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1:22 p.m. EDT
MR PATEL: I do not have anything off the top today. So, Simon, care to kick us off?
QUESTION: I thought you might want to make a correction about —
MR PATEL: This is why I don’t make predictions on – (laughter) – this is why I was hesitant to make one in the first place, but overall still a phenomenal game – match.
QUESTION: Yeah. So I guess we should talk about Niger first. I wanted – the Secretary spoke about it a few – well, quite a few hours ago now, so could you give us an update on your understanding of the situation there?
MR PATEL: Sure. So again, as the Secretary reiterated yesterday, we are gravely concerned about the developments in Niger. The situation remains fluid. We are monitoring the situation closely and continue to be in close touch with the embassy in Niamey. As you all know, Secretary Blinken spoke to President Bazoum yesterday. He conveyed the unwavering support of the United States for President Bazoum and Niger’s democracy. He emphasized that the U.S. stands with the Nigerien people and regional and international partners in condemning this effort to seize power by force. He also underscored that the strong U.S. economic and security partnership with Niger depends on the continuation of democratic governance and respect of the rule of law and human rights.
I will also note that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee had the opportunity yesterday to speak with Foreign Minister Hassoumi and former Nigerien President Issoufou to condemn the efforts to seize power, as well as encourage their roles in facilitating negotiations between President Bazoum and the instigators of this takeover. Our CDA, Susan N’Garnim, also spoke with the foreign minister by phone yesterday as well.
So all to say the U.S. continues to remain deeply engaged on this. We’re monitoring and paying attention, very closely in touch with officials from the constitutionally elected government of Niger as well as our colleagues at the embassy.
QUESTION: And any contacts you can report with the people who have attempted this takeover?
MR PATEL: I have nothing additional to readout in terms of engagements.
QUESTION: What about contacts with the former President Mahamadou Issoufou?
MR PATEL: I just mentioned him as one of the people that Assistant Secretary Phee —
QUESTION: Oh, okay.
MR PATEL: — had the opportunity to engage with yesterday.
QUESTION: And is he – do you have a sense that he is somebody who is liaising with the people who’ve attempted the takeover?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to just get into the specifics or characterize others’ engagements in this beyond the United States, and so would just reiterate what I said about our efforts here.
QUESTION: Follow up on that?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you have any information as to the whereabouts of President Bazoum, as it stands now? And secondly, are you in a position to suspend aid, since obviously it’s a coup d’état.
MR PATEL: So at this time, we understand that President Bazoum is detained in his residence. We call for the immediate release of President Bazoum and for the respect of the rule of law and public safety. Again, Leon, as I said yesterday, this continues to be an evolving situation and it is quite too soon to characterize the nature of these ongoing developments. But as I said, we continue to monitor the situation quite closely and are in touch with not just officials but as well as our own embassy personnel as well.
QUESTION: But you say it’s too soon to characterize, but at the same time, the coup is there. It’s happened. So I don’t quite understand what you’re waiting for more to know.
MR PATEL: Well, there are some important pieces in here. First, President Bazoum is still president. He has not resigned. It’s also our understanding that the foreign minister – we have reports of the foreign minister indicating that he is the head of the government. Again, this is a fluid situation, and it is too soon to characterize any of these kinds of developments, Leon. We, of course, will continue to pay close attention and remain in touch with appropriate officials, as well as other regional partners as well.
Go ahead, Jenny.
QUESTION: Can you just confirm there is still full accountability for the U.S. embassy? Are there any plans for an authorized or ordered departure there? And have you seen any signs that Wagner is at all involved in this coup?
MR PATEL: So we continue to have full accountability of all official personnel and family members. This obviously is still a developing situation. We’ve also publicly advised U.S. citizens to limit unnecessary movements, avoid affected areas until further notice as this situation develops. I will also note that at this time Niamey remains calm, and we’re continuing to monitor the situation, and we’ll provide appropriate information to American citizens as the situation continues to progress. Of course, all of this relevant information is also available through our Travel Advisories, through alerts, and of course on travel.state.gov.
