
QUESTION: It was last week.
MR PRICE: That is separate and distinct from this new mechanism. The Observatory is a consortium working with, by the way, some of the same partners who are involved in this, but for a very different purpose. It is not to provide the sort of technical expertise, technical analysis, the writing of indictments, the forensics, the investigation on the ground of potential war crimes. The Observatory is a hub to collect open-source potential evidence pointing to war crimes, not only for authorities in various jurisdictions but for the public, including to continue to shine a spotlight on what are clearly atrocities and apparent war crimes that are ongoing in Ukraine.
This, as I alluded to a moment ago, is quite separate. There is, as I said, two elements to this. There is an advisory group that is made up of war crimes prosecutors, investigators, other specialists to provide expertise, mentoring, advice, operational support, the kind of tactical operational support that you’re not going to see from the Observatory – the writing of an indictment, for example, the forensics investigation. And then, of course, the Observatory does a service by publishing open-source information; but what the ACA does is it helps our Ukrainian partners actually collect that evidence actually on the ground, with Mobile Justice Teams composed of international and Ukrainian experts to be deployed to augment the capacity of the Ukrainian prosecutor general.
You are also right that we have funded various operational partners, again, some of whom are – have been recipients of that funding that we talked about and who are involved in both the Observatory and the ACA. So when we talk about deconfliction and the avoidance of duplication, that is absolutely a goal of the ACA.
QUESTION: Yeah, but it involves the —
MR PRICE: That’s part of the reason why we’re working with the UK and the EU, bringing to bear this technical expertise, this technical know-how, and this technical capacity, so that together with some of our closest partners we can help direct it precisely where the Ukrainian prosecutor general and her team need it.
QUESTION: All right. Well, maybe we can get someone in here to explain to me exactly how these aren’t duplicative, because I don’t get it in what you – I don’t think your response has cleared it up. Maybe it has for others, but not for me. So perhaps we could have a conversation with someone who’s actually directly involved.
So anyway, how much is this ACA going to cost?
MR PRICE: This is something that we’ve just launched today. We don’t have specific figures to release, but we’re working with Congress to allocate additional assistance funds that will continue to support the important work that’s being undertaken.
QUESTION: And then the last one on this is that you have a pretty senior – I don’t know if this was at the top that I missed, but you have some senior officials who are in The Hague today or finishing their trip today. Did you get into that?
MR PRICE: We have not.
QUESTION: Oh. Is that not part of this?
MR PRICE: It is separate.
QUESTION: Well, they seemed to talk about the —
MR PRICE: Well, of course —
QUESTION: I mean, the statement about their visit says that they were talking about the European Democratic Resilience Initiative, EDRI, which is the same thing that –
MR PRICE: But the visit —
QUESTION: — you guys are drawing on for this ACA.
MR PRICE: The visit is not linked to the launch precisely of the ACA.
QUESTION: Okay, all right. So does it have anything to do with more cooperation or increasing cooperation with the ICC and the – the visit I mean.
MR PRICE: The visit has to do, again, with our support for the announcement, the fact that we welcomed the announcement by the ICC prosecutor general looking into the situation in Ukraine. Again, we have said that we are willing to assist the efforts of all of those mechanisms that have the potential to bring to justice, to hold accountable, those who are responsible for war crimes in Ukraine.
In the first instance, as I just said at some length, we are focused on the Ukrainian prosecutor general and her team, precisely because they have the determination, the know-how, and importantly, the jurisdiction to do just that, which they’ve already proven in at least one case. But there’s the Moscow mechanism, there’s a commission of inquiry through the Human Rights Council that we helped to establish, and there’s the ICC, whose announcement we did welcome when it came about.
QUESTION: So just to put a fine point on it, they didn’t go there to say we’re going to do more to help you, we’re just going to continue what we’ve already been doing; is that correct?
MR PRICE: I don’t have conversations to read out. Of course, the visit is ongoing. But we have said that we are prepared to work with the appropriate mechanisms in the pursuit of justice in Ukraine.
QUESTION: To follow on the ACA a little more.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Will the ACA be involved in investigating of war crimes elsewhere, or is it only distinctly about Ukraine?
MR PRICE: This is focused on Ukraine.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Nazira?
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Price. As you know, the Taliban recent decision ordered all woman during the programming in TV to use mask. It’s too difficult. I don’t know United States has some reaction to them and what their expectation, what they want from the United States or international community because it’s really tough decision. Every day they create a new regulation for the woman.
Number two, can you update me about refugee number, how many came since August 15, and how many expected to come to the United States, plesae? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you for that. You raise the most recent set of restrictions, and it’s important that we dwell on the fact that it’s only the most recent because these restrictions do come in the context of a number of restrictions that the Taliban has imposed on women and girls inside of Afghanistan, including the continuing ban on girls’ secondary access to – access to secondary education and work, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the targeting of peaceful protestors.
