FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH R. CLARKE COOPER, ASSISTANT SECRETARY, BUREAU OF POLITICAL-MILITARY AFFAIRS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
TOPIC: RELEASE OF ANNUAL “TO WALK THE EARTH IN SAFETY” (TWEIS) REPORT
THURSDAY, APRIL 2, 2020, 1:30 P.M. EDT
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Okay. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s videoconference briefing on the release of the annual “To Walk the Earth in Safety” Report. The meeting host will now mute all of the journalists’ microphones. Please keep your microphone muted until you are called on to ask a question. You may record the briefing by clicking on the button at the bottom of the Zoom screen that says “record.” And again, if you have any technical problems during the briefing, you can click on “chat” and use the chat feature, and the meeting host or one of my colleagues will try to assist you.
If for any reason the session fails or disconnects, everyone please go back to the link, click on it again, and we will try to restart the session. The ground rules are that this briefing is on the record.
And I’d like to introduce our briefer, Mr. R. Clarke Cooper, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. He has been in his position for almost one year, having joined April 30th, 2019. Immediately prior to taking on his present role in the Trump administration, Mr. Cooper served as the director of intelligence planning for Joint Special Operations Command’s joint interagency task force in the National Capital Region, which is the Washington, D.C. region. Mr. Cooper brings to the Pol-Mil Bureau, or Political-Military Affairs Bureau, over two decades of experience in both diplomatic and military roles.
Mr. Cooper will give an opening statement, and after that I will give some further instructions and open it to question and answer. Thank you, and can we put the camera on Mr. Cooper please? Thank you. Assistant Secretary.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Cheryl, thank you. It’s always a pleasure to be with you and the Foreign Press Center, and our colleagues from the Foreign Press Center media. Obviously, we’d all prefer this to be in person, but we’re making it work the best we can. So I appreciate everyone’s patience as we go through this new way of communicating with each other, and I will be sure to speak in a deliberate fashion as if I’m in a multilateral fora with translators to account for the latency that we may be experiencing as we push forward.
What I would like to share today is the very unique story – one of perseverance, survival, and triumph over adversity – shown by the survivors of injuries caused by landmines and other explosive remnants of war, and the very brave humanitarian deminers whose work removes these deadly hazards and returns contaminated land to productive use by local communities. This is the story told in the 19th edition of “To Walk the Earth in Safety” Report. Obviously, if we were all here today, you’d be getting a hard copy of this, and you still can get a hard copy of this report. The TWEIS, which we are proud of releasing today, documents the United States commitment to conventional weapons destruction programs, supporting stability around the world.
In the opening lines of the TWEIS, I took a particular pleasure in highlighting a very particular aspect, a carefree aspect of my youth, my early teens, that I share with my younger brother. Both of us served in Scouting, and as Eagle Scouts, we explored the great American outdoors without once having to worry about placing a foot on a landmine or any kind of unexploded ordnance, and not having to worry about being any kind of a victim of an explosive device. All youth should be able to spend their days with the same freedom to roam and explore their areas around the globe carefree.
This is why the United States is proud to maintain a leadership role in this field. The United States, through the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, is strong and a historic partner for affected states. We are the leader in donor assistance for conventional weapons destruction, including humanitarian demining. Since 1993, for 17 years [27 years] the United States provided more than $3.7 billion in assistance for such efforts in over 100 countries. In 2019, the United States had active conventional weapons destruction programs in 58 countries, spanning Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, and in that same year, in 2019, contributed more than $198.5 million.
Let me give you some concrete stories, examples of what was applied in 2019. The United States provided over $24.4 million dollars to Colombia to continue the survey and clearance of explosive remnants of war and strengthened the capacity of Colombia’s national mine action authority. Elsewhere in the hemisphere, the United States supported conventional weapon destruction programs in Central America and Peru to mitigate the risks that illicitly proliferated small arms and light weapons pose to regional and U.S. security interests.
In Iraq, the United States contributed $37.5 million in Fiscal Year ’19 to support the clearing of explosive hazards, including IEDs, and continued mine risk education throughout Iraq that facilitate stabilization activity and promote the safe return of displaced persons, including ethnic and religious minority communities persecuted by ISIS. Over 34,000 IEDs and other explosive hazards have been cleared all over the country. For example, in coordination with the Iraqi officials at the local, governorate, national level, UN agencies, and other stakeholders, one U.S.-funded program surveyed, marked, and cleared over 780 explosive hazards from Nineveh, and then over 1,400 explosive hazards across Al-Anbar, while all at the same delivering a combined total of 520 mine risk education sessions to mitigate exposure, or the risk of exposure, to mine hazards.
