State Department Briefing by Mark C. Toner, May 17, 2011

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–May 17, 2011.  

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Opening of Global Diaspora Forum
    • Deputy Assistant Secretary Joseph Yun’s Upcoming travel to Burma
    • Ambassador Grossman’s travel to Astana, Bishkek, Tashkent, Dushanbe, Islamabad, and Kabul
    • Flawed electoral process, results not deemed free, fair or sound
    • Two-track approach to Burma
    • Call for release of political prisoners
    • Immunity Status of International Monetary Fund Officials / Legal Considerations
    • Confidence in International Monetary Fund’s Functionality
    • Amb. Bosworth’s meetings / Discussions with S. Korean officials regarding N. Korean food situation
    • No Decision on Ambassador King visiting North Korea
    • Food assistance to North Korea
    • UN Report / Longstanding U.S. Concerns about N. Korea’s Missile programs
    • Secretary and High Representative Ashton’s Comments on Asad and Situation in Syria
    • Asad’s Ultimate Responsibility for his Actions
    • Reports of Mass Graves
    • Importance of having an Official U.S. voice in Damascus
    • Reported clash of NATO aircraft and Pakistan forces


1:49 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: You were back last week, I guess. Just a few things from the top and then I’ll take your questions.

This morning, Secretary Clinton spoke at the opening of the Global Diaspora Forum here at the State Department. In her remarks, the Secretary announced the launch of a new public-private collaborative platform designed to engage diaspora communities, the private sector, and public institutions. Over the next two days of the forum, State Department senior officials will continue to engage with the over 300 leaders from the diaspora communities that come from across the country to collaborate on projects related to development and diplomacy with their countries of origin.

This forum is organized by the Secretary’s Global Partnership Initiative, which is headed by Special Representative for Global Partnerships Kris Balderston, in collaboration with USAID as well as the Migration Policy Institute. And for more information, I would just point you to the website which is www.diasporaalliance – that’s two words together, so two As in there – .org.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Joseph Yun of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau is scheduled to travel to Burma from May 18th through 21st. His visit reflects our continued willingness to engage with the Government of Burma and to continue consultations with civil society as well as the Burmese people. Deputy Assistant Secretary Yun will hold introductory meetings with senior government officials in Burma. He’ll also consult a variety of stakeholders including representatives of political parties, nongovernmental organizations, ethnic minorities, as well as the business community.

And just one final thing: Ambassador Grossman departs on May 17th for travel to Astana, Bishkek, Tashkent, Dushanbe, Islamabad, and Kabul. Ambassador Grossman will meet with senior officials in each nation. The special representative will reaffirm Secretary Clinton’s message on her February 18th speech to the Asia Society during each visit.

And that’s all I have for you. I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: So just on the Burma thing —

MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: — was that at the invitation of – was there – is there some reason that this is happening now as opposed to why it didn’t happen a month ago or —

MR. TONER: Sure. Well, as you know, he was – or you may recall he was last there, I think, in December. And this is partly an effort to, again, meet with civil society members, but also meet with the new interlocutors who are in place in Burma. I think we talked about introductory meetings with senior government officials in Burma.

QUESTION: Remind me again what you guys said at the time of the formation of the new Government of Burma?

MR. TONER: Well, we said that the electoral process was flawed, seriously flawed, and therefore its results were not deemed, in our mind, free and fair or sound.

QUESTION: Right. And yet you’re still sending someone to go meet with the people who ended up in power?

MR. TONER: Right, which is consistent with our two-track approach to Burma. There’s nothing Pollyannaish about this, Matt. It’s – we recognize that there’s some fairly serious challenges to address in this relationship, but we’re going to continue to pursue a dual-track policy that involves pressure but also principled engagement.

QUESTION: Mark, has anything specific happened —

MR. TONER: I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Has anything specific changed since the elections that – I mean, that –

MR. TONER: Look, I mean – well, there’s been some developments. Aung San Suu Kyi was obviously released, and we applauded that, but we remain steadfast in our call that all political prisoners should be released.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. I’ve just forgotten –

MR. TONER: That’s okay.

QUESTION: But Mr. Yun’s last trip – was that December? Which – that’s December of last year? I’m trying to work out –

MR. TONER: Yeah, yeah. December 2010, I think.

