U.S. Department of State
Department Press Briefing Index
Briefer: Spokesperson Heather Nauert
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
MS NAUERT: Yeah, thanks. I’d like to start out by calling attention to 9/11 today. We have two somber anniversaries here in the United States today, of course affecting many other countries as well.
Seventeen years ago today, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by terror attacks. We watched today as the President went to Shanksville, Pennsylvania as our colleagues at the Department of Defense honored those who lost their lives who were killed in the terror attack on 9/11, and as the names were called out, were read out once again at the World Trade Center in New York.
Here at the State Department, we mourn our own losses here, not just with regard to what happened on 9/11 seventeen years ago, but also what happened to our colleagues six years ago. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Glen Doherty, Sean Smith, and Tyrone Woods were killed in an attack in Libya. We remember all of the lives taken on this day and we appreciate the outpouring of support that we received from our allies and partners across the world.
After September 11th, 2001, those terror attacks, U.S. embassies and consulates received flowers, candles, so many personal notes, drawings, and memorials of all different types to let U.S. citizens know that we were not alone in our pain. If you have the time, I want to urge you to visit our diplomacy center. They are set up, they are arranged there; that’ll be in position for the rest of the week. It’s a collection of some of those memories and mementos from the outpouring of support that we felt after 9/11.
In addition, I’d like to highlight the Secretary’s statement that he released last evening and mention that we want to remember the victims of 9/11. He said, “Those who were lost will never be forgotten. We continue to pray for guidance,” for “wisdom and” for “protection for the men and women in uniform who fight each,” and every “day to guard the world against terrorism, and we pray for the unity of our nation and the world in times of peril and peace.”
I’d also like to recognize my colleagues, many of whom joined the State Department in the years following 9/11. I have spoken with countless numbers of colleagues since I joined here more than a year ago who, in part, joined the State Department because of 9/11. That inspired them to want to promote peace, prosperity, and security around the world. So I’d like to thank my colleagues who joined the State Department and recognize 9/11 today.
Next, I would like to announce the start of an operation to eliminate ISIS territory in eastern Syria, a very different kind of topic. Today the Department of Defense announced the Syrian Democratic Forces, with support from the D-ISIS global coalition, launched the final phase of Operation Roundup to eliminate ISIS’s hold on territory in eastern Syria. We welcome this initiative as we continue to support our SDF partners to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS. While the final phase will be difficult and will take time, the SDF has proven that it is a capable and effective partner in this fight, and we are confident that they will successfully liberate the remaining areas ISIS controls along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The campaign to defeat ISIS has liberated nearly eight million Syrians and Iraqis from ISIS’s barbaric rule and denied it the ability to use this territory to recruit, to train, to equip, to finance, to inspire, to plan, and to execute attacks in the region and around the world.
The enduring defeat of ISIS is a top priority of this administration. The State Department will continue to work closely with our Department of Defense colleagues to ensure success of this operation while working in parallel with coalition partners to support stabilization initiatives that enable Syrians to voluntarily and safely return to their homes to prevent the re-emergence of this terror threat.
Next, and this is also related to Syria, I’d like to highlight this: The Assad regime and Russia continue to falsely accuse the White Helmets through a massive disinformation campaign, leaving its volunteers at significant risk. Many of you are familiar with the good work that the White Helmets has – that they have done and that they continue to do. The White Helmets are a humanitarian organization that has saved thousands of lives and continues to save civilian lives after bombardments by Russian and regime military forces. The United States and the international community continue to support their heroic work.
Lastly, I’d like to turn to Iran. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitary Detention has now concluded that the Government of Iran has no legal basis for the arrest and detention of Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang. The UN further notes that Iran committed multiple violations of his right to a fair trial and that his depravation of liberty is arbitrary and that he should be released immediately. The safety and security of U.S. citizens will always be a priority for the United States Government. As we have said repeatedly, the allegations against Mr. Wang are baseless and his detention demonstrates that the Iranian regime does not respect the rule of law. We call on the Iranian regime to release Mr. Wang. Iran must also immediately release U.S. citizens unjustly detained and missing in Iran, including Siamak Namazi, Robert Levinson, and to respect all of its applicable international obligations and commitments.
QUESTION: — about the International Criminal Court. I’m sure there’ll be other questions about the Palestinians too, but mine are about the ICC. In his speech at the Federalist Society, Ambassador Bolton said that if they – meaning the ICC – come after us, essentially – I’m paraphrasing here – we’ll go after them. He said that the U.S. would impose sanctions on ICC employees, prosecutors, judges, even bring charges against them in the U.S. And I’d like to know what legal authority does the administration think it has to do such a thing, to either freeze assets or impose travel bans or even prosecute?
MS NAUERT: Well, Matt, as you well know, we don’t get ahead of announcements or some decisions or deliberations that the U.S. Government may be making or may be taking in the future. So I’m not going to get ahead of anything that the administration may or may not be doing, and I would just have to refer you over to Ambassador Bolton’s – his communication staff to answer your questions on that in particular.
