Home Health Department Press Briefing – December 28, 2021

Department Press Briefing – December 28, 2021

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MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope everyone who celebrated had a wonderful Christmas. We have a few things at the top, and then I will take your questions.

First, the United States condemns the Burmese regime’s continuing escalation of violence across the country, including most recently in Kayah and Karen States. We are horrified by the violence committed on December 24th by the Burmese military in Kayah State, which killed at least 35, including women and children and two staff members of the international aid organization Save the Children.

Violence against innocent people and humanitarian actors is reprehensible, and the military’s atrocities against the people of Burma underscore the urgency of holding those responsible accountable.

The United States echoes the calls of the UN special envoy on Myanmar for an immediate cessation of violence and New Year’s ceasefire. The international community must also do more to advance this goal and help prevent the recurrence of atrocities in Burma, including by supporting justice and accountability and ending the sale of arms and dual-use technology to the military.

We will continue to work with our partners and allies to promote accountability for human rights abuses, including by supporting the UN Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, while also continuing to press the regime to cease the violence, release all those unjustly detained, provide safe and unhindered humanitarian access, and restore Burma’s path to inclusive democracy.

Next, three years ago today, Paul Whelan was detained by Russian authorities. He traveled to Russia as a tourist and was imprisoned and sentenced on false charges. Secretary Blinken has been very clear about the need for Russia to release U.S. citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed unconditionally and immediately so that they can be home with their families. Their release remains a vital priority for the United States.

Next, the United States condemns today’s decision by the Russian Supreme Court to forcibly close International Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most respected historical and human rights organizations.

The closure of Memorial follows a year of rapidly shrinking space for independent civil society, media, and pro-democracy activists in Russia, and we continue to follow with concern Russia’s ongoing efforts to close International Memorial’s sister organization, Memorial Human Rights Center.

We urge Russian authorities to end their harassment of independent voices and human rights defenders and stand in solidarity with those who have been targeted for repression for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

And finally, December 2nd, the President temporarily – and finally, on December 2nd the President temporarily restricted travel from eight countries in southern Africa to help slow the spread of Omicron and to give time for U.S. health officials to learn more about the new variant.

Effective Friday, December 31st at 12:01 a.m., these restrictions will be lifted, and U.S. embassies and consulates in these eight countries may resume regularly scheduled visa services.

Air travelers aged two and older, regardless of nationality or vaccination status, are still required to show documentation of a negative viral test taken within one day of the flight’s departure to the United States before boarding. This is in addition to the requirement that foreign national air travelers to the United States be fully vaccinated and provide proof of vaccination status prior to boarding an airplane to fly to the United States. Travelers from these eight countries will also be subject to these same strict protocols.

On December 2nd, the President temporarily – these protocols.

With that, I – we will turn to questions. Operator, if you want to repeat the instructions for asking questions, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question on today’s call, you may press 1 and then 0 on your phone at this time. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you do have a question on today’s call, you may press 1 and then 0.

MR PRICE: We’ll start with the line of Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION: Happy holidays to you. Could I ask you about Ethiopia? As you know and as you commented on, there’s been the retreat by Tigrayan rebels. I was wondering two things. First, on the part of U.S. diplomacy, has there been any outreach? What is the U.S. looking for? How do you see things diplomatically right now? And as you know, this weekend Ethiopia is set to be terminated from AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act. There have been some calls from the Hill to suspend this in light of developments and this could set back diplomacy. Is it also – is still all systems go for Ethiopia to be removed from AGOA? Is it under discussion? How does that stand now? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Shaun. So to the first element of your question, we seek and continue to seek an immediate cessation of hostilities, an end to ongoing human rights abuses and violations, unhindered humanitarian access, and a negotiated resolution to the conflict in Ethiopia – which, as we’ve said before, threatens peace and security in the Horn of Africa.

