Department Press Briefing – October 12, 2021
Ned Price, Department Spokesperson
2:18 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope everyone had a nice weekend. It’s nice to say Happy Tuesday instead of Happy Monday. We have just one element at the top, and then I look forward to taking your questions.
Today, we congratulate Tunisia on the formation of a new government under the leadership of Prime Minister Bouden Romdhane. The new government, which includes 10 female ministers, is a welcome step forwards towards addressing the significant economic, health, and social challenges facing the country. We look forward to further announcements to establish a broadly inclusive process for a rapid return to constitutional order.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Is that all you have?
MR PRICE: That is all I have at the top.
QUESTION: You don’t have anything —
MR PRICE: I wanted to save plenty of time for —
QUESTION: You don’t have anything to – any personnel announcements or anything like that?
MR PRICE: Well, we have made a personal – personnel announcement today, as you know. Is that what you’re referring to?
QUESTION: A couple of them.
MR PRICE: A couple of them, yes. Would you like to ask me questions, or do you just want me to expound on —
QUESTION: I was giving you the opportunity to put it out in your own way without – I will ask about Afghanistan and Haiti.
MR PRICE: Sure, absolutely. So let’s start with Afghanistan. As you heard from me earlier today, I am happy to reiterate that we are, in fact, centralizing our efforts to facilitate the relocation and the resettlement in the United States of Afghan individuals to whom we have a special commitment. This is an updated operating posture that we announced earlier today that will ensure a more efficient, more streamlined, more effective coordination both within the department, across the interagency, with our outside partners, but also with our international partners who continue to be critical to this effort as well.
So as you heard from me earlier today, Ambassador John Bass, who – whom Secretary Blinken requested go to Afghanistan during the course of our evacuations to oversee evacuation operations from what was then known as HKIA, Ambassador Bass returned to the State Department after August 31st and has since been helping to lead and to coordinate those continuing facilitated departures since August 31st. But as you also know, Ambassador Bass had the high honor of being nominated by the President of the United States as the so-called M, the Under Secretary for Management. And so this was always a short-term position for Ambassador Bass upon his return from Kabul, and Ambassador Bass now needs to focus on his next job, which is a very important one at that.
So we are extraordinarily grateful and honored to welcome back to the Department someone I think many of you know well, and that’s Ambassador Elizabeth Jones. Ambassador Jones is assuming oversight of the entire Afghan relocation effort, from our ongoing efforts to facilitate the departure of individuals from Afghanistan, to their onward relocation, going to the so-called lily pads in the Middle East and elsewhere, and possible future resettlement here in the United States.
She is someone who in many ways is uniquely qualified to take on this role – her first assignment as a Foreign Service officer was in Kabul – and is a member of the Senior Foreign Service. She was what was then known as deputy SRAP, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She’s been our ambassador to Kazakhstan, and she has been an assistant secretary here twice over, once to our Near Eastern Affairs Bureau and also to our Bureau of European Affairs.
And so as the new CARE – we like our acronyms here, but the Coordinator for Afghan Relocation Efforts – she will focus not only on the very complex issues related to relocation and resettlement but also on outreach: outreach to our partners with whom we’re working very closely in the advocacy community, in the veterans community; our partners, of course, in Congress; all of you we consider our partners as well; and to our international partners to help effectuate and streamline all of it.
And so just to put a period on this, CARE, the coordinator’s office, really has four key functions. One, as I said, is the relocation of individuals out of Afghanistan for individuals who so choose to depart. Two is the third-country transit and processing outside of the United States. Three is resettlement in the United States, and of course, there will be heavy coordination with DHS and with Governor Markell and his office at the White House. And then four, overall outreach and engagement, and we understand just how important that is. There are many stakeholders who have a keen interest in this and who have demonstrated a keen ability to help move forward our collective mission to bring out of Afghanistan those who wish to leave, those to whom we have a special commitment, and we look forward to continuing to work with them.
QUESTION: All right, I’ll let – but if you want to get into Ken Merten going to Havana, that’s fine. Does anyone –
MR PRICE: Haiti.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. Did I – what did I say?
MR PRICE: You said Havana.
QUESTION: Oh, Havana, right. That’s another thing that will come up. But I won’t ask about it. On CARE, really, who came up with this acronym? Did you ask the actual CARE – ?
MR PRICE: Matt, we have a lot of acronyms in this building. This is probably one of the better ones.
QUESTION: Yeah. But there’s particular significance to the acronym CARE and how it relates to the Marshall Plan, and what the Secretary was doing in Paris last week. Did anyone think about that? No? All right.
I just want to ask about two reports. These are non-policy things. One – or actually, I’ll just ask about one because the IG report on it was not – I want to ask about something that has dropped off the radar but I asked you about a little while ago, and that’s the swastika incident in the elevator. What’s – it’s been now almost three – more than three months, or almost three months.
MR PRICE: It has. It has.
QUESTION: What’s going on?
