U.S. Department of State
Department Press Briefing
Thursday, March 14, 2019
Briefer: Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino
2:54 p.m. EDT
MR PALLADINO: This week our deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan is in South Africa and Angola. His visit is focused on promoting U.S. trade investment, as well as advancing peace and security.
Today in South Africa, the deputy secretary held meetings with a range of stakeholders, during which he discussed South Africa’s business climate, IBM’s investments in entrepreneurship and innovation in Johannesburg, and the value of U.S. Government exchange programs. In addition, he will tour the Zola Community Health Centre and meet with beneficiaries of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Program.
During his visit, the deputy secretary will also meet with South African Government officials to discuss bilateral trade and regional multilateral priorities, including with respect to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
In these meetings, the deputy secretary will stress the importance of prioritizing economic partnerships based on mutual respect that help African nations take control of their economic destinies.
In Angola, Deputy Secretary Sullivan will meet with President Lourenco to discuss a range of global economic and security issues. The deputy secretary will co-chair a session of the United States-Angola Strategic Dialogue with Foreign Minister Augusto. They plan to discuss the ways for our partnership to grow in areas such as economic engagement, security cooperation, and development programs, as well as efforts to ensure humanitarian assistance reaches the Venezuelan people.
While in Luanda, Deputy Secretary Sullivan will also deliver remarks on the administration’s Africa strategy to members of the business community and meet with representatives from civil society, youth leaders, and the United States mission personnel to underscore the depth and breadth of United States engagement in Africa.
QUESTION: And they’ll be (inaudible) that in Chinese, right?
MR PALLADINO: We are focused. I also want to highlight two important announcements that were made today by Secretary Pompeo’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement Ambassador Jim Jeffrey. This was done at the third Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region.
Today the United States announced more than 397 million in additional humanitarian assistance for the people of Syria as part of the United Nations Syria response plan. This reflects our commitment to providing critical, lifesaving support to any Syrian impacted by the conflict no matter where they live, both inside Syria and vulnerable refugee communities in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. U.S. humanitarian assistance is now more than 9.5 billion since the start of this crisis, and we appreciate all donors who have stepped up and we encourage others to help meet the growing need as well.
Ambassador Jeffrey also announced, at the direction of the President and subject to Congressional approval, the United States intention to provide additional 5 million to support the vital, lifesaving operations of the White Helmets in Syria and the United Nations International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism, the IIIM. The United States strongly supports the work of the White Helmets. They have saved more than 114,000 lives since the conflict began, including victims of Assad’s vicious chemical weapons attacks. And we stand firmly with them against attempts to delegitimize their work.
The IIIM is charged with assisting the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria since March 2011. We’re proud to support these efforts. These contributions demonstrate the United States commitment and ongoing support for justice and accountability in Syria.
MR PALLADINO: We’ll try to get that to you, okay? Our focus hasn’t changed in Yemen. We’re focused on supporting a comprehensive political agreement that will end the conflict. So towards that end, we are – we continue to support the United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, and we encourage Yemenis to swiftly implement agreements that were made in Sweden so that the political process can move forward.
And you had a question about —
QUESTION: The Hodeidah agreement.
MR PALLADINO: Okay.
QUESTION: If the Houthis continue to not implement it, and you calling for them to swiftly —
MR PALLADINO: We continue to urge all parties to adhere to the commitments that they made in Sweden, particularly the ceasefire and the redeployment of forces in Hodeidah. We strongly support the UN Redeployment Coordination Committee as it works to implement the Hodeidah agreement and to translate momentum from Sweden into real de-escalation on the ground.
QUESTION: Thank you, Robert. Yesterday Ambassador Kozak suggested that the term “occupied” carries legal parameters, and the West Bank and Golan Heights were listed as geographically. We don’t know what that means. I wanted to ask you: What is your official designation of the West Bank now, today? What is – how do you designate it?
MR PALLADINO: As we stated last year, we retitled the Human Rights Report to refer to commonly used geographic names in the area that the report covers: Israel, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza. And this is in line with our practices generally.
QUESTION: Right. I’m not talking about the Human Rights – in particular – Report in particular, but what is your designation for the West Bank? I mean, by dropping the term “occupied,” you are a signatory to Resolution 242, 373. Does that compromise the moral standard of the United States when it drops its commitment – or its signature, actually, on these resolutions?
MR PALLADINO: Yeah. Our view on the status of Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip, that has not changed, and I don’t have anything to add beyond that.
