U.S. Department of State
Department Press Briefing Index
Thursday, September 13, 2018
Briefer: Spokesperson Heather Nauert
Next, as you all know, the Secretary was just in India last week, and so this is sort of the perfect thing to bring you today. The United States, Afghanistan, and India held the second annual joint trade and investment show in Mumbai yesterday. That was in order to strengthen regional economic ties and showcase Afghanistan’s products and also investment opportunities. More than 2,000 Afghan, Indian, and international businesses participating, and on the first day alone more than $160 million in agreements were signed, many of those which will support U.S. and Afghan jobs along the supply chain. For example, this year’s show included an agreement between Afghanistan’s Bayat Group and Siemens for the provision of turbines produced here in the United States that will support 60 to 70 U.S. jobs in Houston and also provide power to northern Afghanistan to support the local economy, increase stability, and promote self-sufficiency. That event is sponsored by USAID and will continue through Saturday.
Last thing – and this is something we’ve been waiting for for a while and are really excited to bring you – and I’d like to congratulate our newest career ambassadors. They have been nominated a while ago, but just this afternoon the White House signed off on it, and we just received this news.
The Senate confirmed them today, and the President conferred the personnel rank of career ambassador to four of our colleagues: our Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale; Michele Sison, our ambassador to Haiti; Daniel Smith, our assistant secretary for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research; and Philip Goldberg, our charge in Havana.
This is the highest rank that a Foreign Service officer can attain, and we could not be happier to announce this news today. We are also pleased to announce that eight more members of our ambassadorial team were confirmed by the Senate and look forward to leading their embassies. I’ll have their names and their posts in just a second.
Randy Berry is the first, He will become our next ambassador to Nepal and will succeed Alaina Teplitz, who will assume charge of our U.S. missions to Sri Lanka and also the Maldives. Donald Lu will become the next chief of mission in Kyrgyzstan. And then turning from South and Central Asia to Africa, Michael Hammer will become the next U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Stephanie Sullivan will be our chief of mission in Ghana, Derek Hogan – we love Derek – (laughter) – a friend of ours. We traveled together; some of you may have met Derek on the plane. Derek will become our next U.S. ambassador to Moldova, Phil Kosnett will become our next U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, while Judy Reinke will become our chief of mission in Montenegro. Congratulations to all of you.
These distinguished leaders join the top ranks of our leadership team and thousands of others across the State Department, all of whom are hard at work to execute our diplomatic and national security missions across the globe on behalf of the United States.
And last thing, on a personal note: My colleague, Susan Stevenson, who was our acting assistant secretary for Public Affairs – she was also the acting R, the under secretary for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy for quite some time – she was just nominated today to be the ambassador of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea.
QUESTION: But that’s with a thank you. You have – you’re one of the few people in this administration at least with a public – who appears publicly to have consistently emphasized the importance of free press and democracies and talked about how important it is for journalists to be protected in what they do. And with that in mind, I’d like to know if you have anything to say about the rather surprising comments that Aung San Suu Kyi made about the two Reuters reporters in Myanmar and also her – more broadly, her comments about how – comments in defense of the Burmese military.
MS NAUERT: Right. Well, Matt, you’ll recall, many of you will recall, we went to Burma with Secretary Tillerson last year. You may recall when Secretary Pompeo was at ASEAN about a month ago that this was an issue that he directly raised with his counterpart. The situation with the two Reuters reporters, we’ve consistently raised that issue with the Government of Burma over the past year or so since they had been – since they had been detained.
Something that we don’t talk a lot about, however, is the fact that our embassy has remained very involved in monitoring the case of both of those reporters, in appearing at their court cases and so forth, and offering any support that we can certainly provide.
We are certainly aware of Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments about the reporters. We are deeply disappointed by the verdict that convicted the journalists Wa Lone and also Kyaw Soe Oo. We will continue to advocate at all levels of the U.S. Government for their immediate and their unconditional release. That verdict calls into question press freedom in Burma.
When I was there, I had the opportunity to have a roundtable discussion with a surprising number of journalists who had discussed with me the impact of government officials putting pressure on them to not report certain things and to report other things. We continue to call upon the Government of Burma to protect the freedom of expression, which is an essential pillar of democracy.
The fact that those journalists were convicted despite testimony by police that they were ordered to frame those two reporters – that, in our view, raises serious concerns about the judicial independence and the fair trial guarantees that they are supposed to have in that country. We believe it harms public confidence in the justice system and the rule of law in Burma. We continue to urge the Government of Burma to take action immediately to correct this injustice.
QUESTION: Right. And you say you’re aware of Suu Kyi’s comments, but you don’t have anything specific to say about them or about her broader defense of the Burmese military and judicial system?