Now, with Tigrayan forces having withdrawn into Tigray region and the Ethiopian Government stating it does not intend to pursue those forces into Tigray, we believe this offers an opportunity for both sides to halt conflict operations and to come to the negotiating table. We’ve said repeatedly there is no military solution to this conflict. That is why we support diplomacy as the first, last, and only option to address this conflict. We reiterate our calls for the Ethiopian Government to start credible, inclusive national dialogue that includes comprehensive, transparent transitional justice measures, including accountability for those responsible for atrocities.

When it comes to AGOA, I don’t have any update on – for that for you at the moment. As we announced in November, the AGOA eligibility criteria in U.S. law stipulates that, among other things, a country not engage in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights and must make continual progress towards establishing the rule of law and political pluralism. We did note in the context of that announcement that the President had determined that three sub-Saharan African countries, including Ethiopia, were out of compliance with eligibility for AGOA, a revocation that would take effect January 1st, 2022. If we or USTR have any updates for you on that determination, we will be sure to let you know.

We’ll go to Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thanks for doing this. On the Iran talks in Vienna, Russia’s envoy said there had been indisputable progress in the talks so far. Does the U.S. agree with that assessment of progress? And can you give any details on what that progress looks like?

And then on Russia, will Wendy Sherman lead the U.S. delegation to the strategic stability talks in January? Thank you.

MR PRICE: So on Iran, Jenny, it’s really too soon to tell. Let me back up a little bit and just note that Special Envoy Malley is currently leading an interagency delegation to the eighth round of talks in Vienna. Those talks started yesterday. We remarked in recent days that there may have been some modest progress during the course of the last round of talks, but it is in some ways too soon to say how substantive that progress may have been. At a minimum, any progress, we believe, is falling short of Iran’s accelerating nuclear steps and is far too slow. As we’ve said before, this can’t continue or it will soon be too late to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA, something we have sincerely and steadfastly sought to do for a number of months now.

When it comes to this ongoing eighth round, which, as we noted before, just resumed yesterday, our priority is a constructive resumption of talks with all parties seeking to reach and implement a rapid mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA, but again, it’s really too soon to tell whether Iran has returned with a more constructive approach to this round.

When it comes to Russia and our engagement there, I suspect the State Department will have additional details to share in the coming days, but this administration’s approach on Ukraine has been clear and consistent. We have sought to unite the alliance between two tracks: deterrence, and diplomacy. We are unified as a NATO Alliance on the consequences Russia would face if it moves on Ukraine, but we’re also unified in our willingness to engage in principled diplomacy with Russia, and that’s something you’ve heard the Secretary, you’ve heard the President and others speak about in recent days. And so to that end we look forward to engaging with Russia in the Strategic Stability Dialogue on January 10th. Additionally, we understand Russia and NATO are intending to hold a Russia-NATO – NATO-Russia Council meeting on the 12th and that the OSCE is scheduled to meet on the 13th.

When we sit down, we will surely put our concerns on the table. I imagine the Russians will do the same, but we will always adhere to the principle of nothing about our allies and partners without our allies and partners, nothing about them without them. There will be areas where we can make progress, areas I’m sure where we will disagree. That’s what diplomacy is about, and, as we have consistently maintained, we believe that open lines of dialogue, open lines of diplomacy have the potential to be constructive as we seek to de-escalate the potential for conflict in and around Ukraine.

We’ll go to the line of Missy Ryan, please.

QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thanks for doing this. I just wanted to ask about Libya, and I saw the statement that was issued, the joint statement about the elections and a hope that there would be elections held point – in the near future. And I’m just wondering, could you tell us a little bit about the strategy for helping – with the United States jointly with the European countries for helping Libya to get to a place where it can actually hold the election? I’ve seen a tentative date in January, but it’s unclear to me how – what exactly is going to change between now and then in terms of some of the disputes and the lack of specific legislation and process that needs to be in place in order for the election to occur. Basically, what’s going to be different in a month and how do you guys – what are the steps you guys plan to take in order to help Libya actually hold the election? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Missy. So on the broader question, you referred to a joint statement that we issued together with France, Germany, Italy, and the UK on December 24th. And as we said in that statement, we continue to strongly support the ongoing efforts of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya to further a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned process towards the holding of free, fair, and inclusive elections. And that’s really the key insofar as our support is concerned and the support of our close allies and partners in this – that any effort be Libyan-led and Libyan-owned.

