State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 13, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 13, 2012. 

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Call for Calm / Informal Quartet Consultation / Expectation of Formal Meeting in April
    • Allegations of Human Rights Violations / UN Human Rights Council Resolution
    • Senators’ Concerns, Russia’s Continuing Supply of Arms to Syria / Maintenance Contract for Former Soviet Helicopters Used by Afghan Military
    • Consultations with the Hill
    • Secretary Call with Former Secretary General Kofi Annan / Annan Awaiting Response from Syrian Authorities
    • Parliamentary Elections
    • Credible Reporting of Anti-Personnel Landmines on Escape Routes
    • Number One Issue Stop Violence / Provision of Humanitarian Aid / Political Dialogue
    • If Violence on the Part of the Regime Stops No Need for Self Defense
    • Call for Formal Consultations Under the WTO / Rare Earth Minerals Case
    • Process of Russia Acceding to the WTO / Jackson-Vanik


11:46 a.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: Good morning, everybody. It is still morning and we are out here. Can you feel the buzz of energy in this building? We have Chiefs of Mission from all over the world home here at the mother ship for the annual conference. So I have nothing at the top. The Secretary’s already addressed the group.


MS. NULAND: Let me go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: With all that buzz, you have nothing to start with? (Laughter.)

MS. NULAND: I’m just eager to buzz my way up to the lunch, yeah.

QUESTION: How about – excitement coursing through the building, every single ambassador, nothing big is going on? No one is —

MS. NULAND: They are all able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: Okay. I don’t really have anything that bears starting the briefing with.

MS. NULAND: Excellent. There we go. Nice tie there, Shaun.

QUESTION: Well, beaming at the mother ship and request there —


QUESTION: — steering the ship —


QUESTION: — anything new on the Palestinian front beyond —

QUESTION: Oh, God. Could you give her something that she can start the briefing with?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything particularly new from what the Secretary had to say yesterday. You heard her call for calm on all sides. There are reports that the Egyptians have been able to negotiate some calm. If in fact that’s the case, that would, of course, be very welcome.

QUESTION: But, I mean, considering the status of the 90 days, where are we with that – the 90 days of the Quartet? I’m asking about the Quartet.

MS. NULAND: Well, the Secretary spoke to this yesterday. We had an informal Quartet consultation. Obviously, when we put forward the proposal in September, the hope was that the parties would be able to meet these timelines. They were illustrative. It was not, obviously, set in stone. I think you know where we are, that we continue to believe that the three weeks that they spent working in and out of Jordan were useful, that they began a process that could be serious, and we’d like to see them get back to it.

QUESTION: So – and lastly, are we likely to see these informal talks, like with the Quartet that we saw yesterday, move into something formal and – in a couple weeks, or three or four?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. I think the Secretary spoke to this yesterday. There is an expectation that there’ll be a more formal meeting at her level sometime in April.

Please, Tejinder.

QUESTION: Yes. A new footage showing execution of 12-year-old son of LTTE leader Prabhakaran has surfaced. Do you have any comments on that with the Sri Lankan delegation lobbying hard at Geneva?

MS. NULAND: I do. I have to find it here. I’m not finding it. Here we go.

This is with regard to the video that is circulating, that we obviously are not able to authenticate, with regard to the son of Prabhakaran. As we’ve stated many, many times, we are deeply concerned about allegations of international human rights law and human rights violations in Sri Lanka. We support a full accounting of and accountability for anybody who is engaged in acts that violated international human rights and humanitarian law. That’s why, with our partners, we are supporting a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that calls for action on important steps towards reconciliation and accountability while expressing the international community’s concern about the delays in implementation. We are also, as you know, encouraging the Government of Sri Lanka to communicate what it intends to do to implement the recommendations of the LLRC, which made its own recommendations way back in the fall.