We have said – I think I’ve said this to you – that the Taliban’s policies towards women and girls, they are an affront to human rights; they will continue to negatively impact the relationship that the Taliban has and potentially hopes to have not only with the United States but with the rest of the world. We are discussing this with our – with other countries, with our allies and partners. You may have seen the joint statements that came out of the G7, also the joint press statement out of the UN Security Council. The legitimacy, the support the Taliban seeks from the international community, it depends on their conduct, including – and centrally – their respect for the rights of women.
When it comes to the public and private commitments that the Taliban have made. They have made a number of them, including their counterterrorism commitments, including their pledge to respect and to uphold the human rights of women, girls, Afghanistan’s minorities, including access – the freedom of access, freedom of travel for those who wish to leave Afghanistan, and when it comes to ISIS-K and al-Qaida.
Of course, the Taliban has not been living up to the commitment it has made in the realm of human rights, in the realm of what it has pledged to the women and girls of Afghanistan. It is not just the United States that has taken note, but it is a number of countries around the world, including multilateral organizations, including the UN, that have also taken note. And of course that will have implications for the world’s relationship with the Taliban going forward.
QUESTION: A number, too? How many refugee expected to come to the United —
MR PRICE: I don’t have an updated refugee figure to offer, but we can get back to you on that.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. On North Korea and the PRC, so could you give us your reaction to the ballistic missile test yesterday? Is there any indication of another nuclear test? And on the PRC, could you help us understand what would be the main focus of the Secretary’s policy speech tomorrow?
MR PRICE: So on the missile launches that we’ve seen overnight, we condemn the DPRK’s multiple ballistic missile launches that took place last night Eastern Time. These launches are a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and they are a threat to the region, a threat to its peace and stability. We call on the DPRK to refrain from further provocation and to engage in sustained dialogue.
Our commitment to the defense of the ROK and to Japan is ironclad. That was a message that Secretary Blinken delivered to his Japanese and South Korean counterparts shortly after the most recent launches last night. Secretary Austin also spoke to his counterparts. This of course came on the heels of President Biden’s meeting with his Japanese and ROK counterparts in Tokyo and South Korea. It is a testament, we think, to the strength of our alliances with the ROK and Japan that we had this close coordination at multiple levels and multiple principals in the immediate aftermath of the launches of these ballistic missiles. In the Secretary’s call last night – calls last night, all three officials strongly condemned the DPRK’s ballistic missile launches as a clear violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions. The Secretary noted our commitment to the defense of our treaty allies and affirmed the importance of continued close trilateral cooperation on the threat that is posed by the DPRK and towards the objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
We know that the DPRK’s ongoing provocations pose a threat to the region, pose a threat to all of us. And it’s incumbent on the international community to join us in condemning the DPRK’s flagrant and repeated violations of these multiple UN Security Council resolutions and to uphold their obligations under all relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
When it comes to the Secretary’s speech tomorrow, I of course want to allow the Secretary to deliver that speech before we go too far into detail, but he will deliver remarks at the Asia – or at the George Washington University in a speech that is being hosted by the Asia Society. He will outline our approach to the People’s Republic of China. I think you will hear from the Secretary the fact that this relationship is one that will and has the potential to contour the international landscape. The next 10 years will in many ways be the decisive decade in the competition between the United States and China. That’s why even as we’re focused together with our allies and partners on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, we’ve continued our focus on the long-term challenge of the PRC. And that’s what the Secretary will detail tomorrow, how we’re going to and how we have pursued that.
QUESTION: Thank you. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Rudenko said today that he would support helping Ukrainian grain and other grain get out of the Black Sea today in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on Russian exports and financial industry. So I’m wondering if the U.S. supports that given that, as many of us thought, the negotiations that the UN was leading were looking for some sort of sanctions carveout or sanctions exemption on fertilizers and food.
MR PRICE: Well, first and foremost, we continue our close cooperation with our Ukrainian partners. What we said in the lead-up to the invasion is true now: nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.
You have heard from Russian officials a series of lies, a series of disinformation, regarding the issue of food security and the global food supply. Despite those claims, U.S. sanctions are not causing disruptions to Russia’s agricultural exports. The fact is that U.S. sanctions were specifically designed to allow for the export of agricultural commodities and fertilizer from Russia.
So we certainly won’t lift our sanctions in response to empty promises, and we’ve heard empty promises before from the Russian Federation. I think we have – all have good reason to be skeptical when we hear various pledges and offers from Russia. This was the same country, of course, that for months maintained that it had no intention of invading its neighbor and taking on this brutal war.
So we’ll continue to coordinate closely with our allies and partners on this matter, just as we have since Russia initiated its unjustified and appalling further invasion of Ukraine. It is Russia that continues to destabilize global food markets through its war, through its self-imposed export restrictions, which have raised the cost of food around the globe.