As it relates to your second question, I’m not aware of any indication that the Wagner Group could be involved, but I also am not going to speculate or hypothesize from here as the situation continues to be quite fluid.
Anything else on this, before we shift topics? Julia, go ahead.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the status of the administration’s nominee for ambassadorship to Niger, if that is being impacted by Senator Rand Paul’s hold on nominations, and how that is affecting on-the-ground efforts from the embassy.
MR PATEL: So what I will say though – what I will say firstly is that our CDA in Niamey continues to remain deeply engaged on this and, as I just said, had the opportunity to speak with the foreign minister yesterday. That being said, you saw the Secretary be quite clear about this – and others – that it is our hope and desire to have confirmed ambassadors in as many places and in as many capitals as possible. And of course, this also includes Niger. We have cooperated extensively with Senator Paul by providing him documents and other information, but he continues to block all State Department nominees, the vast majority of whom are career Foreign Service officers, from filling critical national security posts, including, as you so noted, our nominee to serve to as ambassador in Niger.
We currently have 65 nominees outstanding with the Senate, including 38 ambassadorial nominees on the Senate floor awaiting confirmation for posts in Asia, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, where U.S. leadership continues to be desperately needed. Holds on State Department nominee are leaving critical posts unfulfilled. When we don’t have ambassadors confirmed in place, our ability to provide leadership – and, in too many places of the world, it’s impacted.
I will also just note on a – from a human element, we are making a big push to get some of these nominees confirmed and out by the end of this week. If the Senate doesn’t confirm them this week, then the senators who continually hold their nominations aren’t just depriving our country of having critical diplomatic positions filled and members of its diplomatic team on the field, but they are separating families who already give so much service to this country. For those families whose – have nominees that are not able to be confirmed by the end of this week, that leaves serious potential for those that have children, for them to not be able to enroll in appropriate schools starting in September for the upcoming school year at these relevant posts, embassies, and consulates.
So it’s our strong desire to have confirmed ambassadors in as many places as possible, and we continue to be ready to work with the Senate to do so.
Anything else on Niger before we move away?
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Is Wagner Group playing any role in the events there, and how will these events affect the U.S. military presence in Niger?
MR PATEL: So on the role of the Wagner Group, I – Jenny just asked that question right before you, and I would reiterate that I, again, am not going to speculate on this situation. At this point, we’ve not seen any indication. And as it relates to any force posture or military personnel on the ground, I would just refer to our colleagues at the Pentagon. I will just, of course, note that Niger has been an incredible security partner on the continent, and so we’ll continue to pay close attention to this (inaudible).
MR PATEL: Go ahead. Yeah – no, no, behind you. Sorry. Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Me? Unless you’re asking about Niger.
QUESTION: I was. I – just a follow-up.
MR PATEL: Oh, okay.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
MR PATEL: Go ahead. Yeah. Yeah.
QUESTION: Just if you can confirm that no embassy personnel, non-essential personnel, have been moved out of the country at this point?
MR PATEL: There has been no change in posture at this time, and we continue to have full accountability.
QUESTION: And is the State Department doing any contingency planning or talking to DOD about options in case the situation becomes more volatile?
MR PATEL: So in any situation we continuously adjust our posture at embassies and consulates throughout the world, in line with, of course, the local security environment and other factors. I’m certainly not going to get into the deliberative and ongoing processes around this, but we’ll continue to monitor the situation and make appropriate adjustments as necessary.
For now, I would reiterate again that we continue to have full accountability.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Yeah. Go ahead, Christina.
QUESTION: Thanks. Christina Ruffini with CBS. I’ve crossed your predecessors, but don’t think I’ve had the pleasure yet.
MR PATEL: Welcome.
QUESTION: Thanks. I want to ask you about passports.
MR PATEL: Okay.
