Department Press Briefing – June 22, 2022

2:32 p.m. EDT

MR PRICE: Thanks very much, and thanks very much, everyone, for joining today as we do today’s briefing by phone. I have a couple things at the top and then we’ll turn to your questions.

First, today the First Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden and sports icon and equality champion Billie Jean King headline an event hosted by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, or ECA, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that afforded women equal opportunity in education and sports across the United States. ECA, in partnership with espnW, highlighted the dramatic impact of Title IX in increasing the participation of women and girls in sports.

Through sports diplomacy exchange programs, such as the Department of State espnW’s Global Sports Mentoring Program, or GSMP, the department is expanding the footprint of Title IX and its message of equality and opportunity for women in every corner of the globe. Now in its 10th year, the GSMP promotes key tenets of Title IX, such as inclusion, access, and opportunity, and applies them globally. The women of the GSMP have positively and directly impacted more than 350,000 people through their action plans as part of the exchange, from advocating for social welfare policy in Brazil to using boxing to teaching self-defense and leadership skills to Kenyan women and girls, they are making a difference every day to advance equality around the world.

And next and finally, the department is pleased to announce that Mr. Collin Walsh, a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Office of Rewards for Justice, has been named by CAREERS and the disABLED magazine a 2022 employee of the year for his resilience, professional accomplishments, and commitment to advocacy for persons with disabilities. In 2016, on his third day of Foreign Service orientation as a Diplomatic Security service special agent candidate, Mr. Walsh became physically paralyzed and was told he would never walk again. After two years dedicated entirely to physical recovery, Mr. Walsh returned to DS, walking with elbow-supported mobility aids.

In his new role, Mr. Walsh serves as a Civil Service foreign affairs officer in the DS Rewards for Justice Office, which offers rewards for information regarding those who threaten U.S. national security. Among his many accomplishments are overseeing the RFJ’s – RFJ’s global tips program, serving on a cross-functional rotation in the Office of the Legal Adviser, and leading an accessibility overhaul of the DS headquarters building. So congratulations again to Collin Walsh on behalf of all of us here at the Department of State.

With that, we will turn now to questions. We can start with the line of Matt Lee, please.

OPERATOR: Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay. I got a couple. I’ll try to make them real quick. You can answer them in order. One is: The Secretary, as we know, is supposed to speak with the detainee families today. I realize that may not have happened yet, but can you tell us anything about what he’s planning to say?

And then secondly: The SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, has just sent a series of really blistering letters – one to Congress, one to Secretary Blinken, and one to Administrator Power, and one to the legal counsels of both State and USAID – accusing State and USAID of illegally withholding information related to the withdrawal from Afghanistan and current assistance, any kind of assistance, to the country. And obviously, this takes on more relevance, given the earthquake that just happened this morning. But what’s your response to this? Are you guys cooperating with SIGAR as you have, or have you decided that you don’t need to do that anymore? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Matt. So on your first question, you are correct that Secretary Blinken will have an engagement this afternoon with the families of Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world. That engagement has not yet taken place. It will take place shortly this afternoon. I expect we’ll have an opportunity to provide you with a written readout in the aftermath of this engagement.

Secretary Blinken quite frequently engages on a one-on-one basis with family members of Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained. This will be an opportunity for him – another opportunity for him – to meet as a collective with the families of those Americans who are wrongfully detained or held hostage. There will be, we expect, several dozen participants in this call. Of course, a setting like this is not entirely conducive to discussing the specifics of particular cases, but the Secretary will use it as an opportunity to underscore for all of these families the paramount priority we attach to doing everything we can to see the safe return of their loved ones from wherever they are held hostage.

And of course, he will continue to follow up on this engagement with one-on-one engagement with individual families, where he has and will continue to have an opportunity to update families on, in more precise terms, what we are doing to see their loved ones released from captivity. So we’ll have more on the call – or on the engagement after it takes place today.