You heard from the Secretary this message last week, but we find it appalling that Russia would seek to weaponize food and energy to try to bring the world to heel. We have never sanctioned food. We have never sanctioned agricultural goods from Russia. Unlike Russia, we have no interest in weaponizing food against the needy. Our nonfood sanctions will remain in place until Putin stops this brutal war against Ukraine’s sovereignty. And we know that the quickest solution to the rising commodity prices, the rising food prices that have had implications around the world, is for the Russians to cease this brutal war, for Russia to stop blockading Ukraine’s ports, for Russia to stop targeting grain silos, to stop targeting grain ships, and to bring this violence to a close.
So we are working along multiple lines of effort together with our allies and partners. You heard about a number of those from the Secretary last week in his remarks at the ministerial in the UN Security Council. But the bottom line is that there is one country that is fully capable of putting an end to this crisis, and that’s Russia.
QUESTION: The New York Times today said the Biden administration has accelerated its efforts to reshape Taiwan’s defense systems and that U.S. officials are taking lessons learned from arming Ukraine. Could you describe what some of those lessons are and how they relate to arming Taiwan?
MR PRICE: Well, you’ve heard us talk about the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Taiwan Relations Act stipulates that we have an obligation to make available to Taiwan defense articles and services necessary to enable it to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. Within recent years, the United States has notified Congress of over $18 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.
We have encouraged the – our partners on Taiwan to push forward with an asymmetric strategy, knowing that an asymmetric strategy, an asymmetric model has – will be the most effective for them should it be necessary. We are in regular, routine conversations with them about the best systems, the best capabilities to pursue that strategy, and we will continue to consult with Congress as we move forward with other potential sales.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Not only major American news organizations such as AP and CNN have basically laid out almost a clear – clear evidence that the Israelis were behind the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, but also major Europeans like France 24, DPI, many others, and so on. My question to you – I know you want transparent and thorough investigation and so on, and I’m sure you guys probably have the best investigative assets anywhere in the world. Will the United States pursue its own investigative to determine whether these reports by respectable news agencies and companies and so on are authentic or right on target?
MR PRICE: Said, we have made clear to both Israeli and Palestinian authorities that we expect the investigations to be transparent and impartial – a full, thorough accounting into the circumstances of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. We do expect full accountability for those responsible for her killing. Again, we are not going to prejudge that investigation. Both investigations are ongoing. We have conveyed to our partners that we do expect to be updated on the status of their investigations, but in the end, we want to see accountability.
QUESTION: Should there be a time limit on the investigation? Because, I mean, Israel’s record is abysmal in this regard. They can drag on and on and on. Should there be, like, a time limit – say, we expect that you guys will be done with what you are doing by such and such date?
MR PRICE: We’re not going to impose a specific deadline, but these investigations need to be conducted, need to be concluded as rapidly as is possible.
QUESTION: Because the —
QUESTION: Sorry, sorry, just – yesterday I asked you if you were aware of an offer, at least, from the Israelis to – for the U.S. to participate in or to be an observer in their investigation, and you said you weren’t aware of that. Is that still the case?
MR PRICE: That’s still accurate, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. And then —
MR PRICE: Said, did you have another question?
QUESTION: Well, I have another one on this too, and that is the fact that you left out the word “immediate” in what you talked about, what you —
MR PRICE: Well, the investigations are ongoing.
QUESTION: You said – yeah, but yesterday you said you want an immediate – oh, so “immediate” meant the start of the investigation?
MR PRICE: It means —
QUESTION: Like immediately after the incident happened?
MR PRICE: It means the —
QUESTION: It doesn’t mean immediate like you want it done as – what —
MR PRICE: Well, of course, as I just said to Said, we want to see the investigations concluded as quickly as is possible.
QUESTION: Well, why did it drop out? Why did “immediate” drop out of the talking point today? Or did you just skip over it by —
MR PRICE: There has been no change in our policy.
QUESTION: Yeah, just a couple more on Gaza. Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the blockade on Gaza, and there is a very tight or actually potentially disastrous situation in terms of grain and so on, all factories have stopped and so on. Isn’t it time to really lift the blockade on Gaza? It’s layer after layer of blockades – the Israelis, the Egyptians, you. I mean, everybody is blockading Gaza. Don’t you think that the time has come to lift these blockades?
MR PRICE: Said, we have made clear that obviously we have concern for the humanitarian plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza. It’s precisely why we have taken a series of steps to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need.