QUESTION: 2010. So this would be the most senior level visitor to Burma to meet, and the first to actually meet these new guys face to face?

MR. TONER: Correct.


MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: So have you managed to figure out what your stance is on what Strauss-Kahn’s status is? (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: Well, I enjoyed our give-and-take yesterday, but let me try to clarify.

QUESTION: I ask because everyone else seems to have had not – have not had a problem in talking about it.

MR. TONER: Let me —

QUESTION: The only building around –

MR. TONER: Well, Matt —

QUESTION: — in this country that seemed to have a problem –

MR. TONER: Look, Matt —

QUESTION: — was this one, which is the one building that probably had the answer before everyone else did. So, well –

MR. TONER: Well, I’d like to clarify, if you can just —


MR. TONER: — give me a second to do so. Look, we had legal considerations yesterday. And for that reason, we didn’t want to discuss it in great – too great a detail. However, our understanding is that the immunities relevant to this particular case actually belong to the IMF and not to the individual in question. I think that – what I’m trying to say here is that our understanding is that IMF officials have stated that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s immunities are limited and not applicable to this case, but that IMF documents would be fully protected by their immunity.

QUESTION: What – can you explain to me what legal considerations you had yesterday that you do not have today?

MR. TONER: Involving the complexity and the issue of where immunity lies and what was entailed in terms of protecting documents, but I don’t want to get into it in too great a detail, but —

QUESTION: Well, within minutes of walking out of this briefing room yesterday, the IMF had a statement out saying essentially that. I’m just curious – I mean, it didn’t seem to complex for them – (laughter) – to talk about it.

MR. TONER: Look, I don’t think we need to rehash this. I’ve given you where our stance is and where we view this.

QUESTION: And Mark, can you just elaborate? Like, what’s the rationale behind that?

MR. TONER: Behind the immunity?

QUESTION: Behind that – yeah. Why does it exactly work that way? I mean, essentially —

MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s his – it’s important also to note that our understanding is that the IMF is not seeking to assert any immunities on behalf of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But our understanding is that immunity in this particular case and with IMF officials is that it would only involve their official capacity and carrying out their duties in their official role. And that doesn’t apply in this case.

QUESTION: So if he had been here – if he had been doing that, he would have –

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: — but he was on a private visit?

MR TONER: Correct. Correct.


QUESTION: Mark, does this building have any concern that the situation with Mr. Strauss-Kahn is in any way compromising the effectiveness of the IMF? Do you think they can continue to do what they’re supposed to be doing while this cloud hangs over his head?

MR. TONER: No, Andy. Look, the IMF – or rather, the White House spoke to this yesterday. They’ve held interim meetings. They’ve put individuals in place to head up the organization. Obviously, they had important meeting in Brussels yesterday. But we have full confidence in the IMF to carry on with its duties.

QUESTION: Is there any sense that perhaps Mr. Strauss-Kahn should step aside and someone else take his place permanently?

MR TONER: Well, again, that’s really a matter between him and the IMF. I mean, what’s important here, as I said, is that the IMF continues to carry out its functions, and it’s named an interim acting director-general.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: North Korea?

QUESTION: Just on this, one more. I’m sorry.

MR. TONER: Sure. Go ahead.


QUESTION: I just want to make sure I understand your – Jill’s clarification. So if he had been traveling as – in his official capacity –

MR. TONER: Sorry. I misspoke. Managing director is what I meant to say, not director-general.

QUESTION: If he had been traveling in his official capacity, then he wouldn’t have been – had diplomatic immunity in this country?

MR. TONER: Again, the immunity, as I understand it, would have covered his – would have covered him in his official role or his official duties. The fact that he was on a private trip certainly was a factor, but also that he wasn’t in any case carrying out any kind of official duties when the incident occurred. That’s my understanding, but again, legal experts can parse it better than I.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that Ambassador King is going to North Korea? And also, have you reached a decision on the food aid to North Korea?

MR. TONER: Sure. I’m aware that this came up during Ambassador Bosworth’s meetings earlier today in Korea. He did say that – sorry, just a moment. He did say that the delegation had good discussions with Korean officials on the food situation in North Korea. And certainly, the United States does remain concerned about the well-being of the North Korean people, and we’re – we’ve been evaluating, as you know, the assessment by the World Food Program and other NGOs, but we’ve made no decision about – yet about Ambassador King visiting North Korea.