QUESTION: And I just want to start off by saying – I mean, do you think it’s acceptable that it’s taking Americans at least 12 weeks, and often in cases longer to get a critical U.S. Government document?
MR PATEL: So what I would just say, first from a broad point of view, is that the demand for passports has been greater than it’s ever been. Earlier in calendar year 2023, we were receiving up to 560,000 applications a week. Volumes have certainly tapered but remain above levels at the same point pre-pandemic, which began in Fiscal Year 2019. Our processing times are an accurate reflection of the current demand.
But what I will also note is that the State Department is taking appropriate steps, any steps that we can, to try and not only expedite processing but also of course enhance our capacity to do so. I’ve seen some, I would say, misreporting and misinformation out there that department passport adjudicators have been teleworking or things to that effect. That is simply not the case. Passport adjudicators have been back in the office since June of 2020, and we have increased staffing levels, and have hundreds of additional staff in the hiring pipeline. We’ve also had staff work tens of thousands of hours of overtime a month. In fact, from January through August, we have authorized approximately 30,000 to 40,000 overtime hours each month, and we have volunteers across the department working on surge things.
The post-pandemic spike in passport demand from Americans truly is unprecedented, and we will be on track to issue more passports this year than in any previous year, but we’re also taking steps to ensure that we can meet this demand as well.
QUESTION: But if you could go ahead and answer the question: Do you think that 12 weeks is an acceptable turnaround time? Are you saying that the system is working well enough at capacity?
MR PATEL: It is a reflection of the demand, and our current processing times are about 10 to 13 weeks for routine processing and 7-9 weeks for expedited processing.
QUESTION: Right, but you said you guys have taken steps to try to mitigate this. But in the last couple months, the timeline has gotten longer, right? It was six to nine weeks; now it’s up to 13 weeks. So that seems to be going the wrong direction. So what do you need to fix this? How do you get it to a more acceptable turnaround time? Because we’re talking to people who say, like, it’s really hard to plan your life out 12 weeks in advance. People don’t always know they’re going to need this.
MR PATEL: Certainly understand the importance that passports play, especially as individuals plan out their travel, whether it be for personal purposes, whether it be for emergency situations, and so have you. I think an important thing to note is that this is a line of effort that we have continuously taken steps to turn back on. During the pandemic, this is something that had fallen completely to zero, just given the state of the world and the state of affairs. I would also remind this room that passport operations are one of the few aspects of the federal government that are self-funding. And so this is going to be a turning of a dial a little bit, not exactly flipping a switch. But the State Department certainly understands the seriousness of this, and that’s why we are not just surging staff, surging overtime hours, but we’re also thinking through ways in which we can make this process easier and more accessible for Americans.
As you probably know, Christina, we ran a limited online passport renewal process as a pilot in the early parts of 2022, from early parts of 2022 through the early parts of ’23. In that time we processed and issued more than five hundred and sixty thousand – sixty-five thousand passports through an online system. We’ve surveyed customers who were part of that, and we look forward to making improvements based on that feedback, and formally launching this portal at the tail end of 2023.
So this is certainly – we understand the demand signal that we’re getting from the American people, and we stand ready to not just continue to make adjustments, but also make improvements in this process.
QUESTION: And just really quickly, I don’t want to eat too much of my colleagues’ time —
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — but there’s legislation on the Hill being put forward by Senator Lankford that he says would address some of the issues, including staffing and turnaround time. Do you – are you aware of that legislation, and do you have a response?
MR PATEL: So lots of great, important ideas coming from Congress. We tend to avoid commenting on active legislation, but of course on the issues of passports we know that our partners in Congress are an important piece of that equation, and we look forward to engaging with them as we continue to work on this very important issue.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: All right. Janne, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. I have two questions on North Korea.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: On – today’s the 70 anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Day. But the Russian defense minister and Chinese delegations visited North Korea (inaudible) and delivered personal letters from Putin and Xi Jinping to Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. They strongly committed to military cooperation. This happened. Do you think North Korea denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will be difficult?