Please. Jill, welcome back.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. There is a movement afoot among 17 senators to ask the United States to stop or to drop this $900 million contract with a Russian arms export company, Rosoboronexport, that supplies helicopters to the U.S. for Afghanistan. Does the U.S. – does the State Department have any view on the senators’ proposal, and a view on how – whether there – you could source those helicopters any other place?

MS. NULAND: Well, our understanding is that the senators’ concern is linked to the fact that this same entity is a major contributor to the fact that the Russians continue to supply the Syrian army. So it is in protest to the continued arming of the Syrians that the senators have made this proposal. We obviously share the intent, which is to persuade Russia to end its arms supply to Syria. This is something that the Secretary, that the President, that at this podium, we’ve been speaking about for weeks and months.

With regard to our own relatively modest contract with this entity, my understanding is that this is to allow for the maintenance and upkeep of some former Soviet helicopters that were donated or purchased for the Afghan military, and form part of the backbone of the small flying squad that the Afghans themselves have. These – and only that entity actually has the spare parts. So were this contract to be canceled, it would seriously hurt our effort to get the Afghans increasingly into the lead of their own security.

So our view, frankly, is that we need to obviously continue to make our views known and strengthen the international chorus, which we are trying to do; that everybody ought to be thinking hard about its relationship, and particularly its arming relationship with the Assad regime. But at the same time, we also have a requirement to help the Afghans become increasingly self-sustaining in their ability to lead their security efforts at home.

QUESTION: So it includes no new helicopters, in other words?

MS. NULAND: To my knowledge, it does not, Jill, but if that’s incorrect – I actually would send you to DOD for the details. I mean, they’re the managers of this, obviously.

QUESTION: Well, wait. It’s required for the U.S. to pay for this contract? Why don’t you tell the Afghans to pay for it themselves and give – and put the 900,000 someplace else —

MS. NULAND: Well, it’s —

QUESTION: — so it’s not taxpayers’ money that are —

MS. NULAND: As you know, the Afghan Government is not in a position in its current state to fund all of its own existing security requirements.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know.

MS. NULAND: With regard to future ones, I mean, obviously —

QUESTION: So you tell them to put 900,000 – they don’t have $900,000?

QUESTION: It’s 900 million, isn’t it?


QUESTION: Nine hundred —

QUESTION: Oh, 900 million?



MS. NULAND: Yeah. Arshad.

QUESTION: So just so we’re clear, this is a bad idea, you don’t want to see that funding go away because you want to keep the choppers flying for the Afghan security forces?

MS. NULAND: I didn’t give an opinion one way or the other with regard to the senators’ letter. I was just endeavoring to explain how the U.S. Government ended up in this particular relationship, that it supports directly another policy goal of ours, which is for the Afghans to increasingly be in the lead of their own security.

QUESTION: So you have no opinion, then? You – it’s – if the senators want to cut this off, that’s fine with you?

MS. NULAND: Well obviously, we’re consulting with the Hill on these ideas, but I’m simply describing to you what this is about.

QUESTION: Yes. On this point, Victoria, isn’t the Afghan Government independent on its own to conduct its own contractors or contracts in this regard with Russia?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, it is able to make its own contracting if it so chose with that government. In this particular case, this – these helicopters replace sorties that would otherwise have to be flown by ISAF helicopters, et cetera.

QUESTION: And I’m sorry, but you said that this contract was relatively modest. In what world do we live in now that $900 million is a relatively modest contract?

MS. NULAND: Point taken, Matt.

QUESTION: Any company that has a $900 million contract with the U.S. Government is raking in the bucks, big time.

MS. NULAND: Well, point taken, Matt.


QUESTION: Can you —

MS. NULAND: Shaun – sorry.

QUESTION: Just – you have no opinion about this? I mean, all – after all those words, you – all you’re willing to say is that we sympathize with the desire to get the Russians to stop selling arms on the one hand, but on the other hand that might be a problem or it might conflict with our desire to have the Afghans – have helicopters that can actually fly?

