Department Press Briefing – March 12, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:08 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon everyone and thanks for joining this telephonic briefing. We have just a couple things at the top before we turn to your questions. First, the United States is gravely concerned by the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and we remain one of its largest assistance providers. Secretary Blinken personally attended the March 1st Yemen donors conference to help raise the funds necessary to meet Yemen’s great needs. During that conference, Secretary Blinken announced more than $190 million in additional U.S. support for the people of Yemen. And just today, the United States restored full humanitarian assistance funding to areas of northern Yemen to help meet the needs of vulnerable Yemenis.

The United States supports the free flow of fuel, food, and other essential goods into Yemen. However, doing so requires not only that goods pass smoothly through ports, but also that they are allowed to pass through the country freely, including through areas under Houthi control. Unfortunately, we know that the Houthis continue to impede that flow, including diverting money from imports that were intended for civil service salaries in direct violation of their obligations under a UN-brokered agreement. As a result, civil servants are not getting paid and therefore lack funds to purchase what food is available. Houthi diversion of fuel imports is just one of the many ways they are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis for the majority of the Yemeni population under their control.

We have heard the UN and international donors decry the ways the Houthis are obstructing and diverting humanitarian assistance. And UN experts describe the ways they divert state revenues to fund their war efforts and place a stranglehold on economic activity. Contrary to some recent reporting, food is being consistently discharged at Hudaydah port according to data provided by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism. Unfortunately, we can’t assure that food that passes through the port reaches those in need. That area is under Houthi control and the Houthis often divert and manipulate this aid, as I’ve mentioned.

The United States will work with the governments of Yemen and Saudi Arabia to find a way to ensure fuel makes its ways – makes it – makes it to the Yemenis who need it most and that it is not confiscated by the Houthis for sale on the black market or for use in their war effort. Only through a durable peace agreement can we hope to reverse the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Supporting such an agreement is precisely what U.S. Special Envoy Lenderking is seeking to do and why he has spent the last 17 days in the region.

Separately in his remarks this week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary Blinken expressed his commitment to ensuring we have a whole-of-government approach to addressing the unexplained health incidents on U.S. personnel. At that HFAC hearing, the Secretary underscored the need to have a high-level person dedicated to this issue who can look at the issue every day and speak directly to him and his leadership team. Today we are pleased to announce that Ambassador Pamela Spratlen has begun her new position as senior advisor to the State Department Health Incident Response Taskforce. Ambassador Spratlen will streamline our coordination efforts with the interagency community and reaffirm our commitment to assure that those affected receive the care and treatment they need.

With that, operator, do you want to repeat the instructions for questions?

OPERATOR: And once again for questions, please press one and zero on your telephone keypad. To remove yourself from queue, repeat the one and zero command.

MR PRICE: Okay. We will start with the line of Matt Lee, please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) health advisor. In the written announcement, there was nothing said about Cuba or any particular country where these issues may arise. Is that for a reason? Is it broader than that? And then my second question has to do with – it’s one that I brought up before with the Houthis, and that is that this situation seems to be getting worse rather than better – the humanitarian situation – since you guys removed them from the FTO list and since the three leaders were removed from the terrorism part of the SDGT list. And so I’m just wondering, I mean, is there any thought that you guys may have made a mistake in doing that? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Matt. To your first question, as we mentioned, we do have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. personnel, their families, and other U.S. citizens. Of course, these health incidents have been a priority for Secretary Blinken even before he was officially Secretary Blinken. He requested a comprehensive briefing on these incidents during the transition when he was secretary-designate. On his first day, full day here at the department, he received an update. He has since received comprehensive briefings.

He also wanted to ensure that the task force that has been established and working on these incidents since May of 2018 had connectivity directly to him, and directly to his senior leadership team. And so that is why we have decided, and he has decided to name Ambassador Spratlen as the senior advisor to the task force.

We didn’t specifically mention countries in that announcement because as you know, Matt, there have been now several countries where these incidents have been reported. We are seeking a full accounting of all of those who may have been affected by these incidents. That will be a large part of Ambassador Spratlen’s role, is to ensure that we know the full extent of these incidents.