In terms of your question on SIGAR, Matt, what I can tell you is that, as you know, SIGAR published a report last month regarding the collapse of the ANDSF and the factors that led to its demise. Our view is that the report does not reflect the consensus view of the State Department or of the U.S. Government, for that matter. Many parts of the U.S. Government, including the State Department, have unique insights into developments in Afghanistan last year that were not captured in the report. And we don’t concur with many aspects of the report. We refer you to the many statements that the State Department has made over the past year on Afghanistan regarding our assessments.

But the fact is, Matt, that SIGAR did not request input from the State Department for – in the process of drafting this report, nor did they afford us an opportunity to review the draft before it was finalized, as had been a regular process for other reports. If we have any additional reaction to letters that were – and responses that were given today, we’ll be sure to pass those along.

We’ll go to the line of Jennifer Hansler, please. Do we have – yes, we hear you now.

QUESTION: Sorry. Sorry if this has already been asked. Are you aware of any U.S. citizens who are victims of this earthquake in Afghanistan? I know there is some concern about particularly the American hostage Mark Frerichs and – given his – where his whereabouts might be. Do you have any update on his status?

And then separately, do you have any updates on Matthew Heath, the detained American in Venezuela? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much. So first, on the earthquake in Afghanistan, you probably just saw the statement that emanated from Secretary Blinken. Secretary Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, other senior officials, have put out statements today expressing our deep sorrow and our deep sympathy for those who perished in today’s devastating earthquake in Afghanistan as well as to the loved ones of the victims. The people of Afghanistan have undergone extraordinary hardship, and this tragedy only compounds that on top of an already dire humanitarian situation. Our humanitarian partners are responding already, including by sending medical teams to help people affected by the earthquake. As you heard from the Secretary and from the National Security Advisor, we’re assessing other potential response options as well.

We stand with the people of Afghanistan. We’re working with the international community to serve Afghans and to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis and suffering in Afghanistan, which has long predated the earthquake today, but of course which was compounded by the earthquake today.

In terms of potential American victims, there’s not anything I’m in a position to offer at the moment. Of course, the scale of the – of this tragedy is just enormous, so we will work very closely with posts around the world to determine if any Americans were implicated in today’s earthquake. But I’m not aware of any such reports just yet.

In terms of your second question, Matthew Heath, as we’ve said, was arrested in September 2020 on specious charges. His trial is still ongoing. We continue to press for the immediate and unconditional release of Matthew and all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals in Venezuela and everywhere around the world, as I’ve already said in the course of this briefing at every opportunity. Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad. We do oppose this practice everywhere. I’m not in a position to provide an update on the health of this individual or any other American for privacy considerations, but we are monitoring Matthew’s health and welfare as closely as possible, and we’re in regular contact with his family on that.

Let’s go to Francesco Fontemaggi. Do we have Francesco?

QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me?

MR PRICE:  Yes, yes. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Hi. Thank you. I wanted to follow up on Afghanistan. Has the U.S. Government been in touch with the Taliban to coordinate this humanitarian aid or assistance? Are you planning to coordinate with them or even to go through the Taliban power to bring this assistance to the Afghan people? I know this has been redlined for now, going through the Taliban. But is this something that you can do for this occurrence? Thank you.

MR PRICE:  Thank you. And Francesco, before I go there, let me just say, most importantly, thank you. I know this is likely your last briefing as the AFP’s State Department correspondent. I want to thank you for the tremendous time we’ve had working together collegially in your role with AFP and your role with the Correspondents’ Association. We’ll very much miss your presence in the briefing room, your presence in the bullpen, your presence on the S plane, your presence on our travel around the world. But I wish you all the best as you head to your next adventure in what probably are considered greener pastures in Paris. So bon voyage, and looking forward to staying in touch.