MR PRICE: And our Diplomatic Security remains engaged in this investigation. As you know, immediately upon discovering this horrific symbol in the building, the Secretary ordered an investigation. They have resorted to a number of investigative techniques. We are also taking into account what other practices, procedures, tools we might implement here in the building to help us in the course of any such future investigations, hoping that we don’t need to resort to that. I don’t have an update for you.
QUESTION: So there’s – okay, nothing.
MR PRICE: But it remains a priority for us.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just a few questions about Afghanistan. After the talks at the weekend and the statement that you and the Taliban put out, does anything – has there been any development in terms of the sort of practicalities of getting humanitarian aid to Afghanistan? So the Taliban went into some detail about how they were going to cooperate with charitable groups and so on, so I thought maybe some boxes had been ticked and there’s a sort of framework in place. That’s my first question.
Secondly, in their statement, in the Taliban statement, they said that they would – I haven’t got the words exactly, but they would facilitate at the travel of foreign nationals. They didn’t say anything about Afghan partners. And I wondered what the agreement, if there had been, about that. And then also, finally, did – is there a plan to send COVID vaccines, doses, to Afghanistan as part of this humanitarian – part of your humanitarian assistance?
MR PRICE: Sure. Let me take that perhaps in reverse order, perhaps in a more convoluted order. But I’ll start last first.
COVID vaccines: There was a discussion of our support for the Afghan people, including support for combating COVID. As we know the world over, we are focused on bringing this epidemic to an end; and to do that anywhere, to ensure that COVID is no longer a threat anywhere, we must ensure that we are tackling it everywhere. And of course, that includes in Afghanistan.
In the context of Afghanistan, we’ve previously announced I believe it is 3.3 million doses of vaccine to Afghanistan through the generosity of the United States. Should there be an additional need, that is something we would entertain in the context of our broader humanitarian support. As you know, as we assess our relationship with any future Afghan government, what we are not assessing is our commitment to the Afghan people. And that – of course, one important staple of that is our humanitarian support and our assistance to bringing an end to the COVID epidemic there.
We have announced significant support this year, humanitarian support, $63, nearly $64 million in recent weeks, $330 million in this current fiscal year. Some 5 million of that has already been administered in Afghanistan to WHO-run programs, again, in support of the public health needs of the Afghan people, including at this critical time.
Barbara, you mentioned the meeting over the weekend in Doha. I just want to put that in slightly broader context, because there are really a series of three meetings that have taken place over the past 72 or so hours that I think speak to our priorities and our strategy for Afghanistan. Of course, there was a senior U.S. delegation that traveled to Doha over the weekend for meetings with the Taliban on Saturday and Sunday. There were two days of meetings. We issued a readout of that. But as we said in that readout, the meetings were candid, they were professional, they were businesslike, they were largely positive.
The delegation made clear, as we consistently have, that the Taliban will ultimately be judged not only on its words, but solely on its actions. And in the context of that discussion, we engaged on a practical and pragmatic basis with the Taliban, as we have done in recent weeks, focusing on security and terrorism concerns, a – in some ways a shared threat – from groups like ISIS-K in Afghanistan, safe passage for U.S. citizens and for foreign nationals, and – as well as our Afghan partners to whom we have a special commitment – and, of course, human rights. And that includes the rights of women and girls. There was a long discussion of that.
But, of course, that’s not the only meeting that took place. There are two others of note. One was a U.S.-Europe meeting with the Taliban that took place today. Tom West, our deputy SRAR, again represented the Department of State in that meeting. This is a regular U.S.-Europe meeting mechanism, and – but this meeting was a one-off meeting organized by the Government of Qatar. Its participants included the United States, the European Union, Germany, France, Norway, Italy, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Spain, with our representatives as well. And so that group, a broader set of our allies and partners, met with Taliban representatives, again, to reinforce some of these same issues: safe passage, the importance of counterterrorism, the imperative of respecting human rights, including the rights of all of Afghanistan’s citizens – its minorities, its women, its girls – the need for access to women and girls to all aspects of society, inclusive governance, and humanitarian aid and humanitarian access.
And then, of course, this morning, at the most senior levels of the U.S. Government, the President, as well as Secretary Blinken at his side, took part in a G20 meeting. And that meeting focused on the need to continue to provide Afghanistan with urgent humanitarian support, the fight against terrorism, freedom of movement, and open borders in the region. This, of course, follows on the G20 meeting we had in New York City – in New York City at UNGA – and a number of similar broad multilateral engagements that, in some cases, the United States has spearheaded, the United States has galvanized to brings together our allies and partners to make very clear that it is not just the United States focusing on these issues, but it is a broad swath of the international community making clear that together we will uphold – we will hold the Taliban accountable for the commitments that it’s made.
QUESTION: Do you think the talks will speed up now? You mentioned all these meetings and – have you got the commitments from the Taliban that you were looking for? I mean, you’ve mentioned $5 million so far since the Taliban takeover, the – is everything —
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: Has it been organized now that this – the humanitarian aid will speed up?