There is also an individual on the task force who is responsible solely for engaging with those who may have been victims of these incidents. So we will continue to pay close attention to this. Secretary Blinken will continue to pay close attention to this, because he has no higher priority than the health and the safety and security than the department and dependents of department personnel.

When it comes to Yemen, Matt, look, we are not going to make any apologies for doing all we can to address the significant humanitarian plight of the people of Yemen. Yemen, as I’ve mentioned before, continues to be home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Some 80 percent of Yemen’s population lives – live under areas that are controlled by the Houthis. So what was very clear to us, what was very clear to members of Congress, what was very clear to aid organizations, what was very clear to UN entities, was that the broad designation of Ansarallah that was put forward in the very final hours of the last administration was far from alleviating the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people, it was compounding it. It was making it worse.

And so it was very clear to us that if we were going to address not only the humanitarian plight and the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people, but if we were also to push forward with the political settlement that we know must be at the heart of our efforts to de-escalate, to bring security and stability not only to the people of Yemen but also to our partners in Saudi Arabia and throughout the region, we needed to address the humanitarian suffering, the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people. We will not make any apologies for the fact that humanitarian concerns are primary in our policy. It’s precisely why Secretary Blinken attended the Yemen donors conference where he announced more than $190 million in U.S. support. It’s precisely why we have announced the resumption of the provision of some aid to parts of northern Yemen.

We will continue to look for ways to support the Yemeni people as we continue to support what UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has been engaged in for some time now, and that in more recent weeks what Special Envoy Lenderking has been supporting, and that is bringing about a ceasefire and a political settlement to this long-running conflict in Yemen.

Next, why don’t we go to Cindy Saine.

QUESTION: Yes, sorry. On Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, has Ambassador Pasi returned from her trip? And what kind of situation did she find there? Can you elaborate a little bit about what kind of access she was granted, and what impact her – the visit is likely to have on policy? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thank you for that. So Ambassador Pasi did travel to Mekelle on March 10th. She traveled with a delegation of other ambassadors and diplomats as part of an Ethiopian-Government-organized diplomatic visit. She participated in briefings with the leaders of the transitional government of Tigray, and while there, she outlined the U.S. Government support for the people of Tigray and all vulnerable populations in Ethiopia. She underscored the importance of accountability for those responsible for human rights abuses, for gender-based violence, for all other atrocities.

We have taken note of some of the statements emanating from Addis. What we continue to call for is full and unhindered humanitarian access, as well as accountability, for those responsible for the reported atrocities.

When it comes to our foreign assistance to Ethiopia, as you know, we did announce that we delinked our temporary pause on certain foreign assistance from our policy on the GERD, or the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In addition to previously exempted programming, including humanitarian assistance and PEPFAR, we have decided to resume certain additional types of assistance related to global health food security and certain conflict mitigation activities.

Given the current environment in Ethiopia, we have decided not to lift the assistance pause for other programs, including most programs in the security sector. But it goes without saying, and this is also not unrelated to the previous question, that we remain committed to supporting the people of Ethiopia, and we’re the largest humanitarian donor in Ethiopia in FY 2020 and FY 2021 to date. We have provided more than $733 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to acute food needs, conflict-driven displacement, flooding, desert locust infestation, and the COVID-19 epidemic.

Lifting our assistance pause on programming outside of these areas remains under consideration. We are assessing whether to resume these programs in light of new challenges in Ethiopia and, of course, the needs of its people and how we can best address those.

We will go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi.