QUESTION: And one last question: Last week on Friday, Mr. Jason Greenblatt, the envoy to the peace process, whatever it is, spoke at the UN and basically sided with Israel on confiscating the tax money. Now – and he, in subsequent tweets and so on, he alluded to the Taylor Force law that was passed here, but that pertains to American money. This money that Israel is taking is Palestinian money and it is enshrined in agreements between the two sides in the Paris accord and the Oslo Accords. So explain to us why – first, why do you support the Israeli decision? And second, isn’t that a breach of an agreement that you oversaw?
MR PALLADINO: As far as Mr. Greenblatt’s words and tweets and whatnot, I would refer you to the White House for the —
QUESTION: But that’s now U.S. policy. I mean, he’s not speaking by himself.
MR PALLADINO: As far as the Taylor – I mean, we’ve – we have said clearly many times before that the United States condemns the abhorrent practice of the Palestinian Authority’s payments to imprisoned terrorists and the families of terrorists. It’s – the Taylor Force Act addresses this practice.
QUESTION: But that’s —
MR PALLADINO: That’s why it’s relevant, and by restricting United States economic assistance that directly benefits the Palestinian Authority until it ends those payments. So this is something the United States continues to press the Palestinian Authority on to discontinue this reprehensible program that incentivizes terrorism. We strongly urge the Palestinian Authority not to reward terrorist violence.
QUESTION: Thank you. The Popular Mobilization Forces figured prominently as abusers in your report yesterday on human rights in Iraq, particularly in the north, and Ayatollah Sistani said that pretty much to Iran’s president yesterday as well when they met. So do you think security and stability can be regained in Iraq without addressing this problem or aren’t the Sunni Arabs, as long as they’re being subject to abuse by sectarian militia, going to keep turning to a group like ISIS just to get away from this abuse?
MR PALLADINO: I guess I’d point out, as the Human Rights Report itself indicates, we are deeply concerned about any abuses committed by sectarian armed forces. Many of those armed groups are aligned with Iran, which shares in the blame for their abuses, and which has used those groups to undermine Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty. Qasem Soleimani and his Qods Force actively seek to use these armed groups to intimidate the Iraqi people and undermine the legitimate authority of Iraq’s elected government.
The deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu al-Muhandis, is on video declaring his loyalty not to Iraq and Iraq’s duly elected leaders, but to Qasem Soleimani. And this disregard for Iraqi sovereignty undermines the will of the Iraqi people.
QUESTION: Well just on al-Muhandis, who is a particularly nefarious character because he is indicted for the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy in Kuwait a long time ago, indicted for it, would you consider issuing a criminal arrest warrant or doing something particular against al-Muhandis?
MR PALLADINO: I’m not going to preview anything today. I would just say that Iraq can achieve security and stability only if Iran respects Iraq’s sovereignty and ceases to subvert the central government’s ability to rein in these ill-disciplined armed forces.
QUESTION: Robert, on the Iranian president visit to Iraq, he met with tribes leaders and he signed several agreements with the Iraqi Government. Do you have any comment on these agreements? And how can they help the U.S. sanctions on Iran?
MR PALLADINO: We respect Iraq’s sovereign right to conduct its foreign relations for the benefit of the Iraqi people. I guess we’d say we also – we think it’s a shame that Iraq’s neighbors don’t necessarily see it the same way. The Iranian regime speaks of cooperation with Iraq, but as the Secretary noted just yesterday, its actions are aimed at subverting Iraqi sovereignty, making Iraq dependent upon Iran, and turning Iran into a vassal state.
QUESTION: Turning Iraq into a vassal —
MR PALLADINO: Turning Iraq into a vassal state. The Iraqis are a proud people. They value their independence and sovereignty, and they have long memories. Their skepticism about Iran’s intentions is understandable. Stop there.
QUESTION: But they signed the agreements that might undermine the U.S. sanctions on Iran.
MR PALLADINO: I haven’t seen that yet, and I’d have to – I’d take a look. I don’t want to speak on it.
QUESTION: Robert, do you also respect Iran’s sovereign right to conduct foreign policy the way it sees fit?
MR PALLADINO: Iran’s malign influence is well noted, its lack of respect for the sovereignty of its neighbors is well demonstrated, and that is a malign influence that the United States will continue to counter.
QUESTION: Right. But do you believe that Iran has a sovereign right to conduct foreign policy, or is it only if their foreign policy is something that you don’t object to?
MR PALLADINO: Absolutely not. We’re talking about —
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) I’m just asking, do they have a sovereign right to their own foreign policy?
MR PALLADINO: We respect each nation’s right to conduct foreign policy, absolutely.