QUESTION: Something you don’t usually address from the podium, but the situation in your home state, the tragedy in Texas with the shooting. As it relates to foreign affairs, your counterpart in Beijing today mentioned it and said that it’s unacceptable that the U.S. hasn’t addressed gun violence, said it’s hypocritical for the U.S. to be raising human rights with China when this goes on. Do you have any response to that? Do you think it’s fair game for Beijing to raise this?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a direct response to it. Perhaps I can get to it in a roundabout way. The toll of watching this, even for those of us who are enmeshed day to day in foreign policy, has been a real punch to the gut, and it’s been a punch that has landed on what is in many ways a bruise that hasn’t healed from just the other day, what we saw in Buffalo. It is a toll that – it’s a devastating human toll, but of course, it has implications for our work here at the department as well.
And as I’ve thought about it, I’ve – couldn’t help but focus on President Biden’s conception of American leadership. He’s made the point that it is not the example of our power, it’s the power of example that at our best we use to lead. We do so when we are at our best. The fact is that what happens in this country is magnified on the world stage, and countries around the world, people around the world are going to fixate on what transpires here, oftentimes out of envy, but again, that’s when we’re at our best. And that’s what we want. We’ve been a city on a hill, the last best hope, a shining beacon to the world, and again, when we’re at our best, that example is one that countries around the world would seek to emulate.
But the opposite is also true, can also be true. We have the potential to set an example for the world that no country would wish to emulate, and rather than be an object of envy, we have the potential to be a source of confusion, a source of disbelief for our closest friends and allies; worse yet, an object of pity, or in the case of competitors and adversaries, a source of – a source of schadenfreude, a source of in some cases glee.
So the power of our example has the potential to be our greatest asset. On days like today, however, it’s that example, an example that the world is clearly watching, that will have implications for our standing. And we’re very mindful of that.
QUESTION: What does that mean? On this point, I mean, it really is heartbreaking. And I just want to remind everybody, since Columbine in 1999, upward of 300,000 Americans have been hit by gun violence. I mean, this year alone, this is the 27th mass shooting. Last year, 42 mass shootings. We all have kids, and grandkids in my case. I mean, you talk about genocide. Isn’t this considered a genocide if you look at it in this kind of perspective, in this context for which, perhaps, the gun lobby ought to be at least partially held responsible?
MR PRICE: Said, genocide has a very specific definition, so of course I’m not going to weigh in on that. But you —
QUESTION: Massacre after massacre after massacre.
MR PRICE: You don’t have to tell me – and I will just say on a personal level, I was the age of the kids at Columbine in 1999 when they were targeted in Littleton. And now that we’re nearly 25 years beyond that and there are kids in elementary schools much younger than me who have been targeted on a mass scale twice in the past 10 years, it’s not lost on me; I don’t think it’s lost on anyone.
QUESTION: Are you aware – other than what Shaun mentioned about the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, are you aware of instances in which rivals or adversaries have taken – you said the word “glee,” or used derision, made comments, derisive comments? And has this come up at embassies?
MR PRICE: In the aftermath of events like this, we often do receive formal notes of condolence from other governments.
QUESTION: That’s understandable.
MR PRICE: I am not aware of other instances of that, but I have every expectation that my colleagues around the world who are posted in embassies and posts around the world are hearing directly from their counterparts. Again, I think it’s probably a mixture of condolence, confusion, of disbelief how something like this could continue to happen. But also importantly, an air of regret. Our friends and allies around the world want us to be that beacon, they want us to be that object of envy. And when we give the world reason to pity or to change that assessment of us, it is not only not in our interests, it not only has a cost for us, but it has a cost for them, too.
QUESTION: Well, are you aware of anything that U.S. officials or the administration has found to be particularly offensive in comments from foreign governments or foreign officials?
MR PRICE: I’m not. I’ve heard limited public comments.
QUESTION: Ned, on Iran, I asked you this question yesterday, but it looks like Israel and members of Congress today have welcomed the administration commitment not to de-list the IRGC. Is there any official or public commitment that you can announce today in this regard other than the reports from yesterday?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to speak to the details of our negotiations. You’ve heard us say before that we’re not going to negotiate these issues in public. But what I will say – and Special Envoy Malley mentioned this in his opening statement earlier today – if Iran maintains demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA, we’ll continue to reject them and there will be no deal. The discussions in Vienna are focused on the nuclear element, the JCPOA itself. That is what we have spent more than a year now negotiating indirectly with the Iranians. The two sides of this – one, the sanctions relief that we are prepared to take should there be a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA; and on the other hand, the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take if there were a mutual return to compliance, the nuclear steps that would see to it that Iran is once again permanently and verifiably prohibited from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: And on other topic, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs has met with General Abbas on Monday, Abbas Ibrahim, and discussed U.S. citizens who are missing or detained in Syria, as a State Department spokesperson has said. What role did the U.S. ask General Ibrahim to play in this regard?