MS. NULAND: I think I answered your question, Arshad, which was to say that there are a number of ideas circulating on the Hill, some coming from various different directions, as to how we can increase the pressure on the Assad regime and as to how we can increase the community of nations who are pressuring him. This is one idea, and we’re obviously consulting with members of Congress on all of their ideas.

QUESTION: My fundamental question, which I think was Jill’s fundamental question, was: Do you have an opinion on this? I mean, what is your view? And fundamentally, you’re neutral; you don’t have an opinion?

MS. NULAND: Our view is that we got into this particular contract because there are requirements of the Afghan military that need to be supported, and it’s not clear, if this were cut off, how we would be able to meet that particular need.

QUESTION: So Toria, just to put a period on it, right now, the State Department is dealing with the Hill on options, perhaps, of finding parts some other place? Or where does it stand?

MS. NULAND: No. My point is simply that we are in consultation with the Hill on our Syria policy as a general matter. This is something that came up yesterday. It’s been an idea that’s been circulating for some time. And we will continue to consult with the Congress on the pros and cons of this particular idea.

QUESTION: What’s the lifespan of this contract?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have that, Matt. I would send you to DOD.

QUESTION: Is it a DOD contract that they pay for?

MS. NULAND: I think so. I believe so.

QUESTION: Okay. So 900 million for the Pentagon is relatively modest; is that what you meant? For this building, it’s like half the budget. (Laughter.)

MS. NULAND: Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. On Syria, have you received any update from Kofi Annan regarding his mission? He was expecting an answer today from the Syrian authorities. Have you got any update?

MS. NULAND: The Secretary spoke to former Secretary General Kofi Annan this morning on the phone, part of our regular consultation with him. As of that phone call, he was still awaiting a formal response from Syrian authorities to the proposals that he discussed with them. And we will wait to hear what he receives from them.

QUESTION: On Syria as well, the Assad government announced parliamentary elections. Is that credible or helpful in any way?

MS. NULAND: Parliamentary elections for a rubber-stamp parliament in the middle of the kind of violence that we’re seeing across the country, it’s ridiculous.

QUESTION: As a result of yesterday’s consultation, do you think that you are closer to the Russian position on Syria?

MS. NULAND: I think the Secretary spoke to this very clearly yesterday following her meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. I think we need to – the foreign minister had been on a long trip and it culminated in the stops in New York and then he was headed back to Moscow, and I think we have to see.


QUESTION: Staying on Syria?


QUESTION: I presume that you guys are very happy and supportive and will attend at the highest level possible the next Friends of Syria meeting.

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, I don’t have anything to announce on the Secretary’s schedule, but we’ve seen the same thing you’ve seen, that the next meeting is likely to be in early April. As you know, the Secretary is very committed to this process.


QUESTION: Yes. You’ve been saying that arming the Syrian opposition is not helpful now. But in the meantime, you always remind people that no option is off the table. Implicitly, that include arming the opposition. Can you elaborate about the condition under which you would go openly for this option?


QUESTION: Can I just go to Afghanistan?

QUESTION: One more on Syria, please?

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The Arab League has said today that crimes against humanity have committed in Syria. Do you agree with this?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, we need to start with getting the violence to stop so that we can all get in, including the appropriate UN and international authorities, to evaluate the situation before we’re going to put a label on this. But I don’t think that anybody could say that what has been happening there is anything short of horrific.

And frankly, I think you’ve seen a new element in this today, where we have very credible reporting that the Syrian regime is now planting anti-personnel landmines on some of the escape routes that refugees have been using to flee the violence and to take shelter in neighboring countries like Turkey and Lebanon. So using something that was designed for purely military purposes to fence their own people in, it’s just horrific.


QUESTION: Last one on that.


QUESTION: On Syria. If you look at the entire situation, the most immediate thing, obviously, is to save lives.


QUESTION: Is there – just taking it down to the basic – that basic issue, is there anything on the table right now realistically, humanitarian help, corridors, anything like that that the international community could pull together, absent some sort of big solution to the issue?