QUESTION: Follow-up question?


MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, follow-up question. Then we’ll switch.

QUESTION: Well, you haven’t confirmed Ambassador King’s —

MR. TONER: We have not —

QUESTION: But let me ask this question.

MR. TONER: Sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: King – it seems that his visit to Pyongyang is matter of time. And I was wondering if his visit is in line with the U.S. position you have been laid out there? I mean —

MR. TONER: Well, it’s important to note that our position on food aid is entirely separate from any political decision we may make or any policy decision we may make vis-à-vis North Korea. Our food assistance program – and we’ve made clear many times from this podium and elsewhere – is based on a credible, apolitical assessment of the needs and also autonomy over how that food assistance is delivered. I believe that’s correct.

QUESTION: Right. But —

MR. TONER: So, I mean – so you seem to be tying it to our broader policy towards North Korea, and in fact, it’s completely separate.

QUESTION: But you have been demanding improvements in North-South relationship.

MR. TONER: We have.

QUESTION: That must be the first thing that North Korea should do. But it seems that – I mean, the improvement in North-South relations is supposed to be followed by any U.S. serious official meeting with the North Korean people, North Korean officials. But it seems the sequence has been reversed.

MR. TONER: Well, again, I thought I was pretty clear in saying that we are – we recognize that there is a – that there is a situation in North Korea. We are concerned about the well-being of the North Korean people, and we don’t have any – we don’t make – or rather, we expect to make a decision soon about Ambassador King’s travel. But at this point we haven’t announced anything, but we continue to evaluate the need for food aid.


MR. TONER: But that is separate and apart from any broader policy decisions.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just quick one more.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure. Quickly, and then —

QUESTION: Yes. Why does U.S. need to send a team to assess the food situation in North Korea? When —

MR. TONER: Because that’s how we roll, if you will. I mean, that’s – we do – I mean, we’ve been very clear – (laughter) – sorry – we’ve been very clear all along in that our – while we certainly looked at the reports done by – or assessments done by the World Food Program and other NGOs, we’re quite clear in the criteria in how we conduct food assistance. And again, just a reminder, that it was indeed North Korea that essentially kicked us out of their country last, I think in 2008, and ended our food assistance program. But we’ve got a specific set of criteria. It’s done on a very apolitical basis and —

QUESTION: Mark, just —

QUESTION: Hold on. Just to clarify on that.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: I just want to make sure —

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: You – that clear criteria that you talked about, those are the three points, right?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: That – none of those three points are improved relations between North and South Korea, are they?

MR. TONER: No. No, no. They’re completely – they’re based on —

QUESTION: All right.

MR. TONER: No. They’re based on an assessment —

QUESTION: So improved relations between North and South Korea is a condition or a requirement for a potential return to the Six-Party Talks?

MR. TONER: Six-Party – thank you. Yes. Yep.

QUESTION: Excuse me. Just a follow-on.

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: So you were saying that you have to send a team to finalize assessment on the needs – food needs in North Korea to make —

MR. TONER: Again, no decision has been made.

QUESTION: I understand.

MR. TONER: We expect to make a decision soon.

QUESTION: On King’s – on Mr. King’s —

MR. TONER: On possible travel.

QUESTION: Right. But you have to send a team to North Korea to —

MR. TONER: We would conduct an assessment. Yes.

QUESTION: So – I’m – I just want to clarify —

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: — (inaudible) understand what you’re saying. So the decision that you’d be making would be whether to send an assessment team, not whether to resume aid?

MR. TONER: Right.



QUESTION: Is it because the UN report is not reliable enough?

MR. TONER: No. It’s just – again, it’s just how we carry out our food assistance.

QUESTION: AP is already reporting through the South Korean Government leaks that he will be going at the beginning of next week. So will you be able to come out sooner rather than later on that announcement? I mean, I know —

MR. TONER: When we have something to announce – I can’t respond to leaks, Lauren.

Yeah. Go ahead.


QUESTION: Can we talk about Syria?

MR. TONER: We can talk about Syria, as long as we’ve exhausted North Korea.