MR PATEL: What I can say, Janne, is that, one, that our commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula continues to be unwavering, as well as our willingness to engage with Pyongyang without preconditions. But Pyongyang has continuously not been interested in diplomatic engagements back.
The DPRK’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, they pose a grave threat to international peace and security and stand in blatant violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions. You just spoke of two countries, Russia and China. Russia’s support for these unlawful weapons programs by blocking additional action at the UN Security Council, by participating in events in Pyongyang celebrating these weapons, by failing to crack down on DPRK sanction evasion activities – all of this just highlights how detrimental it has become to preserving international peace and security.
I will also note is that we’ve previously said we believe that Beijing has influence over Pyongyang, and we hope that it will use that influence to encourage Pyongyang to return to dialogue and refrain from destabilizing activities.
QUESTION: Yeah. Kim Jong-un and the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu pledged military cooperation between the two countries, and they discussed the purchase of weapons from North Korea while accompanying them to the ICBM and the new weapons shown in Pyongyang. How concerned are you about this, firstly?
MR PATEL: We continue to be incredibly concerned. Look, the DPRK’s support for Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, whether through public statements, whether through arms transfers we’ve previously discussed, all of this clearly illustrates its destabilizing and irresponsible role in international affairs.
QUESTION: King, Private King – last question.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Excuse me. Are limited dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea expected, or what —
MR PATEL: I just don’t have any updates for you on that at this time. Private King’s well-being continues to be an extremely high priority for the State Department and we’re continuing to coordinate with the interagency on this.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Said, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Switching topics?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: To the Palestinian – I have a couple of questions on the Palestinian issue and on the visa waiver. Israeli far-right minister Ben-Gvir today stormed al-Aqsa, causing your allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Türkiye to condemn the action, and I wonder if you would do the same. Would the United States condemn such an action?
MR PATEL: Said, we absolutely are concerned by today’s visit to Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. We reaffirm our longstanding U.S. position that – in support of the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, and we underline Jordan’s special role in Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. You’ve heard me say this before, that any unilateral action or rhetoric that deviates or jeopardizes the status quo is completely unacceptable.
QUESTION: On the visa waiver —
MR PATEL: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: — switching gears here. There are widely circulating copies of the U.S.-Israeli MOU that was signed a week ago or so, and reports citing it. Do you intend to make it public? Are you going to publish the MOU so people know what the United States Government and Israel have agreed to, Americans would know?
MR PATEL: Said, we’ve talked about the Visa Waiver Program pretty regularly for the past couple of weeks.
MR PATEL: I think an important perspective and thing to remember here is that this is an ongoing process and that we’re looking forward to continuing to work with our Israeli partners on ensuring that any requirements and prerequisites are met prior to any potential entry into the program. We also fully expect that the Israeli Government will further modify its regulations and public-facing guidance in the coming days and weeks to fully reflect adherence to any prerequisites, but also adherence to the program.
QUESTION: So – but there are no plans to publish it in the near future —
MR PATEL: Correct.
QUESTION: — as far as you know?
MR PATEL: Correct.
QUESTION: Okay. My other question is that the Israeli Government’s public-facing guidance directs some U.S. citizens to use a smart application, which was developed by the Israeli military, and its terms of service include permissions for accessing locations, phone files, and so on. Has the State Department or any U.S. Government agency conducted a cyber security review of this application? Have you done that to see what U.S. citizens are subjecting themselves —
MR PATEL: Said, I —
QUESTION: You may have to take this question, but I understand —
MR PATEL: Said, within – I certainly wouldn’t speak – be able to speak to any – the specificity of any review from up here, but what I will just note is that for American citizens traveling not just in Israel and the proximate regions, but also anywhere in the world —
MR PATEL: — on travel.state.gov we have very clear recommendations on what our official State Department policies are as it relates to interfacing with the appropriate visa or adjudicating mechanism in any country that grants access.
