The following is a transcript from this morning's US State Department daily press briefing by James Rubin. In the wake of events in Seattle it makes interesting reading. At that stage Secretary Albright was expected to address the Seattle meeting at 1pm EST.
The briefing discusses the Panama Canal, Franco German relations and the discovery of bodies in Mexico plus several items on developments at the WTO meeting, including comment on Fidel Castro's non-attendance, and a question on the infamous Helms Burton Act. Plus a fair bit of question bumping up to the boss, Secretary Albright, whose statement to the WTO is expected shortly.
The meeting which had earlier been reported to be off is now back on. Five hours late, former NZ PM Mike Moore, has now most probably now made his opening address.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Daily Press Briefing Index
Tuesday, November 30, l999
Briefer: James P. Rubin
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE DAILY PRESS BRIEFING DPB #145 TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 1999, 12:35 P.M. (ON THE RECORD UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED)
MR. RUBIN: Good Afternoon. I'm going to try to do this quickly. Secretary Albright is speaking at 1 o'clock in Seattle at the opening of the WTO conference, so let me just make a few brief announcements. We have a statement on Niger, the elections in Niger; we have a statement on the Secretary's address on World AIDS Day; we have a statement on Deputy Secretary Talbott's speech at Brown on December 2nd.
In light of comments this morning, let me say that President Clinton has announced that former President Carter and Secretary Albright will lead the US delegation at the December 14th ceremony to mark the hand-over of the Panama Canal. This is in recognition of President Carter's historic role in negotiating the transfer.
This transfer marks a watershed in our relations with Panama and, indeed, all of our neighbors in Latin America. It is a concrete sign of the maturity of democracy in the region and of the growing economic and trade relations in the hemisphere. Secretary Albright is very pleased to be able to represent the United States at this important ceremony which will be attended by a number of other leaders from the hemisphere.
QUESTION: Sorry. Did you look at all of the President's remarks? He said something about he was confident the Chinese would be able to run the canal well.
MR. RUBIN: Right. The issue --
QUESTION: So it seems to be kind of a tacit admission of these stories that have been denied for months that the Chinese --
MR. RUBIN: The issue is two Hong Kong-based companies that have contracts in the ports, not running the locks and running the canal itself, and that is what the President was referring to were the two Hong Kong-based companies.
QUESTION: Okay. So he doesn't think that the Chinese are actually going to be running it?
MR. RUBIN: What I can tell you is what the facts are, and the facts are that there are two Hong Kong-based companies, long-standing Hong Kong Chinese companies, that have the contracts to run the ports, not the canal, and we have no reason to believe there is any risk of any problem as a result of those two companies running the ports.
QUESTION: Does State know whether Americans were in those graves in Mexico?
MR. RUBIN: I don't know whether I have really much to add. Obviously, the FBI has joined with Mexican authorities to investigate the existence of a mass grave near Juarez. The premise of the investigation is that the dead were victims of a violent narco-trafficking organization. There have been dozens of disappearances in the Juarez area. The grave is presumed to include both US and Mexican nationals.
Bodies of the victims are being transferred to a facility in El Paso, Texas for collection of evidence and identification of remain. There is a toll-free number - 1-800-338-5856 - for family members of potential victims to call with regard to information. For further details, the FBI would have to address that.
QUESTION: Any information on how many people have been arrested?
MR. RUBIN: I think I've provided you the extent --
MR. RUBIN: The question of what Mexico has done with respect to arrests, you would have to address to the Mexican authorities. The question of the mass grave being excavated that we are working with the Mexicans on, the FBI, I've just answered that question.
QUESTION: The papers are saying that there could be as many as 22 Americans.
MR. RUBIN: I think the work continues. If you are interested in details, the FBI is conducting that work in cooperation with the Mexican authorities and they would be the right source of information for the details.
In response to Barry's question, I did indicate that it's our understanding that it includes both US and Mexican nationals.
QUESTION: Some people have claimed that some of these remains were the work of corrupt Mexican law enforcement officials. I wonder if you can comment on that. Also if you could bring us to date as to what your current assessment is of the state of cooperation between the US and Mexico.
MR. RUBIN: We continue to cooperate well with the Mexican authorities. I think the fact that the FBI and Mexican authorities are jointly investigating this site indicates that there is substantial cooperation going on.
With respect to allegations about the specific incidents, again, let me start from the premise is that the investigation is presuming that the dead are victims of the violent narco-trafficking organization which operates in the area, the so-called Juarez Cartel. The charges that the Juarez Cartel is operating in affiliation or has others affiliated with it is a different question. I don't know the answer to that question. What I know is that the mass grave is presumed to be the location of victims of the Juarez Cartel's activities.
