US State Dept Presser

State Dept Press Briefing, July 20, 2023

10 Min
State Dept Press Briefing, July 20, 2023

The State Dept held a Press Briefing on July 20, 2023 with official spokesperson, Matthew Miller, fielding questions.   The Q-A on B’desh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are tweaked to appear upfront.

Some Excerpts

QUESTION:  My name is Nazira.  I’m from Afghanistan.  So, this is the first time that I would like to ask my question.  Any update about U.S. relationship with the Taliban?

And the second question:  There is so many Afghans who left Afghanistan and they are still in Abu Dhabi’s camp.  Their situation is very tough.  The weather is so hot and they keep complaining in contact with me or with some other Afghans.  Any possibility to expedite their case through maybe State Department?

MR MILLER:  I will say on the second question it is an issue on which we continue to remain focused and work.  On the first question with respect to the relationship with the Taliban, on a number of different fronts, – first on the counter-terrorism front, we are holding the Taliban to their commitments under the Doha Agreement, including their commitment to Afghanistan not being used as a safe haven to plot terrorist attacks against the United States of America and our allies.  We continue to condemn the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls in the country.  I spoke to that just yesterday.  And we continue to express that there are a number of changes that the Taliban need to make, if they ever wish to achieve the legitimacy that they claim they seek.

QUESTION:  Two questions on human trafficking and human rights, one here in the U.S. in Richmond, Virginia.  Yesterday, part of grand jury came up with a human trafficking against two people.  They were bringing some people from India here and using them  – exploitation was going on at their stores and restaurants or also at gas stations and at home.  My question is that many cases have taken place here in the U.S.  Many are still going on, but many people don’t report because of fear of persecution but they are threatened to – they take their passports and immigration status and that they will report you if you report to anybody.  But these two people – part of grand jury yesterday in Richmond – came up that FBI did investigate.  My question : how the State Department take these human trafficking and the people bring them as not domestic workers but as visitors – visas on then defraud them and exploit them?

MR MILLER:  I would say that combatting human trafficking continues to be a major priority for this administration.  It’s something that we work with – we work on as part of our diplomacy.  It’s obviously a law enforcement matter.  I don’t want to speak to the specific case because it is a pending law enforcement case, as you noted.

QUESTION:  Indian American community here, especially the Hindu community, is very much concerned, and they are asking what is being done in Pakistan that minorities are under attack and Hindus communities temples are burned, and 150-year-old temple in Karachi was leveled to the ground by the authorities there and nobody is taking a tack, and dozens of Hindu womens were forced to – what do you call that? They will kidnap, and a lot of things going on against them, even rape and all that.  So what message do you think you have here for the Indian American community and Hindu community who are now flooding Pakistan to the U.S. and in India?

MR MILLER:  I would say that we support the free exercise of religion anywhere in the world and oppose any attempts or uses of violence to suppress that right of people to exercise their freedom of religion.

QUESTION:   Jahanzaib from ARY News TV, Pakistan.  During the last few days, we have seen a number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan killing civilians and security forces.  And according to some media intelligence reports, all attacks were planned in Afghanistan.  Pakistan military chief warned the Afghan Taliban of an effective response by his forces if they fail to stop their harbouring militants who plot cross-border attacks from Afghanistan.  So, we have seen a statement from the White House official about the Taliban for their anti-terror pledges.  You just spoke about it.  How much confident you are the Taliban will fulfil their promises to not provide safe havens to the terrorists?

MR MILLER:  I don’t want to express any amount of confidence or lack of confidence.  I will say that we will hold them to their commitments.  But as we have said before, we remain – we retain the ability to conduct our own operations in the region to ensure that, regardless of any promises that the Taliban makes and regardless of their relative ability or willingness to uphold them, that we retain the right to protect American interests.

QUESTION: Pakistan’s ruling party will dissolve parliament soon for the general elections going to be held by November.  The stakes are very high for the coming election, and experts believe that the elections in Pakistan unlikely to be free and fair.  How does the United States promote and support the principles of free and fair elections in Pakistan?

MR MILLER: I will make clear that we support the peaceful upholding of fundamental democratic principles such as free media, free speech, freedom assembly.  We champion the rule of law, not just in Pakistan but around the world.  These principles are the foundations for democratic elections.  I have spoken to this both with respect to Pakistan specifically and of course as it relates to other countries on numerous occasions.

QUESTION:   What about the situation with Private King.  And what more do you know, if anything?