MS. NULAND: Well, Jill, I think you saw the statements by Russia and by the Arab League on the weekend. You saw what the Secretary had to say about this yesterday. We’ve seen what Secretary – former Secretary General Kofi Annan has been saying. The number one issue is to stop the violence. If we can do that for a day, if we can do that for a week, if we can do that for a month, we can begin the next step, which is obviously the urgent provision of humanitarian aid, but also to provide space for a political dialogue to begin and a real transition process to begin.

But as the Secretary made absolutely clear yesterday, the very first step has to be taken by the Assad regime, and they have to be pressured. And Kofi Annan is part of that, our diplomacy with Russia and China is part of that, the Security Council is part of that, the Friends of the Syrian People are part of that – to silence his guns.

QUESTION: But – excuse me – but the Russians – I mean, this is kind of yesterday’s issue.

MS. NULAND: Right.

QUESTION: But the Russians are saying everyone has to lay down arms.

MS. NULAND: I think the Secretary – again, she spoke to this very clearly yesterday, that the first step has to be for the Syrian regime to silence its guns. Assuming that that were to happen, the expectation of all of us would be that all guns would silence, and that was – and she was very clear about that publicly and in her meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov.

QUESTION: Well, what’s your reaction to Lavrov? He disagree with this point.

MS. NULAND: This is something that we’re going to have to continue to talk about. I mean, she – as she said yesterday, we would reject any equivalence in sequencing or morally between premeditated murders by a government’s military machine and the actions of civilians who are under siege and defending themselves. So our view of the sequence is quite clear.

QUESTION: But if the goal is to get everything – the violence to stop, what difference does it make who stops first, right? I mean, otherwise you’re arguing against something that would theoretically bring about what you want.

MS. NULAND: Again, we have Kofi Annan involved in live diplomacy with the Assad regime. If he, as the Secretary said yesterday, can conclude something that first and foremost gets the violence to end that we can all support, then we’ll obviously get behind that. Because we started this with Jill asking what’s the most important thing.


MS. NULAND: The most important thing is to save lives.

QUESTION: Exactly. So you’re saying that if Kofi Annan arranges it, it’s okay?

MS. NULAND: I’m saying that if Kofi —

QUESTION: But if the Russians propose it, it’s not okay?

MS. NULAND: I’m saying that if Kofi Annan can come forward with something that the Assad regime will accept and silence its guns —


MS. NULAND: — then our inclination will be to be supportive of that.

QUESTION: Regardless —

MS. NULAND: But the expectation that the opposition would be expected to preemptively stop its self-defense while the regime keeps rolling through towns is unrealistic.

QUESTION: But you would accept something that Kofi Annan presented that the Syrians agreed to, even if it meant that the opposition had to stop the – its side of the violence first, correct?

MS. NULAND: Again, Matt, I’m not —

QUESTION: As long as it was Kofi Annan’s plan and not the Russians’ plan, it seems to be okay.

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to prejudge what he may come with. The Secretary spoke to this very clearly yesterday. And what she said yesterday was if he comes forward with something that we judge can be effective, we will support it.

QUESTION: But anything that he can do to stop the violence you will support?

MS. NULAND: Matt, you’re asking me to reframe this in a way differently than the way she framed it. I’m not going to go beyond what she said, which was that if he can effectively get Assad to stop the violence, then we would expect others to stop the violence, and we would be supportive. But we need to wait and see what he can achieve.

QUESTION: In her meeting with Lavrov, has the Secretary felt any change in Russia’s stance toward Syria?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to put – give this a grade scale. It was a consultation following the foreign minister’s travels in the region. I think the conclusion of the five points between – that Russia and the Arab League all agreed to over the weekend narrows some of the gaps. But as we’ve made clear, and as was clear yesterday, there are still issues of how you actually achieve the kind of end to the violence that we need.