MS NAUERT: Well, Matt, I think I can continue to say the journalists should, without a doubt, be released. We will continue to raise that – their cases at the highest level of that government. We’ve done that consistently within this administration, including the Vice President, who has spoken out about this issue as well.
We obviously disagree with many of the comments that she made. This is an issue of importance to us. We will continue working with our partners and allies to explore options to ensure justice for the victims of what has happened in the Rakhine State. And as you all know, the United States Government has been at the forefront of providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees. More than 700,000 of them, if not 800- or more thousand or more, have been forced to go into neighboring Bangladesh. Bangladesh has welcomed them and providing them with camps – not the ideal place for anyone to be, of course, but nevertheless Bangladesh has done that, and the United States has offered financial support and humanitarian aid to those Rohingya not only in Bangladesh but also some who are in IDP camps in Burma as well.
QUESTION: Thank you. I appreciate it. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords in the White House, and on this occasion I wanted to ask you whether you are – it was premised on a two-state solution ultimately. Are you still committed to the two-state solution, Israel and Palestine living side-by-side?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, and we’ve talked about this quite a bit before, and it’s certainly a priority of Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner.
MS NAUERT: The President has said consistently that he supports a solution that both parties can work with, recognizing that both parties will have to compromise in order to come to some sort of an agreement. So we support whatever both sides can work – can come to an agreement on.
QUESTION: Yes, but they have negotiated for a quarter of a century on this issue, and it was premised on a two-state solution. I’m just asking you whether you are still committed to that.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Our policy has not changed. We also understand that we can’t force it. Both sides will have to sit down and have direct negotiations and conversations.
QUESTION: And one other thing regarding the tweet that was, I think, made by Mr. Jason Greenblatt about we are about to roll out a peace proposal of some sort. I’m just saying that with all these measures that have been taking week after week after week in the last 12 weeks, I mean, all sticks and no carrots, so to speak, how are you trying to reach out to the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, ordinary Palestinians who you would need to reach out to if you are going to bypass the leadership that seems to be so obstinate?
MS NAUERT: I think my answer would go back to your previous question or your assertion that this has been going on, the conflict has been going on, the disagreements have been going on for 70 years – a very, very long time. Nothing has worked despite the U.S. Government and other governments’ best efforts, right? Nothing has worked thus far.
This administration has determined that it desires to take a different kind of approach in encouraging two sides to sit down and have that conversation. It’s something we’ll not back away from, recognizing that it’s certainly not going to be easy. We’ve seen that. But we remain committed to that. When the peace plan is ready and when they are ready to unveil it, we’d be happy to bring that to you, yes.
QUESTION: You will be able to reach out to ordinary Palestinians, to continue to have contact with them, help them in sort of getting the proper medical care, proper schools, and so on? Will you continue to do that?
MS NAUERT: We certainly hope so, and we’re having conversations with governments in the region about alternative ways that the U.S. Government could help facilitate some of those things that you mention – health care and education, medical services.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, how exactly is the administration encouraging the Palestinians to come back to the table?
MS NAUERT: Well, Matt, recognizing —
QUESTION: By shuttering their office here, by cutting off aid to UNRWA, by cutting off aid to the hospital networks, by cutting the aid to the West Bank and Gaza —
MS NAUERT: Determining that there needs to be a different —
QUESTION: — by recognizing Jerusalem as —
MS NAUERT: Matt, there needs to be a different kind of approach. Nothing has worked. For far longer than you and I have been alive, right, nothing has worked thus far. So we’re trying a different approach, seeing if this is going to work. We are committed to it. We have people on the ground who are working to this effort each and every day and we remain optimistic and committed to working on this.
QUESTION: Because we’re hearing different point of view. Is the peace plan not ready or is it ready but you’re not ready to unveil it?
MS NAUERT: Not ready to unveil it just yet. Anything more specific I’ll have to get an update for you from the offices handling this issue most – more closely.
QUESTION: Just very quickly, there’s an Israeli newspaper reporting that Mr. Trump has offered to give the Palestinians $5 billion in aid if they come back to the peace talks. Have you heard anything about that?
MS NAUERT: Inaccurate. Inaccurate.
QUESTION: It’s a – it’s false?
MS NAUERT: It’s not a correct story, yeah.
QUESTION: So are they going to get anything?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of any amount of money that is being offered to return to the peace table.
QUESTION: So there’s no – so there’s no at least financial incentive for them to come back thus —
MS NAUERT: I can just tell you that that report is inaccurate.
QUESTION: They get nothing.
MS NAUERT: That report is inaccurate.