MR PRICE: Well, as you alluded to, I can confirm that Roger Carstens, our special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, did meet with General Abbas Ibrahim on May 23rd to discuss U.S. citizens who are missing or detained in Syria. You won’t be surprised, Michel, to know that we are not going to comment on the specifics of those discussions beyond restating the fact that we have no higher priority than seeing the safe release of Americans who are wrongfully detained or held hostage anywhere around the world. Of course, we talked about the case of Austin Tice yesterday, an American who has been – who has been separated from his family for nearly 10 years, who has spent a quarter of his life separated from his family. He is always top of mind. The other Americans who are detained in places like Iran and Russia and Afghanistan and Venezuela and elsewhere are always top of mind for us too.
QUESTION: Do you have any information that he is still alive, and what do you expect from General Ibrahim to do after this visit?
MR PRICE: It is our goal to see Austin safely returned to his family so that he can once again give them a hug, he can be with them for the first time in 10 years. That is what we’re working towards.
QUESTION: From that hearing this morning, we did hear a commitment from the State Department that should a deal be reached with Iran that it would be submitted to Congress for approval. Now, that’s something of a departure from what Secretary Blinken said just last month. Can you explain the change?
MR PRICE: There has been no change. What we have always said is that we would follow the law, we would follow INARA. And what Special Envoy Malley clarified today is that we would submit, pursuant to INARA, for congressional approval a deal if we were to reach it.
QUESTION: But the Secretary did say that he would submit it to the lawyers. Did the lawyers make that determination?
MR PRICE: Of course, we’re going to consult closely with lawyers to determine what the law – what the INARA, what the law actually stipulates in this case, and pursuant to INARA, it is our intention to submit it for congressional review if – and it’s a big if – there is a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Well, wait a second. So you’re – so then it’s the lawyers first? So if – if, and it’s a big if – you get a deal —
MR PRICE: No, I just said we will submit it to Congress for review pursuant to INARA.
QUESTION: Well, you said it would go to the lawyers to see what INARA requires. Is it your – is it the administration’s belief that simply rejoining the 2015 deal does not constitute a new deal and that therefore it doesn’t need to be submitted to review? It can be given to the Congress so they can take a look at, but it isn’t subject to the delays that INARA – there’s a time period here that will need to be overcome to get it done quickly if you are to get back into one. So are you saying that it will go through the whole thing, the whole INARA thing regardless?
MR PRICE: You heard from Special Envoy Malley this morning that it is our intention to submit the deal to Congress for review if we are able to get there.
QUESTION: Okay, so that means that the administration believes that even if the deal that might – you – that you might get is simply a rejoining of the 20 – of the JCPOA as it existed in 2015, that means that you will still submit – the administration still believes that it should and will submit —
MR PRICE: It is our intention to submit it to Congress for review.
QUESTION: A couple things on Russia. Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov will be – I believe he’s already at the State Department. He’s got a meeting with Deputy Secretary Donfried. Increasingly, Russian journalists back at home and abroad are under pressure. Most recently we had two reporters that got charged for, I believe, disseminating, quote/unquote, “fake news.” And separately but not unrelated, Duma recently passed another legislation going after English-speaking-language media, to ease up prosecutions against them without any court order. But – meeting with Muratov is one way to express your support, but can you be more specific how you’re going to support those Russian journalists and foreign media at home and abroad who are trying to be truth-tellers in this crucial time?
MR PRICE: Yes. So, importantly, one of the elements of that is to stand in solidarity with those Russian journalists, many of whom are inside Russia operating under what even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have been described as incredibly difficult. Now, of course, President Putin’s efforts to manipulate even further the information environment to suppress the truth, to keep from his people the true motivations, the true costs, the true consequences of this war have made the operating environment for journalists in Russia even more difficult. And of course, the Duma has done its part: the sentencing, the potential for jail terms for anyone who would dare call this war anything other than the benign-sounding special military operation.
We have seen Russian media outlets have to shutter their operations. We have seen journalists forced to flee Russia. We have also seen – and you referenced a couple cases – journalists who have been thrown behind bars for their persistence in doing nothing but peacefully continuing to perform their indispensable function, a function that is indispensable inside Russia and a function that is indispensable for those of us living and viewing this from afar.
It is our goal to do everything we can responsibly to see to it that the information environment in Russia is not further constrained. That’s precisely why we have urged stakeholders around the world not to enact so-called internet blackouts on Russia, to keep information flowing to Russia, to keep the internet free and open and interoperable within Russia itself.
Now, of course, this is very challenging for any country to do given the fact that the Kremlin really does have a tight grip on the information flow, but we will continue to do what we can to support Russian journalists, to support Russian media organizations that are attempting to do their work, whether they are now located outside of Russia or to those who are remaining inside Russia.
QUESTION: Another Russia-related question, if I may?
QUESTION: On Saudi Arabia?
MR PRICE: One more question?
QUESTION: Yeah. On cyber security, you expressed previously your concerns about Russia’s cyber activities. There are signals, most recently coming from Moscow – National Security Council Deputy Secretary (inaudible) sent out a message saying that they are planning to put together agreements between Russia and a number of countries such as Serbia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan. I’m just wondering what kind of reaction would that invite from the West if they move forward with that.