MR MILLER:  I will say that the case continues to be an extremely high priority for the department.  Our diplomatic efforts are ongoing.  The White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, of course, are all continuing to work together on this matter to ascertain information about the well-being and whereabouts of Private King.  We have relayed messages to the DPRK that Private King crossed on his own and we want him returned safely.  We have also asked for more info on his well-being.

I will say that we retain a number of channels through which we can send messages to the DPRK.  As I said yesterday, those discussions are quite sensitive; such discussions are quite sensitive, so I’m not going to go into further details at this time.  But we remain engaged in this matter and it is a priority for us to seek his safe return.

QUESTION:  — I’m just wondering if they – have they even acknowledged that they’ve got him?

MR MILLER:   All I’m prepared to say today is that we have made clear to them, we have relayed messages to them, that we are seeking information about his welfare, and want him returned safely.  I don’t want to get into whether they’ve responded or not.

QUESTION:  Is there a specific military-to-military line for avoidance of – for deconfliction and that kind of thing?

MR MILLER:  I will leave it to the Pentagon to speak to that.

QUESTION:  Secretary of the Army said she was worried about how he may be treated, if confirmed.  What is your position on that?  Is that something you are worried about, how he will be treated inside North Korea?

MR MILLER:  Certainly I think we would always have concern, given the treatment by North Koreans of past detained individuals, we would have that concern.  And that’s why – one of the reasons why we are reaching out to ask for more information about his well-being.

QUESTION:  Just a follow-up on – you said that the U.S. has relayed messages that Private King crossed on his own.  Do you say that to mean that he didn’t do so with the support or the encouragement of the U.S. Government?

MR MILLER:  Correct.

QUESTION:  Okay.  And then is there any reason to believe at this time that he had any contact with the North Koreans before crossing over?

MR MILLER:  Not that I’m aware of, no.  

QUESTION:   The Lebanese lodged a complaint yesterday with the European Union because the European Union seems to be saying that Syrian refugees should remain there.  And I was wondering whether this was also the position of the United States Government.  Where do you stand on the Syrian refugees in Lebanon? 

MR MILLER:  First of all, we continue to thank the Lebanese people for their generosity in hosting so many refugees.  We acknowledge the strain that such a sustained response has placed on Lebanese society and Lebanese infrastructure.  We are concerned by the harmful anti-refugee rhetoric and scapegoating of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.  We continue to reiterate that all refugees and displaced persons should be treated humanely, and anyone detained should be afforded all applicable legal protections.

As we have said before with respect to the return of refugees to Syria, any refugee returns should be voluntary, safe, dignified, and coordinated with the UNHCR.  We don’t impose – we don’t oppose individual voluntary returns, but as we’ve said, the conditions in Syria today do not allow for organized large-scale returns.

QUESTION:  Did the Secretary discuss the refugee situation with the Arab League secretary-general yesterday?

MR MILLER:  I don’t have a specific readout, but that is typically one of the conversations we discuss with partners in the region.

QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to the Iraqi prime minister’s decision to expel the Swedish ambassador in Baghdad?

MR MILLER:  I would say that we would urge restraint and open dialogue between our partners, Sweden and Iraq, on this issue.

QUESTION:  And one last question.  The Iraqi president summoned the U.S. ambassador over your remarks about Cardinal Louis Sako.  Are you still on the same page about Louis Sako?

MR MILLER:  Yes, absolutely.  And I would reiterate that we remain concerned with the harassment of Cardinal Sako.  His position as a respected leader of the church is under attack from a militia leader who remains under sanctions, and we will reiterate that concern directly to the Iraqi Government.

QUESTION:  Just to follow up on that, did you convey your message of condemnation directly to the Iraqi PM?  We saw the statement, but did the ambassador reach out to the Iraqi Government?

MR MILLER:  I’m not aware whether he had any specific conversations about this, but certainly we generally make such concerns known both publicly and in private diplomatic conversations.

QUESTION:   There are reports that the U.S. is not going to renew the visa for the consul general in Miami.  And A, if that’s true, and B, if that’s related to the fact that the Jamaicans won’t accredit the same-sex partner of an American diplomat.

MR MILLER:  I would say two things.  Number one, that one of our top priorities is to ensure that privileges and immunities are granted to spouses of personnel assigned to U.S. embassies and consular posts, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identify.  The department’s policy regarding the accreditation length of diplomats from missions to the United States however is applied universally, absent a reciprocal accreditation policy.  And diplomats accredited to those missions are expected to end their tour after five years and depart the United States.