QUESTION: We've been told that there was a tip-off from an informant in Mexico about how to find this site. Do you have any information on that?
MR. RUBIN: I think that that would be the kind of detail that you would have to address to the FBI.
QUESTION: Let me try one on the detention --
MR. RUBIN: Mexico? No.
QUESTION: If even -- even brief, but the detention of an American Embassy person in Moscow, is that - do you have anything to say about it? Is it related? Is it this whole tit-for-tat game with the arrest here of a Navy man on spy charges?
MR. RUBIN: I don't think, given your long experience in public remarks about alleged intelligence matters it will come as a surprise to you that - other than confirming that there was an incident involving an American working at the US Embassy - that I'm not going to comment on alleged intelligence matters.
QUESTION: You will not say whether they - the Russians were justified in detaining this American?
MR. RUBIN: I'm not going to comment in any way on the intelligence question.
QUESTION: Can I try you on something else? There was a Franco-German summit in which they came out with part of a communique about the military cooperation under the auspices of the European Union. One, do you have a comment in general and; two, does this create any uneasiness on the part of the United States that this European pillar may be somewhat different than what the Americans and others have been talking about last April?
MR. RUBIN: Let me say in general there have been two events: one is the French-British declaration this week; the other is the French-German statement, and we are still studying the French-German statement.
But let me say in general we do support a stronger European defense that will strengthen the trans-Atlantic relationship. That was a key goal laid out at the NATO Summit, the 50th Anniversary last spring, so we welcome the original UK-French declaration earlier this week as a positive contribution to achieving this goal.
We agree that the kinds of steps laid out are important so that the European Union is in a position to act when the Alliance as a whole is not engaged, and that NATO also has a role in crisis management. We applaud the commitment to develop a core-sized force capable of undertaking crisis management missions. This is a real contribution to the Alliance's defense capabilities initiative. In other words, the more they're working on increasing their capabilities in general, the more we think our combined capabilities are and the safer all of us are.
We are going to continue to work with our allies on strengthening the European pillar. I'm always puzzled by the debate in this area. For so long, we have made clear that we do support a European pillar; whenever a European effort to that end comes out, it is suggested that somehow we don't want that to happen. We do want that to happen - provided, of course, that it doesn't make it harder for NATO to perform its ultimate mission.
With respect to this particular development today, we're going to have to study the communique. We welcome initiatives like this that commit Europe to improving its capabilities and thus improving its ability to perform Alliance missions when that is required. So, in general, we support this kind of development and we're going to have to study the details of what their specific proposal is.
QUESTION: The fact that you're still studying it suggests to me, anyway, that the United States was not consulted every step along the way.
MR. RUBIN: We have been consulted. It's impossible to be consulted every step of the way. That's never happened in the history of diplomacy. It certainly didn't happen this time. So when you get a document that comes out, you obviously want to read the document carefully before you make a comment on it. We have been consulted at most steps along the way.
We don't feel we're lacking information about the intentions of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and we're generally supportive of a stronger European defense capability so that next time when a crisis occurs in Europe, the United States won't have to bear the lion's share of the military burden in flying the missions, in flying the sorties, in having the bulk - if not the vast majority - of the military responsibility. We would like to share that responsibility, again, provided that doing so doesn't take away from the all-important mission that NATO has performed so brilliantly for the last 50 years.
QUESTION: Is there a special French-German situation developing here? If there is --
MR. RUBIN: There is a - right.
QUESTION: You know, I don't know how to be tactful about this, but for several decades the US has - let's put it positively - has been most happy when Germany was anchored in a larger setting in Europe. I guess you can imagine why. The notion of Germany going off on its own was not what the US thought --
MR. RUBIN: For the record, I'm smiling at my colleague's smile.
QUESTION: No matter how much you would like Germans and French and Italians to do some of the heavy duty in future - if there are future Bosnias and future Kosovos. So is this a French - is this the old French-German core, and how do you feel about Germany and possibly one or two other allies peeling off as a sort of a super-nucleus of NATO?
MR. RUBIN: The way we feel about it is the same as my answer to Jim, which is that we're encouraged, we're supportive, we're welcoming of efforts by key European allies - those who have the capability or the potential to improve their capability. That means Germany, France, the United Kingdom, others. Certainly, those three are important countries who, if they don't change their practices and develop improved capabilities, Europe as a whole will not develop improved capabilities and the European pillar will not be improved, which is something we support.