So in all of this, it’s not up to us to determine timing, to determine other fundamental questions of the conduct of those free, fair, and inclusive elections. It’s up to, really, the Libyan people. And we, along with our allies, will be in a support role.

We do call on and urge the relevant Libyan authorities to respect the aspirations of the Libyan people for prompt elections by swiftly determining a final date for the polling and issuing the final list of presidential candidates without delay. We note that free, fair, and credible elections will allow the Libyan people to elect their representative and unified government and reinforce the independent sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national unity of Libya. There has been some progress. It’s important that that momentum towards these goals is maintained. And in all of this, we will, as I said before, continue to be in a support role, working very closely with the UN and working very closely with our Libyan partners, continuing to work very closely with our allies, including our allies with whom we issued this joint statement on December 24th – France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

We’ll go to Humeyra Pamuk.

QUESTION: I just want to ask about Russia and Iran. I see your reaction to Russian Supreme Court shutting down Memorial International. How high is this and overall human rights issues, if at all, is going to be on U.S. agenda when U.S. officials meet with Russian officials on January the 10th? Is this going to be among your priorities that you raise when there are so many other pressing issues, like Ukraine?

And then on Iran, I just want to push you a little bit more about this “too soon” line. If I’m not mistaken, the latest round has begun almost a month ago. And I guess, like, in the first couple of days it was reasonable to say it is too soon. But now after so many weeks, what is it that the U.S. is waiting for? I mean, isn’t a month enough to tell whether someone’s sincere or not, and especially given that this is an issue where the clock is ticking? Like what is the U.S. specifically waiting for or looking for, and when is it going to know whether or not Iran is sincere? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks. So on your questions, Humeyra, this latest round, the eighth round, didn’t begin a month ago. It began yesterday, and so this is day two of round eight. As we said about the current round, there may have been some modest progress over – in the course of that round. But we need to see the parties constructively and steadfastly seek to build on that progress. At the conclusion of that seventh round, we left with a common understanding of what the text would be that would serve as the basis for negotiations on nuclear issues. We are now assessing, in the course of these talks, whether the Iranians came back with an agenda of new issues or preliminary solutions to the ones already presented.

But to your point, we are indeed confronting a dangerous situation. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear program was tightly constrained and monitored by international inspectors. Since the previous administration made the decision to cease its participation, Iran has rapidly accelerated its nuclear program and reduced cooperation with international inspectors. So this has added a great deal of urgency to this precisely because President Biden has been categorical. He will not allow Iran to possess a nuclear weapon.

We continue to believe that the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is, for the moment, at least, a return – a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We think we can quickly reach and implement an understanding on getting back to the deal based on seven rounds to date of careful negotiations if Iran is serious. But we have not yet seen sufficient urgency in – demonstrated by Iran. Of course, the last couple rounds also started with new nuclear provocations and then were characterized by, in some cases, vague, unrealistic, unconstructive positions on the part of Iran.

Now, again, there has been some progress in recent weeks in identifying the hard issues left to be negotiated in terms of how Iran returns to full compliance with its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA. But the fundamental situation has, as of today, not changed. Iran has, at best, been dragging its feet in the talks while accelerating its nuclear escalations. We’ve been very clear that that won’t work. Iran needs to exercise restraint in its nuclear program and add real urgency in Vienna.

So of course, Special Envoy Malley and his team are there now. They’ll be in a better position in the coming days to determine whether Iran has come to this eighth round of talks with a fundamentally different position. We certainly hope that’s the case, and we certainly hope we are able to swiftly conclude a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.