QUESTION: There are several thing going on on Afghanistan after, of course, the Secretary’s letter and the U.S. draft plan that you have not commented but nor denied last week. We have now Turkey inviting the parties for talks in April, Russia hosting a conference next week and saying they’re on board with the idea of a Taliban role in an interim government. I wanted to know if all these initiatives were coordinated, if the U.S. is on board, of course, both with Turkey – I think yes – but with the Russian initiative; and further on, if you have any signs from Kabul and from the Talibans that they are willing to discuss the plan put forward by the U.S.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for the question, Francesco. As you know, Special Representative Khalilzad remains in Doha, where he has been based for some time now. When it comes to the potential gathering in Turkey, as the Secretary has said, we have engaged countries in the region, as well as the United Nations, to try to move the parties towards a meaningful negotiation. And we welcome, as we have said, efforts by international partners to accelerate the peace process and to bring about a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

We know that international support is essential to a just and durable peace. It’s precisely why the special representative and the State Department more broadly, we have sought to ensure that Afghanistan’s neighbors and those in the region play a constructive role, because we all have a stake in a peaceful, stable, and secure Afghanistan. It is not just a question for the United States, it’s not just a question for NATO; it is something that Afghanistan’s neighbors must also support and support in a constructive way.

When it comes to Russia, we spoke about this a bit yesterday, I believe. As I was saying in the broader context, we do believe Russia, as well as other countries in the region, has an important stake in a secure and stable Afghanistan. We have met with the Russians in the past in support of the Afghanistan peace process. We’re not – we don’t have anything to confirm at this time regarding our – any sort of potential participation on our part.

In all of this, the United States is playing a support role. And that is precisely what Ambassador Khalilzad is doing, because we recognize that this process has to be Afghan-owned, has to be Afghan-led. Ambassador Khalilzad is in Doha now, where he is supporting that intra-Afghan negotiations, the negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban, recognizing that any ideas, any proposals, any initiatives, at their core have to have the support of the Afghan people and, again, be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.

We will go to the line of Michael Lavers.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) my question. I wanted to follow up on what Ambassador Jacobson said on Wednesday during her briefing at the White House when she talked about $4 billion in aid being sent to the Northern Triangle to start addressing some of the root causes of migration out of the region. And I’m just wondering if you have any insight as to whether any of this 4 million will – 4 billion, excuse me, will go toward supporting LGBTQ groups, groups that work with folks with HIV and AIDS, to address some of the root causes of this migration. And also, will – does the State Department have any plans to bolster and support these groups in the region?

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for the question, Mike. You are absolutely right that President Biden has put forward this $4 billion plan, recognizing that if we are to get at the root causes of regional migration, we need to have a broad and comprehensive partnership with those countries in the region, especially the countries in the Northern Triangle. We have talked about corruption, we’ve talked about crime, we’ve talked about lawlessness, we’ve talked about impunity and insecurity as contributing to the patterns of irregular migration that have had an impact not only on our own border but, of course, on our southern neighbor in Mexico and the broader region as well.

That’s precisely why we need this partnership with the people of the region, with civil society elements in the region, and governments in the region to try and address some of these root causes. And you will note that I mentioned civil society as an important partner. Oftentimes, we know that civil society elements are important purveyors of humanitarian aid, humanitarian assistance, important implementers on the ground.

I don’t have any details to share as to whether LGBTQ rights groups are part of this, but civil society, of course, is a key element of that. I think more broadly – and you know this and have covered this – the United States stands up for and defends the rights of LGBTQI people around the world. We firmly oppose abuses against the community, and we urge governments to repeal laws that criminalize individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. As you know, the President, as an early act in office, put forward a presidential memorandum that once again made it the policy of the U.S. Government not only to protect but also to promote the rights of LGBTQ people around the globe. That applies equally to the Western Hemisphere as it does to other regions, and that partnership with civil society will be vibrant and ongoing under this administration.

Let’s go to the line of Laura Kelly.

QUESTION: I hope you can hear me.

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Okay, great. If I may ask a question on Venezuela, if you are reviewing U.S. policy towards Venezuela, where are you in that review? Any action you’re considering, such as lifting sanctions?

And if I may, Rob Berschinski was announced today as a special assistant to the President and the National Security Council for Democracy and Human Rights. Do you have any comment on that appointment and how you’ll work with him? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks very much for that. There are some things about our Venezuela policy that are not up for review, and that is the fact and our recognition that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator. And his repression, his corruption, his mismanagement, we know that has created one of the worst humanitarian crises this hemisphere has seen.

