1:05 p.m. EDT
MR RATHKE: Good afternoon. Sorry for the delay. I just have a couple of things to mention at the start.
First, with regard to the migrant Rohingya situation, we remain deeply concerned about the urgent situation faced by thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants at sea in Southeast Asia. The Secretary called his Thai counterpart last night to discuss the situation of migrants in the Andaman Sea and to discuss the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter for them. The two also discussed the May 29th conference, which Thailand will host. Our ambassadors in the region are intensely engaged with governments to encourage a rapid humanitarian response.
We urge the countries of the region to work together quickly, first and foremost, to save the lives of migrants now at sea who are in need of an immediate rescue effort. This is an emergency that we believe needs to be addressed with appropriate speed and resolve through a regionally coordinated effort to save the lives of the thousands of vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers.
We note that nearly 3,000 people have landed this week in Indonesia and Malaysia, where they are receiving assistance. We appreciate the steps taken by the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to assist these migrants, and urge continued coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. We urge governments in the region to refrain from pushbacks of new boat arrivals. The United States Government is now discussing ways that the United States can continue to support the regionally led efforts in this crisis, and we plan to send a senior delegation to the regional conference hosted by Thailand in Bangkok on May 29th.
Second item, Ukraine. As the Secretary said at the NATO ministerial meeting in Antalya, Turkey, earlier this week, this is a critical moment for action by Russia and the separatists to live up to the Minsk agreements. Ukraine’s leaders continue to implement their Minsk commitments, just as they have answered the call of the Ukrainian people on the Maidan by delivering the largest reforms since Ukraine’s independence in less than a year, and they aren’t stopping. Assistant Secretary Nuland’s ongoing visit to Kyiv and her discussions with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and President Poroshenko reaffirm the United States’ full and unbreakable support for Ukraine’s government, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine and reiterate our deep commitment to a single Ukrainian nation, including Crimea, and all the other regions of Ukraine.
And the last item: As you are aware, Secretary Kerry is on his way to China right now. He’s in the air, but just kicking off a trip to China, the Republic of Korea, and then back to Seattle. So with that, over to you.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — the plight of the Rohingya? Firstly, you said that in the Secretary’s call with the Thai foreign minister, they discussed the Thais providing temporary shelter? Is that right?
MR RATHKE: They – that’s right. They discussed the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter.
QUESTION: So is Thailand going to do that, or did he ask and they said they’ll think about it? What was the result of that discussion?
MR RATHKE: They discussed it. I’ll let the Thai authorities speak for themselves. It’s an issue they discussed. We’ll let Bangkok say if they’re ready to.
QUESTION: Are they providing – is this to provide for all that reach its shores or all that are out at sea, or what?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I don’t want to get ahead of the Thai internal deliberations on this, but it’s clearly important to find a way to address this. Again, we think this is a regional challenge, needs a regional solution, but we’re very glad that the Thai authorities are considering what they might be able to do.
QUESTION: Have you had any conversations with the Burmese, who don’t seem to think that this requires a regional solution or at least one that involves them, apparently?
MR RATHKE: Well, as I said, our ambassadors in the affected countries but also in Burma, which – from which most of these migrants are traveling in one way or another, have been engaging Burmese authorities. We continue to stress that we see a need for Burma to fulfill its previous commitments to improve the living conditions of everybody affected in Rakhine State, and we press the Burmese Government as well to address migrant smuggling and human trafficking of Rohingya, and we think that’s extremely important. So we monitor the situation in Rakhine State.
QUESTION: Are you upset they’re not going to this conference? They said that —
MR RATHKE: I wasn’t aware of an announcement about their attendance, so —
QUESTION: Well, I think they said if the word “Rohingya” is mentioned or in any way involved, they’re not attending.
MR RATHKE: I wasn’t aware of that report. But clearly, we’re sending a senior delegation to the conference. We welcome the Thai initiative. And we think participation by all countries who are involved in one way or another would be a good idea.
QUESTION: Just one more on this. And they also said that officials in the Myanmar Government – that they will not take them back because they can’t even determine their identity or where they’re from or whether they had any right to be in their country to begin with. Does that worry you, given the obligations they have to people who live in their country?
MR RATHKE: Well, we have repeatedly raised the humanitarian issues as well as other issues in Rakhine State related to the Rohingya, and that includes the path to citizenship for stateless persons. It includes a number of the details that you mentioned related to identity documents and so forth. We think there needs to be a path that allows individuals to self-identify as Rohingya and there need to be ways to reinforce the rule of law and protect vulnerable populations.
QUESTION: Well, what about the fundamental question of whether the U.S. Government is willing to do anything other than use words to put pressure on the Myanmar Government to actually take steps to recognize these people as citizens, or to, at a minimum, create a process so that they can assess and potentially grant citizenship to people who have lived in their country? Are you willing to do anything besides talk to actually pressure the Myanmar authorities, or not?
MR RATHKE: Well, this is a longstanding issue. This is an issue that has not just arisen this week. And so as I’m sure you’ll recall, this is one we’ve raised with Burmese authorities, Myanmar authorities, for quite some time. And our views are well known. I think they’re also shared by a number of countries in the region. So we continue to work through this. There have been – there has been some progress in reform in other aspects of politics in Burma. We’ve welcomed those, but we think this is an area that needs continued attention.