QUESTION: Bolton also said that he thinks that it can take away from a country’s maturation if others are prosecuting their war criminals, and it prevents them from making the tough decisions. And later in his speech he – he said the same thing when he was pressed by reporters. Does the State Department share that view? Because the ICC is only supposed to work – its purpose is when an individual country’s justice system isn’t set up or working properly.
MS NAUERT: I think the preference is always for other countries to have a strong and independent judicial system. That is why we do not adhere to the International Criminal Court, because we have such a strong and independent judicial system here in the United States, not only for our U.S. service members but obviously for United States citizens as well. The preference is always for other countries to have that same type of model. Unfortunately, there are some countries that don’t have that type of model, where in certain instances – and it’s different. Every situation is different. If you’re looking at Burma, it’s a different type of situation. If you’re looking at tragedies that have happened in Rwanda, that’s a different type of situation. Sometimes tribunals are applied; sometimes other types of systems are applied as well.
QUESTION: When Ambassador Bolton said that countries who would cooperate with the ICC on inquiries on Americans or Israel or other allies, and then today countries like Germany and France said that they will continue to cooperate with the ICC, would that mean that those countries, close allies of the United States, would face consequences for cooperating?
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to get ahead of any decisions or any steps that the United States Government may take. But one of the key principles of this administration – and it’s laid out in our National Security Strategy as well – is sovereignty and that each country has its own sovereign rights, including our own. And encompassed in our own sovereign right is the fact that we have a fair and independent judiciary. We feel that that fair and independent judiciary more than backs up and takes care of any judicial issues that would confront – that would be in front of U.S. citizens and also U.S. service members. Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you, Heather. I have a very quick question for you. Over the weekend, the United States Government cut off aid to six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. On what basis – I mean, what was the reason for cutting that off? Because these hospitals have always operated by Lutheran church groups and so on. They provide chemotherapy for children that otherwise don’t have the kind of care. What is the justification behind that?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So there was a – for lack of a better term, a pot of money, sort of a piece of money, if you will, that was set to expire this fall, that was set to expire September 30th. The decision was made to reprogram that money. We will evaluate the situation in the future as we go forward, and I’d just have to refer you to the White House for any additional details on that.
MS NAUERT: Well, some of this money – and we had spoken earlier about assistance funding – that had been reprogrammed as well.
MS NAUERT: And the decision was made on the part of the U.S. Government to reprogram that money, to put it to other types of programs not in the region – not just in the region, but also around the world – programs that we find to be, in some instances, more effective, more efficient, better – more necessary at this time, and to protect U.S. tax dollars.
QUESTION: Because they are licensed by the Israelis. I mean, the Palestinian Authority does not have any control over them or any authority over them. This is a strictly Israeli-controlled area. So did you coordinate with the Israelis before cutting off this aid?
MS NAUERT: We have close conversations with many governments around the world. I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: Okay. Very, very quickly. The – your European allies have complained that the Israelis are about to demolish a small Palestinian Bedouin hamlet in the West Bank called Khan al-Ahmar. I wonder if you have any comment on that issue.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So we’re certainly familiar with the story and the situation there. We’ve been tracking that, the evacuation of that Bedouin residence, Khan al-Ahmar. My understanding is that it follows a lengthy legal process that has been underway for quite some time. It’s also our understanding that all appeals have been exhausted at this time. We understand that Israel is offering land, which includes access to water, electric, infrastructure, schools, and necessary things of that sort to the incoming residents, and I’d have to refer you back to the Government of Israel for any further information on that.
QUESTION: — Vice President Pence condemned the Iranian missile strike on Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iranian strike that targeted Iranian Kurds. Do you have a response as well to that?
MS NAUERT: I think when we look at the situation that seems to be unfolding in Iraq right now, it’s important to point out what a bad actor Iran has been in the region, around the world, and in that country in particular. Iran continues to meddle; Iran remains a bad actor in the region and in Iraq as well. And that recent attack that you’re referring to is clearly another effort to destabilize that country, that government, and destabilize the region. We condemn, as we did over the weekend in a statement, recent rocket attacks, including the one in Koya. It’s obviously a clear violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and Iraq’s rights. Iran continues to be a bad actor in the region, and we continue to support Iraq’s sovereignty. We expect Iran to fully respect the sovereignty of Iraq and other regional states and to stop this destabilizing behavior.
QUESTION: And what about – the Iranians demanded today that the Iranian* Kurdish leadership be handed over to them and their bases closed. What’s your view of that? Is that more intervention?
MS NAUERT: Laurie, I would hesitate to respond to that because I’ve not heard that statement myself. But we support Iraqi sovereignty and the Government of Iraq. And Iraq should be making those decisions, not Iran.
QUESTION: — Bolton speech, the ICC. In his speech, he also said that one of the reasons why the PLO office in Washington was shutdown was because the Palestinians had advocated for the ICC to investigate Israel. That wasn’t mentioned in your statement yesterday. Is that a – was that a factor according to the State Department? I mean, how do you explain that discrepancy?