MR PRICE: Well, to be clear, when it comes to our humanitarian aid, that doesn’t flow through the Taliban; it doesn’t flow through any future government.
QUESTION: No, I know, but you obviously have to get – you’ve said yourself you want commitments from the Taliban to —
MR PRICE: Well, we do want commitment when it comes to humanitarian access.
QUESTION: Yeah. But did you get that?
MR PRICE: And – there has been progress on a number of fronts. I think there were – there were productive discussions on the issue of humanitarian assistance. As you know, USAID was represented in Doha by Sarah Charles, a senior development official with USAID. At the U.S.-Europe meeting too, it was a discussion – it was a topic of discussion. And together with our allies, we made clear the imperative humanitarian assistance, but the Taliban, I would say, also is looking for humanitarian assistance. There is a degree at least of consensus on this point. You’ve heard the Taliban speak to their interest in continuing assistance for COVID.
We, of course, have an enduring commitment to the humanitarian concerns and priorities of the Afghan people and to finding ways to ensure that aid gets to them. We have been in regular and continuing contact with our humanitarian partners on the ground in Afghanistan. As I mentioned, a good chunk of money, some $5 million has already been administered by the WHO. This is just one segment of the $330-some-odd million that the United States has committed in this fiscal year as we determine and assess the needs of the Afghan people.
Let me let me address one other point. You raised the ability of Afghans to depart Afghanistan if they so choose. Of course, our priority is on facilitating the departure of American citizens, of LPRs – lawful permanent residents, that is to say – should they choose to leave. But we have also assisted in the departure of Afghans, including Afghans to whom we have a special commitment. Our estimate is that since August 31st, a couple thousand Afghans have departed the country, Afghans who have chosen to leave the country, including with, in some cases, support of the U.S. Government.
QUESTION: Ned, a couple pointed questions on the Afghanistan comments, and I have a few others, including Havana syndrome.
So before the meeting – well, U.S. official had talked about the need to talk to Taliban about – to avoid, like, the resurgence of al-Qaida and other extremist groups. And there was reporting over the weekend that Taliban ruled out working with Washington on containing ISIS-K. You said the meeting overall, like, largely was positive. So can you first address that? Can you confirm if they ruled out working with you guys on that? And where does that leave your over-the-horizon, like, counterterrorism effort?
I’m going to go into the second one quickly. There has also been reporting that Taliban wanted U.S. to unfreeze Afghanistan Central Bank reserves. That’s something that they’ve openly said they want before. Did they come up – is there any inclination on the U.S. side to do that, maybe on a conditional basis or in any other form?
And can you confirm the Havana syndrome cases or deny it, or just address that in Colombia embassy in Bogotá, in U.S. Embassy in Bogotá?
MR PRICE: So let me start in the order in which you asked the questions.
So when it comes to counterterrorism, I said before that this was a staple of both the U.S., the senior U.S. meeting with the Taliban. There was a representative of the Intelligence Community there who was there primarily for that purpose. There – it was also a topic of discussion in the U.S.-Europe meeting with the Taliban that took place today. I don’t want to go into great detail into what the Taliban might have said. I will – you are welcome to ask them about their position on this. Our —
QUESTION: But would say that part of the discussion was also positive?
MR PRICE: Our position on this is that the United States will do what we need to do to ensure that – to see to it that Afghanistan cannot once again be used as a launch pad for attacks against the United States. That is our priority. We have the capabilities to do that. You’ve heard the Department of Defense speak to this. We will continue to make clear to the Taliban our expectations, to underline for them their own commitments on this.
But again, what is also true is that there is some shared set of interest in this. ISIS-K is a mutual threat to the Taliban and to the United States and our partners. And so we will and we do have the capabilities to see to it that groups like ISIS-K cannot use Afghanistan as a base to threaten us, and we’ll continue to raise the imperative of counterterrorism with the Taliban going forward.
When it comes to Central Bank reserves, look, I don’t want to go into various carrots and sticks. What I will say on this is what we have consistently said. We will judge and interact with any future Afghan government on the basis of its conduct and its conduct in those key areas.
QUESTION: But it hasn’t – their conduct has not been great, to say the least, already. And everyone agrees that. Like, you said that openly – they say it diplomatically; it hasn’t been encouraging. So I don’t quite understand, like, what it is that you guys are waiting. Are you inclined to – you also recognize the need for cash, and they need cash, and you’re committing for humanitarian aid and a number of things. So are you inclined to unfreeze their reserves to allow them some cash or not?
MR PRICE: This is not a static picture. The Taliban conduct a month ago, six weeks ago, is in some ways different from Taliban conduct today. We want to see to it that six weeks from now, six months from now, when any future Afghan government is formally announced, that government upholds the commitments that the Taliban has made, and importantly that the United States together with our allies and partners have confirmed will be the basis for our approach, for our engagement to the Taliban.