All the while, however, we have made the point that we are not sitting on our hands. We are actively engaging with our allies and partners, both in the P5+1 context, but also beyond that to include our regional partners on alternatives. And we are very ready and willing to pursue those alternatives if Iran demonstrates that it is not sincere and steadfast in negotiating a potential return to compliance with the JCPOA.

To your first question on Russia and human rights, look. Human rights are always at the center of our agenda when it comes to our diplomacy, and, of course, Russia is no different. Of course, at the outset of this briefing we made a statement on the most recent closing of civil society space, an affront to human rights in Russia.

Now, the bilateral engagement that will take place next month is the Strategic Stability Dialogue. Those discussions have tended to be fairly narrow in focus and to be centered on areas of – issues of strategic stability. But we do have a number of venues and means to conduct diplomacy and to convey messages to the Russian Federation. Not only will we have the SSD next month, but we’ll also be able to engage Russia together with our allies and partners in the context of NATO and the OSCE and with direct engagement through our embassy and other channels as necessary. So human rights will always, as I said before, be on that agenda.

We’ll go to the line of Joel Gehrke.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks, Ned. I wanted to ask two questions, one on Russia and one on China. Just going back to this January 10 meeting, I’ve heard suggested by – from Europe that there’s a – it’s a little bit unusual that there would be a U.S.-Russia meeting after all – after the pledge that there would be nothing about European security without Europeans in the room. Just to be clear, will there be any Europeans in this initial meeting? And if not, to what extent will you be able to discuss the issues that are on the table here in recent weeks? Where do you draw the line in this initial meeting to keep the spirit of that pledge?

And then on China, just to confirm on the phone, the Chinese foreign ministry is frustrated with SpaceX following – they report a couple of near-collisions which they say amount to a violation of U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. I wonder, do you accept that? Even at a theoretical level, is it possible for the U.S. Government to be accountable for SpaceX activity? And in any case, are you in touch with SpaceX on this?

MR PRICE: Thanks, Joel. So on your first question, the principle is inviolable, nothing about them without them. And I think, Joel, I know you’re familiar with the diplomacy and the outreach and the coordination we have done with our European allies and our European partners, including Ukraine, in the context of our concerns that – about which we’ve been increasingly vocal in recent weeks. We have had a number of conversations, bilateral conversations, with Ukrainian officials. Of course, we were at NATO in a NATO ministerial.

The President has engaged President Zelenskyy, Secretary Blinken has engaged President Zelenskyy, the President has engaged the so-called Bucharest Nine group of countries. We have engaged other European allies including the Brits, the French, the Germans, the Italians, and others in – on a bilateral and multilateral basis to make very clear that these concerns are shared concerns, and that so too is the determination to hold Russia accountable should it go forward with further aggression against Ukraine – the response, a response that would entail, as we have said, massive consequences for the Russian Federation unlike any they have seen before. The fact that we are and have been united with – as an alliance, as NATO, the fact that we have been coordinating closely and speaking from the same sheet of music with our Ukrainian partners, speaks to the level of coordination that we have undertaken with a great deal of effectiveness in recent weeks.

Now, when it comes to the Strategic Stability Dialogue, of course, this is a channel that has existed for some time. It is a bilateral channel with the Russian Federation to discussion issues of strategic stability, issues that are of great importance to the United States but also great importance to our NATO Allies. And so in the course of the conduct of the Strategic Stability talks, we have always fully and thoroughly briefed our allies after the fact to make very clear what it is we are seeking to achieve, and these goals are, in fact, mutual goals when it comes to the objectives put forth in that bilateral channel.

But following the Strategic Stability Dialogue, of course, there will be engagements with NATO, with the OSCE, where the Russian Federation will see – once again, up close – that the United States is joined at the hip with our NATO Allies, with our Ukrainian partners, and with our broader European allies and partners as well. So we take this very seriously. As we’ve said, the Russians have put forward a series of proposals. Together with our European allies and partners, we are prepared to discuss them. The Russians know full well there are some things in those proposals that will be unacceptable to the United States and to our European allies and partners.