QUESTION: Right. But what are you willing to do to try to influence the Myanmar Government to do something about this other than just talk about it, which has not succeeded?
MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t have – I don’t have specific pressure steps to outline. But as we see this week, this is clearly a priority issue and we are focused on it.
QUESTION: How do you address the criticism that at least some human rights groups have that the United States desire to improve relations with Myanmar have, in effect, led – not led, but one follow-on effect of that has been that people like the Rohingya and their plight simply fall through the cracks?
MR RATHKE: Well, we’ve – since the change in our policy toward Burma a couple of years ago, we have seen that as a way to leverage greater support for reforms. That doesn’t mean there have been successes across the board. But as I alluded to, there have been – there has also been real progress. Are – is the work over? No. And so we continue to push in a variety of areas, including on the plight of the Rohingya. So we remain focused on it. But that’s – we believe that engagement is better than not engaging on this, and so we’re going to stick by that – that approach.
QUESTION: So do you think that the reforms that – and clearly there are some reforms that manifestly have been taken by the authorities in recent years – are likely eventually to their treating such Rohingya as may remain in their country more humanely over time? I mean, is that your hope or your bet on this that eventually you’ll have a more reform-minded and a more – a Myanmar Government that’s more willing to address this issue in ways that you want them to?
MR RATHKE: Well, there are no certainties in life, but we certainly feel that engagement with the authorities in Myanmar is the best way to pursue our policy priorities and steps that we think are to the benefit of all citizens and all people living in the country.
QUESTION: And how much of a priority then is the plight of the Rohingya for the United States Government?
MR RATHKE: How much? I’m not sure your – what kind of a quantification you’re seeking.
QUESTION: Well, is it more important than the broader opening with Myanmar? Clearly not, right?
MR RATHKE: It’s a part of it. If your question is will we decide to disengage with Burma because we have a disagreement over their approach to the Rohingya, no, we will remain engaged with Burma. But that doesn’t mean in any way that we’re going to shrink from what we think is appropriate, including under Burma’s own commitments.
QUESTION: Can I ask one more on this? This is my last one on this.
MR RATHKE: Yeah, yeah. And then we’ll – yeah.
QUESTION: So why is it that the migration refugee exodus problem is a regional problem that should be dealt with regionally? I mean, the U.S. Government provides enormous sums of money in other parts of the world to try to help neighboring countries grapple with such refugee flows. Why isn’t this something that the United States Government should do more itself on rather than just kind of pointing to the region?
MR RATHKE: Well, we’re not asking countries to do things when we’re not doing something ourselves. We have been putting resources into this effort. As we’ve talked about earlier this week, since Fiscal Year 2014 and into this fiscal year we’ve provided $109 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable Burmese. That includes Rohingya, and that money has gone to programs in Burma and in the region. So among the things we support are the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration – and that deals on the one hand with the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers; also deals with resettlement issues. I don’t need to remind you that the U.S. is the largest destination country for refugee resettlements in the world. So I would dispute the notion that the U.S. isn’t playing a part and doing what we can to help address the situation.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. have an assessment of why these Rohingya are migrating? Is it your view that the primary reason is due to some aspect of disparate or unfair treatment in Burma? Is it for economic reasons, or what’s the assessment on it?
MR RATHKE: Well, in any case where you have large numbers of people fleeing, it often – it’s often a confluence of several factors. So I don’t want to try to prioritize them or pinpoint one specific factor, but certainly we believe that the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State is – needs attention, and we’ve raised this with the Burmese Government. They have made commitments to improve the living conditions there. We want to see the Burmese Government do more to carry out those commitments, and that’s clearly a factor.
QUESTION: And do you feel that the U.S. confidence in this rapprochement with the Burmese Government is undermined in any way by the fact that you have however many thousand members of this group making a very contrary judgment about their own personal situation?
MR RATHKE: Well, the fact that there have been people trying to flee is also not new, unfortunately. We may be seeing a spike in it now. But this is a phenomenon that has existed for some time. So again, we see the best way to try to address these issues is by working with all countries in the region – again, the countries that are affected by this most directly in the region. It’s also a concern for them. And so we want to work with them and we want to work through our bilateral relationship with Burma as well.
QUESTION: And is there anything that’s causing this – you mentioned a spike. Is —
MR RATHKE: I’m not going – we’ve talked about the humanitarian situation. I don’t have more analysis to offer about what is precisely behind – Ros.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. believe that the Burmese Government is making these promises in good faith, or are they just saying this just to get the ambassador and other American officials out of the room?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we – they’ve made commitments; we take those seriously. We are – we’re working with them to see them implemented. But the work isn’t done.
QUESTION: And what is the U.S. doing to hold them to their commitments? I mean, we’ve got —
MR RATHKE: Well, this is similar to Arshad’s question. We remain engaged, we raise this regularly, and we’re working on this now at high levels because of the crisis it’s created.