MS NAUERT: Well I think the concerns about the PLO office were that we had enabled the PLO office to remain open through a waiver back in 2017. And that waiver allowed for the Palestinians to take steps to advance and start a dialogue with the Israelis for some – to take steps toward a meaningful negotiation with Israel to advance the cause for peace. We have not seen that taking place. The operations that they were supposed to conduct at the PLO office here in Washington, D.C. were not advancing the cause for peace. We want them to talk about and work toward a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. They’ve rejected – the Palestinians have – a peace plan that they’ve not even seen yet. I’d like to highlight that. They continue to take hostile steps and hostile rhetoric toward the United States and other parties, and we don’t see that as a path to peace. The office could reopen in the future. They could, but we would certainly like them to take some meaningful steps in that direction of advancing peace.
QUESTION: So just to get a yes or no answer, if I could, was the Palestinians’ advocacy for the ICC to investigate Israel part of the – did that factor into the decision to close the PLO office?
MS NAUERT: Some of their rhetoric has been a long time concern of the United States Government. I think that’s been clear for quite some time.
QUESTION: Just a – hi. Just a question about Yemen because today is the deadline for the administration to certify whether the UAE and Saudi Arabia have met human rights provisions – congressional, in law. So are you going to be doing that? Do you know whether the State Department is going to be issuing that certification, and if so, what are – what the outcome will be?
MS NAUERT: Certainly. So I’m not going to get ahead of any announcements or determination that the Secretary would be making, but we have followed that closely, our requirement that the Secretary certify under this year’s NDAA. The Secretary intends to comply. The State Department intends to comply with Section 1290 of the NDAA. I’m not going to discuss some of the internal deliberations that have gone on with regard to that decision making or some of the factors that have weighed in to that decision. We will comply with the congressional briefing, as is required, and we will be doing that in the near future. Okay.
QUESTION: So do you know whether that – that’s happening today? Because it is the deadline.
MS NAUERT: Today/tomorrow is the deadline and we will be getting – we will comply with it and we will get that information up to Congress, as is required under the NDAA.
QUESTION: And can I quickly ask you about China as well? The – any update on what’s on the table with regards to a response to the Uyghur, the Chinese actions towards the Muslim Uyghurs?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I – this is something that we have talked about on numerous occasions here at the State Department. Some of you may have – may recall that I invited a group of Uyghur reporters here to the State Department back in the spring, and acknowledged them for their hard work, the good work that they do, and recognize the very difficult position that their family members, many of their family members have been put in in China. That remains a tremendous concern of the United States Government, in particular the State Department. We’re deeply troubled by the worsening crackdown, not just on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, other Muslims in that region of China. There are credible reports out there that many, many thousands have been detained in detention centers since April 2017, and the numbers are fairly significant from what we can tell so far. Some of those disproportionate controls on ethnic minorities – expressions of their cultural and also their religious entities – have the potential also to incite radicalization and the recruitment of violence.
We use a variety of tools to press for progress on human rights. Part of that is outlined in our Human Rights Report as well and our Religious Freedom Ministerial. Some of you may recall that we did have some Uyghurs represented here at our Religious Freedom Ministerial conference and I recall sitting in one of our very large rooms as some of these defenders of their religious freedoms, who have obviously gone through so much as a result just of their religion and their identify, to stand up in front of this room of so many delegations – and it was incredible to see some of those brave men and women be recognized by so many individuals from around the country, and there was a Uyghur woman who was one of them.
QUESTION: But just to confirm whether there’s any thought of sanctions against certain U.S. officials as Congress – as some of the lawmakers have —
MS NAUERT: Yeah, so we can certainly acknowledged that we received a note, a letter from Congress regarding that. We have a lot of tools at our disposal but I’m not going to get ahead of any potential activity that the U.S. Government may take. It’s the old standard line on sanctions, that we’re not going to preview any sanctions that may or may not happen.
QUESTION: And then on Egypt real quick. On Friday, you guys informed Congress that you were planning to obligate 1.2 billion in foreign military financing and military aid for Egypt. On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced a whole raft of people to death and extremely lengthy prison terms for taking place in protests, including an American citizen. And I’m wondering how you square the two. I mean, was the U.S. – did the U.S. know or have any idea in advance that these convictions were going to be coming? Because this kind of assistance had been held up in the past due to human rights concerns, and it would seem to me that these convictions would be a human rights concern. And it would seem to me that, at least on the face of it, unless there’s some deal going on behind the scenes, that this is kind of a slap in your – slap to your face.
MS NAUERT: Well, among the convictions that you’re speaking about – you had a citizen – Moustafa Kassem is one of them. And we are deeply concerned about his conviction and his sentencing. He’s a U.S. citizen. His case has been raised repeatedly with the Egyptian Government. We remain in communication with Mr. Kassem and his attorney about his case. The Department of State takes very seriously its responsibilities to assist U.S. citizens abroad. He, of course, is among those, and we will continue providing appropriate consular services and continue our conversations with the government about that case.