QUESTION: Victoria —

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: — on that point, do you think that if a proposal is made and its coherent and it’s doable that pressure can be brought to bear on the opposition, the different opposition group, to actually have the discipline to cease firing on the regime’s forces?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, if the violence on the part of the regime stops, then there’s no need for self-defense. And all of us who would be able to have, we would hope, influence and contact would make that point. But we’re now into prospective scenarios that we all hope to see, but it’s got to start with Assad.

QUESTION: And a quick follow-up on the planting the anti-personnel mines along the path of the refugees. You said credible sources. Can you independently verify that or were you able to independently verify that?

MS. NULAND: My understanding is that we believe this is credible.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Afghanistan.


QUESTION: As far as Afghanistan ongoing violence, one after another, and U.S. and President Karzai both were trying to make peace and bring those people who joined Taliban in the past making peace now – as far as these violence are concerned, you think this is some kind of hurdle for the peace process in the future? Or how can you stop all this? Or do you see anything – some kind of – somebody’s behind all these violence?

MS. NULAND: Goyal, I don’t have anything further to what was said yesterday by the White House, by the Secretary, by the Defense Department, on any of this. You know that this is —

QUESTION: And the President.

MS. NULAND: And the President today. Exactly. So, please.

QUESTION: Speaking of the President —

QUESTION: Sorry, staying with Afghanistan, can you talk at all about what, if any, discussions are being – are happening over how public the investigation will be, and whether at any subsequent trial how much the U.S. is going share with the Afghan Government and the Afghan people?

MS. NULAND: Those are questions for DOD. They’re on the lead on that.

QUESTION: Also with —

QUESTION: Sorry, just – in the lead? Isn’t it entirely their show?


QUESTION: Is there any State Department involvement at all?

MS. NULAND: I don’t think so.

QUESTION: But I mean, Afghans are calling for the UN and – for the UN to possibly hold a public trial. There’s no talk within the State Department about this at all?

MS. NULAND: Our commitment, as the President reiterated, is to bring those responsible to justice. And this is a DOD issue.


QUESTION: A separate issue on another thing that the President announced today, the action up to the WTO on rare earths regarding China. This comes just as Cui Tiankai, the vice foreign minister is here and met with Kurt Campbell yesterday and is scheduled to meet with Deputy Secretary Burns today. Was this addressed with him? Is this something that came up between the two sides?

MS. NULAND: I don’t know whether it came up in yesterday’s Kurt Campbell meeting, but this is not a new issue between us and the Chinese. We’ve been talking about it for some time. You don’t take this step of calling for formal consultations under the WTO sort of willy-nilly. So we’re just taking that next step, as the President made clear this morning.

QUESTION: In terms – just in terms of cooperation on other issues with the Chinese, in the meetings, I mean, are there other issues that you can get ahead on, despite this dispute that’s come up on the rare earths?

MS. NULAND: I mean, this is what the WTO is about: It’s designed to be, first and foremost, a dispute resolution mechanism when countries have difficulties with each other. And we’ve had WTO cases with allied countries, let alone partner countries, that have been resolved successfully using those mechanisms. So our hope is that this can be resolved and can be resolved appropriately using WTO mechanisms. But – and then we have a lot of – obviously a lot of other business to do at the same time.


QUESTION: Actually, first I just wanted to put a comment on the record about the kind of world we live in. It’s a world where the movie Avatar cost actually more than a billion dollars to make. So —

MS. NULAND: I’ll let you guys take that one outside.

QUESTION: My question is about whether or not this Department is looking into the accusations that French president Nicolas Sarkozy took campaign money from Muammar Qadhafi. I don’t know if you saw that – you haven’t seen that story.

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything for you on that – no.

QUESTION: All right, so a follow-up then on France. There’s also an announcement today that Marine Le Pen is getting into the presidential race there. And I was wondering if this Department has a relationship with her, and whether or not there are concerns about a shift to the hard right in France?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously we maintain relationships from our Embassy in Paris with all of the key political figures in France, as we do around the world. I’m definitely not going to comment on French internal politics during an election season, however.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about Israeli internal politics.