The United States is proud to partner with Vietnam in its quest to declare Quang Tri province UXO impact-free, or unexploded ordnance impact-free, by 2025, and to strengthen the Vietnam Mine Action Center. Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $140 million for programs in Vietnam that have cleared mines, provided mine risk education and survivor assistance, and supported the national capacity development. In 2019 alone, the United States invested $15 million for these programs. These funds have contributed to the development and launching of a mine risk education app, which reached 554,000 students in 1,000 – over 1,000 primary and secondary schools in four provinces across Vietnam.
Through our implementing partners, Vietnam was able to release over 22.6 million square meters, or 5,584 acres, of land to farming and productive economic development. This is bringing resources and land access back into productive use, not just for safe access but into productive use for community stability.
We also partner with international organizations such as the Organization of American States, the UN Mine Action Service, the UN Development Program – and U.S. agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense’s Humanitarian Demining Training Center – all to collectively address the unique need in each community that we partner with.
Conventional weapons destruction is not limited to humanitarian mine action. Stockpiles of excess, poorly secured, or otherwise at-risk conventional weapons continue to challenge peace and prosperity worldwide. In the wrong hands, small and light weapons fuel political instability and violence, while aging ammunition stockpiles may explode without warning, devastating nearby population centers.
Since 1993, the United States has provided more than $489 million in support to conventional weapons destruction activities across the African continent. In addition to ongoing demining activities, we have built, rehabilitated, or otherwise upgraded the physical security of 516 storage facilities across Africa, focusing on sites most vulnerable to attacks. Additionally, in the Africa Great Lakes region, we have supplied 1,590 steel arms lockers that secure arms and light weapons in remote outposts. We destroyed over 312,000 excess small arms and light weapons, and over 6,100 tons of excess ammunition, or underutilized or unused ammunition, further reducing the risk of illicit diversions or accidental depot explosions.
Arms traffickers and violent extremists have looted MANPADS and other advanced conventional weapons systems from unsecured areas, including stockpiles that were once state-controlled in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, making efforts to reduce the threat to aviation even more crucial. Our programs have destroyed over 41,000 at-risk MANPAD missiles worldwide, and these programs remain critical to preventing further illicit proliferation of these dangerous arms.
These are just a few snapshots that are captured here in our annual report. I would like to invite you to read for yourself particularly stories that we’ve highlighted out of Albania, Tajikistan, Laos, Angola, and other parts of the world. As you do so, please note the many children we have served through this program, so they too can once again walk the earth in safety.
I appreciate your time today. Happy to take any questions, be certainly also happy to provide any detailed follow-up of what we’ve provided in our annual report. And as I would like to point out as we go through today is that there’s an increasing crescendo or trajectory of not only the resources but the commitment the United States of America has made, bipartisan – not just Executive Branch, but also our colleagues and our enablers in Congress. This has been a cross-government, bipartisan effort across administrations, and it has been one that has been of an increasing focus and interest to date. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary Cooper. And with that, I will introduce the question-and-answer period. If I could again ask all journalists to open the participant list, and make sure that your name and outlet show in the participant list. You can do that by hovering over your name and you will see a box that says “More,” and then click on “Rename” and you can change your name and add your outlet there. If you dialed in by phone, then when I call on you – you can unmute by pressing *6 on your dial pad when I call on you. And to ask a question, please click on the “Raise Hand” button, and let’s see if we have anyone raising a hand first. Okay, let’s see, do we have Pearl Matibe on the phone? And Pearl, I’m going to unmute you. Do you have a question, from Zimbabwe?
QUESTION: Sure, I can ask a question. Thank you so much for your availability. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can.
QUESTION: Okay, awesome. Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary; appreciate your availability. I was taking a look at the significant amount of landmines still existing in Angola. Can you speak a little bit more about any particular challenges that you’re facing, any opportunities, any wins? And what is the situation for the rest of SADC – Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and other countries? Thank you so much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Right, so I think one of the challenges you probably are familiar with is the density issue, and that is not just unique to Zimbabwe. That could be inclusive of a number of countries that have been on the list and have been ongoing for demining or abatement activities. That density certainly has impeded not just mobility; it has also impeded economic development. I referenced this in my opening comments, is that our need to be able to address demining is not just to open up spaces for access, and I did focus a lot on that but it is also opening up spaces to restore it for economic use. So that is a constant challenge that is shared.