QUESTION: You’ve mentioned that the engagement has led to or has helped further broader reforms in Myanmar. For the Rohingya specifically, can you point to any benefits they’ve received as a result of U.S. engagement over the last three years, or three, four years now?
MR RATHKE: Well, I would separate that into a couple of different things. First of all, if you’re talking about policy steps by the Burmese authorities, as we were just talking about, we see the need for the Burmese Government to do more. If you talk about the U.S. engagement more broadly, however, we have provided humanitarian assistance that has helped the plight of many Burmese – some in the country, some outside the country. So in that respect, we are doing what we can to help address that humanitarian assistance ourselves as well.
QUESTION: So your assertion would be that U.S. engagement with the Burmese Government has paid off for the Rohingya?
MR RATHKE: Well, I would say —
QUESTION: Has benefited the Rohingya as well?
MR RATHKE: I would say it has – there has been some progress on access for humanitarian organizations. There have been some setbacks in that regard as well, but I think there have been also some positive developments. We – I’m not able to point to a clear line of continuous, steady improvement, but there have been some changes. I don’t want to overdramatize those. Again, there’s a lot of work to be done, and that’s why we continue to work on this with Burmese authorities.
Yeah. New topic?
QUESTION: No, same topic.
MR RATHKE: Same topic? Yes.
QUESTION: So was it – was a humanitarian issue raised and discussed during today’s U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue at all? And if so, what was it?
MR RATHKE: Well, those meetings may still be ongoing. I must admit I don’t know when they were scheduled to conclude. But certainly this was one issue that we intended to discuss with our ASEAN partners. Again, the three countries most directly affected by the flow of migrants are ASEAN members, and so that’s certainly an issue we plan to raise. But I don’t have a readout of that meeting to offer.
Yes, go ahead.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — is it fair to say the purpose of having this meeting is to talk about how they can deal with South China Sea issues with China, how U.S. can help them to deal with China?
MR RATHKE: Well, that’s not the only purpose of the meeting. Certainly, the South China Sea was one topic of discussion, but we have a broader – a broad relationship with ASEAN. It touched – it starts with economic issues, it goes all the way through maritime cooperation in the region, also deals with a number of other international issues. So we see this as a – this meeting today as an opportunity to make progress along many fronts in our relationship with ASEAN, rather than a specific – only a single issue meeting.
Anything on the same topic, or —
QUESTION: Can you give us a readout on the ASEAN meeting once it’s done?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, yeah. We can get that and share it.
MR RATHKE: Sure. Nicolas.
QUESTION: New topic?
MR RATHKE: Sure.
MR RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Now that the president is back to Bujumbura and that some plotters have been arrested, he made an interesting statement drawing a link or connection between the plotters and three weeks of demonstrations against his possible third term. So does the U.S. share this analysis? And what’s next for the U.S. policy? Will you continue to press for him to give up with his plan to run for a third term?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Okay. There are a few – there are several issues that are part of your question. So first of all, we are deeply concerned by the situation in Burundi. I said that yesterday; it holds today. We’re concerned by the potential for further violence, including some reports today or retaliatory violence following the attempted seizure of power yesterday. We strongly believe that the Arusha Accords must remain the foundation for Burundi’s stability and for national reconciliation.
And as we have stated on the question of a third term, the U.S. position is that President Nkurunziza, in accordance with the Arusha Accords, should not stand for a third term. In fact, the president’s decision to announce his candidacy for a third term has and will continue to exacerbate instability and potentially foment violence in the country. This threatens the viability of the Burundian Government, and it increases the risk of violence and insecurity that could threaten donor support.
As to the United States message, we call on all parties to exercise restraint, to refrain from any retaliatory action and violence, and this is especially important in the aftermath of the most recent events. We think that any of those who plan in – plan, participate in, or order widespread or systematic discriminatory violence against the civilian population should know that the world is watching and that they should be held accountable.
So I’ve – I talked earlier in the week about the possibility of visa restrictions from the United States’ side; that remains a possibility. And I mentioned yesterday as well the Burundian military involvement in violent events in Bujumbura, and remind once again that under our Leahy Law, the United States cannot provide U.S. military assistance to military units if we have credible information that they’ve been involved in gross violations of human rights.
QUESTION: Have you – sorry, a quick thing. Had you previously said that it was the U.S. position that the president should not – that in accordance with the Arusha Accords should not run for a third term?
MR RATHKE: Yes. We’ve said before that we – that it was inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Arusha Accords. So that’s not a new statement, but I’ve – it was part of Nicolas’s question, so I wanted to make sure it was clear.
Anything else on Burundi?
QUESTION: Does the —
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Does the Travel Warning to U.S. citizens stand – the one that was issued overnight saying, basically, get out?
MR RATHKE: So you saw our Travel Warning that was issued last night. For those who haven’t, I’ll simply repeat that our Travel Warning warns U.S. citizens against all travel to Burundi. And to those U.S. citizens who are in Burundi, we recommend that they depart as soon as it’s feasible to do so. That Travel Warning still stands, Ros, to answer your – the specific question.