QUESTION: No. I’m serious. Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: No, no, no. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I just – there was – a couple weeks ago you guys denied the visa of a member of the Knesset because of his relationship with the Kach Party. And I don’t expect you to talk about that, because I know what the answer’s going to be on that question. But as a result of this – and please don’t say – I’ll ask the question first: As a result of the denial of the visa, a group of MPs, women MPs who are coming – or MKs, I guess they’re called, members of the Knesset who are coming to participate in a women’s empowerment forum that I believe has the support of the Secretary, have now canceled their visit here in protest. The Knesset – the speaker of the Knesset has said that the denial of this visa before is an insult to the – to them, and that their – that this trip cannot happen. I’m wondering if you have any comment on the boycott of – or forced boycott of this conference by these MKs.

MS. NULAND: Well, you’re right that I’m not going to speak on a visa adjudication issue. We never do. And I don’t have —

QUESTION: I’m not asking you to. I thought I made that clear in my question that I wasn’t asking —

MS. NULAND: And I don’t have any comment in particular one way or the other with regard to this cancellation.

QUESTION: Are you aware of —


QUESTION: You are aware of it?

MS. NULAND: We’re aware of what – of the public statements that they’ve made. Yes.

QUESTION: That they’re not coming?

MS. NULAND: Correct.

QUESTION: And you don’t have any comment on it?

MS. NULAND: I do not.


QUESTION: But I mean, you would like to see that the females of the Knesset come and participate? You want —

MS. NULAND: I said that I didn’t have any comment.

QUESTION: You want to see that order by the head of the Knesset lifted, correct?

MS. NULAND: I said I didn’t have any comment on this particular one.


QUESTION: Another trade issue, Jackson-Vanik?


QUESTION: There’s a – are quite a lot of the opposition in Russia are now – the anti-Putin opposition are calling for Jackson-Vanik to be ended. They say that it’s time – actually they have a more political slant, but there is growing push. And I think the last time we talked about this, there was some discussion that the State Department was having on Capitol Hill, or at least you were keeping your eye on it. Can you refresh my memory? What – is anything changing on the State Department and dealing with Congress on Jackson-Vanik?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that as part of the process of Russia acceding to the WTO, President Obama has now asked Congress to repeal Jackson-Vanik to ensure that our own exporters – American exporters – benefit from Russia’s accession to the WTO; because if we have this kind of non-WTO compliant legislation on the books against any country, then once that country accedes, our own companies cannot take full advantage of the WTO mechanisms.

So, for example, we talked about the rare earth minerals case with China. In the case of Russia, unless Jackson-Vanik were repealed, our companies, if they got into a dispute with Russian counterparts, could not use the dispute resolution mechanisms that we’re now using with China in this case with Russia.

So we – and it’s also a piece of legislation, as you know, that was designed to encourage the Soviet Union to allow free emigration. Now we have Russia; we don’t have those kinds of emigration problems, so we think it’s time for repeal.

QUESTION: But any actions, specifically, that you’re taking on Capitol Hill, or is it just the usual?

MS. NULAND: We’ve been doing all kinds of consultations with members of the Congress. And as you know, our Ambassador, Mike McFaul, is home as well and he’ll be doing some meetings on this over the course of the week.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow on U.S. and China as far as President’s announcement is concerned and action taken by the U.S. Was – the Chinese were informed in advance before this action or announcement? And also, if it’s going to affect any relations between the two countries as far as trade relations?

MS. NULAND: I think that’s a version of the question that Shaun asked earlier. With regard to what kind of notice they had, I can’t speak to that. I would refer you to USTR, who has authority over this one.

I’ve got to get upstairs.

QUESTION: Thank you, madam.

MS. NULAND: Thanks very much, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:15 p.m.)