US State Dept Presser

US State Dept Presser – Mar 28, 2023

12 Min
US State Dept Presser – Mar 28, 2023

The US State Department held a press briefing on Mar 28, 2023 with Vedant Patel, the Principal Deputy Spokesperson fielding a wide range of questions from Pakistan  to Mexico, Middle East, Ukraine war, and China and on issues related to press freedoms.

 Some Excerpts

MR PATEL: Good afternoon. I have two very brief things off the top and then I’m happy to dive into your questions.

So first, today the United States took action in coordination with the United Kingdom to designate key individuals supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the production or export in Syria and Lebanon of a dangerous amphetamine-type stimulant known as Captagon.

The trade in Captagon is estimated to have become a billion-dollar illicit enterprise.

The U.S. designated six key individuals facilitating the production and export of illicit drugs in Syria and Lebanon, and two entities owned by one of those individuals.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s family members and associates rely on the illicit drug trade to fund his regime’s violent oppression and commission of abuses against the Syrian people. The individuals and entities being designated today have enabled the Syrian regime to continue carrying out abuses against the Syrian people by providing funds to the regime derived from trade in illicit drugs.

Captagon trafficking by the Assad regime, Hizballah, and their affiliate poses a significant threat to stability, public health, and rule of law in the region.

These designations, some of which are being implemented pursuant to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, also highlight the important role of Lebanese drug traffickers – some of whom maintain ties to Hizballah – in facilitating the export of Captagon.

The United States will continue to coordinate with our allies and partners to target traffickers of illicit drugs and those who provide support to the Syrian regime’s vicious war.

Additionally, I want to also express my deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the tragic detention center fire in Ciudad Juárez last night. Our hearts go out to their loved ones, and our prayers are with those still fighting for their lives. This tragedy is a heart-breaking reminder of the risks migrants and refugees around the world face. Mexican authorities are investigating the cause of this tragedy, and we stand ready to provide any assistance they may request.


QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Happy Tuesday, I guess. Let me just start – and really briefly, if you could give – explain this in a nutshell. What exactly did you guys inform the Russians about information sharing under New START the other day?

MR PATEL: So Matt, under the New START Treaty, the U.S. and Russia, as you know, are obligated to exchange comprehensive databases twice a year. We offered to continue reciprocal implementation of this obligation. Unfortunately, Russia informed the U.S. that it will not engage in this data exchange due to its purported suspension of this treaty.

As we’ve said before, the suspension was legally invalid. Russia’s failure to exchange this data will therefore be a violation of the treaty, adding on to its existing violations of the New START Treaty and, as a result, lawful countermeasures intended to encourage Russia to return to compliance with the treaty. And the U.S. will likewise not provide its biannual data update to Russia.

QUESTION: Okay, and what’s the practical impact of this?

MR PATEL: Well, Matt, as you know, New START is an important treaty as it relates to arm control and maintaining strategic stability. This is something that the Secretary, the President, others have spoken to about the importance of this treaty. And Russia’s decision to not exchange in this – take part in this data exchange is another example of the dangerous and reckless actions it’s taking as it relates to its responsibilities to New START.

QUESTION: That’s fine, but what’s the practical impact?

MR PATEL: The important piece about New START is there is a verifiable aspect to this, which we have continued to offer reciprocal implementation of, of this obligation.

Janne, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions for South Korea. On anti-corruption, South Korea’s opposition leader is being investigated by prosecutor for extorting huge sums of money. What is the – your action given the State Department fight corruption worldwide?

MR PATEL: I’m not aware of those reports, Janne. I’d refer you to the Government of South Korea. This is an internal matter for them to speak to.

QUESTION: Okay, and one more on human rights issues. In the 2022 Human Rights Report, freedom of press in South Korea was mentioned. Is this something that happened under a certain president, or is it generally so?

MR PATEL: I will have to check on the specific language that was used in the Human Rights Reports, Janne. But obviously, what I would say is South Korea is an important partner in the region. They’re important to our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And as it relates to press freedom, this is an issue we raise directly with countries around the world in our engagements with them.

Shaun, you had your hand up.

QUESTION: I wonder if you had any reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s – I guess it’s a lack of a decision, but their stance today saying that they’ll consider it later (inaudible) be conditions on Russian and Belarusian athletes going to the Olympics in 2024.

MR PATEL: So, Shaun, we are continuing to consult with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and other likeminded nations as we review the IOC’s recommendations to international federations on the potential participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes. We continue to have serious concerns around the direct links between the Olympic and Paralympic athletes and the Russian and Belarusian militaries and national security agencies, as well as the IOC’s enforcement mechanisms, which were not outlined in the news that was shared today.

The Biden administration is also proud to – proud of its close partnership with Team USA, and we look forward to our collective work to use support for good in the United States and for – around the world. But I’d refer you to the USOPC for anything further on this.

Go ahead, Alex.

QUESTION: Media reports citing the State Department officials suggesting that the U.S. supports the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression against Ukraine. Could you please expand on that concept?