As far as Germany being anchored in larger international --
QUESTION: By 16 other countries --
MR. RUBIN: It's quite anchored. We feel quite good about that. They feel quite good about it, and the Cold War is over.
QUESTION: New question - new subject. Sri Lanka will have elections on December 21, and they have called for the world to come and observe. Is the United States sending anybody for the election - the general election? And the president is in trouble - the incumbent, President Chandrika.
MR. RUBIN: We applaud Sri Lanka's decision to invite international observers to the December 21 presidential election. This will help ensure that this important election is free, fair and transparent. The US Government has not been asked to act as an observer in this election. We have confidence in the ability of the invited organizations to effectively monitor the elections. Those include the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the International Commission of Jurists, and the International Parliamentary Union. So those are the invited observers. We haven't been asked to observe.
QUESTION: And one more on a different subject, on WTO. Many countries, many leaders who are in Seattle, these demonstrations are very new for them, and they are surprised and shocked because in their countries they see every day these kinds of demonstrations. Now they can't get in and out. Number one, any comments on WTO? Two, what do you think will come out of the WTO as far as India and the US is concerned on the trade?
MR. RUBIN: On WTO, on the substance, I'm going to leave it to Secretary Albright's statement, which is coming in a few minutes. On the general question you asked, you know, my short answer is: Welcome to America. There are obviously people with strong views on all sides of the trade issue who choose different ways to express themselves, and some of them are quite unique.
The fact remains that we do believe it is important and appropriate for the views of civil society - that is, the people and their various organizations and ways of getting together - to make their views known. The ministers sessions will continue as planned. The Secretary is going to give the keynote address at the third ministerial conference very shortly, and I'm hoping to be done in time to make sure that the Secretary's speech is properly covered.
QUESTION: A WTO-related question. Fidel Castro decided not to go, saying that he would have been turned down had he applied for a visa. Do you have any comment?
MR. RUBIN: Well, far be it from me to correct any comment of Fidel Castro, but we provided the Cuban delegation a large number of visas, several dozen visas. We did it in an efficient and an expeditious manner. They obviously didn't seek a visa and we couldn't, therefore, give a visa to someone who hasn't sought a visa. Had such a visa been sought, we would have provided it in the same kind of efficient and expeditious manner we provided the other visas.
QUESTION: Yesterday you said that it was too early to talk about your thoughts about the Malaysian election. I'm wondering now, with all the votes counted, if you have any concerns about the way it went.
MR. RUBIN: We would like to congratulate Malaysia on the outcome of its national and state elections. We look forward to the continuation of a constructive relationship between the United States and Malaysia. We would also like to extend our sincere congratulations to Dr. Wan Azizah and all other candidates who won in the November 29th elections.
There was an increase in the number of seats the Islamic Party of Malaysia gained in the lower house. It's likely to use that increased voice to contribute ideas to the dialogue.
With respect to the conduct of the election, we do have concerns that one of the country's most prominent political figures, Anwar Ibrahim, is in jail, having been convicted in a questionable proceeding and is also facing other charges. We also note that ruling party figures enjoyed generally acknowledged advantages, including the election's timing and unequal access to the media. Nevertheless, we note that voters elected more opposition candidates than in previous elections.
QUESTION: So the two concerns don't add up to the election not meeting muster?
MR. RUBIN: We have to be able to express our views about particular aspects of it but, nevertheless, there was an election; it was largely a democratic election with the obviously important caveats that I mentioned, and we look forward to working with the Malaysian Government.
QUESTION: The Secretary met the Danish foreign minister this morning. What was the topic of conversation the operating of the radar at the air base in Greenland and, if so --
MR. RUBIN: I don't know exactly what happened. I know that that is an issue that obviously is an issue that we and Denmark will have to address as the plans for a national missile defense mature. I'd be surprised if it didn't come up, but I don't have a readout of it. I can try to get you that during the course of the day.
QUESTION: Do you know if the US delegation is going to discuss with the European Union the pending issue of Chapter IV of Helms-Burton?
MR. RUBIN: I would be happy to direct your question to the elaborate press operation in Seattle for the WTO.
QUESTION: Do you have any information on the discussion that the Secretary was to have last night with Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov?
MR. RUBIN: Yes, she did speak to Foreign Minister Ivanov. They discussed the profound concerns we have at the developments in Chechnya. She made very clear that we believe that this issue is a matter that we don't think a purely military solution to the conflict is possible; that the costs of the conflict are so high, causing humanitarian problems, damaging Russia's international reputation and complicating the achievement of a political solution.