I should note that yes, there was a senior delegation in Doha, a senior U.S. Government delegation in Doha. Today, there was a meeting of the U.S. and EU partners with the Taliban. There is a difference between pragmatic, practical engagement on core national interests – and to us, those national interests are counterterrorism, they are safe passage, they are human rights, among others – and any sort of recognition or conferral of legitimacy on the Taliban or any future government of Afghanistan.
What our approach looks like, what our set of incentives – sticks, carrots, everything in between – looks like with any future government of Afghanistan, that will be determined by the conduct of the Taliban in any future government.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on Afghanistan?
QUESTION: Havana – Havana syndrome.
MR PRICE: Havana syndrome.
QUESTION: Stick on Afghanistan for a second?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. So just following up on that, you said Taliban conduct is not a static picture. So what notably has changed in the perspective of the U.S. in the last few weeks or months that is positive, if anything? And did U.S. officials tell the Taliban specifically what actions they have recently taken that they need to reverse?
MR PRICE: So it was a very candid conversation, and you probably —
QUESTION: So yes?
MR PRICE: You probably are not surprised to hear me say that. But it was candid in the sense that there was a – an exchange of views. We were very clear with them. They also shared their perspective with our team. So I think I will leave it at that, but also leave no doubt that we were clear where we stood.
In terms of Taliban conduct, there are areas that are woefully deficient, and we have made no bones about the fact that some of the actions that we have seen from the Taliban government, including when it comes to human rights, respect for all of Afghanistan’s citizens, some of that conduct is inconsistent with what the Taliban itself has pledged, what the international community has made clear it would like to see. We have made very clear where we stand on the composition of this caretaker government and what we would like to see in any future government of Afghanistan.
At the same time, we’ve also been very clear about our ability to safely facilitate the departure of many from Afghanistan. Just to give you the latest figures, as you know, there was another charter flight that departed from Kabul International Airport yesterday. In total, at least 129 U.S. citizens and 115 lawful permanent residents have departed Afghanistan with our assistance since August 31st. That includes charter flights, that includes overland routes as well. I also spoke to the fact that there are a couple thousand additional individuals who, since August 31st, have been able to depart. So we will continue to underscore the imperative of safe passage with the Taliban as one of those key metrics for judging our approach to any future government of Afghanistan going forward.
QUESTION: But I don’t understand, why are you not in the business of confirming reports? This is squarely about State Department personnel. These are happening at U.S. embassies. Who should be in the business of confirming these incidents?
MR PRICE: We are in the business of, number one, believing those who have reported these incidents, ensuring that they get the prompt care they need in whatever form that takes, whether that is at post, whether that is back here in the Washington, D.C. area. We are in the business of doing all we can to protect our workforce and the broader chief of mission community around the world.
QUESTION: So have they reported in Bogota U.S. embassy?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Have they reported – like, are you doing all of those things for U.S. embassy in Bogota?
MR PRICE: We are doing this everywhere an anomalous health incident is reported. But we are also doing things universally, and we are communicating with our workforce. We are instituting new training modules to ensure that outgoing State Department officers know how to detect a potential anomalous health incident, they know how to report a potential anomalous health incident, they know who – to whom to turn should they need to report it, they know the type of assistance that they can receive. Their families are apprised of these dynamics as well. And as you know, the Secretary has had an opportunity to meet with some of those who have reported AHIs.
There is no higher priority that the Secretary has to the health, the safety, the security of our workforce. I’ve said this before, but even before he was Secretary of State, one of the briefings he proactively requested as the nominee for the office he now holds during the transition was a comprehensive briefing on so-called Havana syndrome or anomalous health incidents. He wanted to make sure he entered this job understanding where we were and what we had done, and importantly, what this department could do better to support our workforce at all levels. And we have taken a number of steps, including in terms of communication, in terms of care, in terms of detection, in terms of protection for our workforce, and that is something that will continue to be a priority for the Secretary.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, it was this building that (inaudible) spoke about those cases in Havana and then in China. Why aren’t you confirming for the sake of transparency where there are cases reported – if they are Havana syndrome or not, it’s another thing, but where there are reported incidents, why aren’t you doing that? And then I have another question on Cuba protest.
MR PRICE: So in many cases it is a matter of privacy of individuals, wanting to respect privacy. But let me just make clear that when cases have been reported, our posts overseas have communicated that clearly to the community within the embassy. We have also engaged – Brian McKeon has engaged with posts that have reported a number of anomalous health incidents. So it is not – certainly not – the case that we are ignoring this. We are just not speaking to the press, we’re speaking to our workforce, as you might expect when it comes to a matter of their health and safety and security.
You said you had another question?
QUESTION: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about the Cuba’s Government decision to ban a protest that was planned for November 15th, claiming that the organizers are backed by the U.S. to overthrow the regime. Do you have any comment on that, any response?
MR PRICE: Well, let me make one thing very clear at the outset. What happened in July, what transpired in the days and the weeks after that, was not about the United States. It was about the conduct of the Cuban regime, the unmet aspirations of the Cuban people for freedom, for dignity, for prosperity, the elements that they have been denied by this regime for far too long, since 1959.