In terms of Afghanistan, I am not aware of any request for assistance that the United States Government has received from the Taliban. But we have been in touch with our humanitarian partners. As I mentioned before, our humanitarian partners are already in the process of responding. They’re sending medical teams to help those who are affected by the disaster. As you know, the United States has been a humanitarian leader for the people of Afghanistan. We’ve provided $720 million in humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and support to Afghan refugees in the region through multilateral organizations and NGOs since mid-August of last year.

Just earlier this week, Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West – he was in Geneva actually yesterday, where he met with humanitarian partners who are providing critical aid to the people of Afghanistan. We’ll continue to support their role in serving Afghans to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and suffering, and our commitment to the Afghan people is unwavering.

I imagine the humanitarian response to the earthquake will be a topic of conversation between U.S. officials and Taliban officials in the coming days, certainly going forward. But I am not aware that any such conversations have taken place just yet as we are focusing our efforts and our discussions on our humanitarian partners in the first instance.

We’ll go to the line of Iain Marlow.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question. I’m just wondering if you have any comment on statements from two companies, Viterra and Bunge, that say infrastructure at the Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv were damaged by Russian rockets. And this is obviously – these are food companies, and so this is sort of in line with other sort of attacks on grain and agricultural infrastructure, so I’m just wondering if there was any additional comment on these sort of – these reports coming out.

MR PRICE: I don’t have any specific reaction to those reports, but we have had a consistent reaction to what has been a consistent practice on the part of the Russian Federation to damage and to potentially even target what is infrastructure that provides food and foodstuffs, not only for the people of Ukraine but for countries around the world.

Since the start of President Putin’s war in Ukraine, Russia’s forces have knocked offline, have destroyed silos; they have destroyed what used to be arable fields; they have left farmers incapable and unable to tend to their fields; and they have not only attacked ships at sea, but perhaps worse, worse yet, they have mounted what amounts to a blockade against the port where tens – where more than 20 tons of grain sits on ships that should be departing for destinations around the world to provide much-needed food and much-needed assistance to people in the region and well beyond.

We’ve undertaken quite a bit of travel since the start of President Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, and in recent weeks, in recent months, the food insecurity crisis that this unprovoked war of aggression has caused has been top of mind for countries and for leaders around the world, including in Los Angeles earlier this month where the Western Hemisphere came together, including in our travels in Latin America and Europe as well.

And of course, we announced this morning that tomorrow Secretary Blinken will be departing for Berlin, where he will take part in a food security conference hosted by the German Government and German Foreign Minister Baerbock. So this will be a topic that will be high on the agenda later this week. It will be high on the agenda when President Biden travels to the G7 later this week as well. And you’ll be hearing more from us later today, from some of our senior officials, on this broad challenge, and you’ll be hearing more from the White House as well in short order.

We’ll got to the line of Janne Pak.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: Yes, we can.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi, Ned. Thanks for (inaudible) me. I have a question about NATO meeting. Regarding South Korea’s participation in NATO summit next week, South Korea is not a NATO member country. What expectation does the U.S. have for South Korea’s role in attending the NATO summit next week? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much, Janne. You are right that South Korea, of course, is not a NATO Ally, but South Korea is an important partner of the NATO Alliance and of individual Allies. And this will be the second time in recent months that partners from the Indo-Pacific have been included in NATO consultations. The fact is that even though NATO is an Alliance, a defensive Alliance that protects and promotes the interests of its Allies in a different part of the world, there are a number of shared challenges that we face, whether it is the challenge from the PRC, whether it is the challenge of cyber and emerging technology that all of our countries face.

But at the end of the day, what we seek to uphold in the Indo-Pacific with our ROK allies and what NATO seeks to uphold in Europe is precisely the same thing, and that is the rules-based order that has promoted and led to what has been unprecedented levels of stability and prosperity around the world. Russia’s affront and assault – affront to and assault on that rules-based international order is a threat not only to Ukraine and to the people of Ukraine, but to that order everywhere around the world. And anytime that order comes under assault and it is not vigorously protected and defended, that order is undermined everywhere.