Our charge in all of this is to determine where there may be some potential for dialogue and discussion and some areas that merit that discussion – again, together with our allies and partners.

When it comes to space, I don’t have a specific reaction to what you heard from the PRC. As you know, Joel, we have encouraged all countries with space programs to be responsible actors, to avoid acts that may put in danger astronauts, cosmonauts, others who are orbiting the Earth or who have the potential to, but don’t have a specific response to you when it comes to the issue you raised.

We will go to Said Arikat.

QUESTION: Happy New Year. Thank you for doing this. A very quick question, Ned. Two, a couple of questions on increased threats of violence against Palestinians. Even the Israeli Public Security Minister Omar Bar-lev said that he now requires round-the-clock security because he’s being threatened by the settlers, while mentioning there is an increase in violence they commit against the Palestinians. And I was wondering whether the U.S. Government is so concerned that it may have raised this issue with the Israelis. And if so, what was the Israeli response?

And secondly, there has been a great deal of talk about the visa waiver. I’ve asked you about this before in the past. But there was a report in the Times of Israel that the Israeli Government actually said to you that they would ease sort of the entry of Palestinian Americans. Could you sort of clarify this for us? Thank you, Ned.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Said. We will leave our diplomacy with Israel behind closed doors. But when it comes to the issue of settler violence, I can say that we believe it is critical for all parties to refrain from steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. That does include violence against civilians. That’s a point we’ve made before.

When it comes to the Visa Waiver Program, Ambassador Nides has made a public statement on this via Twitter. What I can say is that all countries seeking to join the Visa Waiver Program must meet all program requirements, and we support steps in the bilateral relationship that would be beneficial for both U.S. and Israeli citizens. The U.S. Government will continue to work with Israel towards fulfilling the equal treatment of all Americans – all Americans seeking to enter or transit through Israel.

We’ll go to Nadia Bilbassy.

QUESTION: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Hopefully next year we’re going to do it in person in the briefing room.

I want to start on Iran and I have a question on Yemen. Can you confirm at least what the Iranians been reporting that the talks this round, the eighth round, is focusing on lifting some of the sanctions on Iran? They are saying specifically this what they want to discuss.

And on Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition said – accused, actually, Iran directly and Hizballah of helping the Houthis to launch a deadly attack – you have seen – that killed two people. Will this change recalculate your policy towards the Houthis? Will this encourage you to put them on again on the terrorism list, or will we see more sanctions against certain individuals, whether in on the Houthis or on Hizballah? Thanks so much.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Nadia. So on Iran, there have really been two fundamental issues throughout these negotiations: on the one hand, the nuclear steps that Iran would need to take if it were to get back into compliance with the JCPOA; and on the other hand the sanctions relief that we would need to undertake were we to resume our compliance with the JCPOA.

President Biden has been very clear – Rob Malley, Secretary Blinken, others have been very clear – that we are prepared to lift sanctions that are inconsistent with our JCPOA commitments to get back into compliance with the deal and stay in compliance with the deal, so long as Iran does the same. We would like to see progress on the nuclear front, on coming to a full understanding of the steps Iran would take, were it to move back into compliance with the nuclear deal as well.

So these aren’t issues that have just been surfaced in the latest round. These are really issues that have been core to the indirect discussions, at least between the United States and Iran in Vienna. These are the fundamental questions that we continue to sincerely and steadfastly see if we can address to determine whether a mutual return to compliance is in the offing.

When it comes to the Houthis and their continued attacks against our Saudi partners, this is something that we have consistently condemned. And we know that these attacks have continued to pose a threat not only to our Saudi partners but the tens of thousands American citizens who are in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There have been more than 375 cross-border attacks since the beginning of the year, and as I said before, they endanger not only our Saudi partners but the 70,000 U.S. citizens residing there.

