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US State Dept Daily Press Briefing: May 1, 2008

Daily Press Briefing
Tom Casey, Deputy Spokesman
Washington, DC
May 1, 2008

US State Dept Daily Press Briefing: May 1, 2008

INDEX:

BELARUS

Belarus Declares U.S. Diplomats Persona Non Grata
Meetings and Discussions with Belarusians
Full Range of Options Considered for U.S. and Belarusian Diplomatic Presence
No Formal Decision to Reduce U.S. Staff Beyond Belarusian's Request
Status of Belarusian Embassy and Consulate in the U.S.
Number of Staff at U.S. Embassy in Belarus
Diplomatic Relations with Belarus Not Cut Off

NORTH KOREA

Food Assistance and Humanitarian Aid Not Conditioned on Political Actions
U.S. Food and Humanitarian Donations to North Korea
Criteria for U.S. Food and Humanitarian Assistance
Discussions with World Food Program Regarding North Korean Assistance

ZIMBABWE

Unconscionable Delay in Releasing Presidential Election Votes
Limited Credibility of Voting Results
Want to See Government of Zimbabwe Stop Violence
Lack of Explanation for Vote Count Delays
U.S. Bilateral Sanctions on Zimbabwean Leadership
Zimbabwean People Should Determine the President of Zimbabwe

CHINA

U.S. Concerns About Efforts to Restrict Freedom of Information

IRAQ/IRAN

Iraqi Delegation to Tehran
Iraqi Concerns About Militia Groups
U.S.-Iraq-Iran Discussions

TURKEY

May Day Demonstration in Turkey

CUBA

What's Expected of Cuba to Achieve Different Relationship With U.S.

TRANSCRIPT:

12:52 p.m. EDT

MR. CASEY: Okay. Good afternoon, guys. How are you doing? Don't have anything to start you with, so, gee, Sue, I think I know, but why don't you go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, do you have anything on -- there's apparently a U.S. decision to close Belarus's embassy in Washington, consular office in New York, and also to close your embassy in Belarus.

MR. CASEY: Yeah -- I think there's been some confusion on this point in terms of what actions the U.S. has or hasn't taken on this, so let me just tell you where we are. As you know, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry told our Chargé yesterday that a number of American diplomats, ten, to be exact, have been declared persona non grata. For those of you that are not familiar with the term of art, that's basically a "you're not wanted here, time to go home" order. They were asked to leave Minsk within 72 hours. And since that constitutes a formal demand for our diplomats to leave, we're going to comply with that deadline given to us.

That means, I should note, that we are having a reduction, really, of 30 diplomats, just in the month of March, if you include in this latest demand. And this is -- it's an unwarranted and unjustified action. It is something that is being done solely as a result of the U.S. support for democracy and human rights activists in Belarus. And it's unfortunate because, frankly, what it mainly does is serves to further isolate Belarus and take Belarus further away from its own stated objectives, which is to be engaged and be a full participant in the international community.

In terms of our discussions with the Belarusians on this, we have met with them today, both here in Washington as well as in Minsk, and we have told them what I have told you, that these actions that they have taken are thoroughly unjustified and unwarranted. We -- while we will comply with the requirement for our diplomats to depart, we strongly object to this measure. There is no justification for it. And we have to consider, then, how we are going to be able to conduct diplomatic functions in Belarus after that point.

There certainly are a number of steps and we have told them that we are considering the full range of options in terms of our respective diplomatic presences. But at this point, we have not made any formal decisions to reduce staff beyond what this requirement has been because of their decision to PNG our personnel.

QUESTION: Okay. So a straight up and down answer, please. Have you decided to shut down the embassy in Belarus, number one?

MR. CASEY: No.

QUESTION: No. Number two, has --

MR. CASEY: Was that straight enough?

QUESTION: That was straight enough.

MR. CASEY: I just wanted to check. Okay.

QUESTION: Yeah. And then also, have you told the Belarusians that they must -- (1) close down their embassy in Washington, yes or no?

MR. CASEY: No.

QUESTION: And their consulate in New York?

MR. CASEY: No.

QUESTION: So that is incorrect?

MR. CASEY: No -- as I said, we have told them that we have very serious concerns about this step that they have taken, and that means we need to think very carefully about our future and their future diplomatic presence in our respective countries. But we have not made any decisions at this point.

