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Africa Daily Press Briefing

Africa Daily Press Briefing

Sean McCormack, Spokesman

Washington, DC

November 18, 2008


Protection of Shipping from Piracy / Meetings at NATO and United Nations

Interference with Diplomatic Pouches


View Video | Full Text

10:38 a.m. EST

MR. MCCORMACK: Okay, on to part two, or maybe technically part three of the briefing. Who wants to start?

QUESTION: Well, what was part one?

MR. MCCORMACK: My introduction.


MR. MCCORMACK: You weren’t here for that, Matt.

QUESTION: I missed it. I’m sorry.

MR. MCCORMACK: It’s okay. Sorry about the Bills. It’s a tough loss.

QUESTION: Do you have any information on the Saudi oil tanker that was kidnapped off the east coast of Africa and is now in a Somali port frequented by pirates?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think DOD probably has a better handle on that. I’ve seen a lot of quotations from people related to the Fifth Fleet. They’re monitoring the situation very closely. I can’t offer you any more detailed accounts than they have already given in public.

QUESTION: But what are you doing in terms of the diplomacy on this? There have been quite a lot of discussions on how to approach this increased piracy along the east coast. Are you pulling together a meeting to try and work out a new strategy? Are you –

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the –

QUESTION: Have you got your maritime lawyers on the case working out how far they can go, what they can do?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Well, there are a few parts to that. First of all, up at the United Nations, we’re working with other members of the Security Council to take a look at what might be done in the Security Council that would allow more effective action. I’m not a maritime law expert, but there are limits to what you can do in these kinds of cases.

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That said, there are vessels in the area from Russia, from NATO, and European countries that are specifically charged with ensuring that humanitarian supplies get through to Somalia. And they also have certain missions with respect to trying to prevent piracy. In doing so, trying to prevent piracy or to deal with acts of piracy, ensuring the safety and well-being of the crew is really of paramount importance. That is a long tradition.

So it’s a hard issue when you’re talking about these acts of piracy taking place in the – on the high seas outside of the territorial waters of any country. All of that said, it’s gotten people’s attention. It has gotten people’s attention for quite some time. I know the Secretary is concerned by the matter, and she has asked people here in the Department to take a look at what else might be done beyond what we are already doing in the Security Council about these issues. Because, you know, eventually it does have real economic effects when you talk about potentially shipments in that area, in the area off the Horn of Africa into the Red Sea.

So it is an issue we’re taking a look at, but it is also not an easy one. It’s a complicated issue.

QUESTION: There’s going to be a NATO meeting in Brussels shortly. Are you planning on raising this issue?

MR. MCCORMACK: You mean the ministerial?

QUESTION: Mm-hmm, the ministerial. Are you going to –

MR. MCCORMACK: I’ll check for you.

QUESTION: Are you planning on raising it?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’ll check for you. I know that at the perm rep level and at the mission level, that they have been working on it, obviously, of a deployment of a – you know, or authorization of a NATO force down in that area. I’ll see as we get closer to that meeting what exactly will be on the agenda.

QUESTION: I mean, what’s the mood like for an international intervention of a, you know, major force, sending more ships from the Fifth Fleet, for example, or from elsewhere as (inaudible)?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again, you can talk to DOD about the deployment of their forces. You’re – I saw a quotation from somebody out of the Fifth Fleet talking – you’re talking about an area of a million square miles of ocean. And there – obviously, this is a real issue. It’s a real international concern. It affects a lot of different countries, not only those that own the cargo, but also the flag registries of a lot of these ships.

But there are also a lot of other missions around the world. So navies and militaries are going to have to make decisions about how they array those forces. I know we do have some in the region that are engaged in various kinds of operations, including counterterrorism operations. But I would leave it to the Department of Defense to describe in any more detail any plans that they may have concerning deployment of their assets.

QUESTION: The pirates are expected to demand ransom for this ship. That’s what they’ve done previously. What would your advice be to the Saudis? I mean, they’ve got a $100 million worth of oil on that ship, and obviously their crew is at risk.

MR. MCCORMACK: I don’t think they need our advice. They’re fully capable of –

QUESTION: But as a matter of principle, though, usually the U.S. is not in the habit of paying up ransoms, whether it’s for humans, for cargo –

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, you know, in the context of this question which you raise, I am not going to try to offer any advice to the Saudis on the issue.

QUESTION: Can we just stick with this money thing for one second?


QUESTION: I mean, reading between the lines, it seems pretty clear there’s not a whole lot of enthusiasm, at least as you’re reflecting it, in the Administration for any kind of a greater American –

MR. MCCORMACK: No, we already – look, again, I leave it to the military planners and the civilian and military officials at the Department of Defense to make decisions about deployment of their assets. That’s not for us to do here at the State Department. They are the experts in assessing risk, assessing the possibility of success in a mission, and also assessing the various obligations that we as a nation have. So you know, I certainly don’t mean to dismiss the issue. Far from it. We were just talking about this issue over the past several days with the Secretary, so I know that she is concerned about it, and I know we are looking at what else we might do as a nation working with others to try to address the issue.

But as I said in response to Sue’s question, it is a complicated issue, and there is established international law that – regarding the high seas and what can and can’t be done. This is not a new issue. Our first Secretary of State dealt with the issue of piracy more than 200 years ago, led to the formation of a navy for this country. So it’s an issue that we have a lot of experience with, and there’s a lot of case law and international law that guides us. But all of that said, we are taking a look at what we might – what might be done, and we are trying to work in the Security Council to see what might be done.

QUESTION: When you say you’re taking a look at what might be done, could you paint a few additional scenarios, apart from what’s going on at the UN?

MR. MCCORMACK: Not at this point, no. No, we’re just taking at look at the situation to see what else might be done.

QUESTION: What about advice for shipping? Is that updated?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I’m sure that there – you know, there are folks responsible for those sort of things, notice to mariners and so forth. I think those – I think they come out of the DOD. But you know, look, we’ll provide our input and all information, make sure that people are aware. But ultimately, individuals and private business have to make their own decisions and assessments of risk.

QUESTION: Are you reaching out to lawyers, for example, and others (inaudible) –

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, Sue, I don’t know. I don’t know.


QUESTION: I’m not sure exactly, but does this merit – never mind. Is State sticking –

MR. MCCORMACK: They’re pretty good at assessing their own risk, by the way.

QUESTION: Sticking in this area of the world, yesterday both the Embassy in Asmara and then the State Department put out messages talking about closing down the – well, closing down the consular section for all their emergency services.


QUESTION: And it talked about how the Eritreans were interfering with the diplomatic pouches. Can you be more specific about what that means – interfering? Are they, like, rummaging through these?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I saw –

QUESTION: I mean, are they taking things?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I heard about this and I heard about the suspension of regular consular operations. Let me look into it more for you, Matt, and get a better answer for you than I have already.

QUESTION: And do you know if there’s going to be any kind of a reciprocal – I mean, are there going to be any steps taken on the Eritreans here?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’ll check. I’ll check for all – on all these things, Matt.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. MCCORMACK: Okay, great.

(The briefing was concluded at 10:59 a.m.)


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