MR PRICE: Well, to put it mildly, the Russian Federation has not proved itself to be a responsible actor in cyberspace. So we would certainly caution countries against entering into such agreements.
QUESTION: On Saudi Arabia, Axios reported that two advisors for President Biden, Brett McGurk and Hochstein, are actually on a secret mission or secret trip to Saudi Arabia for a possible increase in oil production for – to discuss the islands and for possible normalization. Are you aware of that or can you comment on this?
MR PRICE: I’ve seen the report. I don’t have any travel to speak to at this time. We have spoken at length, including at senior levels, about the critical importance of the strategic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, how strengthening those ties, putting those ties on stable footing, can work to the benefit of both countries. I think we’ve seen that across different realms in recent weeks, in recent months.
We’ve talked about Yemen here. Now that we have a truce, something that our Saudi partners were quite helpful in helping working with the UN special envoy, working with our special envoy, working with other stakeholders in the region to achieve, it has enabled humanitarian access to parts of the country that have been denied critical humanitarian supplies for far too long, and it has quelled the violence that has plagued Yemen for far too long dating back to 2014.
We have, of course, seen welcome steps with regards to the kingdom’s relationship with Lebanon, the kingdom’s relationship with its other Gulf neighbors, but the fact is that many of these steps also work to our benefit. Of course, there are 70,000 Americans who live in Saudi Arabia. They – these Americans, like our Saudi partners, are encountering legitimate security threats. So we’ll continue to work closely with our Saudi partners to counter the threats to both of our interests as we continue to support a relationship that works to the benefit of both of our countries.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: China is also said to be pursuing a new regional agreement with Pacific Island nations that would expand Beijing’s role in policing maritime cooperation and cyber security. They’re also planning to offer scholarships for more than 2,000 workers and young diplomats from the region. Do you see this as a reaction to President Biden’s trip to Japan and meeting with allies? And what concerns do you have about this expanded regional agreement, if any?
MR PRICE: I think it would be a stretch to call this a reaction to President Biden’s engagement. I think this may be a reflection – the PRC’s response to our sustained engagement with the region since we came into office. Of course, President Biden’s visit to Japan, to South Korea, was only the latest element of that, but we have had senior officials from the White House, senior officials from the State Department, travel to the region, including to the Pacific Islands region, to speak of our vision for an affirmative partnership with the countries of the region.
This is precisely what Secretary Blinken laid out when – from Indonesia. He spoke of our Indo-Pacific strategy, our strategy for the region that depicts the United States as a partner of choice, not a partner of compulsion, and since we have repeatedly and consistently spoken of what we can bring to the relationships with countries in the Pacific Islands.
When it comes to what we have seen of the PRC’s foreign minister’s intention to travel, we’re aware of media reports of his travel. We are also aware that China seeks to negotiate a range of arrangements during the foreign minister’s visit to the region. We are concerned that these reported agreements may be negotiated in a rushed, non-transparent process. At the same time, we respect the ability of countries of the region to make sovereign decisions in the best interests of their people.
It’s worth noting that the PRC has a pattern of offering shadowy, vague deals with little transparency or regional consultation in areas related to fishing, related to resource management, development assistance, and more recently, even security practices. And these recent security agreements have been conducted with little regional consultation, provoking public concern not only in the United States but across the Indo-Pacific region. And we don’t believe that importing security forces from the PRC and their methods will help any Pacific Island country; on the other hand, doing so could only seek to fuel regional and international tensions and increase concerns over Beijing’s expansion of internal – of its internal security apparatus to the Pacific.
So we have had recent engagements with our Pacific Island counterparts; this, of course, was a discussion in the context of the Quad at the leader level with President Biden and the newly sworn-in Australian prime minister and our other Quad partners. This, of course, was a topic of discussion when Secretary Blinken traveled to the Pacific Island region in February and spoke in very concrete terms regarding what the United States is able to offer in our affirmative partnerships.
MR PRICE: I do not know offhand. If there was a meeting, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Sorry, just back on the Pacific – on the islands. I mean, China is also an Indo-Pacific country, correct?
MR PRICE: Correct.
QUESTION: And so you – as long as it’s benign, you wouldn’t have any issue with them signing deals, right?
MR PRICE: Of course. These are sovereign decisions of individual countries.
QUESTION: Okay. Okay. So the importation of non – of security forces from countries other than China into the Pacific Island region wouldn’t cause an issue with you?
MR PRICE: The importation of – I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Non-Chinese security forces. I don’t know, say Australians or Americans or non-Chinese.
MR PRICE: What we have seen – these are —
QUESTION: These are sovereign decisions for the Pacific Islands to make.