I would also highlight that in our Travel Warning, we informed that the Department of State has ordered the departure of dependents of U.S. government personnel as well as non-emergency U.S. government personnel from Burundi. Our embassy is closed today. We are able to offer limited emergency services to U.S. citizens. We are in touch with American citizens in the country, including those who have an interest in departing. I don’t have further details to share about those conversations, but we are certainly in touch with American citizens and will remain so.
QUESTION: Do you know whether the ambassador or other embassy staff have been in touch with the president, Nkurunziza, since his return?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have any contact with the president to read out. So we’re certainly aware of the reports of his return to Burundi, but I don’t have contact with him to read out.
QUESTION: And what would be the primary U.S. message once contact is established, whether from here or there in (inaudible)?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think it would be very consistent with what – with the several points I just laid out: the importance of respecting the Arusha Accords, the importance of no retaliatory violence, the importance of exercising restraint, and so forth.
Pam, did you have a question on the same topic?
QUESTION: I did.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Actually on several questions. First of all, you mentioned the embassy was closed today. It was closed yesterday for a holiday. Is this part of that, or is it closed for a different reason today? And then —
MR RATHKE: Let me answer that one quickly. The reason for the closure today is because of the situation in the country, not for a holiday.
MR RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Also, what is your understanding – what is State’s understanding of the situation on the ground at this point? Are you characterizing what occurred earlier in the week as a coup? Was it not a coup? Is it your understanding that – what are officials there telling you, basically, about the situation on the ground at this point?
And then also, a clarification with the Arusha Agreement: In that the president’s first term involved being elected by parliament, does that in essence give him the option to seek a third term, since the agreement requires the terms to be by balloting and not by a parliamentary procedure?
MR RATHKE: Well, our position on the Arusha Accords is as I just stated it. Our position is that President Nkurunziza in – under the Arusha Accords should not stand for a third term. Your question about the situation on the ground – I think the description from yesterday still applies. The situation is very fluid. I don’t have a sort of update to provide about the situation on the ground except to say that we’re following them, they are changing rapidly. So that’s about as much as I can say about that.
Anything else on this topic? No? We can move on. Michel, and then we’ll come to you, Namo.
MR RATHKE: Right. Well, in conjunction with Anbari tribal forces, Iraqi Security Forces have been confronting ISIL fighters in Ramadi and around Anbar province for several months. Today, ISIL is once again attempting an offensive in the city of Ramadi. I don’t have a battlefield update to provide, but I would highlight that the coalition is supporting Iraqi Security Forces to help protect the citizens of Anbar province and to support their efforts to force ISIL from Ramadi and other cities. We continue to provide targeted air support in ISIL-held and contested areas, and that includes numerous airstrikes in Ramadi today. But as for the status on the ground, I would refer you to the Iraqi Government for their update. And about – for the details of U.S. military support, my colleagues at the Pentagon can share more detail.
QUESTION: And do you consider what happened as a blow for the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi forces?
MR RATHKE: Well, look, we’ve said before that there will be good days and bad days in Iraq. ISIL’s trying to make today a bad day in Ramadi. We’ve said all along we see this as a long-term fight in conjunction with our Iraqi partners against ISIL. We are confident that Iraqi forces with support from the coalition will continue to push back ISIL where they’ve tried to gain advantages on the ground. So our policy and our engagement remains the same.
QUESTION: So is it the U.S.’s view that Ramadi is falling to ISIL, is under ISIL control, or would you say that it’s contested?
MR RATHKE: Well, I would – I’m not in a position to confirm reports that – I know there have been several reports out there – about the situation in the city center. I’d refer you, again, to the Iraqis for up-to-date information. We have said in the past that Ramadi is and the areas around it have been contested for months, and – but as to the situation in Ramadi right now, we’re working with the Government of Iraq to get a clearer picture of the situation.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) consider keeping Ramadi out of ISIS’s control a strategic priority, or is this going to be like Kobani where it’s not a strategic priority unless you win, and then it becomes a strategic priority?
MR RATHKE: Well, no. I think what we said about Kobani was that it was a strategic priority for ISIL. So – but anyway, to switch back to —
QUESTION: Do you consider this – yeah.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you consider this a strategic priority for the anti-ISIL coalition and for the Iraqis that this does not become an ISIL stronghold?
MR RATHKE: Well, this is a fight that’s being led by the Iraqis, so it’s the Iraqi Government’s job to set priorities. So that would be their – it’s their country and they need to set those priorities and we support them. Clearly, Ramadi is important and it’s a large city. It’s been contested for some time. And Anbar province – we’ve talked a lot about other actions in Anbar province in recent weeks and months, so Anbar is important, Ramadi is important. I’m not going to place labels on them to try to suggest a prioritization.
QUESTION: You – this building and this Administration has been a leader in creating a global anti-ISIL coalition.
MR RATHKE: Certainly.
QUESTION: Do you consider it important that they – that ISIL not gain what would be a significant victory here? I mean, are you —
MR RATHKE: No, I’ve just said Ramadi is important. I agree with you. But what I —
QUESTION: But are you willing to tell the people of Ramadi, the civilians in Ramadi, “We will not let this city fall”?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we are – our approach in Iraq is to support the Iraqi forces as well as the tribal forces and all the forces who are fighting against ISIL under the command and control overall of the Iraqi central government. So we – that commitment remains and we are going to continue that support, and that’s not going to change.
