U.S. Department of State
Department Press Briefing Index
Briefer: Spokesperson Heather Nauert
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
QUESTION: Thank you, Heather. I wanted to ask you about the – the State Department last Friday informed Congress that – of aid cutoff to the Palestinians in the amount of $200 million. Can you share with us why it was finally decided for this aid to be cut off, considering that this goes directly to help the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza? It doesn’t go through the Authority. It goes – it is implemented by USAID and other American-affiliated NGOs and so on. And it goes to aid the youth and the women. Why was it decided to cut off the aid?
MS NAUERT: Earlier this year, and you all recall this – I know we received a lot of questions about this issue – the President directed an overall review of U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and also in Gaza to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars were being spent in accordance with U.S. national interests and then also providing value to the U.S. taxpayer.
The decision was then made, and we sent out a statement to this effect, that that money at this time is not in the best interests of the U.S. national interest and also at this time does not provide value to the U.S. taxpayer. When we talk about the issue of Gaza, we have long said – bless you – Gaza is the primary entity – excuse me, the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians and Hamas – the primary reason why the security situation and the situation in Gaza is so terrible, why electricity has become an issue, why clean water has become an issue, all of those things. And Hamas needs to take care of its people. It has refused to do so. Instead, it has spent money on other types of projects, and you know exactly what I’m talking about.
QUESTION: Two quick follow-ups. But in fact, your allies disagree with you. They think that cutting off aid will exacerbate an already volatile – volatile —
MS NAUERT: I am sure they do, and that is because the United States Government –
QUESTION: Including the Israelis, including the Israelis.
MS NAUERT: That is because the United States Government has provided far more money –
QUESTION: I understand.
MS NAUERT: — than many other countries in the region have. And I think Ambassador Haley spoke to that today –
QUESTION: I understand.
MS NAUERT: — when she talked about the importance of burden sharing. And that is we believe that the United States alone does not have to shoulder a disproportionate share of financing programs overseas. The United States is the most generous country in the world, and we continue by and large to be the most significant donor to many programs around the world. But we also feel that other countries should step up and take responsibility, and that’s a key point of what the President has discussed.
QUESTION: Okay, I understand. But what is the logic, when you say that it was not in the interest of the national security of the United States of America while, in fact, the Israelis, including Israeli generals and intelligence and so on, the British, the French, everybody says it is actually – it can exacerbate this horrible situation? So why is that not in the interest of the national security of the United States?
MS NAUERT: I think we believe at this time that it is not providing value to the U.S. taxpayer. If I have anything more for you on that, I will let you know.
QUESTION: Right. One last issue on the – there’s been a great deal of talk about that this administration is going to be pushing – sometime soon, maybe next week, maybe the following week – to cut off all aid to UNRWA and in fact, dismantle UNRWA and to have whatever programs UNRWA is doing now to have it conducted under UNHCR. Could you share with us or could you enlighten us on this effort, if there is such an effort, if that is the thinking of this building? Because this building historically has been supportive of UNRWA.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I can just tell you we have no decisions to announce today. No decisions have been made.
QUESTION: It has to do with Syria’s use of chemical weapons in Idlib, possible use. And specifically, Secretary Mattis said this morning that you were in regular contact with Russia on this issue. Can you explain both your concerns and what the situation is, particularly with the Russians?
MS NAUERT: Mm-hmm. And I think DOD did a terrific job of laying out a lot of the issues there, so I would largely echo what the Department of Defense said and encourage anyone who’s not taken a look at that transcript to please take a look at that.
I can tell you that the Secretary spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov last week. We made it very clear, the Secretary made it clear, that any Russian regime offensive on Idlib and an escalation –
QUESTION: You mean a Syrian regime offensive?
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry. Yes, thank you. Any Russian and/or Syrian regime offense – offensive on Idlib and any kind of escalation in that area, we would hold them responsible and we would hold them accountable for that, especially – most especially, for the use of chemical weapons. The United States has taken a very strong stance in the past when chemical weapons have been used. You all know that very well.
We have engaged the Russian Government and also the military at the most senior level. Ambassador Bolton has spoken to his Russian counterparts. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman Dunford, has as well spoken with his Russian counterparts to make it very clear that the United States Government and its partners would respond to any verified chemical weapons use in Idlib, or elsewhere in Syria for that matter, in a swift and appropriate manner.