QUESTION: Under consideration, is a tit-for-tat decision being taken to ask them to reduce the number of diplomats? Have you asked them to reduce the diplomats by the same number -- what was it you said --

MR. CASEY: Well, they -- we have -- they reduced our total number of six, as a result of certain requirements out there, in terms of the way our staffing works, including the Marine security guards and other people. That effectively, will leave us with four individuals that have not been PNGed, left in the country. Their total numbers between New York and Washington, Gonzo, are --

MR. GALLEGOS: Are six.

MR. CASEY: Are six, so, in effect, they were taking -- in PNGing our people, they were bringing us down to the level that they had already unilaterally reduced their staff to. Now again, at this point, I'm not saying that there will not be further action. There are probably some other shoes that will drop in this process. But at this point, we have not made a decision to formally ask them or informally ask them to reduce staff further.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Just - can I ask one on this? But you've warned them that this is a distinct possibility, is that correct?

MR. CASEY: Well, we've warned them that there is a range of actions that we can take. We've warned them that by PNGing this extensive portion of our staff, they are making it very hard for us to be able to have a functioning mission in that country and that that may require some additional actions.

QUESTION: But you're not removing the other six or four, because two are probably Marines, but --

MR. CASEY: Well, it will -- effectively, the result of them PNGing us will leave us with four people there. And no, at this point, they are still in-country, and we do not have immediate plans to remove them.

QUESTION: So there's no intention at the moment to cut off diplomatic relations with Belarus?

MR. CASEY: No.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. CASEY: Okay. Let's go here.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Channel NewsAsia. Given the increasing risk of famine in North Korea, is the U.S. prepared to provide emergency food aid decoupled from outcomes of the negotiations related to the six-party talks?

MR. CASEY: Well, let me make it clear that at no time -- past, present or future -- has food assistance or other humanitarian aid been conditioned on any political actions. For a long time, the United States, even when there was no six-party talks or was no discussions or negotiations pursuing -- related to North Korea's nuclear program, was the largest donor of food and other humanitarian assistance to North Korea. We ceased providing that aid, in part, because the World Food Program determined that there was no longer a need.*

Subsequent to that, while they have seen an increasing need and desire on the part of the World Food Program to provide assistance, they are still trying to work through a means to do so that would be able to allow them to be assured that they could provide this food and have it reach people in need, rather than being diverted for other purposes. But our basic criteria for providing food and other humanitarian assistance remains the same and that's an ostensible need, a comparison with that need with competing needs elsewhere and our ability to ensure that that aid can really reach those people who are affected by whatever the situation is. So -- well, that's a long way of saying we are still considering this as a possibility. There have been some discussions with the World Food Program and others about this, but no formal decision has been made at this point.

QUESTION: So you're prepared possibly to go through it - the World Food Program route in order to get aid into the country?

MR. CASEY: That's traditionally been the way in which we have been able to offer this kind of assistance to North Korea. And I would expect that any kind of future assistance we offer would probably follow a similar pattern.

Yeah, in the back.

QUESTION: Zimbabwe. Do you have a comment on the (inaudible) results of the elections in Zimbabwe that put the opposition party to have won by 48 percent to Mugabe's 53 percent? And the ruling party is calling for a runoff. And MDC's rejection of the runoff? And secondly, do you think the situation is conducive for any runoff?

MR. CASEY: Well, let's kind of talk a little bit about where we are. First of all, we understand that the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission has formally begun reviewing the presidential vote today. And I've seen the same press reports that you have, alleging that the results will show a vote that leaves Mr. Tsvangirai somewhat short of a 50 percent margin that would be required under Zimbabwean law to avoid a runoff. You know, if this were a few weeks ago, the situation might be different. But what we, I think, can say is that there's been an absolutely unconscionable and inexplicable delay in the process of releasing votes. And at this point, I think whatever those results show, they're probably going to have limited credibility. I'd also note that it would be rather hard to see how there could be a fair runoff election. In fact, I think it would almost be impossible to hold one, given the current campaign of state-orchestrated violence and intimidation against the political opposition, in particular, and against just much of the general citizenry.

So we want to see the Government of Zimbabwe stop the violence. We want to see results come out that actually reflect what people did on election day, as opposed to what people have done since that time. And we're going to continue to try and work with other countries in the region, including the SADC nations, to try and push the Zimbabwean Government to do the right thing here.

QUESTION: Given the situation that you just painted, do you think any results now would have any sort of credibility?

MR. CASEY: Well, if they were the results that accurately reflected how people cast their votes on election day, they would. But I think the problem is given these extensive delays and given the lack of any reasonable explanation for them, I think it's going to be quite reasonable to assume that when people view these results, they're going to view them with a high degree of skepticism and that they are not going to have the kind of credibility they would have had if they'd been released in a timely manner.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Because you say that these results have limited credibility and that the - there's too much violence and intimidation for another election to take place, then what? And what are you suggesting?