QUESTION: Jeff, on this —
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — do you consider that the Iraqi Government bears some responsibility in the falling of Ramadi since they didn’t provide the tribes and the Sunni militia the arms that they asked for or they need?
MR RATHKE: Well, first of all, this – I’m not going to start from the assumption that the city has fallen. I’m not issuing that judgment from this podium. With regard to the outreach to the Sunni tribes, this has been a priority for Prime Minister Abadi. He and other senior Iraqi government officials have been reaching out to the tribes to bridge differences and to build trust. We know there’s a lot of history there to be overcome and Prime Minister Abadi has been working continuously to address that.
So in broader terms, taking a step back from Ramadi, we have been encouraged by the Iraqi Government’s efforts to enlist and to arm tribal fighters in the campaign. They’ve been building on the thousands of Sunni fighters who have joined the popular mobilization forces, as they call them, over the past six months. I would highlight as well that the Anbar governor just last week held a ceremony to induct about a thousand more tribal fighters. So these units are going to be working with and coordinating with the Iraqi army. Prime Minister Abadi last month visited Anbar and delivered weapons to Sunni tribes. Of course, there are more efforts to organize and to arm the Sunnis and to integrate them; those who want to fight ISIL will be needed in the coming months. This is a long-term effort, so – and – but we will continue to support the Iraqi Government in that effort.
QUESTION: But – one follow-up on this.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Did you consider that the Iraqi Government is fulfilling its commitment regarding the Sunni tribes, first? And is – or will the U.S. provide the Sunni arms directly without passing the Iraqi Government?
MR RATHKE: Well, our policy on arms transfers to Iraq is – remains the same. We – all of those arms transfers are coordinated through the Iraqi central government. That’s not going to change. And as I said, Prime Minister Abadi has made it a priority to reach out to the Sunni population in particular in Anbar, and so we support those efforts.
Namo, go ahead.
QUESTION: We have seen little progress in Prime Minister Abadi’s outreach to the Sunnis, because – I mean, if you just look at the cities and towns that have been falling to ISIS in Iraq, almost all of them have been Sunni towns. It’s predominately Sunni towns. Does that – what does that tell us? Does that – doesn’t that tell us that the Iraqi army, which is basically a predominately Shia army, is unwilling to protect Sunni areas? Or doesn’t that also tell us that Prime Minister Abadi has failed in his outreach toward – to the Sunnis? Because they have been demanding weapons and also some equipment that they need to defend themselves.
MR RATHKE: Well, and the Iraqi Government has been providing it. So they —
QUESTION: But they have failed.
MR RATHKE: No, but – I wouldn’t accept that characterization. The prime minister has been reaching out. He has made the commitments to enlist and to arm tribal fighters. And those aren’t just the commitments on paper, they’ve been happening. I was just talking about some of the most recent steps in answer to Michel’s question. And so in addition to his personal engagement in Anbar, there was just last week an induction of another thousand tribal fighters. So yes, more efforts are needed but Prime Minister Abadi has focused on this and he continues to pursue that.
QUESTION: In your understanding, why is it – why the predominately Sunni areas seem to be much easier to fall to ISIS than the Shia areas? We haven’t seen, I think, a single Shia village fall to ISIS in Iraq. But, for example, when the fight —
MR RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: — when the fight was in Amirli, which is a predominately Shia Turkmen village in Kirkuk, Prime Minister Maliki at the time (inaudible) went there and he sent so many troops to make sure that that town didn’t fall. And the United States provided a lot of airstrikes to make sure that town didn’t fall.
MR RATHKE: Well, as we’ve been also providing —
QUESTION: But we haven’t seen the same thing —
MR RATHKE: Sorry, excuse me. Let me answer your question. So the United States has also been providing airstrikes in the effort to defend and push against ISIL and push back ISIL in Anbar. And we’ve done many, many strikes in support of Iraqi – the Iraqi Security Forces.
Now with – I’m not going to do an analysis of every place where there has been fighting, but as I said before, there’s a history to overcome here. And Prime Minister Abadi has committed to ruling and – in a nonsectarian way and to reaching out to all of Iraq’s population. He has committed to that. We see that in his actions, not only in his policies, and we expect that to continue.
QUESTION: Just one question about the Erbil-Baghdad.
MR RATHKE: Yeah. I think we’re going to need to move on. So yes —
QUESTION: Just one quick question about the Erbil-Baghdad. Because the – over the past couple of days, that oil deal that the United States has been praising for quite a few – quite a while as a successful deal seemed to have come to the edge of collapse, with the Kurdish leaders accusing Baghdad of having failed to abide by the terms of the agreement. And even the prime minister of the Kurdish region said they are going to take independent steps if Baghdad fails to implement that deal. What is your understanding of the deal between Erbil and Baghdad?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, we just had very good visits to Washington both by Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi Kurdish Region President Barzani. One of the things that was discussed with them was the – were the important issues facing Iraq. And we understand that Baghdad and Erbil remain committed to seeking implementation of the deal. We continue to urge both sides to work together toward resolving the payments issue and fully implementing the agreement that was reached at the end of 2014. ISIL is the main threat, and we continue to encourage the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to work together to fight against ISIL and resolve those issues.