MR PATEL: So I would refer you to that, but I’m not aware of nor would I speak to any specific review of this app.
QUESTION: Could you look into it, see maybe what is your position on this?
MR PATEL: I’m happy to.
QUESTION: Because they are prying into the security of American citizens.
MR PATEL: I’m happy to. Alex, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. A couple questions. The President’s decision about the ICC and cooperation with ICC, can you just let us know what is going on on your end? What does the traffic look like? Have you guys already started transferring data to ICC? And where is Ambassador Von Schaack these days?
MR PATEL: So, Alex, it’s certainly – and you saw the Secretary speak a little bit to this yesterday in Wellington – would not get into the specifics of this just given the legal, prosecutorial, and investigatory implications. So – but to let me take a step back – since the beginning of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the President has been clear that there needs to be accountability for the perpetrators and enablers of the war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine. And Secretary Blinken reiterated this yesterday that we have made clear that there needs to be accountability and we support the ICC’s investigation. We support a range of international efforts to identify and hold to account those responsible, including through the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, the Joint Investigative Team, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, and others. We have deployed teams of international investigators and prosecutors to assist Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General in documenting, preserving, and preparing war crime cases for prosecution, and the Department of Justice has also entered an MOU to cooperate with Ukraine on investigations and prosecutions of war crimes committed during Russia’s invasion.
Ambassador Van Schaack of course is deeply engaged and deeply part of this process and will continue to be working closely not just with the Secretary but across the interagency on these efforts.
QUESTION: And are you also intending to (inaudible) about Wagner Group being —
MR PATEL: Alex, I’m just not going to get into the specifics of kinds of flow of information and the specificity of the cooperation.
QUESTION: Thank you. Related to that, any reaction to Prigozhin being spotted at St. Petersburg today at the Russia-African Union summit?
MR PATEL: I don’t really have a comment on that specifically, Alex. The whole situation continues to be somewhat puzzling to all of us. But what I will just, if you’ll allow me, speak to the broader Russia-Africa summit, if I’ll just note that the U.S.’s Africa policy is about Africa, and I will remind you all that earlier this year – or late last year, sorry – we hosted 46 leaders from across North and Sub-Saharan Africa at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which highlighted our commitment to expanding and deepening our partnership with African countries, institutions, and people.
We also condemn Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. We join the secretary-general in expressing our disappointment that Russia refused the UN’s proposals to keep the initiative alive.
And while we’re on the topic of food security, which I know is something that is so critically important to many of these countries attending this summit and the African continent writ large, as the Secretary said yesterday, the United States supports approximately half of the budget of the World Food Program whereas Russia is only .02 percent. And so it’s pretty clear to us who is actively committed to addressing the dire concerns of food security.
And lastly, if you’ll just allow me, Alex, it surely does not take a mathematician to see that compared to 2022 the number of countries attending this Russian Africa summit is far less than it was the year before. And this is just a further testament to the egregious global implications of Russia’s unjust assault on Ukraine and how from everything like food security to global trade prices and things like that have impacted countries around the world, not just in the immediate vicinity of Eastern Europe.
QUESTION: Thank you. My last question, if you don’t mind —
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: It’s about —
QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up just on the grain?
QUESTION: Sure, yeah, please. Yeah, of course.
MR PATEL: Go ahead. Yeah, go ahead, Leon.
QUESTION: Do you have any – the Russian president offered to – at the summit several countries – offered to several African countries to give grain free, for free, bypassing the grain – so do you have any reaction to that?
MR PATEL: Actions certainly should speak louder than words in any situation, including addressing the global threat of food security. What I will just note and reiterate, as I said, is that currently Russia provides .02 percent of the World Food Program’s budget and the United States provides about half. So the numbers clearly don’t lie when it come to who in here is actually committed to addressing the crisis of food security. But broadly on President Putin’s comments, actions speak louder than words.
QUESTION: My last question —
MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room, Alex. You’ve got like four questions in already.