QUESTION: Wait. One more. In yesterday’s transcript you had said that Bosworth or Campbell will be in Tokyo on May 21st. But then the media note said May 22nd. Is – can you —

MR. TONER: If the media note said May 22nd, then I probably misspoke, but I —


MR. TONER: — read it, so I must have just seen it wrong in the —

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

QUESTION: One more. Follow-up on yesterday about —

MR. TONER: And then Jill.

QUESTION: — the report, the UN report.

MR. TONER: Oh, right. Yes. Well, again, Sean, we haven’t – this report hasn’t been formally released yet. We’ve obviously seen the report, but we don’t want to comment on the substance at this time. We do hope the Security Council can release the report quickly so that other countries can benefit from the panel’s findings and recommendations. But just as I said yesterday, the United States does have longstanding concerns about North Korea’s missile programs and its efforts to supply the missile-related technology to foreign customers.

Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: On Syria —

MR. TONER: Syria. Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah. Finally. I wanted to ask you just a couple of things.

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: The Secretary and Ashton particularly was quite strong today, at least getting up to the edge of what’s going to happen. So what are we looking at? These are sanctions —

MR. TONER: Well, again —

QUESTION: — next steps that they’re saying within – she said hours, the Secretary said days.

MR. TONER: Which I suppose can be —

QUESTION: Can be both.

MR. TONER: Either would be applicable. But I think what’s —

QUESTION: Or years made of hours.

MR. TONER: — important to – I think what’s important to reinforce from their comments this morning is that this is something that not just the United States, but the international community is looking at. Certainly, it’s something that we’re working closely with the EU on. Both the United States and the EU have obviously implemented an initial round of sanctions, and I think we’re look at – as both Secretary and Lady Ashton, High Representative Ashton, said, what next steps, what possible additional pressure we can provide really to crystallize our message to the Syrian government, which is that your current behavior is unacceptable, the violence must stop, and you must make legitimate efforts to address the aspirations of your people.

QUESTION: But if – could I follow up, please —


QUESTION: — because on that point that – those three points, we’ve heard that. But both leaders this morning were saying that essentially the international community has given up any hope that Asad is going to follow through on any of his promises to reform. It sounds like you’re at the nth degree. I mean, is it fair to say that you – that you and your colleagues —

MR. TONER: I think we’ve used that, yeah.

QUESTION: — have just decided – where are you in deciding that he – there’s no hope that he’s going to do what he wants, and now it’s time to call on him to step down?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve used the metaphor – overused the metaphor probably of the window closing on Asad’s opportunities to enact meaningful reform. It’s hard for me to say whether there’s still a crack – to belabor that metaphor but – anymore. But clearly, the Syrian Government has talked a lot about reform, has made a lot of promises but done very little. So again, we’re trying to seek additional ways to apply pressure on them so that they – at the very least, at the minimum, stop the violence against their people, but then in the longer term take steps to address their aspirations.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. prepared to —

MR. TONER: Go ahead, Andy.

QUESTION: The Secretary’s comments this morning said directly that Asad has made his true intentions clear, so it didn’t seem as though she’s waffling around the Syrian Government or evil doers in their administration, but talking about Asad himself holding direct responsibility. Is that now the U.S. position that he himself is responsible for what is going on on the ground? And does that mean that he is becoming a more likely target for U.S. sanctions?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve never closed the door on him as a possible target for additional measures. And I think the Secretary’s words speak for themselves. She was clear in saying that he’s responsible ultimately for his actions.

QUESTION: And given the bluntness of the Secretary’s comments doesn’t that now perhaps create the public expectation that perhaps there might be a revisitation of this before the Security Council and look at something similar to Resolution 1973 in terms of sort of forceful action?

MR. TONER: Again, you’re asking me to make several leaps here and I’m not going to do it. I’m just going to say that we’re looking at options and ways to apply pressure on Asad.

QUESTION: Is there any way of reading this perhaps as a signal that the President may be addressing this in his remarks on Thursday?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I’m not going to attempt to preview the President’s remarks. I’ll leave the White House to do that. But it’s certainly no secret that he’s going to talk about the region, and I’m sure he’ll touch on many of these issues.