MR PRICE: These are sovereign decisions. Our concern is that when the PRC has grown increasingly involved in the region in these – with various countries, we’ve seen a range of behavior that can only be described as increasingly problematic: assertion of unlawful maritime claims, ongoing militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea, predatory economic activities including illegal unregulated fishing, and then the investments that are extractive rather than beneficial to the countries that are subject to them, that often undermine good governance, often fuel corruption, and often undermine protections for human rights.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up —
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: – one more time on that? The – I know you said that – the concerns that they’re not transparent. Is there diplomacy on the part of the United States with the South Pacific nations specifically on this asking them either to reject it or to look at it more carefully?
MR PRICE: We look at this not through the China lens, but through the lens of how we can partner with these countries. So our pitch to them is not the negative; it is very much the affirmative. It is what the United States can bring to the table, how we bring it to the table, the high standards that we bring in terms of our partnerships, in terms of our investments, and how, when we work together, when we work together cooperatively, we can benefit both of our peoples.
QUESTION: Yes. Ned, I have two questions on Turkey and Greece. The first question is that there have been – is it true that the United States are mediating between Greece and Turkey to end the crisis caused by President Erdoğan? If you don’t have an answer, can you take that question?
MR PRICE: Mediating between —
QUESTION: Mediating between Athens and Ankara.
MR PRICE: We talked about this yesterday.
MR PRICE: We encourage our NATO Allies, including, of course, Greece and Turkey, to work together to maintain peace and security in the region and to resolve their differences diplomatically. We also encourage them to avoid rhetoric that could further raise tensions.
QUESTION: But when you say you encourage, you talk to them? You mediate?
MR PRICE: We – these are – these have been – this has been a topic of discussions with our Greece and Turkish allies.
QUESTION: I have another question I asked you yesterday but you didn’t give me an answer. What are you going to do if Turkey attacks Greece? Because there are a lot of reports that Erdogan is planning to invade the Greek islands. The situation is very serious.
MR PRICE: That is a hypothetical that I’m just not going to entertain. Again, our message remains to both our allies – in this case, Turkey and Greece – that they should work together to maintain peace and security in the region and to resolve any differences diplomatically.
QUESTION: Is there a contingency at NATO, what happens if one Ally attacks another? Do all the other ones gang up and come to the —
MR PRICE: That would be a question best directed at NATO.
QUESTION: But there are (inaudible), I mean, Greece and Turkey went at it, right?
MR PRICE: Yes, please.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I had a question about something that you mentioned yesterday. You said you’re deeply concerned about the potential escalation of the military situation in Syria. Have you communicated that to your Turkish counterparts? And are there or will there be any diplomatic efforts to convince Turkey not to escalate the situation there?
MR PRICE: We have engaged with our Turkish allies on this question, in the first instance, to learn more about the proposal that President Erdogan first voiced within recent days. We’ve done so from our embassy, from the department here as well.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: So the truce deadline is approaching. Can you tell us about – anything about the effort to extend the truce?
MR PRICE: We’ll have more to say as the time gets closer, but this has been a priority of ours, in the first instance not only to lay the groundwork for the humanitarian truce, groundwork that took – that was set in place over the course of many months of our Special Envoy Tim Lenderking working very closely with the UN’s special envoy – Hans Grundberg in this case – working closely with our Saudi partners, working closely with other Gulf partners, working closely with other stakeholders in the region. We have sought to consolidate and to reinforce the truce not only because it brings additional stability and security to the people of Yemen, but because it has very practical effects. It has allowed humanitarian aid to reach individuals in parts of Yemen that have not been able to receive adequate aid for far too long.
We have also seen concrete steps in terms of the first flights that have departed Yemen en route to Amman. We have seen encouraging signs that the parties are looking to consolidate and to perpetuate the current conditions and the steps that have given way to this.
QUESTION: Ned, on —
QUESTION: So you’re optimistic?
MR PRICE: Again, I’m not going to be optimistic, I’m not going to be pessimistic, but we are going to do everything we can diplomatically to reinforce the humanitarian truce and the increased stability and security that we’ve seen in recent weeks.
QUESTION: On Yemen, are you aware of reports that – of the death of former USAID employee Abdul Hamid Al-Ajmi, who was one of the people who was taken hostage, prisoner by the Houthis?
MR PRICE: As you know, Matt, we’ve been unceasing in our diplomatic efforts to seek the release of our Yemeni staff in Sana’a. We’ve demanded that the Houthis release our detained current and former U.S. locally employed Yemeni staff in Sana’a. We’re committed to ensuring the safety of those who have served with us. When it comes to this case, we were deeply saddened by the news of the death of one of our retired employees. This individual passed away in Houthi detention with no contact with his family during the last six months of his life. We express our most sincere condolences to his family and loved ones, but we’re not in a position to provide further detail.
QUESTION: Well, okay, maybe not, but is it your understanding that the only reason that he was taken prisoner is because of his affiliation or former affiliation with the embassy, with the U.S. Government?