QUESTION: Are you saying the peace deal is ready, it’s – you’re just waiting to present it at a – at a time —
MS NAUERT: We will unveil it when we are ready to unveil it, and I’ll just leave it at that for right now.
QUESTION: Hi. In Iraq, both Ayatollah Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr have come out in opposition to a second term for Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi. Do you think it would be – it might be a good idea if he stepped aside?
MS NAUERT: Laurie, that’s something that we wouldn’t get involved with in calling for that at this time. That would be an internal Iraqi matter that the Iraqis would have to figure out.
QUESTION: Well how about this question, then: Neither of the two blocs – one is kind of neutral or pro-American, the other is pro-Iranian – has the seats to form the next government, and the Kurds control a bloc of seats that is likely to be decisive. Do you think making concessions to the Kurds in order to encourage them to support your side would be a good idea? Because the other side will make those concessions and then you’ll lose Iraq.
MS NAUERT: Yeah, Laurie, again, we support Iraq’s democratic progress that they have made and their democratic process, recognizing that it is a sovereign government. We support Iraq’s efforts to form a moderate, sovereign Iraqi government pursuant to the constitutional timeline that’s responsive to the aspirations of the Iraqi people.
QUESTION: But you don’t contest my view of the importance of the Kurdish bloc?
MS NAUERT: Of course that is important. All Iraqis are important, and that’s why we talk about a sovereign Iraq and we think that Iraqis will be able to figure this out very well on their own.
QUESTION: Just in terms of the certification yesterday on Yemen, the report mentioned a number of things it said that the coalition was doing, but they were sort of like technical things like getting training and drawing up no-strike lists and acknowledged that there were still way too many casualties – civilians being killed. And I know that there is concern after the UN report that the Americans maybe could be implicated in war crimes if some of these strikes are found to be war crimes. Was the feeling here with that certification that you’re covering your bases in terms of any culpability for civilian casualties?
MS NAUERT: Well, first, let me start out with this – with mentioning this: The NDAA required the Secretary to make a determination on the actions of the Saudi-led coalition operating in and around Yemen. The Secretary, in line with 1290 – section 1290 of the NDAA – certified that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are supporting diplomatic efforts to end the civil war there. There are three things that the NDAA required. It did not require perfection on the part of the coalition’s actions. It stipulated making concerted efforts in three key areas: diplomatic efforts to end the civil war – we see that going forward – and strong efforts on the part of the Saudis and the Emiratis to push forward with a diplomatic solution; also taking measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.
The governments have contributed significant amounts of money to that end and I can detail a few of those, but also refer you back to their governments for more information on that. Next, agreeing to undertake actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and also civilian infrastructure. We see those governments and the coalition taking steps and listening to the concerns of the U.S. Government. Those concerns have been expressed on the part of Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Mattis, and I would imagine others in high positions within the U.S. Government.
We see them taking steps. Is it perfect? No, absolutely not. Do we see them doing what they can to mitigate civilian casualties? Absolutely, we do. That’s something that the U.S. Government takes very seriously, as you hear the Pentagon speak about that with regard to its own actions that it takes around the world, doing everything that it can to mitigate civilian casualties. So the Secretary made his determination and sent that information up to Capitol Hill.
QUESTION: Senator Shaheen said that the legislation had established firm benchmarks on avoiding civilian casualties before a certification could be made, and the coalition clearly hadn’t met these benchmarks. So she’s saying that even though they weren’t expecting perfection, the Secretary chose different benchmarks basically. Do you have a response to that?
MS NAUERT: I would disagree with that. Some of the information would be classified, so it’d be limited in terms of the scope of what I can say. But I can tell you that they have been working to reduce civilian casualties. The U.S. Government has found them, meaning the coalition, to be receptive to our concerns. They have taken our advice, they’ve admitted to making errors. The coalition announced that it is reviewing its rules of engagement. We think that that is something that is important. They will hold – the coalition has pledged to hold those at fault accountable for their actions in terms of those civilian casualties. They’ve also pledged to compensate the victims of those strikes that tragically did kill civilians. So we’re seeing them make some good-faith efforts and we’re continuing to have conversations with the government about that.
QUESTION: — the reaction to this certification from the Hill and from human rights groups, from aid agencies – I mean, they’re pretty damning. I mean, charade, charade, farce – I think senator – Oxfam or someone said that he was lying to Congress. Other members of Congress said that this made a mockery of their requirements that were in the NDAA. So how do you square that reaction with the certification? What’s your response to that kind of a – that response, which is pretty harsh?