MR. CASEY: Well, first of all, let's see what actual result - actual results come out before we talk about whether there's a plan or a need for a runoff election. But while you can't - you could certainly have a couple of things that could be done that would improve the climate. One would be to release the results and release them now in a way that actually did reflect what votes were cast on election day.

Another would be to have the government, very quickly and immediately, stop its harassment and abuse of its own citizens, including those who are trying to speak out and express their views in support of the opposition. Those kinds of basic criteria would need to be met before you could even consider the possibility of holding another election. And we are, again, working with the other countries in the region to try and get that - get that to occur. I wish I could say that we've seen a greater and more positive response from the Government of Zimbabwe.

I would note, too, that the officials in Zimbabwe, much of the leadership in Zimbabwe is already under U.S. bilateral sanctions as well as those - as well as those of other countries. And certainly, we are going to keep our eyes focused very closely on the situation in that country, because we certainly want to see a situation occur where there is the kind of freedom of expression -- is the kind of fair tallying that would allow the people's voice to be heard. But if not, there are certainly other options that we and others may have to look at in terms - in terms of responding to those who are directly thwarting the will of the people.

QUESTION: Do you think that Mugabe should step aside for the good of his country?

MR. CASEY: Well, I think first of all, what we need to have happen is to have President Mugabe call off his dogs and cease his security services and his supporters' attacks on those who are simply trying to express their views peacefully and appropriately inside the political system. I don't think it's for us to determine who should be the president of Zimbabwe. It's up to the Zimbabwean people. But what President Mugabe and everyone in the Government of Zimbabwe owes its people is an opportunity to let their voices be heard, let the results speak for themselves and then to respond accordingly.

Yeah, let's go over here.

QUESTION: Any comments on the Security Council resolution on the Sahara that was adopted yesterday night?

MR. CASEY: You know, I know that's happened. We'll get you something and post something for you on that. I don't have anything with me right now.

Nina.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) a story from China? Sam Brownback today gave a press conference, citing sources from China saying that China - Chinese authorities are trying to pressure U.S. hotel chains to filter their Internet to and fro during the Olympics. Have you got any comments on that? Do you know about this at all?

MR. CASEY: I haven't seen his comments or the remarks made. Certainly, we have been concerned by a number of efforts to restrict people's freedom of information. That includes both some of the trials of individual human rights activists and those who are supporting democratic developments in China. And we've certainly spoken out, too, about efforts to restrict access to the Internet in China as well as in other countries.

I am not aware of what specifically might be occurring vis-à-vis hotel chains and the Olympics, but in point of fact, we would hope - we would hope that people in China would be able to have access to all forms of information that are out there, including those that are available online, and that would apply to those who are full-time residents of China as well as those who might be visiting for the Olympics.

QUESTION: But if this - if this is credible and this is affecting freedom of information for U.S. citizens that are going to be visiting during the Olympics, is this something you would definitely take up with the Chinese Government?

MR. CASEY: Well, again, Internet restrictions and restrictions on free flow of information are already part of our dialogue with the Government of China and I'm sure, to the extent that this relates to - that this is true or relates back to those issues, I'm sure it would be a subject we'd discuss with them.

QUESTION: And can I ask one more question on --

MR. CASEY: Sure.

QUESTION: -- Iran this time?

MR. CASEY: Okay.

QUESTION: This Iraqi delegation that's gone to Iran to present this evidence of meddling in Iraq, particularly pointing the finger at the Qods Force, were you aware of this delegation? Do you know about this evidence? Can you talk a bit about it?

MR. CASEY: Well, my understanding is the Iraqi Government's decided that, as part of their ongoing efforts to convince Iran to be a good and responsible neighbor, they are going to have this delegation go to Tehran and talk to them about the very serious concerns that they have and that we share about Iran's continued support of militia groups and their continued supplying of weapons and ammunition and training as well for these kinds of activities.

Certainly, we share their concerns. We support their efforts to try and convince Tehran to behave in a responsible manner and to live up to their rhetoric that they intend to be a good neighbor and that they wish to see Iraq develop as a peaceful, democratic nation.

So certainly, I hope that they have a good visit there. And I hope that we can see some change in Iranian behavior. Unfortunately, if you go by the past, I don't think I can necessarily tell you we're particularly optimistic that anything is going to change in the immediate future.