Now, we do have a relationship with Saudi Arabia that has allowed us to work together, to partner together, to counter this threat. The Secretary of Defense said in recent weeks that with U.S. support Saudi Arabia has been able to knock down some 90 percent of those attacks. Of course, our goal is to see to it that that number rises to 100 percent. We will continue to work with our Saudi partners to stand up against these really deplorable Houthi attacks, and we will continue to hold the Houthis accountable for their reprehensible actions. As you know, we have taken an approach that is targeting those Houthi leaders who are responsible not only for these attacks but also the other malign activities for which the Houthis are responsible.

We continue to believe that taking this targeted approach, holding accountable individuals for the actions they are taking, is a much more effective approach than potentially jeopardizing the welfare and well-being of millions of Yemeni citizens who reside in what many assessments call the home of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.

Our goal is to increase humanitarian access, access to humanitarian aid, for supplies to reach the long-suffering people of Yemen. It – we are determined not to do anything that would only add to the humanitarian toll and the humanitarian suffering of the people of Yemen. And so that is why we are taking an approach that allows us to hold accountable those individuals who are responsible for these malign actions and activities that we have taken, and we will continue to do that going forward.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham, please.

QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thank you for taking my question. I have a question on North Korea. As you know, we don’t really hear much about North Korea these days, so I would like to ask you how things are going with North Korea. We understand you are open for talks without any preconditions, but I’m wondering if you are still reaching out to North Korea. Yesterday, one expert on this issue said that the administration has gone back to strategic patience. So do you agree with this assessment? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks for that question. I would dispute that characterization. As you know, we have – in the beginning months of this administration we undertook a policy review of our approach to the DPRK. And what resulted was a commitment to pursue practical diplomacy towards the DPRK that sought to achieve lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and diplomacy, including with the DPRK.

And so to this end we have continued to seek engagement with the DPRK as part of that calibrated, practical approach in order to make tangible progress that increases the security of the United States, of our allies, of our deployed forces. We’ve made clear in recent months that we harbor no hostile intent toward the DPRK. And as you alluded to, we continue to be prepared to meet without precondition. We hope the DPRK will respond positively to our outreach. All the while, we’re continuing to consult closely with our allies – the ROK, Japan, other allies and partners – about how we might engage the DPRK.

So we have made clear through our public messaging and private messaging as well that we are ready, willing, and able to engage in this diplomacy, and we are – we continue to hope the DPRK will respond positively to that outreach.

Okay. We’ll take a final question from Gabriela Perozo.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) this opportunity and Happy New Year to all. My question is related to Venezuela. What are your thoughts on the continuity of the interim government? The United States believes that the legal recognition of Guaidó is the best path to protect assets in America and ensure international alliances? What will you recommend to the opposition’s leaders that are still divided? And do you agree with resuming the talks in Mexico? Thank you so much.

MR PRICE: Great. Thank you very much for that question. There has been no change in our policy. We continue to recognize the authority of the democratically elected 2015 National Assembly as the last remaining democratic institution and of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. We will continue to support diplomacy that leads to our shared goal of free and fair elections in Venezuela.

We have always said that – and we have supported the opposition in their engagement with their regime. To that end, we continue to support these Venezuelan-led negotiations to restore to Venezuelans the democracy that they deserve, to alleviate their suffering. So we believe Maduro needs to come back to the table for the benefit of all Venezuelans to sort out Venezuela’s problems with his political opponents. We know that when he does, representatives of the Unitary Platform will meet him there.

In the meantime, we continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all those unjustly detained for political reasons; the independence of political parties; freedom of expression, including for members of the press; and an end to the regime’s human rights abuses. We also call on the regime to release immediately and without conditions all Americans who are wrongfully detained in Venezuela.

With that, I want to wish everyone a very Happy New Year if we do not speak before then, and I’ll look forward to speaking with and seeing many of you in person after the first of the year. Thank you all very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:45 p.m.)

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