That’s precisely why we, together with our partners in the Indo-Pacific, have stood up to aggression in that arena as well. When countries in that region seek to challenge the rules-based international order, we have come together to make clear that it is an order that we will protect and promote in the face of challenge, whether that’s in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, or anywhere else.

So I know the Secretary is looking forward to consultations with our partners in the Indo-Pacific in the coming days, as is President Biden, who recently returned from both Japan and the ROK last month, not all that long ago.

Let’s go to Alex Raufoglu.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, Ned. Two questions here. Russia’s Lavrov apparently will travel to Indonesia to take part in the G20 ministerial on July the 7th. He even is thinking to have bilats with Chinese, Brazilian, South African, Mexican colleagues, according to his spox, Zakharova. Is it your position that there is no place for Russia’s participation in the G20 summit? And if so, any steps you’re planning to take to prevent this from happening?

And secondly, Lavrov is also planning to go to Azerbaijan tomorrow to discuss the Karabakh issue. President Aliyev says that the Minsk Group is, quote/unquote, “dead.” Is that your position as well? Is Minsk Group alive, in your opinion, because the U.S. is the – one of the co-chairs? Thanks so much.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much, Alex. So when it comes to the G20, it’s an important forum for world and global economic issues. Secretary Blinken will attend to ensure that our interests are represented. We’ll have more details on that travel in the coming days.

But we also have to be clear that Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused global economic instability, and the United States has no intention, as a result, of reducing pressure on the Kremlin until and unless Russia’s aggression against Ukraine comes to a halt. We have reiterated to the Indonesian presidency that the G20 must be relevant to helping Ukraine deal with and recover from the invasion, and I’m confident that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will be high on the agenda when G20 partners come together in Bali next month. During that set of days we’ll also have an opportunity to engage with allies as well as partners, and I know that Russia’s aggression will be a primary conversation for us as well.

When it comes to the meetings that Foreign Minister Lavrov will have in Bali at the G20 ministerial, I would leave that to the Russians to describe. For us, we are much less concerned about whom he meets with and much more concerned with the messages that are imparted during those meetings. And what we have emphasized over the course of the weeks since February 24th is that every responsible country around the world has an obligation to make very clear to the Russian Federation that its aggression against Ukraine, its peaceful neighbor, cannot be tolerated and will be met – and has been met – with steep costs and consequences for Russia. That’s the message that we’ll continue to convey; that’s the message we expect every responsible country around the world to convey as well.

Let’s go to Luis Rojas.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you, Ned. Thank you for having me. My question is Juan Guaidó’s wife Fabiana Rosales is visiting Washington, have met with senior officials. Do you have any update on the political prisoner of Venezuela, or the possible dialogue between the opposition and the Maduro government, or any question about Venezuela? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks very much. Our contention continues to be that Venezuelan-led negotiations between the Maduro regime and the Unitary Platform represent the best path to restore to Venezuelans the democracy they deserve, and to alleviate their suffering.

We, for our part, remain steadfast in our commitment to the Venezuelan people, which includes supporting their democratic aspirations and providing assistance to address their humanitarian crisis. And we count ourselves among a broad coalition of nations that support these goals.

Look, we believe that, under the right circumstances and with the support of the international community, the parties are better positioned to negotiate steps toward the solution to the Venezuelan crisis. And we’ve urged the parties – the opposition and the Maduro regime – to return to dialogue, to return to Mexico City, and we’ve made clear that we would review our sanctions policies in response to constructive steps by the Maduro regime and if the Venezuelan parties make meaningful progress in those Venezuelan-led negotiations in Mexico.

We have had an opportunity in recent days, including at the most senior levels, including when President Biden spoke to Juan Guaidó on his way to Los Angeles to attend the Summit of the Americas – our support for Juan Guaidó, our support for the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people, and that will continue to be the case.

Let’s go to Christiane Jacke.