We – the world watched. The United States watched as Cuban authorities arrest and beat peaceful protestors, journalists, independent voices in mid-July, starting on July 11th. There have been many arbitrarily detained; many are missing. We know that the government has conducted secret summary trials of those arrested. And we join their families, we join Cuba’s human rights defenders, people around the world in calling for the immediate release of all those detained – all those who are detained or missing merely for exercising their fundamental human rights. It’s the freedom of expression, it is the freedom to assemble peacefully that the Cuban Government has denied to its people.
The violence that we’ve seen, the detention that we’ve seen, the crackdowns that we’ve seen, now the prohibitions on peaceful protests that we’ve seen – all of this remind us that it is the Cuban people who are paying dearly in their fight for freedom, their fight for dignity. We call for their release. We call for the government in Havana to respect the fundamental freedoms and the fundamental rights of the Cuban people.
MR PRICE: So when it comes to the Iraqi elections, we congratulate the Iraqi Government on having fulfilled its promise to hold early elections. We are pleased the – we are pleased that the election days were largely conducted peacefully. We have seen the preliminary results announced by the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission, and we’re awaiting for the final certified results. So we’ll – we will omit judgment until then. But these elections included hundreds of international monitors and observers from the UN and the EU, in addition to thousands of domestic observers. We look forward to reviewing their reports.
Once the final results are certified, we hope that the new Council of Representatives members will form a government that reflects the will of the Iraqi people, and which can work to address Iraq’s governance, security, and economic challenges.
When it comes to Moqtada al-Sadr, again, we’re waiting for final results. We don’t want to prejudge the outcome. But we do look forward to working with the new government once it is formed.
QUESTION: At the – one on Lebanon, what is the purpose of on the Secretary Nuland took to Beirut tomorrow, and how do you view the threats made to the judge who is investigating Beirut blast? And it looks like this investigation will break the new government.
MR PRICE: Well, we have said and the international community has said multiple times we support and we urge Lebanese authorities to complete a swift and transparent investigation into the horrific explosion in the Port of Beirut. The victims of the August 2020 port explosion deserve justice; they deserve accountability.
When it comes to the report that you mentioned, we oppose intimidation of any country’s judiciary, and we support Lebanon’s judicial independence. Judges must be free from threats and intimidation, including Hizballah’s. We’ve long been clear that Hizballah’s terrorists and illicit activities threaten Lebanon’s security, stability, and sovereignty. Hizballah, we believe, is more concerned with its own interests and those of its patron, Iran, than in the best interests of the Lebanese people.
As you mentioned, the under secretary for political affairs, Toria Nuland, will be there to continue the important discussions that we have been having bilaterally with Lebanese authorities, but also in various contexts, including with our Saudi partners, with our French partners, in a trilateral format with our Saudi and French partners, in any number of multilateral formats, to see to it that the people of Lebanon can take advantage of the humanitarian relief that they so desperately need as we support the formation of a stable and inclusive government that is responsive to the profound needs of the Lebanese people. So there’ll be lots to discuss.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Toria —
MR PRICE: Yup. Uh-huh. Sure.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: So the Russians say that they have made a proposal to you and said, “If you lift your sanctions, we’ll lift ours.” I haven’t seen any response from you guys yet. Do you have one?
MR PRICE: Well, we will leave the diplomacy to people like Under Secretary Nuland and to others who will carry this forward. What I can say about her engagement today: her meetings have been – there’s been open discussion. Her meetings have been useful. And the United – and our stance on the staffing of our mission remains firm. We expect parity on staffing numbers and we expect visa reciprocity. There must be fairness, there must be flexibility on the Russian side if we are to achieve an equitable agreement, and that’s precisely what we are after.
We did agree to another round of discussions, and we hope that continued talks may bring to bear a resolution so that our mission in Moscow can resume its normal activity. I do expect that follow-on discussions will be at a lower level, probably at the deputy assistant secretary of state level. But we do hope that those discussions can bear fruit because we do want open channels of communication with Moscow. We do think that a fully staffed or adequately staffed embassy in Moscow is important to our goal of having a free flow of information to manage responsibly the bilateral relationship with Moscow.
QUESTION: Well, does that mean that you’ve given up on trying to get St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok reopened?
MR PRICE: Again, I’m going to – I’m going to —
QUESTION: Well, you – three times in what you just said, in what was written down in front of you, you talked about the embassy in Moscow. But you didn’t talk about the consulates, closed or unclosed.
MR PRICE: The staffing – I should have been clear. The staffing of our missions, plural. So I will leave the —
QUESTION: Well, then, so are you willing to consider an agreement – deal for lack of a better word – with the Russians so that they can reopen their closed consulates here and you can reopen yours, or – and then staff them?
MR PRICE: We want to see – we want —
QUESTION: Are you just looking – look, are you only looking to get Moscow back to full staffing strength or are you looking for something more?