Go ahead, Arshad.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: I assume you’ve seen Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif quoted as saying that he thought an agreement was, quote, “very likely provided that our negotiation partners mean it seriously.” Do you concur in his judgment that an Iranian nuclear agreement is very likely?
MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t think we’ve ever assigned probabilities to outcome —
QUESTION: The President has.
MR RATHKE: — except for the – I think the 50/50 reference. So I’m not going to take new odds or issue new odds on it. We’ve said all along that if Iran wants to prove that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, that it’s in – it’s within Iran’s power to do so. That’s the purpose of these negotiations: to close off the pathways to a nuclear weapon. And so this depends on Iran’s commitment to demonstrating verifiably that its nuclear program is peaceful.
QUESTION: And can you give us any kind of a readout on the talks in Vienna?
MR RATHKE: Well, they continue to meet with Iran. This – they are – this is at the political director level, of course. The meetings continue out in Vienna. They’ve been meeting in various formats – some P5+1, and there have been some bilateral and meetings and so forth. I don’t have a further update. I can see if there’s more – more to say.
QUESTION: And do you know how long those are expected to run?
MR RATHKE: I can check on that. I’m not sure when the conclusion date for the round is.
Yes, go ahead.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Today is the 43rd anniversary of the Okinawa’s reversion to Japan and sovereignty from the United States occupies, but still Okinawa have been hosting the large – the U.S. military facility since the World War II. And Okinawa governor Onaga and is strongly opposite to constructing the new U.S. military base in Henako. And also this Sunday, major rally against the base construction will be held in Okinawa, and they expected even to draw up at least 30,000 participants. So how do you think about that Okinawa situation?
MR RATHKE: Well, this is an issue on which we’re working with the Japanese Government. We are committed to the – to moving to the replacement facility. We’re working with the Japanese Government to that end. The Japanese Government as well is committed to it. They can speak to those details for themselves. So I don’t have an update to offer except to say that our commitment to Japan remains. It was underscored yet again during Prime Minister Abe’s visit and during the 2+2 meeting that happened during that same week. And so our commitment and our policy remains the same.
QUESTION: I had two questions on different issues.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: In your opening statement you mentioned what you called a critical moment. Considering that there are ongoing concerns about Russia’s engagement in Ukraine, has there been any movement in the U.S. position to consider selling defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine? And if not, is there a point in which the U.S. would consider such sales?
MR RATHKE: Well, our focus from the outset of the crisis has been on supporting Ukraine and on pursuing a diplomatic solution that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We constantly assess our policies on Ukraine to ensure that they are calibrated to achieve our objectives. I’m not going to go into the details of internal policy discussions, but we continue to assess how best to asses Ukraine. I don’t have an announcement to make now, but we continue to assess that.
QUESTION: So are you saying the door is possibly open or —
MR RATHKE: I’d just say we continue to assess that, that we are constantly looking at our policies on Ukraine. But I don’t have an announcement to make.
QUESTION: And my other question was on Cuba, and this is in reference to the talks —
MR RATHKE: I’m sorry. Any other questions on Ukraine?
I would – if I could take the opportunity, I would also just want to go back to what I said at the top, and just to review what has happened this week with regard to Ukraine. Secretary Kerry was in Sochi at the start of the week, where the Secretary was clear with Russia – President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov – about Ukraine and about the consequences for failing to uphold the Minsk commitments. Right after that discussion, he called President Poroshenko to update him and to reaffirm our support for Ukraine. He went from there immediately to the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Antalya, where he briefed them and also underscored the United States’ commitment when he met with Foreign Minister Klimkin in Antalya. Assistant Secretary Nuland is in Kyiv right now, and the message of all of these engagements is that we stand for the implementation of Minsk. We stand in support of the Ukrainian Government, President Poroshenko, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, and the Ukrainian people. And I wanted just to make sure that I took that opportunity.
Go ahead. You had a further question.
QUESTION: Yes, switching topics. Cuba, in reference to the talks resuming next week: Is the naming of ambassadors fast approaching as President Castro has suggested? And then secondly, can you provide any specifics on next week’s agenda?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think we’ve had a few questions about that first topic this week, and our point of view remains that as far as the appointment of ambassadors, that is a step that will happen after we have agreed on re-establishing diplomatic relations and reopening embassies in each other’s capitals. So that’s what we are focused on; that’s the purpose of these talks. And here we get to the second part of your question, that the talks that are happening next week are – their purpose is continuing this discussion of re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies. That’s what we’re focused on and that’s what will be happening on Thursday next week here.
QUESTION: Can you get a little bit more into the mechanics of what’s going to happen under those broad topics?
MR RATHKE: Well, I would distinguish that, for example, from some of the other meetings that’ve happened: migrations talks that we’ve had, telecommunications, and so forth. Those are also part of our policy approach to Cuba, but those aren’t going to be part of the talks on Thursday. I’m not going to get into the details of the specific issues that we’re discussing. I think they’ve – I think they’re relatively clear.