QUESTION: Hi, hello, thanks for taking my question. I’m very sorry I was only able to join the call a little late, so my apologies if you already touched on that topic. It’s about Russia complaining that the U.S. is not allowing flights to bring Russian diplomats home to Russia that are supposed to leave the country. Is that correct? Can you say anything about that complaint from Moscow? Is there threats with consequences if you are not allowing a Russian plane to enter the U.S.? Thank you very much.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much. There’s not much I can say because this is the subject of ongoing diplomatic conversation, but what I can say is that the Russian statements do not accurately reflect the current state of play. Of course, we have an interest in an embassy, a U.S. embassy in Moscow, that is functioning. We have an interest, too, in preserving the ability of the Russian Federation to have a functioning embassy here in Washington. I say that – and we’ve made this point before – because we believe that lines of communication and we believe that dialogue is especially important during times of tension, but vitally important during times of conflict and even crisis like the one we’re in now.

So we have engaged with the Russian Federation consistently in recent months to try to get to a better place in terms of our embassy staffing in Moscow to seek to preserve that diplomatic channel that our embassies afford, but there’s just not anything I’m in a position to say now on this specific issue.

We will conclude with the line of Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Ned, with these very high temperatures from the second day of summer. Thanks for taking my question. So Ned, mine has to do with U.S. relations with African countries right now on the back of the meeting that Secretary Blinken had with Foreign Minister Tall Sall. Could you maybe give me a sense of the mood of the meeting? How did that go in general? And then on Monday, President Zelenskyy had a closed-door address that he was addressing the African Union, but only four African presidents listened in. I wanted to find out if you could probably share any reaction to that on the back of the meetings that you have been having. Thanks very much, Ned. Anything that you can give us a sense of would be great. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much, Pearl. So let me start with the second element of your question first, and I alluded to the fact that everywhere we have traveled, and virtually with every foreign counterpart with whom we’ve interacted in recent weeks and recent months, the challenge of food insecurity has been very high on that agenda. And in many ways, nowhere is it higher than on the continent of Africa, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Secretary has had an opportunity to speak to a number of his African counterparts. You mentioned Tall Sall. He’s had an opportunity to meet with AU Commission Chairperson Faki. He’s had an opportunity to speak with his South African counterpart. He’s had a number of engagements that have either centered on this challenge of food insecurity or featured it prominently.

And our message has been consistent that we recognize the challenge that President Putin’s war – unprovoked war against Ukraine is causing when it comes to food insecurity. We realize that President Putin’s aggression is compounding what had already been a challenge owing to COVID and the implications of the pandemic, but also to the longer-term implications of climate change. But now that we have a third C, this time in the form of conflict, the issue of food insecurity is even more significant and severe because of the implications that this war is having on those who are hungry or otherwise food insecure around the world.

We are doing a number of things to address that. We have put forward billions of dollars in financial assistance. We are working with international financial institutions, international lending institutions to try to address this challenge. We’re working with other countries to mitigate the global fertilizer challenge. We announced a $500 million investment to increase domestic fertilizer production as part of that. We have an initiative that we’ve spoken to our African counterparts about called Feed the Future. It’s an important initiative that looks at longer-term agricultural capacity and resilience and seeks to ensure that we are in a stronger position going forward.

And we are keeping the issue high on the agenda. And Pearl, you’ve probably heard me mention that the Secretary will be traveling to Berlin tomorrow, where on Friday he’ll take part in a food security ministerial hosted by his German counterpart. And then of course, the President will address this when he’s in Europe for the G7 and other functions in the coming days as well.

So that’s not to say that is the totality of our engagement with our African partners, but it is certainly an important one. It’s an important one because of the devastating implications that President Putin’s war are having on populations around the world, including in Africa and certainly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With that, I want to thank everyone for tuning in. We will be on travel for the next several days, but we’ll have an opportunity, I am sure, to be in touch from the road, and then we’ll see you back from the department next week. Thanks very much, everyone.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:04 p.m.)

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