We urged Russia to pursue meaningful steps towards a political solution. She also discussed her understanding of what's transpired in recent days, including a dramatic escalation in the civilian casualties, and also discussed the importance of the Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek's trip to the region and indicated very clearly to Foreign Minister Ivanov that Russia did agree at Istanbul to permit an OSCE mission to the North Caucasus; that we, therefore, expect Russia will live up to its agreements reached during the Istanbul Summit. We understand - and Foreign Minister Ivanov made clear - that they have not yet agreed to the terms of such a visit, but we expect them to continue discussing the matter
QUESTION: The visit but not the - visit but not the terms of the visit? Or they haven't agreed to the visit?
MR. RUBIN: They haven't agreed to --
QUESTION: Having a visit?
MR. RUBIN: They've agreed in principle, obviously in our view, in Istanbul to a visit.
QUESTION: I thought everybody thought so.
MR. RUBIN: I think it's pretty clear. As I indicated, we expect Russia to live up to the agreement reached during the Istanbul Summit. The details of that trip have not been hammered out, and we want them to be hammered out in a timely manner so that the trip can go forward.
QUESTION: What about the UN draft resolution on Iraq?
MR. RUBIN: They did also discuss the UN draft resolution on Iraq. Thank you. They talked about - I guess we were no longer interesting to some. The discussion focused on the three main points that we have insisted on in order for there to be a suspension of sanctions. That includes fulfillment of key disarmament tasks, a period of cooperation, and the cooperation with the inspectors and their return. So those were discussed.
Clearly, this is now an issue that is at the political level. It's no longer something that can be resolved through discussions in New York. We understand that Tariq Aziz is expected in Moscow, and so we urged Russia to join with the rest of the world in insisting on Iraqi compliance with its requirements under UN resolutions.
QUESTION: You didn't say much about what Ivanov said to her, especially --
MR. RUBIN: Normally, I don't.
QUESTION: About Chechnya? Did she change any - were minds changed on this? US mind remains the same, that it's a foolish course they're on. What's their position?
MR. RUBIN: I think their position is quite well known to you.
QUESTION: So they haven't changed.
MR. RUBIN: We certainly have no expectation that a single phone call or any particular phone call is going to change the minds of the Russians in this matter.
QUESTION: It's not been just one phone call. I mean, this has been the same message that she and others have been giving to the Russians for months, and nothing is happening. Aren't you at all discouraged by the fact that the Russians are --
MR. RUBIN: It's our job as diplomats not to be discouraged by a failure to yet achieve one's objectives. It's our jobs to continue to try to achieve those objectives. Clearly, the Russians and we have a different view of this situation. We have tried to explain to them the high, high costs they face in continuing this campaign without a political solution: the cost to Russia's international reputation, the costs to their potential for having peace and stability in the Caucasus over the long term, and we've made that very clear to them. We continue to do that. We regard the OSCE mission - if it takes place - as certainly a small step in the right direction. But it hasn't taken place yet, and we'll continue to work the subject.
QUESTION: How worried is the United States about the fact that Vladimir Putin is, in effect, in charge given that Yeltsin is in hospital?
MR. RUBIN: We're aware of the fact that the Russians have indicated publicly that he was admitted to a hospital. We understand he will be working from the hospital as he recovers. Boris Yeltsin is, and remains, the constitutionally elected president of Russia. We expect the constitutional process will be followed during upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
QUESTION: Do you know when Tariq Aziz will be in Moscow? I know you're not his spokesman, but --
MR. RUBIN: Very shortly. He might be there tomorrow, you know, this week.
QUESTION: Back to Chechnya?
MR. RUBIN: We're trying to get out of here by 1 o'clock. The Secretary is about to speak.
QUESTION: Oh, this will be quick. Understood, yes.
Mr. Rubin, the Russians yesterday - in interviews, a Russian general stated that it will only be a little while longer that people could get out of Grozny. He said something to the intention of encircling the city and, in fact, laying siege. Was that discussed yesterday between Mrs. Albright and --
MR. RUBIN: She discussed Chechnya in detail, yes.
QUESTION: In regards to Mexico, according some Mexican --
MR. RUBIN: I answered several questions about this before you arrived.
QUESTION: Just one - just one more. According to reports from Mexico City, no body was found yet in Cuidad Juarez. Do you have any reports that show --
MR. RUBIN: Yes, I answered this extensively before you arrived, yes.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a question about Laos and the Hmong. I'm wondering about the missing Americans there.
MR. RUBIN: Yes, I can give you something right after the briefing.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. RUBIN: Thank you.
(The briefing concluded at 1:00 P.M.)