MS NAUERT: Well, first I would say they’re taking steps in the view of the U.S. Government and this administration in the right direction. I understand certainly the concerns of aid groups. Our Deputy Secretary Sullivan has been meeting consistently with some of the aid groups who are operating in the region and providing assistance to those in Yemen. In fact, he had a meeting with them just today, and I can provide you a bit of a readout on that meeting he had with some of those humanitarian groups. Our Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and USAID Administrator Mark Green met – it was actually yesterday, not today – with international and NGO groups to discuss the humanitarian situation in Yemen and to brief the group on the Secretary’s certification to Congress under section 1290 of the John McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. They discussed recent efforts by the United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths to bring the Republic of Yemen Government and Houthi representatives to Geneva for consultations.
The deputy secretary reiterated the administration’s full support of the UN-led political process and stressed that there is no military solution to this conflict. The deputy secretary and the administrator discussed the importance of all parties continuing to support the UN special envoy; avoiding further escalation of the conflict, including Hodeidah; coordinating efforts to address Yemen’s economic and humanitarian situation; and committing to a process to reach a comprehensive political agreement that will bring peace, prosperity, and security to Yemen. Participants expressed their concern about escalating violence in Hodeidah and also noted the continuing dynamic of desperation in Yemen.
It necessitates measures that would yield tangible results and a sense of improvement. The deputy secretary thanked the NGOs for their continuing cooperation and the frank dialogue that they had. He reaffirmed the United States concern about the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure, particularly of a humanitarian nature. He said the United States will continue to call on all parties to respect the law of armed conflict, take feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians, and conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into alleged violations. I would be happy to send that out to you after the briefing.
QUESTION: Yeah, could you? And could you also – could you – did they accept the certification? Did these – would you say that these aid groups welcomed the Secretary’s determination that the coalition is doing everything – or doing enough?
MS NAUERT: I would say that we would have access to different kinds of information than some of the NGOs on the ground. They do some incredible work, these NGOs, and I can tell you we were pleased to have them in to the State Department. It was a frank discussion, of course, as you can imagine it would, but here is the readout that I was just able to provide for you.
QUESTION: Just to follow up, can you provide any more information about what exactly the Saudi-led coalition – what steps they’re taking?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, and I think this is something that Secretary Mattis had addressed not that long ago, and so, in fact, the Department of Defense is better positioned to be able to discuss some of the activities of the coalition and some of the direct things that they are doing. So let me just read a portion of this for you. Pardon me, I have to grab my glasses. Secretary Mattis said about a week and a half ago, “For the last several years we’ve been working with the Saudis and Emiratis doing what we can to reduce any chance of innocent people being injured or killed. We recognize that we are watching a war in which the Houthi-led effort involves launching weapons out of residential areas into Saudi Arabia.
We recognize the complexity of this. At no time have we felt rebuffed or ignored when we bring concerns to them,” meaning the coalition. “The training that we have given them we know has paid off.” He goes on to say, “We recognize every mistake like this is tragic in every way, but we have not seen any callous disregard by the people we are working with. We continue to work with them and to reduce this kind of tragedy.”
This is something that the United States Government takes seriously. I understand that some NGOs, some folks on the Hill are perhaps angry and frustrated with the decision, but I can tell you we took a very careful and close look at the information, some of which is classified, and the Secretary made his determination.
QUESTION: Heather, really quick. Yesterday secretary – former Secretary Kerry acknowledged that he’s spoken with Foreign Minister Zarif after he’s left office. Does the current Secretary, Secretary Pompeo, does he have thoughts on that and does he believe that that is potentially countering this administration’s policy?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, so let me – let me start with this. I’ve seen former Secretary Kerry do rounds on the talk shows and talking with the press in terms of print and also radio. I’ve seen him brag about the meetings that he has had with the Iranian Government and Iranian Government officials. And I’ve also seen reports that he is apparently providing, according to reports, advice to the Iranian Government. I think probably the best advice that he should be giving the Iranian Government is stop supporting terror groups around the world, stop supporting Hizballah.
We were just talking about the Saudi-led coalition and activities that it is undertaking in Yemen, and we see the Iranian Government offering help, expertise, money, material to the Houthi rebels in Yemen that is causing so much misery in that country. We see them – meaning Shia militias – trying to kill U.S. servicemembers in places like Iraq. We see them launching attacks on some of our partners. If anything, we should – he should be calling on the Iranian Government to stop spending money on all this adventurism and terrorism around the world and start spending their money on their own people, as we have seen so many Iranian people express their serious concerns about this kind of military adventurism.
MS NAUERT: If someone is going to have conversations with the Iranian Government, let’s make them productive conversations. Let’s make them about how the President sees the activities of the Iranian Government.
This administration no longer looks at the Iranian Government just through the narrow scope of the JCPOA, the nuclear deal. We look at the totality of Iran’s bad actions around the world in fomenting terror and causing so much misery around the globe, including misery in their own country.