MR PATEL: Sure, Alex. The U.S. supports the development of a special tribunal on the crime of aggression against Ukraine in the form of an internationalized court that is rooted in Ukraine’s judicial system with international elements. We envision such a court having significant international support, particularly from our European partners, and ideally located in another country in Europe.

We believe that the special tribunal should be rooted in Ukraine’s domestic judicial system as this will provide the clearest path to establishing a new tribunal and maximize our chances of achieving meaningful accountability.

QUESTION: Just one thing on that announcement.

MR PATEL: Sure, yeah.

QUESTION: So what’s the next step for you guys, like after this? How is this going to run in parallel with the ICC? Can you talk a little bit about, like, how will you contribute to this? And have you also conveyed this to the Ukrainian officials, and what have they said?

MR PATEL: We of course engage with our Ukrainian partners on a number of issues and have had conversations about this as well. To take a step back, Humeyra, a tribunal of this type would enable the prosecution of crimes of aggression, and it would complement the work that will be undertaken by the International Center for the Prosecution of Crimes of Aggression by ensuring that the information and evidence collected by the center can be effectively put towards accountability purposes.

I would also say broadly that the U.S. supports all international efforts to examine atrocities in Ukraine, including the investigation by the ICC and the reporting by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. Obviously, the key aspect here is the piece about aggression, which is what would set this special tribunal apart.

Said, go ahead.

QUESTION: According to Haaretz, that Ben-Gvir, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security in Israel, only agreed to Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul delay in exchange for an Israeli national guard, in essence having his own militia. Do you have any assessment of that? I mean, how would you look at something like this?

MR PATEL: Said, I’ve seen those reports, and I would refer you to the Government of Israel to speak specifically about any next steps or engagements that are happening. What I would say broadly about the news yesterday about the – this issue having reached an agreement for – just to have further conversations about it is that we have long said that compromise is precisely what we have been calling for. And we continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders and Israeli citizens to find a compromise. But I don’t have any assessment to offer on that specific report, Said.

QUESTION: But if this turns out to be true, it would be alarming, I mean, for someone to have, like, his own army, his own militia, probably largely composed of settlers. Right?

MR PATEL: Said, I’m just not going to categorize a hypothetical.

QUESTION: All right. Let me ask you about Hawara. The Israeli army continues to impose closures around Hawara in the northern occupied West Bank, and especially in the month of Ramadan. Do you have any comment on this?

MR PATEL: We have said a number of times we believe Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of prosperity, freedom, and security. And we remain deeply concerned by the sharp rise in violence in the West Bank and continue to urge parties to take immediate steps to prevent further loss of life.

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Couple questions.  In France, over the past several weeks, even today, there have been riots nationwide, including in Paris, of President Macron’s effort to increase – correct me if I’m wrong – the retirement age from 62 to 64. And there have just been – there have been fires in the streets. Does the U.S. have any response to all of that?

MR PATEL: Well, first what I would say broadly is that we, of course, respect the right for anybody to peacefully protest and peacefully express themselves, but it’s never appropriate to take violent actions. What I would say broadly, though, that this is a domestic French issue and I’m not going to weigh into that. But what I will say is that France is a vital partner and one of our oldest allies, and we place the highest value on our alliance with them. And we have a long, shared history of shared democratic values.

QUESTION: And a new report showed dozens of countries that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative are battling to pay their debts and are relying on Beijing for additional emergency funds. Are you worried about Beijing’s growing influence and predatory lending practices in these countries?

0MR PATEL: What I would say broadly, and I spoke a little bit about this yesterday, is that our efforts in any part of the world are not about any one particular country. It is about what a partnership with the United States can look like and what a deepening partnership with the United States can benefit, not just the people of the United States but the people of that specific country as well.

As it relates to the Belt and Road Initiative, we have not parsed words that often these infrastructure projects saddle countries with bad debt; that the local workforce end up – do not end up reaping the economic benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative; that often these projects are undertaken without consideration of the environment or human rights. And as you so noted, that, again, sometimes these countries are saddled with debt that is difficult for them to pay off. So this is something we’ve spoken to before.

MR PATEL: Go ahead, Goyal, in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir, two questions on U.S.-India relations.


QUESTION: A few weeks ago I brought to this department’s attention that Indian American community in the U.S. are under fear from the few elements,  Khalistani elements, especially in San Francisco. And after that, what happened two weeks ago? The Indian consulate in San Francisco was vandalized, and also one of the diplomats was beaten up. And now those elements are still sitting in front of the consulate and people cannot go   in for services like passport and visa services, and they are under fear. And police have not done anything, and still no one was arrested.

MR PATEL: — The U.S. Government condemns the recent violent incidents that have taken place during protests at Indian diplomatic facilities in the United States. Look, we support the First Amendment rights of protesters, and we support engagement of free speech activities. However, violence or the threat of violence is never an acceptable form of protest.

Consistent with our Vienna Convention obligations, the department is committed to taking all appropriate steps, including coordination with federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities, to protect the safety and security of these facilities and the diplomatic individuals who work within them as well.