MR PRICE: What we know is that we need an adequately staffed embassy in Moscow if we are able to – if we are going to be able to conduct the sort of diplomacy to have the open channels of communications with the Russian Government that we need. But I don’t want to get bogged down in the details. The strategic – the broad point is that we want and we need an ability to engage diplomatically, at multiple levels, with the government in Moscow. So again, I’m going to leave the diplomacy —
QUESTION: Ned, come on, you —
MR PRICE: I’m going to leave the —
QUESTION: But you’re already able to have open diplomatic channels. I mean, you just had Wendy Sherman and Bonnie Jenkins in Geneva meeting with the Russians. You just had Tori – or – and she’s still there. It’s not like you’re not talking to the Russians.
MR PRICE: Matt – Matt – one-off engagements – one-off ad hoc engagements are no substitute for open channels of communication. So again, I’m going to leave the diplomacy to Under Secretary Nuland and to those who are carrying this forward, but it is important to us that we have an ability to engage bilaterally and in an open and effective way with the Russian Government.
QUESTION: Well, it just – it doesn’t sound like you’re pushing on the consulates. Is that correct, or not?
MR PRICE: Please.
QUESTION: On this, on Russia still: To what degree cyber was a part of these discussions, and after these meetings if the U.S. is any more hopeful that Russia will actually take law enforcement action against those in Russia who have carried out these cyber attacks affecting American personnel.
MR PRICE: Addressing cyber issues, including ransomware criminals, has been consistently high on our agenda with the Russian Federation. We have said that Under Secretary Nuland’s discussions would center on our – the position of our – the staffing of our missions in Russia, but also address a broad range of bilateral issues. And ours is a bilateral relationship with Russia that is broad, that in many ways is complex, that in a lot of ways is challenging, and there were a number of subjects addressed.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. On —
QUESTION: So any more hopeful about actions that they’ll take, law enforcement-wise?
MR PRICE: I – we will – again, we will judge based on what we see.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. On Taiwan, and given the events over the last week, week and a half, is the administration seeking to build and maintain closer relationships with Taipei? And does the strength of that pace, is that contingent on Chinese Government actions and aggressive – aggression towards Taiwan?
MR PRICE: Can you repeat the last part of that question?
QUESTION: Is that – the pace of that – and it basically is Chinese Government aggression, would that prompt a closer relationship or for the administration to seek a closer relationship with Taipei?
MR PRICE: Well, we have been very clear that our support for Taiwan is rock solid. We’ve also been very clear that we are committed to deepening our ties with Taiwan. We know that Taiwan is a leading democracy. It is a critical economic and security partner. And all of our approaches have been predicated on those key documents, including the Taiwan Assurance Act. We have reviewed the contact guidance for interactions with Taiwan, as we announced earlier this summer; I believe it was in May. Consistent with that, we issued updated guidance to better reflect the broadening and the deepening of our unofficial relationship with Taiwan.
And so coming out of that policy review, we developed new guidance that encouraged the U.S. Government – encouraged U.S. Government officials’ interactions with their Taiwan counterparts in a manner consistent with that unofficial relationship with Taiwan. Those guidelines have since governed any interactions we have had with Taiwanese, and we will continue the U.S. Government’s longstanding practice of providing clarity throughout the U.S. Executive Branch of how to implement our “one China” policy. We will continue that unofficial relationship with Taiwan as guided by the documents I referred to other – that is, the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances that were provided to Taipei.
QUESTION: And also just real quick, The Washington Post has a report out saying that the WHO was denied access to these caves in Hubei Province. As a WHO member, would the United States seek any type of sanction, penalty, or whatever is allowed under the WHO structure for China’s government not allowing these types of inquiries within their borders?
MR PRICE: So we have been very clear that the world has to be prepared for any future outbreaks of unknown origin if we are going to be able to investigate them swiftly and transparently and to stop, to halt the next outbreak epidemic from becoming a pandemic. And so we have been very clear that we need to get to the bottom of the coronavirus, including its origins.
We know that the WHO is in the course of its Phase 2 study. That Phase 2 study is something we have very consistently supported. We have encouraged several highly qualified technical experts to be members of the WHO Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens, and we continue to make clear that the onus is on the PRC to provide needed access to data and samples. The PRC must let scientists into the country to conduct this critical work, and they must do so in short order. This is vital so that, importantly, we can understand how to prevent the next pandemic. This is about saving lives going forward. This is not just about accountability. This is not just about what happened in the past. It’s about saving lives going forward, and that’s why we’re so, so focused on it.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I’m Mark Stone from Sky News. (Inaudible) first time (inaudible) so thank you for having me.
MR PRICE: Welcome.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The British Northern Ireland secretary is over here in Washington at a time when it appears the Brits don’t think that the Americans or your administration understands Northern Ireland. A senior minister said recently this is “very complicated” and “I’m not sure he” – President Biden – “fully appreciates” that. “We’re obviously doing all we can to help the U.S. Government” to “understand that.”
What is your understanding of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the difficulties that the UK and the EU are having? And who do you – whose side do you appreciate more?