MR PRICE: We have seen a number of former LE staff, individuals who previously worked with and for our embassy in Sana’a, held in detention. I couldn’t speak to the motivations, but of course, the former affiliation is a commonality that many of these detainees share.
QUESTION: On Lebanon, Ned, the situation at all levels is deteriorating rapidly there. Is there any U.S. plan to intervene, to help, to pressure the officials to move forward with reforms there?
MR PRICE: Well, we spoke of this in the immediate aftermath of the May 15th parliamentary elections, but we were pleased to see that the elections took place on time in Lebanon and without major security incidents. The most difficult tasks now await. We encourage Lebanon’s political leaders to recommit themselves to the hard work that lies ahead to implement the needed reforms, including the reforms that are necessary to rescue the economy.
We also urge the swift formation of a government capable of and committed to undertaking the hard work required to restore the confidence of the Lebanese people and the international community. The economy, of course, is in quite dire straits. These reforms are necessary for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are required to bring the IMF agreement to fruition to help rescue Lebanon’s economy and put it back on the path towards sustainability and success.
QUESTION: On this topic too, Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf has met with other U.S. officials with the Lebanese foreign minister in Washington. Can you elaborate on that meeting? What did they discuss?
MR PRICE: I suspect our Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs will have a readout for you for that.
QUESTION: Back to Iran quickly. There is some reporting that the U.S. has seized a cargo of Iranian crude oil from a Russian-flagged tanker in Greece or in Greek waters. I wondered – I think that this ship had been seized last month, but I wonder if you could confirm the U.S. action to seize that.
And separately, the State Department announced today some new sanctions on an oil-smuggling, money-laundering network linked to the Qods Force. I wonder with these kind of – these kind of actions happening while you insist that you’re still trying to get back into the JCPOA, don’t they signal to Iran – or don’t they send sort of an opposite message to Iran in terms of trying to get back into the deal that you are taking these specific actions against the Iranians?
MR PRICE: I couldn’t speak to the signal that Iran is receiving. The signal that we are sending is that we are not going to tolerate the illicit activities of the Qods Force, of other Iranian proxies, terrorist groups, that receive Iranian support. We have been clear all along that we absolutely seek a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA that would, in the first instance, put Iran’s nuclear program back into a box, to once again permanently and verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; but at the same time, we are going to use every appropriate authority that we have to take on the broader set of challenges that Iran poses. That includes its support for proxies. That includes its support for terrorist groups. That includes its other destabilizing activities in the region. That includes its ballistic missile program.
The fact is that every single challenge, including those I just listed and more, is made all the more difficult to address as long as Iran’s nuclear program is in a position to gallop forward without the strict limits that the JCPOA previously imposed.
So we are continuing down this dual path to attempt to put these strict limits back on Iran’s nuclear program just as we push back and hold Iran accountable for its other illicit activities, but also knowing that if and when we permanently and verifiably have Iran’s nuclear program once again contained and confined, we are going to be able to take on these other challenges together with our allies and partners – and in some cases, potentially diplomatically as well – much more effectively knowing that an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program would be the most significant threat that we can and do face.
QUESTION: And on the tanker?
MR PRICE: On the tanker, I don’t have anything to offer.
QUESTION: On Iran and Russia, can you fill us in on the statement that you guys put out there this morning in terms of designating a network that involves Russian – high-level Russian officials and IRGC? Are there other countries involved? Is there an ongoing investigation behind this action?
MR PRICE: So the Department of the Treasury can provide you the full set of details on this. It essentially boils down to the fact that one of the designated individuals has raised funds for the Qods Force in coordination with senior levels of the Russian Government and intelligence apparatus. But I understand my colleagues at the Department of the Treasury can provide you fuller details.
QUESTION: Do you have the name?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Is the person a Kremlin —
MR PRICE: They can get you the full details.
QUESTION: Okay. And my last question —
QUESTION: No, hold on. Just back to the ACA just for one second? I don’t know if you – I don’t know if you know the answer to this, or maybe you could get it, or if it’s just a stupid question. But do you know, for the funding of the ACA and for the Observatory and any other efforts to bring accountability to war crimes, alleged war crimes that are being committed in Ukraine, is there any money in the 40 billion that Congress just passed and that the President signed over the weekend that could be used for this, or is it all for weapons?
MR PRICE: It is certainly not all for weapons. About, as I recall —
QUESTION: Is it all military assistance?
MR PRICE: It is certainly not all military assistance. There is a good chunk of humanitarian assistance. There’s a good chunk of economic assistance.
QUESTION: So from that – from the humanitarian or the other, the non-military component of it, will any of that money go to pay for these investigations?
MR PRICE: We’ve funded some of these organizations and programs prior to the recent passage of this supplemental spending bill, but if there’s anything in the additional 40 billion we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:11 p.m.)
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