QUESTION: And second,  in Washington, D.C., one of our reporters – Mr. Lalit Jha – among others, was attacked by these elements  just over the weekend. And thanks to the Secret Service, his life was saved. And  he  had bruises and all that. So what I’m asking you now – this is ongoing on even here in Washington, D.C., at the Indian embassy, and Indian embassy issued an assault report and statement. I think you may have seen it. And I was also there among the abused.

MR PATEL: So, look, attacks against journalists are never acceptable, and we condemn any incidents of violence against a member of the media just doing their job, and any act of violence or vandalism against a diplomatic facility as well.

QUESTION: The Summit for Democracy that you’re hosting – there’s a big challenge of disinformation that’s impacting democracies. What is the strategy of the U.S. Government? Are you going to do anything specific in collaboration with your other democratic partners to combat disinformation which is specifically emanating from China, Russia, and it impacts democracies across the globe?

MR PATEL: Of course. Combating disinformation is, of course, something that the bureau that we all live under within Global Public Affairs as well as the GEC – it’s something that they are quite focused on, and we have a number of lines of effort to ensure that we have pieces in places to push back on disinformation regardless of where it might be originating from.

QUESTION: North Korea fired an SRBM, short-range ballistic missile – nuclear aerial explosion test yesterday. What is the State Department position on this?

MR PATEL: So you have seen us speak about this quite regularly in that we continue to feel that these actions, these provocative actions being taken by the DPRK, are destabilizing, they are unsafe, and they put the broader region at risk. And as it relates to the DPRK, our goal continues to be the same, which is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We have also made clear that we are open to meeting with the DPRK without preconditions, but of course, the DPRK has yet to reciprocate.

Go ahead, Shaun.

QUESTION: Can we go to Africa?


QUESTION: Kenya. I wanted to ask about the – there’s been some political protests there – opposition protests (inaudible).

MR PATEL: Yeah. Yeah, you asked about this yesterday. Broadly, Shaun, the U.S. regrets the loss of life and damage to property in recent protests in Kenya. And we encourage political leaders, protesters, and all parties to refrain from violence and rhetoric that could incite violence. And we call on government security forces to act with restraint while protecting public safety and property. The rights to freedoms of expression and association and the right to peaceful assembly are core tenets to democracy, as we’ve said previously.

QUESTION: Is that criticism of the ban on opposition protests?

MR PATEL: Look, Shaun, we encourage political leaders, protesters, and all parties to refrain from violence and rhetoric that could incite violence. And we call on government security forces to act with restraint while protecting public safety and property.

Okay. Mikhail, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Do you have any comment on the new approach – of course, a positive approach – between Türkiye and Greece? And as I understand, it started after the visit of the secretary of state, who played, of course, a role on this.

MR PATEL: Well, Mikhail, this is something that, of course, you saw the Secretary speak to when he had the opportunity to be both in Ankara and Athens as well. And we have long said that as it relates to disputes between our NATO Allies, Türkiye and Greece, that these issues be resolved peacefully, that these issues be resolved through diplomatic dialogue and in line, of course, with the UN Charter. So that continues to be the case.

MR PATEL: Go ahead, Alex.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. I have two questions. On human rights, in light of Democracy Summit, I want to draw your attention to the initiative you guys announced in January, Without Just Cause Campaign. First and last time I heard about that publicly was in this room when it was announced. Can you fill us in where exactly that mission has been done – has done to get those individuals, 60 individuals featuring Kara-Murza from Russia, Elchin Mammad from Azerbaijan, and others out of jail?

MR PATEL: Alex, I will have to check in on the specifics of that announcement. But I will say broadly, though, human rights is an issue that this department and this Secretary raises regularly with our allies and partners, as well as with countries where we perhaps might have differing views on some of these issues. And that’s why you saw the Secretary come here to this podium to release the Human Rights Report. It’s why you see him taking such an active role in the Summit for Democracy because, again, we believe that democracies and the strength of democracies are a key tenet of human rights as well.

QUESTION: Excellent. And back to special tribunal question, just to clarify, based on your response to Humeyra, as I understand it correctly, this is going to – this initiative will walk shoulder to shoulder to another initiative that ICC has put together, it’s not necessarily going to be part the ICC initiative.

MR PATEL: I   would not view it as an alternative or a replacement. What this is – is another mechanism in which we support all international efforts to examine atrocities.

Goyal, last question.

QUESTION: I just wanted to say that Mr. Lalit Jha, who is your senior correspondent for Press Trust of India, he’s just shaken up, really. Any message for him from the Secretary, and also for the Indian or other press who are covering and doing their jobs?

MR PATEL: What I would say, Lalit, is – or, sorry, what I would say, Goyal, is what I just said a few moments ago, is that of course any violence against members of the media or journalists who are simply doing their job is unacceptable. I’ve had the opportunity to know Lalit for a number of years now, and I’m glad that he is doing well and largely doing a lot better.  

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MR PATEL: Thanks, everybody.###

(The briefing was concluded at 2:46 p.m.)