QUESTION: Please come back to me later.
MR PATEL: I’ll think about it. Go ahead, Guita.
QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. We’ve talked a lot about Russia using Iranian UAVs, but it seems like Bolivia is now – is interested in Iran’s UAVs. The president of Bolivia has reportedly said that he wants it for border security protection, but given the U.S. sanctions against many different organizations and companies working in Iran’s UAV production sector, would the reason that Bolivia is stating that it needs, it wants the UAVs exempted from those sanctions – and is it advisable?
MR PATEL: So Guita, obviously this is something that is concerning, and we are closely monitoring any efforts by Iran to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere. And we take seriously any efforts by other countries who are interested in deepening military partnerships with Iran or procure Iranian UAVs. We strongly urge all nations to avoid engaging in transactions with Iran for military equipment or related items which could subject entities and individuals to multiple U.S. sanctions authorities. We of course remain open to forging stronger bilateral relationships with the Bolivian Government in areas of mutual interest, potentially even border security, migration, things of that space. But on this specific topic, we of course would take quite seriously any effort by any country to deepen military partnerships with Iran or procure Iranian UAVs.
QUESTION: Does the administration have the kind of relationship with Bolivia to dissuade it?
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to get into the specifics of the kind of diplomatic engagements that we can and may have as it relates to this beyond just reiterating that this of course would be of increasingly concern to us.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Bangladesh situation is turning into confrontational. The opposition, BNP, shifted their ground rally from July 27 to next day, Friday. The Sheikh Hasina-led ruling party, Bangladesh Awami League, is hosting counter political meetings considering – coinciding the opposition meeting as an apparent incite of violence on the state. The state apparatus work overtime to obstruct the opposition rally while facilitating the counter-program by ruling party. The police alone have arrested thousands opposition activist, as the opposition party claim. So how you are evaluating this confrontational situation in Bangladesh as regime is inciting violence in the street?
MR PATEL: So I spoke a little bit about this yesterday, and you’ve been very clear – I’ve been very clear about this. I will reiterate that political violence has no place in a democracy, and the United States, we favor no political party. We support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful elections. We’ve also emphasized the importance of the United States and Bangladesh working together to achieve this goal, and certainly continue to believe that this endeavor has no space or room for political violence.
Diyar, go ahead.
QUESTION: A couple questions on Iraq and the region.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: The first one: Your sanctions on Iraqi banks, as this has triggered protests in Iraq and Iraqi dinar devaluation. Why you sanctioned those Iraqi banks, and have you issued any warning to Iraq on the dollar cash flow to the (inaudible) countries in Iraq?
MR PATEL: So to take a step back and to be quite clear, we did not sanction these 14 banks. Earlier in July the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York removed 14 banks from access to the Central Bank of Iraq’s foreign currency sale window, known as the dollar and wire auctions. These actions help limit the ability of bad actors seeking to launder U.S. dollars, profit from the exploitation of money owned by the Iraqi people, and evade U.S. sanctions.
I will also note that corruption poses a challenge for Iraq’s banking sector. Our government and the Government of Iraq are working together to tackle this challenge head on. Prime Minister Sudani is taking the integrity of the Iraqi financial system quite seriously, and all of these actions are happening in close coordination and harmony with the prime minister’s vision and his identification – and his identifying of fighting corruption and modernizing Iraq’s financial sector.
QUESTION: And yesterday I asked this question – I’ll ask again – about the reforms in the Ministry of Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan. Have you told the Kurdish leaders to appoint an interim Peshmerga minister before September? And what’s your view on the reforms process in the Peshmerga?
MR PATEL: So our colleagues at the Department of Defense can certainly speak more about the memorandum of understanding that was signed, but we continue to have concerns of the impact of internal Kurdish divisions on the pace of Peshmerga reform and readiness, and we have communicated these concerns to senior KRG leaders as well.