QUESTION: Is this going to build up some momentum towards a new round of talks between the U.S., Iran and Iraq?

MR. CASEY: Well, we remain open to those discussions. Of course, this is something that is coordinated by the Iraqis. We've told them that we would be open to meetings at a future date. At this point, I don't believe they have heard back from the Iranians indicating that they are willing to proceed. So we'll continue to be in contact with the Iraqis about this and, certainly, you know, at an appropriate time, would like to have the opportunity to continue these kinds of discussions, even though we haven't seen a lot of positive response from the Iranians.

Yeah.

QUESTION: On Turkey. For the second year in a row, Turkish police in Istanbul has stopped one of the biggest unions to demonstrate peacefully for May Day. And there has been some reports of excessive use of force. Does the U.S. State Department have a position?

MR. CASEY: I'm not familiar with the specifics of this case. Certainly, we would encourage all countries to allow people to demonstrate peacefully and responsibly; that is a basic right of citizenship in a democratic country. Of course, those who are demonstrating also have the right -- or have the responsibility to make sure that, as they express their views, they do so in a peaceful manner and don't engage in violence.

Yeah.

QUESTION: And also on May Day, have any of the economic and social changes Raul Castro has made in Cuba changed American policy over the last few months?

MR. CASEY: No.

QUESTION: What can he do to change American policy?

MR. CASEY: What can he do? Well, I'm glad you asked that question. I'm not sure some of your colleagues are. No, seriously, look, we've enunciated, I think, very clearly, what we would expect from a government in Cuba in order to achieve a different kind of relationship with the United States. That starts, first and foremost, with releasing the scores of political prisoners who are currently in jail, have been in jail, both under Fidel Castro and Raul Castro. It would include doing things like not breaking up and harassing those relatives of prisoners who try to demonstrate their support for their family members and their desire to see them released. The Damas de Blanco recently had a rally broken up in a rather nasty way by the Cuban Government. It would include, in addition to letting people go that they've already unjustly imprisoned, allowing citizens of that country to have some basic political rights, to be able to stand in the squares and town halls in Cuba and actually protest actions by the government, actually not have to be fearful that any criticism of the government would wind them up in prison.

And then, most importantly, the real way that the Government of Cuba can show it's serious about reform is by starting a process that would lead to free and fair elections, that would allow the people of that nation an opportunity to actually choose their leaders in a multiparty, multicandidate election that would allow them a real choice and a real opportunity to decide who's going to lead their country.

Yeah, Sue.

QUESTION: One more thing on Belarus. If you have told them to, you know, send back their six diplomats, doesn't that amount to closing the Embassy? I mean, that's their total, right?

MR. CASEY: A total of six, yeah.

QUESTION: So if you've told them you'd have to go by May the 10th, or whatever, then isn't that the same as closing them down?

MR. CASEY: Well, if we had told them that, then that would be the same as -- you know, if you have no diplomatic personnel, you may -- you, I think technically, legally, still have diplomatic relations but, in effect, it's awfully hard to do business without anybody there.

QUESTION: So you've essentially shut them down?

MR. CASEY: No. They have six people here in this country, and they continue -- we have not told them that those six people need to leave.

QUESTION: I thought you had told them that they have to go.

MR. CASEY: No, we've told them that we are considering other options. But we haven't taken any specific measures. You asked me -- you asked me three questions: Have we decided to pull out our four people, and the answer was no; have we told them to take their people out of either Washington or New York, and the answer to both is no.

QUESTION: Okay. But do you think the answer will still be no later today?

MR. CASEY: (Laughter.) We will have to see what occurs over time. But no, I don't think you should look for any new actions on this today.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Have you broached any other embassy to look after your interests in case you do take further measures (inaudible) --

MR. CASEY: Well, I think --

QUESTION: -- the embassy --

MR. CASEY: Well, I think there are always contingency plans that are out there. But I think, at this point, we have -- have a mission. It's open in Belarus. And we'll see if at some other point there need to be other arrangements. But --

QUESTION: So you haven't made any preliminary contacts with somebody else who could look after your interests if --

MR. CASEY: I haven't gotten out the blue list and started calling other embassies yet, no.

QUESTION: I hear the Swiss are very good at that.

MR. CASEY: I hear tale of that, yes.

Okay. Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:15 p.m.)

*Correction: As explained in this USAID statement issued November 9, 2005, http://www.usaid.gov/press/releases/2005/pr051109.html, the U.S. Government determined that it could not move forward with food deliveries to North Korea due to concerns over monitoring.

DPB # 77
Released on May 1, 2008

ENDS

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