We also have already taken action in some important ways. Of course, there was the announcement this week of temporary protected status for Venezuelans who are in the United States. We continue to seek to find ways to address the humanitarian concerns of millions of Venezuelans with international partners. We continue to look to target regime officials and their cronies involved in the corruption and human rights abuses that we have spoken to. And we continue to look for ways to aid and restore a peaceful, stable, and democratic future for Venezuelans in the region through, importantly, free and fair elections and a long-term economic recovery.

We also have been very clear that we continue to recognize the legal authority of the democratically elected 2015 National Assembly and, of course, the person chosen by this National Assembly to be its president as the constitutional interim president of Venezuela is Juan Guaido. Secretary Blinken had an opportunity in recent days to speak to Juan Guaido. We will continue to work with the National Assembly, continue to work with our allies and our partners both in the region as well as with Europe, and through other venues to support the Venezuelan people and to support their aspirations for human rights and for democracy going forward.

When it comes to Rob Berschinski, of course, we will – there is a close partnership between the State Department and the National Security Council, including on issues of human rights. Rob has been a powerful advocate within the community in recent years. Many of us have been fortunate to work with Rob over the years, and I know that we will continue to work very closely with him in his new role, for which we congratulate him.

Let’s go to the line of – how about Jiha – Jiha Ham.

QUESTION: (No response.)

MR PRICE: Do we have Jiha Ham?

QUESTION: All right, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we can now.

QUESTION: Oh, good. Well, yeah, I have a question about the Secretary’s upcoming travel to Japan and South Korea. If you are currently reviewing the policy on North Korea, I’m wondering how important these visits to Tokyo and Seoul are in respect to the policy review? You remember Assistant Secretary Sung Kim already had a meeting with his counterparts, and I assume that he’s been discussing about the new policy.

So is there any possibility that the Secretary finalizes the policy review with his counterparts during the visit?

MR PRICE: Well, thanks for that question. It’s an especially important one because it’s an especially important ingredient in our North Korea policy, and the ingredient of partnership – partnership including and especially with our treaty allies in the region. And, of course, the Secretary, together with Secretary Austin, the Secretary of Defense, will visit two of those important treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, Japan and South Korea, starting early next week.

I say it’s an important in our North Korea policy, in our North Korea – our ongoing North Korean policy review, because we know – and this applies to every challenge across the board – but North Korea is an excellent example of it. We will not be as effective at achieving our interests if we don’t approach the challenge of North Korea, including the challenge of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its other areas of malign behavior, in lockstep with those partners and allies. We will – it’s imperative that we approach this challenge with them together.

I wouldn’t look for any sort of formal announcement about our North Korea policy review on this trip, precisely because this trip is a key ingredient to that policy review to ensure that the Secretary has an opportunity – the Secretary together with Secretary Austin – that both of them have opportunities to speak to their counterparts, to speak to the political leadership in both of these treaty allies, to have that input as we consider the most effective ways to bring about our end goals with North Korea. And that, of course, is reducing the threat to the United States and our allies as well as improving the lives of the North Korean and the South Korean people, all the while remaining committed to the denuclearization of North Korea. So I would expect we’ll have more to say on this topic in the coming days.

Why don’t we go to Doug Byun.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned, for taking my questions. Doug Byun from Yonhap News Agency, South Korea. I hope you can hear me.

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Okay. My question is related to South Korean and Japan relations. The United States is focusing on cooperation with the countries as well as among those countries. But as you know, the – there has been growing tension between the two countries over history issues, including the issue of comfort women, who are sex slaves of the Japanese military during World War II. And just yesterday, a 93-year old former comfort woman in Korea, Lee Yong-soo, sent an open letter to Secretary Blinken asking for a meeting with him during his visit to South Korea next week to discuss this issue. So my questions are: First, is the State Department aware of this letter and the request for meeting, and is such a meeting something the Secretary might consider? And lastly, will the State Department support taking this issue before the International Court of Justice if it came to that? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, thank you for the question. Let me start by saying broadly – and we’ve already alluded in this call to the trilateral engagement that Acting Assistant Secretary Kim took part in with senior Japanese and Korean officials the other week – but we know that a robust and effective trilateral relationship among the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan, and we know that it’s critical for our shared security, our common interest in defending freedom and democracy, upholding human rights, championing women’s empowerment, combating climate change, promoting regional global peace and security, bolstering the rule of law in the Indo‑Pacific and across the globe. We know that.