QUESTION: And last question.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: On the Russian provocation in Syria, are you going to push back against this Russian provocation against your drones in northwest Syria?
MR PATEL: So I spoke a little bit about this earlier in the week, and I would just reiterate again what the Pentagon and the White House said, that these actions by Russia, they violated established protocols and international norms, and that we strongly urge Russian forces in Syria to immediately stop reckless and threatening behavior. And we will, of course, take any appropriate action to keep our service members or to keep civilians in the region safe.
QUESTION: So touching briefly on the China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific, recently we’ve been seeing a disparate amount of erosion of democracy within Solomon Islands, one being that the, the governor, the former governor of the Malaita Province – the biggest province within the Solomon Islands, Daniel Suidani – being sacked by the government for essentially going against the “one China” policy. And in fact, the – there’s a delay in the election elections of where the Pacific Games are taking place when the election should be going on. There’s also a security pact between Solomon Islands and China. And there’s reports of policing stations being – operating in the island itself.
So with the continual growth of the Chinese Communist Party’s presence in the Solomon Islands, and overall it becoming a – it seems like it’s becoming a concern, especially for our allies around the region, particularly, it seems like. for Australia, among many others, I was just wondering if you can comment on that as well.
MR PATEL: What I will just say is that we – as it relates to our relationship with the Solomon Islands or any country, we do not ask countries to choose between the United States and the PRC. We offer them a choice and offer to them what a partnership with the United States could look like and what that could mean for the people of both of our countries. And that continues to be the case in the Solomon Islands and the Indo-Pacific region broadly. There are a number of issues, core issues, that are at the nexus of our relationship with many, all of these Pacific Island countries. The Secretary in the past three months has been to the region quite consistently, raising, discussing some of these issues, deepening our cooperation in a number of areas, whether it be security, climate change, energy cooperation, things of that nature.
And so that is the foot that the United States is going to continue to put forward and deepening our bilateral ties and relations on a number of these issues.
QUESTION: Thank you. A couple of questions. One is just follow-up to Diyar’s question. There will be any additional sanctions on Iraqi banks? This has created instability in the Iraqi market and devalued —
MR PATEL: Certainly am not going to preview any actions that the U.S. Government might potentially take.
QUESTION: Okay, the second question is about Iraqi Kurdistan parliamentary elections. The Kurdistan Region Presidency has proposed February 25th as the day for parliamentary elections in the region, after they have been delayed for a year – for over a year. What’s your view on this?
MR PATEL: I’m going to have to check in on that and we’ll make sure to follow up with you and get back to you on that.
Julia, you’ve had your hand up patiently.
QUESTION: Thank you. The House Intelligence Committee just released the unclassified ODNI assessment showing that China’s helping Russia evade and circumvent Western sanctions and is probably supplying Russia with key technology and equipment in the war in Ukraine. What possible recourse options are available? What does the State Department have to say about China assisting Russia in evading these sanctions?
MR PATEL: Well, so first, on this specific report, I’ve not seen it so I’m not going to comment on that. But in every engagement that the Secretary and others have had with PRC officials, we have made quite clear our concern should the provision of lethal aid, should steps be taken to allow Russia to further its aggression into Ukraine. And we have continued to make that very clear through all appropriate channels.
Now, and any potential actions, I’m certainly not going to preview from here, as we don’t preview U.S. actions. But this is something that, of course, we’re going to continue to monitor closely and pay close attention to.
Jenny, you had your hand up.
QUESTION: Two on Russia. Have there been any efforts to get consular access to Evan Gershkovich in recent weeks, and have those requests been granted by Moscow? And then Putin signed a law earlier this week banning gender-affirming care. I was wondering if State has a comment or if there’s anything you can do for these marginalized communities.
MR PATEL: Sure. So first, we continue to call for the release of wrongful detainee Evan Gershkovich, as well as wrongful detainee Paul Whelan. We obviously fairly consistently ask for appropriate consular access that is consistent with our consular convention with the Russian Federation. I’m not aware of a specific date or the last point of contact, but I’m happy to check with the team and get back to you on that.