But yes, go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: Why do you need to re-establish an embassy before you agree to exchange ambassadors?
MR RATHKE: Well, we see that as the logical – you can’t have an ambassador in a country where you don’t have diplomatic relations. You need to have diplomatic relations —
QUESTION: I didn’t say – right, but —
MR RATHKE: — re-established before you can have that.
QUESTION: I understand the – but why do you need the embassy, then? You have ambassadors – you have an ambassador you nominated to Somalia. You don’t have an embassy in Somalia.
MR RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: And then when the embassy’s there, the ambassador fills the post, right?
MR RATHKE: Well, but the purpose of the talks is – we see the re-establishing of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies as steps that happen together, so we don’t see – we’re not separating those two.
MR RATHKE: Those are the purpose of the talks that we’ve been having and that we will have next week. Once those are successful – and if they are successful – then we would be at a point where the nomination of ambassadors would be appropriate.
QUESTION: But you would have to —
MR RATHKE: But we don’t want to put the cart before the horse.
QUESTION: Okay. So when you – you would have to reopen the embassy or agree to reopen the embassy? Because, I don’t know, you might need security upgrades; you might need technological upgrades before you can reconstitute the interests section as an embassy, I’m guessing.
MR RATHKE: You’re right; there could be some technical aspects of that. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if there are such implications. But without parsing too far down into whether you’re talking about nomination of and announcement of intent to open embassies, that’s —
QUESTION: I mean, it seems to me you’ve already agreed to exchange ambassadors. Both presidents have said they want to exchange ambassadors. It’s just a matter of doing it, right?
MR RATHKE: Well, Pam’s question was about nominating – I think about nominating —
QUESTION: About nominating, okay.
MR RATHKE: — nominating individuals to – so we share the goal with the Cubans of re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies. It’s a question of working through the issues that we have to agree on in order to – for us to take those steps.
QUESTION: Has the status of Guantanamo been a topic of discussion during these talks? And if not, will they come up during these talks?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to predict what’s going to come up next week. My understanding is that that has not been a topic of discussion on – in the discussions on re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies.
QUESTION: It did come up, though, in the first meeting in Havana, did it not? The Cubans —
MR RATHKE: I’d have to go back and check, but you’ll recall also the first meeting in Havana was two days on – they were different sets of – actually three different sets of topics. We had one on re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies, we had one on bilateral issues, and then we had one on migration talks.
MR RATHKE: So that was a different kind of format where we had three different sorts of baskets of issues.
QUESTION: But the Cubans —
MR RATHKE: Yeah?
QUESTION: Yeah. I just wanted to quickly follow up. But the Cubans had raised it as one of their fundamental issues as part of the normalization process. Does the U.S. agree that it should be dealt with at this stage —
MR RATHKE: This is not an issue that is —
QUESTION: — the normalization talks should be done out – apart from that?
MR RATHKE: This is not an issue that is — this is not an issue that we see being addressed or being on the agenda for – in these talks.
MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: New topic. I had asked Marie earlier this week a few questions on State Department ethics policy, including when – whether a State Department employee or spouse who gives a speech and then directs the funds to charity is required to report that in an annual financial disclosure. Do you know if there’s an answer on that?
MR RATHKE: So let me – I recall your asking – I think you asked the question last week.
QUESTION: I think it was Monday of this week, but yes.
MR RATHKE: Okay, perhaps. I’ve been briefing this week, so I just know it hadn’t come up in the briefing here. I don’t have information in front of me. I recall the question. I’m happy to see if we have it. I just don’t have it at my fingertips.
QUESTION: Okay. And does that apply to my two other questions about what countries were acceptable to sponsor President Clinton’s speeches and also whether there was ever a recommendation to donate funds to the Clinton Foundation as a way to cure an ethics conflict?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, I’m sorry. I don’t have that at my fingertips.
QUESTION: On a slightly related topic —
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: — do you have any update for us on when, say, the first tranche of the Clinton emails – the Benghazi one that the State Department had said would come out, quote/unquote, “soon”? I think it was two months ago when you guys started saying it would come out soon. Do you have any update on when soon will be?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have an update to share. But yes, we’re aware that there’s interest out there, certainly.
QUESTION: Can you rule out today?
MR RATHKE: Yes. I’m not aware of a release today, if you’re worried about how your afternoon might be occupied, Arshad.
QUESTION: It’s more my evening. It’s more my evening that I’m interested in. (Laughter.)
MR RATHKE: Okay.
MR RATHKE: Excuse me?
QUESTION: Can you rule out Keystone XL decision?
MR RATHKE: I’m not aware of any announcements being made – being made this afternoon.
QUESTION: Jeff, can I just ask —
MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead, Nicole.
MR RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: But have you guys got a comment or statement on the detention of the lawyer who represents the artist Ai Weiwei? I believe his name is pronounced Pu Zhiqiang.
MR RATHKE: Yes. We are deeply concerned that Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Chinese defense lawyer, has been indicted for, quote, “inciting ethnic hatred,” unquote, and for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – that’s also a quote.
QUESTION: God, that would be half the press corps.