So we would encourage Russia to make this point very clear to Damascus that that will not be tolerated.
QUESTION: Thank you. And a follow-up: The Syrian and Iranian defense ministers just signed a new defense cooperation agreement. How do you view that?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, we saw that, certainly. Iran has continued its destabilizing activities around the globe, and I think would be a primary example of that.
QUESTION: Just to follow-up on Idlib, because all reports say that it is – it has a concentration of al-Nusrah forces, the bad guys that you have listed as terrorists and so on. They are concentrated there. Their allies, who are from the same political and kind of militant orientation, are also there. You certainly don’t want to provide another safe haven in Idlib, do you?
MS NAUERT: Said, I don’t have anything additional for you on that, but I think Department of Defense addressed that today earlier. I can tell you something in addition on the Geneva talks. That is something that has been a real priority of ours and a priority of our Special Representative Jim Jeffrey as well, to reinvigorate the Geneva process.
I can tell you that we have accepted an invitation by Staffan de Mistura. He is the UN special envoy handling Syria. We will be participating in talks in Geneva on September 14th. It’s a bit of a ways off, certainly, but I can tell you that Ambassador Jeffrey will be there and looks forward to representing the United States along with our Deputy Assistant Secretary Joel Rayburn.
I want to make it clear that we fully support the Geneva process. We fully support the efforts on the part of Staffan de Mistura to broker a political settlement. We recognize that a military solution is not going to resolve the problem long term in Syria, that it has to be a political solution, so I expect that we’ll have more announcements and details for you on the days and weeks to come. But we think we’re at a good spot right now in getting back to the Geneva process.
QUESTION: Thank you. Good to be back. Do you have any update on the Rohingya report? When should we expect the State Department to release such a report? And I have one follow-up.
MS NAUERT: Sure. So let me first start with the UN fact-finding mission, and UN just released its report within the last day or so. And I just want to make clear that that is something that – we are reviewing that report’s recommendations. So there is that piece of things. The findings in that report, if you’ve not reviewed it just yet, overall add to a growing body of information indicating widespread human rights abuses by the Burmese military and other security forces in Burma. The United States Government has held individuals – high-level military individuals responsible. We have through different rounds of sanctions in the past and I will certainly let you know if we have any additional announcements on that.
There’s a second piece of information and that is the State Department’s own documentation project that – it started – actually, let me back up for one second and mention something about the UN fact-finding mission. We were very troubled by the fact that those participating in the UN fact-finding mission were not granted access to the Rakhine State, and that’s the key area where this crisis has taken place and so many people were run out of their homes and killed, and you know the rest of that. They have not been able to gather adequate information and that has long been a concern of ours. Humanitarian workers have not been able to get in and provide the important and necessary aid and support that they need to. Media, that has been an issue as well. So I just wanted to highlight that disappointment that we have had that various groups have not been able to get in.
With regard to our documentation project, the State Department undertook one in which refugees located at Cox’s Bazar, which is in Bangladesh – many of them were interviewed for their experiences. That has been pulled together into a report which the Secretary will review and has taken a look at it from my understanding, and we will decide whether and to what extent to publicize that final report.
As you well know, we considered this, we designated this as ethnic cleansing last year. It’s a very complicated and complex process that involves a whole lot of lawyers, and when we have something ready to announce, we’ll certainly let you know. Okay?
QUESTION: So the – so do you agree or – that – with the UN report that there was genocidal intent in those attacks against the Rohingya?
MS NAUERT: We have not made a determination on that, and I’ll go back to what I just said, and that is it is a very specific legal designation. It’s not one that is easily made. To the average person, of course these things are incredibly horrific and it seems like we should just slap a label on something. Well, there are complex legal designations that have legal meaning and weight in courts around the world. So that is why the Secretary reviews this very carefully and makes the best determination possible.
QUESTION: But does the UN policy affect at all what the U.S. does going forward? Does the UN report in any way change –
MS NAUERT: Does the UN fact-finding mission change –
QUESTION: — anything to do with how the U.S. policy is?
MS NAUERT: We support that process and we are taking a look at the recommendations.