Specifically, on the second law, this – your second question on this law about Russia banning gender-affirming care, quite directly I believe this law is repressive. It increases the risk of violence against these marginalized communities. Targeting members of vulnerable communities for repression, such as the LGBTQI+ community is a favored tool of the Kremlin’s handbook. It is a tactic, I believe, being used to distract from the Russian Government’s economic and policy failures. And we quite clearly condemn this law as well as other laws in Russia, around the world, that attempt to demonize LGBTQI+ people. We firmly oppose any discrimination or abuses against these marginalized communities.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that really quickly?
MR PATEL: Go ahead. Yeah.
QUESTION: Given that many U.S. states are passing their own laws to restrict and ban gender-affirming care, how does that affect the State Department’s ability to characterize Russia’s law as repressive, given it’s happening in the United States?
MR PATEL: Well, I certainly appreciate your question. I think your question is more better suited for a domestic-facing agency. I think we have been incredibly clear about the values of this department, the values that we try to live and – live by and conduct our bilateral relationships through. As Secretary Blinken has been pretty clear, for the United States human rights are always on the table, and these are some things that when we see impacted or marginalized or targeted, we’re going to raise those directly with foreign governments, with foreign officials, in countries around the world.
QUESTION: Can I ask a Russia question?
MR PATEL: I’m going to go to Michel.
QUESTION: Okay. Whenever you —
MR PATEL: Go ahead, Michel.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions on Lebanon.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: France’s special envoy for Lebanon Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Lebanon to press the parties to elect a new president. Are you in full coordination with France on this issue, and do you support France’s approach to the Lebanese matter?
MR PATEL: So our joint statement earlier in July from Doha underscored that we continue to work closely with our partners, including France, to urge Lebanese officials to elect a president, form a government, and implement appropriate critical reforms as well.
QUESTION: And did you get any update to —
MR PATEL: I don’t have any updates on that.
QUESTION: Second, Lebanese Central Bank governor will retire this week, with no replacement in the horizon. Are you concerned about the vacuum that this retirement will create?
MR PATEL: The – on the Central Bank, the current governor has announced that he’s not going to extend his position after the end of the month, and ultimately it’s up for the Lebanese Government to determine who is in that position. We will work with the appropriate designated governor in their official capacity.
Go ahead, in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have a couple of questions on Ukraine. On Saturday, one of my colleagues from Russian news agency Rostislav Zhuravlev was killed in a Ukrainian strike and four more journalists were injured. Preliminary reports show that that strike was conducted with cluster munitions. In your view, does this use of cluster munitions constitute an appropriate use as promised by Kyiv last week?
MR PATEL: So I’m not aware of those specific reports. Obviously, the safety of journalists and those in the media reporting in conflict zones should certainly be respected. But I would also note and remind you that we continue to be in this situation and have this conversation because of Russia’s unjust, illegal war into Ukraine and its efforts to erase Ukrainian borders, its efforts to completely violate and ignore the rules that are very clearly laid out in the UN Charter.
QUESTION: And I have one more on the Black Sea Grain Initiatives.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: According to the UN data, only 10 percent of grain was actually sent to African countries, while the lion’s share was sent to China, Spain, Türkiye, Italy, and the Netherlands. In light of this data, do you still believe that the grain initiative benefitted the poorest countries?
MR PATEL: The Black Sea Grain Initiative benefitted the world. It had a direct impact on global food prices. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s withdrawal, we already saw and are continuing to see global food prices rise. Of course we want to ensure that grain is going to all the countries possible that are needed, but this is not just a regional issue to Eastern Europe, to Africa; it is a global issue. Ukrainian food and grain products are incredibly important to not just global demands but global supply chains, and the Black Sea Grain Initiative was an important boon in that aspect, and we continue to call on Russia to rejoin it.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:07 p.m.)
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