We have long encouraged Japan and South Korea to work together on history related issues in a way that promotes healing and that promotes reconciliation. As we stated at the time, we welcome specific efforts, including the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement, as an example of the two countries’ commitment to forging a more productive and constructive bilateral relationship. When it comes to that agreement, when it comes to the trilateral relationship, it was at the time Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken who was at the center of brokering some of these efforts.

This is something – the trilateral relationship is something that Secretary Blinken – now Secretary Blinken has invested quite a bit of time and focus into. And, of course, in the upcoming trip, we are prioritizing travel to these important treaty allies, not only to signal the strength of the bilateral alliance between the United States and Japan and the United States and South Korea, but also the important we place – importance we place on that trilateral relationship, as we know just how important it will be for every challenge we face in the region and beyond.

Let’s go to take a final question or two. Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: All right, great. On Myanmar, I was wondering if there has been any additional contact with the military leaders since the ambassador’s conversation with the deputy commander last week. And has the U.S. been able to reach Aung San Suu Kyi or any of the NLD officials who are detained? And are you concerned that their lives could be at risk given that two NLD officials have died in Burmese custody? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks for the question. When it comes to Aung San Suu Kyi, we do have an outstanding request for contact with the state counsellor, who, of course, is currently unjustly detained by the military. We have continued to consistently inquire about her health and safety as well as the health and safety of all detained civilian leaders and civil society actors, and we’re working through appropriate channels to attempt to make contact with those detained.

When it comes to our contact with the military, let me just say that we will continue to press Burmese military officials to refrain from violence, to restore the democratically elected government, and to release those unjustly detained. While we will continue to use a number of channels to make these points, I don’t think it would be prudent for us to comment on that in particular.

When it comes to – I would just like to take an opportunity to comment on the death – the deaths of the NLD members in Burmese military custody, and to note that we condemn the security forces’ actions that resulted in the deaths of two NLD members, including the killing of Zaw Myat Lynn as well as the death of Khin Maung Latt, who died after being unjustly detained, unjustly detained with so many of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

The military and police have shown complete disregard for the people of Burma and have targeted young people – doctors, civil servants, journalists, and political activists. We reiterate our calls to the military and the police to stop the violence and arbitrary detentions, to release all those unjustly detained, and again, to restore the democratically elected government of – civilian government of Burma.

Why don’t we take a final question from Gaby Perozo.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Will the U.S. agree to support an election for governors and mayors in Venezuela even with Maduro in power and knowing there are no electoral guarantees set up at the present? Some opposition leaders are considering participating in these elections.

And another question: Venezuelan Ambassador Carlos Vecchio confirmed this week that one of the proposals being discussed in Washington, D.C.’s diplomatic circles is creation of a new international coalition, which some called G8YHH* or Group of 8 for Venezuela. The coalition would include Canada, United States, maybe France or Germany. Can you tell us more about it? Thank you so much.

MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to Venezuela – and I mentioned this previously, but the United States will continue to work through all appropriate venues to support the Venezuelan people and to support their aspirations for human rights and democracy. We look forward to strengthening coordination with those international partners, and they include the EU, the OAS, the Lima Group, the Contact Group, and others, as we work toward a peaceful, democratic transition in Venezuela.

When it comes to the elections, it’s not just that we are seeking – that we are calling for elections. Importantly, we are calling for free and fair elections, and that is what the Venezuelan people deserve. That is what the Venezuelan people demand when it comes to their aspirations for achieving democracy and human rights, and the United States will continue to stand with them in calling for, again, those free and fair elections as what we seek to help them achieve.

I think with that, we will call it a day. I believe as many of you know, we will do a call later today to preview the upcoming travel to Japan and South Korea, so we’ll have an opportunity to speak to many of you then. And talk to you soon.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:42 p.m.)

 

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