MR RATHKE: Since authorities detained him on May 6th, 2014, we have repeatedly called for Pu’s release, and we have expressed concern for his well-being. His indictment appears to be part of a systematic pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, internet activists, journalists, religious leaders, and others, who challenges official Chinese policies and actions. So we call on Chinese authorities to release him immediately and to respect China’s international human rights commitments, including the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.
QUESTION: Is it your contention that he didn’t, in fact, pick quarrels, or that picking quarrels is not a legitimate criminable offense?
MR RATHKE: Well, as this appears to us to be part of a pattern of arrests of lawyers and others, as I described. So we – that’s why we call on him to be released in accordance with China’s international human rights commitments.
QUESTION: On this?
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: His lawyer said that – this morning told VOA that while the court issued the indictment, but the lawyer is himself did not get such a thing. So is that – what does that say about the judicial system in China?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we see what appears to be a systematic pattern of arrests of people who challenge official Chinese policies and actions. I’m not going to offer a further comment at this stage than that.
QUESTION: Do you think this harassments pattern to the rights lawyers will be brought up during Secretary Kerry’s visit to Beijing? And what do you say to a Chinese Government saying like please don’t meddle with domestic policy?
MR RATHKE: Well, we always talk about the human rights situation in our high-level dialogues with China. This is something that’s important to us. So I don’t have a readout in advance of the Secretary’s meetings, but there have been several high-profile cases. Unfortunately, this is not the only one. But we raise human rights concerns when we meet with Chinese officials.
And as to the question of internal or not, we see these as part of international human rights commitments that countries undertake, including China. And that’s why it’s important to remain focused on them.
Go ahead, Nicole.
QUESTION: So you’re not – just to follow up, you don’t know if the Secretary will be raising this specific case in his meetings, but could you —
MR RATHKE: Well, as I said, there have been —
QUESTION: — let us know if he does?
MR RATHKE: As I said, there have been a number – there have been a number of cases, so I don’t want to single out just one case and say he’s going to raise this one and he’s not going to address the other one.
QUESTION: I understand.
MR RATHKE: What I want to convey, though, is human rights issues are always on the agenda when we have high-level meetings, and the Secretary will —
QUESTION: Right. They come up in every meeting. I’m asking specifically about this case and asking you just to take the question that if the Secretary does – if this particular case comes up in his meetings, if you could —
MR RATHKE: If I have more on that, I’m happy to share it.
QUESTION: I appreciate it. Thank you.
QUESTION: A follow-up question?
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: There was a report by the International Crisis Group on Tuesday. We asked about this question a couple days ago, but you said you might have something for us in the coming days about arming the Peshmerga. And it voices some worries about doing so and arming other Sunni tribes. It says it could prolong the war against ISIS rather than defeating ISIS, and it’s a long report, 39-page long.
MR RATHKE: Well, again, our policy on how – on our engagement with the Peshmerga and providing arms through the Iraqi central government hasn’t changed. I don’t have any further comment to offer on that.
MR RATHKE: Are you speaking for yourself or for everyone? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: For me, for me.
MR RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: After the – after Camp David summit yesterday, practically what should we expect to see in the upcoming weeks regarding increasing Gulf states’ military capabilities and countering Iran threats and influence in the region?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m sure you’ve read or watched the President’s comments —
MR RATHKE: — as well as those of Josh Earnest and Ben Rhodes yesterday out at Camp David. I would just maybe highlight a few points. First, the President highlighted the core national security interest for the United States in the security and stability of the Middle East generally and of the Gulf region specifically, and he referred to this as a fundamental tenet of American foreign policy. So the meetings at Camp David were an opportunity to review our already extensive cooperation. And also there was agreement that the security relationship between the United States and the GCC partners will remain a cornerstone.
Now as to the specific outcomes, I think if you look at the fact sheet that was issued yesterday, we said that our existing cooperation, which includes basing, information sharing, joint military exercises, provision of sophisticated military equipment and training, are a testament to the value we put on our security interests. There is some more particular detail in there about ballistic missile defense, about a military exercises and training partnership, about arms transfers, about maritime security. So there is – there is a lot there. I don’t want to read out every single line in the fact sheet, but I would highlight those as areas where our security partnership was focused on yesterday.
QUESTION: But regarding countering the Iranian influence and threats in the region, what steps are you planning to take?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think the President also spoke to this as well. They were focused on the purpose of security cooperation, which is to provide assurance to our partners in the Gulf. And I think this is a – they talked about this in the context of the nuclear negotiations. They also talked about it in the context of Iran’s destabilizing behavior in other parts of the region and support for terrorism. So again, I’d refer you back to some of the more detailed information that came out after the meeting for those steps.
QUESTION: So now do you expect Iran to decrease its destabilizing activities in the Arab world as a result of the summit?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to issue an expectation. I think, though, the message of U.S. solidarity with our GCC partners yesterday was extremely clear, and I think also the message about Iran’s destabilizing behavior was clear. So that’s – I think that’s the important element of the discussions.
QUESTION: Thank you, Jeff.
MR RATHKE: All right, thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:02 p.m.)
DPB # 85