Where there’s opportunity is, we have seen countries that have actually established very robust demining centers or agencies. Angola is a good example of that, where they have committed tremendous resources. And so why the United States happens to be the largest contributor or donor to demining in a country like Angola, they have also done a significant amount of resources dedicated to that. And they’ve not limited it to a defense ministerial or a security apparatus. We’ve seen success in countries like Angola where their environmental protection or their national lands ministries or bureaus have a role. If one could look at it from a perspective of national parks matter, agriculture matters.
And so I would say what we’ve seen from lessons learned in successful areas has been where demining is not limited to a security apparatus, that it is inclusive of economic development but it’s also inclusive of conservation and land management. And so when you’ve got an interagency approach to demining, it does put a whole-of-government focus on the resources, and it does put a whole-of-government intention on it. It also engenders external interests. I had mentioned that while we are the greatest donor from a state role, there are a number of NGOs and other states that are very much participant in the multilateral fora. And what we have also seen is that if there is a whole-of-government approach with states, then it also makes it much more attractive for private sector as well as other institutions or – of academic interest or even from a tourism or education interest. So resources beget resources, interests beget interests, but I would say a broad general lesson learned over the past 20-plus years of this work and of this program management has been more whole of government and not limiting demining to the security institutions.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. Thank you very much. Next we have – actually, I was going to call on Haye-ah Lee with Yonhap News Agency. Haye-ah Lee, please go ahead. Yonhap News Agency.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
QUESTION: Oh, thank you. Mr. Assistant Secretary, thank you for doing this. I know this isn’t relevant to today’s discussions, but because this is such a pressing issue for South Korea, I would just like to quickly ask: How close are we to a Special Measures Agreement? And I’m asking because there were reports that the agreement would be announced on April 1st, but that didn’t happen. So how close would you say we are to an actual agreement, and when do you expect this to be announced? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Sure. I appreciate the question. And it is – you’re right to ask it. It is a timely question. Negotiations are ongoing between Seoul and Washington. As with this fora, they are virtual. We would prefer face-to-face. I know our colleagues in Seoul would prefer face-to-face. But I can affirm that the talks have continued. They’ve never ended. It is also helpful that we have our embassy in Seoul and the Republic of Korea’s embassy is here in Washington.
What we need to remember is that where we’re at is, while there was focus on early April, the talks are conditions based. The intent is to ensure that the alliance is solidified, that we are in a mutual beneficial space for each other, and that the agreement, when it’s done, is one that is equitable. So again – of mutual benefit and an equitable agreement.
But what I could tell you right now is that we are still in communication with each other, my colleagues in my bureau and then, of course, at the ministerial level and higher. But the important thing is, is the talks are continuing, looking for mutual benefit and for an equitable agreement for both parties.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. Next we have Alex Aliyev [Raufoglu] from Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan. Alex, sorry, I tried to unmute you and it didn’t work the first time. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, yes. Can you hear me now?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you very much. Great to see you, Clarke, albeit virtually.
MODERATOR: Alex, I’m sorry. Can you speak up a little bit louder, please?
QUESTION: Hello. Yes, hello. Can you hear me now?
MODERATOR: Yes, thank you.
QUESTION: Great, excellent. Alex Raufoglu of Turan News Agency. There are reports circulating that the United States administration has ended funding for removing landmines in Azerbaijan’s occupied Karabakh region. The program that State Department has allegedly shut down is named the HALO Trust. What is the latest on this, Clarke? And if you may, what is the backstory to halting funding for a program? How is it going to affect both Azerbaijan and Armenia? Thank you very much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Right. Thank you. So historically, if we go back to the late ’90s, I mean, there are – up until to date, there’s been over $30 million dedicated on humanitarian demining in Azerbaijan. And when we’re looking at not just Azerbaijan, we – the intent is to, of course, offline these activities. I mentioned in the opening remarks demining mitigation education. When countries become mine action-free, programming switches, or it matures into a space where we are doing more about educating on avoiding mined areas. We also have dedicated programing beyond removal or abatement of mine fields. When we get to the countries declared mine-action-free, what we can do on prevention of additional munitions being laid in a particular place, some places we’ve actually graduated and matured to weapons storage and also weapons destruction, especially if it’s something that has been decommissioned or is aging armaments.
As particular to Azerbaijan, there is a tie to the NATO Partnership for Peace Trust Fund project, and that is – I understand is one that is a legacy project that may still be in place. If we fast-forward to today and we’re looking at future budgets on a macro, I could tell you that for Fiscal Year 2021 the Trump administration has put – or focused – nearly 240 million for efforts globally.