MR PRICE: I appreciate the phrasing of the question. I will say that we support a close relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. We continue to support both sides’ efforts to engage in productive and cooperative dialogue to resolve their differences. We welcome the provisions in both the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and the European Union, which will help protect the gains of the Belfast and the Good Friday Agreement. As the UK and the EU implement Brexit-related provisions, the Biden administration encourages them to prioritize political and economic stability in Northern Ireland.
This is something that this administration cares about very deeply. As you know, this is something that the President of the United States cares about very deeply. This is something he has worked on, something he has an interest in, and something we look forward to continuing to focus on with our UK and our EU counterparts.
QUESTION: But are you – just to follow up if I can. Are you – is the administration somewhat offended that the British seem to think you don’t get it, you don’t understand it?
MR PRICE: I’m not sure who you’re quoting, but I will say that —
QUESTION: I’m quoting George Eustice, a senior minister in the British Government.
MR PRICE: The – what I know is that our relationship with the UK – we have no closer ally, we have no closer partner. The President has been in a position to discuss this with his counterpart. Secretary Blinken now has been in a position to discuss this with two foreign secretaries during his time in office. We’ve engaged with our British counterparts regularly on this, and we’ve engaged with them on the full set of challenges that we face together, not to mention opportunities that we share. It is a relationship that allows us to work together not only in the bilateral context but also around the world, and we’re grateful for that.
QUESTION: Just a quick question on (inaudible) Russia, and I have a question on Iran and Azerbaijan. Sergey Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, was quoted as saying that the U.S. is not listening to – or heeding, if you want – “our demands.” Are you in a position to get into specifics of, like further demands if you have heard from Russia – Russian side?
And on Iran, we have seen (inaudible) statements if not actions from Iran against neighboring country Azerbaijan lately. They are threatening Azerbaijan on involving third parties to region. Are you at all bothered about – from those statements, and also particularly the fact that the U.S. interests and energy pipelines might be at stake in the region? Thank you.
MR PRICE: What was the last part of your question?
QUESTION: So the – given U.S. energy pipelines and other interests might be at stake in the region, given the heated threats and comments.
MR PRICE: I’m sorry. If you could just clarify your question on Ryabkov as well.
QUESTION: So Ryabkov mentioned that the American side is not listening to or heeding “our demands.” So the phrase “demands” is a little bit unclear. Are you in a position to get into specifics of Russian demands?
MR PRICE: So I’m not in a position to go beyond what we said. We, of course, have a number of differences with the Russian Federation. Under Secretary Nuland is there now to discuss some of them, including our staffing posture in country. There are another – there are a number of differences that we have across a broader set of issues. There are also some areas where we do have an alignment of interests.
And you mentioned Iran in a different context, but when it comes to the – our shared interest in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, that is something that we share with the Russian Federation. It is something that we’ve had an opportunity to discuss with the Russian Federation given our shared interest and seeing to it that Iran is not able, is never able, to acquire or obtain a nuclear weapon.
When it comes to Iran’s regional activities, we have been very clear, broadly speaking, where we stand. Iran has been a destabilizing actor in many ways, including its support to proxies, its support to other regional actors, its threats and coercive statements more broadly.
QUESTION: Did you want to say anything – go ahead.
MR PRICE: Please. Yes, please. Tracy.
QUESTION: Come back to me.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Apologies, I need to go back to Cuba for just two really quick questions.
MR PRICE: Okay, okay.
QUESTION: The humanitarian flights that – from the U.S. to Cuba that the State Department authorized some months ago, did those ever get started? If not, why not? And if so, how many have taken place?
And then is there any update on the remittance working group now that it’s been over a month and a half since they submitted their recommendations to the White House? Thanks.
MR PRICE: Sure. So I will take the question on humanitarian flights. I just don’t have an update on that in front of me.
As you know, the remittance working group did provide its report to the President some number of weeks ago. It is also an issue that is not uncomplicated in terms of what we need to sort through. At the end of the day, we have a profound interest in supporting the humanitarian needs of the Cuban people, but we also have the imperative of seeing to it that additional funds do not flow into the coffers of the regime.
So we’re taking a close look. The administration is taking a close look at that recommendation – at those recommendations, I should say – to determine how best we can support the Cuban people in the form of remittances while also not running afoul of that other imperative on our part.
QUESTION: Have you seen the reporting about Ethiopia’s national army launching a ground offensive in Tigray? Does the State Department have a comment? And the administration has sent repeated warnings to the parties not to prolong the conflict or they could cite sanctions. Will the U.S. impose the sanctions now that this has happened?
MR PRICE: Okay, so I have seen that reporting. We are aware of reports indicating that Ethiopia’s national army did launch a ground offensive against the TPLF forces in northern Ethiopia.
QUESTION: Do you have independent verification of that offensive, by the way?
MR PRICE: What we’re prepared to say now is that we’ve seen the reports. If we’re in a position to independently confirm that, I will let you know.