QUESTION:  Right.  But you could give a waiver, and you’re not giving a waiver in this case?

MR MILLER:  I don’t have – we have not at this point.  But I don’t have any further update.

QUESTION:  Is there an actual case of a diplomat whose same-sex spouse is being denied those privileges in Jamaica, or is that not accurate?

MR MILLER:  It’s a policy concern at this point. 

QUESTION:  It’s an overall policy concern, not a specific concern.

MR MILLER:  Correct.

QUESTION:  Second question.  That it could happen or that it has happened?

MR MILLER:  That it is a policy concern that same-sex spouses would not be granted the same rights and privileges.

QUESTION:  Late in September this year is World Maritime Day and the United Nations is holding events.  Iran had offered to hold a parallel event in Tehran, but today apparently the United States shot it down and let them move to reject that offer.  Can you expound on that, please?

MR MILLER:  You’re right, that the International Maritime Organization today rescinded a decision for Iran to host a World Maritime Day event.  I wouldn’t say it’s just the United States.  I think the vote was something like 15 to 2; I may have that – with some additional abstentions, I may have the numbers exactly wrong, but I think that’s generally in the ballpark.

But you’re right about our position, which is that Iran has no business hosting any official international gathering related to maritime affairs, because it has repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for international maritime rules, standards, and safety.  You’ve seen them interfering with the free navigation of vessels recently, so we did think that it was appropriate that they not be allowed to host this event, and the IMO agreed with that.

QUESTION:  Switching over to Russia, I wanted to ask about the new sanctions today, on the 120 individuals and entities.  I know their release said that it was to further hold Russia accountable for the war in Ukraine, but is there something specific that prompted these?  If you could speak a bit more to why now and why?

MR MILLER:  I do want to highlight a couple of examples, but first to answer that question – so one of the things we made clear when we first started rolling out sanctions – on the first day of the invasion, the immediate days that followed, and then the months since then – is that we would do two things: one, continue to look at ways to impose sanctions on new individuals or new entities that we thought would be appropriate to further our goals of holding Russia accountable, number one; and number two, degrading its ability to conduct the war.

Sometimes those new sanctions come because we’re able to gather new information.  Sometimes it’s because we see new entities behaving in a way that they didn’t.  A lot of this is technical work that does take time.  And then the second thing we continue to do is to look for ways to tighten our sanctions when we see sanctions evasion.

I will say with respect to these specific examples, if you look, number one, was a leading Russian engineering procurement construction entity that’s directing construction activities for future Russian energy export activities; another was one of Russia’s top producers of metal such as copper, zinc, gold, and silver; five additional Russian financial institutions, so you’ve seen us impose sanctions on Russian financial institutions in the past.  So, with all these sanctions, what we’re always doing is trying to find additional ways to, as I said:  one, hold Russia accountable, and two, choke off its ability to either fund, finance, or construct materials for its war machine.

QUESTION:  Christian persecution is a serious problem in Iran.  According to Voice of the Martyrs, a report, its pastors are often arrested, tortured, and imprisoned, and their families are harassed.  What are President Biden’s policies in dealing with Iran on this matter?  And I have a follow up.

MR MILLER:  We continue to support the free exercise of religion everywhere, obviously, including Iran.

QUESTION:   What countries has President Biden imposed sanctions on for persecuting Christians?  And has he spoke out on this matter at the UN?

MR MILLER:  Let me just say that I just spoke in the last ten minutes, I believe, about the persecution of one Christian leader in Iran’s neighbour, Iraq, and made very clear our concerns on that.  So it is obviously a concern that we have.  We are concerned about the persecution or mistreatment of any religious figure or any person attempting to exercise their religious beliefs anywhere in the world.

QUESTION:  With regard to China, today’s July 20th, marking 24 years since the Chinese Communist Party launched a deadly persecution against tens of millions of Falun Gong practitioners.  The Biden administration has stepped up action in sanctioning individuals responsible for the persecution.  However, there are reports on the ground that the persecution continues to persist, organ harvesting continues to persist.  So, I guess my question is:  Does the administration have plans to pressure Beijing further with regard to this?

MR MILLER:  I think we’ve made our position clear on this.  As you’ve said, we’ve imposed a number of measures already.  It’s an issue that remains of concern for us, but we never preview sanctions or other enforcement actions from the podium.

Thanks, everyone.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:51 p.m.)