Now as far as that breakdown, we can give you a follow-up on that. But when we’re looking forward, as I mentioned earlier, there is a rise, an increase, what the government has been doing, and the Trump Administration has certainly continued that increase globally. But I would offer whenever there’s an adjustment on any particular partner, in many cases it is an adjustment of what we’re doing in the program either because there’s been a maturation with that partner state and what they’re doing, or, from a regional perspective, there may have been an augmented or identified area of a greater need. But we can follow up with you on specificity about Azerbaijan as we look at Fiscal Year 2021.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, Assistant Secretary. Does anyone else have a question? If you are logged into the platform, please use the raise-hand feature, which is at the bottom of the participant list to the left of the yes/no buttons. I don’t see any hands at the moment, so – oh, I do see one more. I’ll call on Ben Marks. I also want to check questions for those who have dialed in by phone. I’ll do that in just a moment. Ben, I’ve un-muted you. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you, and thank you to the assistant secretary for this briefing. I’d like to ask whether the current coronavirus has limited State Department activity in any of these demining efforts, and if so, could you maybe give us an example of where operations are being limited?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Sure. Yeah, Ben, on a macro – on any of our security assistance programming, everything, as everyone’s familiar with, has been touched, right, by COVID in the sense from a posture standpoint. What hasn’t changed has been the programmatic need. The need is still there, and the resources dedicated to that is still there. As far as deminers getting out to be able to do demining, that is dependent upon where they are geographically located, so I can tell you right now there’s not a standard posture shift on where deminers are in place.
Also, when we go into education programming, if there’s an education programming on mitigating a risk for exposure to minefields that’s associated with classrooms, those are probably most impacted because in many locations on the globe schools have ceased to convene or meet in a traditional sense, so classroom programs probably have been impacted more than others. However, where we have training or programs that are associated with security forces, be it law enforcement or military, those probably are still a little bit more active.
So from a very general sense, the short answer is yes, COVID certainly has had an impact on everything, including weapons abatement, demining, and remediation of unexploded ordinance. But to what extent, it is going to be very much conditional on where those programs reside. But we have not turned anything off, if you’re asking that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. We have a follow-on question from Pearl Matibe with Open Parliament in Zimbabwe. Pearl Matibe, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for taking my follow-up question. So taking a look at geographic location of certain mines, if you don’t mind maybe telling me a little bit more about if you are doing any work in conjunction with other governments along the borders. For instance, in the very southern part of Angola, there’s dozens of mines along the Angola-Namibia border right there at the national park. You also have one or two on the borders with Angola and Zambia, but dozens more on the borders of Angola and the DRC.
Are you doing anything across borders in terms of maybe working with those governments, not just with Angola itself? Thank you so much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Right. So if we look at not just on the African continent, there are areas – you mentioned national parks are a good example of what’s transnational or transregional. And of course wildlife, as we’ve seen, don’t necessarily understand or appreciate geopolitical borders; no different than, say, illicit trafficking doesn’t appreciate geopolitical borders.
Where we are challenged is when certain accounts, be it from a multilateral entity or from us, are designated with a particular state partner to meet some of those spaces, those seamed areas that you’re referring to, is to address where they could be stitched up. So it’s not out of the realm of possible for us on the implementing end to work with a partner and identify an area where a demining field may begin on one state side and where a demining – or a demining operation may end on another. Because we’ve seen where – historic emplacement of landmines have been on previous existing lines or borders, and so we’ve seen this in multiple places where – I could tell you the Jordan River Valley is a good historic example of where there’s been extensive demining done on a shared geopolitical border between Israel and Jordan. So it’s something that has been done.
I think when we talk about national park space, that is definitely one where we – there is – where we have had experience on the Africa continent of finding where demining touches not just one partner state but actually several partner states, because again, the parkland itself – while it may be called something else in one state, it is still a particular open space and ecosystem that – again, if you’re an elephant, you don’t know if you’re stepping in one state or the other.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. I’m going to un-mute the people who have called in on the phone. They are not able to raise their hands. And I think we have time for one, possibly two more questions. We’ll see after this next one. And someone has dialed in as iPhone – I no longer see that person.
Sarah, and there’s another number, nine – that begins with 931. If you have a question, please let me know. (No response.) No questions on the phone? (No response.) Okay. Do we have any more raised hands? Last call for questions, please. (No response.)
Okay. We have no further questions. Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary Cooper, for your time and for coming to brief today. We really appreciate it. We hope to have the transcript ready later this evening or first thing tomorrow morning. Again, thank you all for joining, and that concludes our briefing.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Thank you.
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