What we do know is that there is no military solution to the political crisis in Ethiopia. Escalating fighting undermines critical efforts to keep civilians safe and the ability of international actors to deliver humanitarian relief to all those in need, and we know there are too many in need, including in Tigray.
We urge all parties to end hostilities immediately and for the Ethiopian Government and the TPLF to enter into negotiations without preconditions to establish a durable ceasefire.
When it comes to the various tools and authorities we have at our disposal, I will say this. We are considering the full range of tools at our disposal to address the worsening crisis in northern Ethiopia, including potentially the use of targeted economic sanctions to promote accountability for those responsible for or complicit in prolonging the conflict, obstructing humanitarian access, or preventing a ceasefire. At the same time, and if we were to do so, we would also work to mitigate unintended effects on the people of Ethiopia and the wider region.
On the topic of Ethiopia, I know many of you are aware that the Secretary has a couple engagements on his calendar today focused on the situation there. The Secretary met with AU High Representative Olusegun Obasanjo to discuss the crisis in Ethiopia. Given the urgency of the situation on the ground, we then pulled together many of our – some of our partners, and following the Secretary’s discuss with Obasanjo, the Secretary, accompanied by Jeffrey Feltman, our special envoy for the Horn of Africa, they hosted a meeting with High Representative Obasanjo, chairman of the International Intergovernmental Authority on Development and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, EU High Representative Joseph Borrell, UK Foreign Minister Elizabeth Truss, German Foreign Minister at the Federal Foreign Office Niels Annen, and French Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Frédéric Clavier, to discuss the conflict. They welcomed the close coordination between the AU and IGAD in pursuit of a peaceful resolution to this crisis, and that’s what we’ll continue to do working —
QUESTION: Can I ask about the scheduling process?
MR PRICE: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: The Secretary’s visit to Bogotá, is it still going on as scheduled next week?
MR PRICE: I don’t believe we’ve announced any travel for next week.
QUESTION: Wait, Ned. Do you want to say – go ahead.
QUESTION: No, no, go ahead.
MR PRICE: Well, as you know —
QUESTION: You clearly don’t care about Haiti anymore, so —
MR PRICE: And that’s – Matt, I am answering the questions that are asked of me. So I —
QUESTION: You had – I was —
MR PRICE: I care about your priorities. So if it has fallen off your priority list —
QUESTION: I think I brought it up at the very top. Did I not? I got the country wrong.
MR PRICE: I’m not sure you ended your sentence with a question mark because oftentimes you don’t. But —
QUESTION: Did you want – did you want to say —
MR PRICE: I am happy to reiterate what the Secretary said. We are grateful that Ken Merten, an experienced department hand, will be going to serve in Port-au-Prince as our chargé d’affaires. As you know, Ambassador Sison is – has been nominated for an important post here. She has returned to the United States. And we’re grateful that Ken Merten has accepted the ask that he go serve in this important role.
QUESTION: So does that mean that she’s, like, left?
MR PRICE: That’s right. That’s right.
QUESTION: So she’s back here?
MR PRICE: That’s correct.
QUESTION: Just quickly on Ethiopia. I appreciate that you listed the meetings, and thanks for that. But can you talk a little bit about, like, the outcome? Was there, like, a unified stance on the sanctions and any upcoming action with everybody? Did anyone – everyone agree?
MR PRICE: So we will – we will have a readout of this, but I can – I can preview briefly. There was unanimity among these parties in terms of urging the parties to the conflict to immediately end abuses, to enter into negotiations toward a ceasefire, and to lay the foundation for a broader and inclusive dialogue to restore peace in Ethiopia and preserve the unity of the Ethiopian state. All sides were very clear that the parties need to adhere to international law. They need to allow unhindered delivery of humanitarian access to the many – too many – people who are suffering in Ethiopia.
I’ll take a final question here. Elizabeth.
QUESTION: Yesterday President Erdoğan signaled that Turkey was prepared to launch a new offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria following attacks blamed on the YPG. Does the U.S. have any reaction to those comments? And then just separately, can you confirm Turkey’s reported request to buy F-16s and modernization kits?
MR PRICE: Well, on your first question, what I will say is that we condemn the cross-border attack against our NATO Ally, Turkey. We express our condolences to the families of the Turkish national police officers who were killed in Syria. We underscore the importance of maintaining ceasefire lines and halting cross-border attacks. It is crucial for all sides to maintain and to respect ceasefire zones, to enhance stability in Syria, and to work towards a political solution to the conflict.
When it comes to Turkey, Turkey, as you know, is an important NATO Ally. We have shared interests across any number of areas – countering terrorism, ending the conflict in Syria, deterring malign influence in the region. We also share an interest in sustainably ending the conflict in Syria. And we’ll continue to consult with Ankara on Syria policy, together with Syria’s other neighbors and our broader set of partners in the region, as we seek areas for cooperation.
When it comes to F-16s, it’s just a matter of department policy that we don’t publicly confirm or comment on proposed defense sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress.
Thank you all very much. We will see you later this week.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:15 p.m.)