QUESTION: So why would the Secretary then make this essentially personal by calling out by name Bashar al-Asad and indicating that the – that there at least – it can be legitimately interpreted that the world is fed up with his behavior and that now he must be held to account for it?

MR. TONER: Well, I think the world is increasingly concerned about his behavior and the behavior of his regime. And I think it’s no surprise that we have said – we said all along we’re going to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

QUESTION: Mark, the —

MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: — Secretary also said that U.S. best estimate of deaths is around a thousand people —

MR. TONER: A thousand.

QUESTION: — which is several hundred more than most of the activist groups are saying.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: What does that – what are those estimates based on? Do you have anything to back it up? And do you have anything on these allegations of mass graves?

MR. TONER: We’ve obviously are looking into the allegations about mass graves. Obviously, we’re somewhat limited, and I’ve talked about this before, in what we can do to verify these claims. As far as the 1,000 estimate, I’ll have to get back to you. I don’t know. I’m aware that there’s a range there, but I’m not sure why – what explains – or why we’re on the high end of that range, but I’m sure there’s – I am aware there’s a range.

QUESTION: Our teams in Lebanon have also interviewed people escaping from Syria who are describing —

MR. TONER: And that’s true.

QUESTION: — the brutality firsthand.

MR. TONER: Thanks, Rosalind. That’s an important point is we are looking at refugees obviously fleeing Syria and relying on firsthand accounts, so that feeds into it.

QUESTION: If you confirm that these are mass graves, what will you do?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to predict the outcome. It’s – these are deeply disturbing reports, but they’re on top of – these are not one-off reports. They’re on top of a steady drumbeat of human rights abuses over the past weeks, indeed months, and we’re obviously concerned about it. We’ve raised it at the UN Human Rights Commission and we’ll seek additional action if warranted.


MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, Jill.

QUESTION: The Secretary in an interview not so long ago said that she – she was asked would you be happy if Asad were gone, and she said it depends on what comes next. Do you – does she – does the State Department have any idea of what would come after?

MR. TONER: Well, I think what we would like to see is some sort of – you’re asking me to speculate wildly here.

QUESTION: Yes. (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: So I’ll just caveat it with – my remarks with that. But we’d like to see some sort of credible democratic process that attempts to address the aspirations of the Syrian people. We talked at the beginning of this issue or this situation, crisis, that we wanted to see Asad address the aspirations with a meaningful reform. As I said, that – as we’ve gone down this path of increased abuses of what appears to be targeting civilian populations and going after and rounding up innocent civilians, that becomes increasingly unlikely. And so that – as that – as we go down that path, those options for real reform decrease, and we – but we still need to see, at some point, the Syrian people’s aspirations addressed.

QUESTION: Did the Obama Administration make a mistake by thinking it could engage effectively with Asad in the first two years?

MR. TONER: Not at all. We believed it was always important, and we still believe it’s important, that we have a senior U.S. Government official on the ground who can speak on behalf of the U.S. Government, who can convey our concerns, and speak, as I said, as an official U.S. voice in Damascus.

QUESTION: But – the U.S. can speak all at once, but was there ever any real sense —

MR. TONER: I don’t think —

QUESTION: — that Damascus is listening?

MR. TONER: Look, I don’t think we were under any illusions that this would be an easy dialogue. We – but we felt it was important that – again, that there be a dialogue so that we can, at the very least, express ourselves candidly.

Is that it?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yeah.


QUESTION: Can I ask you one —

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: — quick one on —

MR. TONER: She was writing, and I thought I was free.

QUESTION: I forgot. On this clash of the NATO aircraft and the Pakistani forces —

MR. TONER: Yeah. I don’t have any more detail.

QUESTION: Is it – do you have anything —

MR. TONER: I know NATO’s looking at an investigation.

QUESTION: Even a statement of how serious it is?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I know that NATO’s looking into it and investigating it. We’ll wait for the outcome of that investigation.

QUESTION: Do you know if there were any contact with the Pakistanis through your Embassy or anything —

MR. TONER: I’m not sure it would be a —

QUESTION: — following the incident or anything?

MR. TONER: — bilateral. It would probably be through ISAF and the Pakistani army – military is what I would assume. There’s mechanisms in place for that.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:13 p.m.)