Briefing En Route to Geneva, Switzerland

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Officials
En Route to Geneva, Switzerland
March 1, 2015


MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. And sorry for people who are not looking forward to a backgrounder who are up here. This is a background briefing to preview the Secretary’s trip to Geneva tomorrow as well as his trip to Montreux on Tuesday and Wednesday. We have with us a number of senior Administration officials. We’re going to just go through proactively each of the meetings and events he’ll be doing and then take your questions.

So why don’t we start with [Senior State Department Official One].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi, I’m [Senior State Department Official One]. And we are really looking forward to having --

MODERATOR: Sorry, you’ve got to (inaudible) the microphone. Yeah, like that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Like that? Better? Better, okay.

We are looking forward to having Secretary Kerry address the 28th session of the Human Rights Council tomorrow. For us, this is an incredibly important opportunity to showcase what U.S. engagement and strong leadership at the council has been able to do both in terms of continuing to shine a spotlight on some of the worst human rights violators throughout the world, but also on advancing the global and U.S. affirmative agenda on human rights issues and seeking normative change in the global sphere.

So in that regard we were particularly pleased in 2011 that the Human Rights Council was the first body in the UN to pass a resolution concerning the rights of LGBT persons, which was followed up again last year with another resolution which passed with even greater numbers.

We’ve also been able to move forward on resolutions related to freedoms of assembly, freedoms of expression and belief, on religious intolerance, on women’s rights, and numerous others in the normative sphere.

And since we’ve been – since we joined the council in 2009, the council has started to focus much more on some of the worst human rights violators around the world. So we have either special rapporteurs and/or commissions of inquiry on Iran, on North Korea, on Syria, on Burma, just as some examples. And some of the focus of the council’s meeting this month will be renewing the mandates of those special rapporteurs or commissions of inquiry. And so we’ll have a very busy session.

Those really are the highlights for the U.S. We’ll be working with both the OIC and the EU this term on renewing a pair of resolutions that deal with freedom of expression and freedom of belief and religious intolerance, and this will obviously have some increased focus in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo accounts – attacks in Paris this year.

And we also expect a resolution on the right to privacy which we’ll be working closely on and in particular the question of whether a special rapporteur on the right to privacy may be created.

For us this is also a significant year on the HRC because the way the HRC works, countries are allowed to serve two consecutive three-year terms and then have to rotate off for one year. So this marks our final year of our two three-year terms. We have to rotate off the council for 2016, but we have announced our intention to run for reelection for the 2017 to 2019 term. So in that respect, it was also very important to us this year to have the Secretary come and speak to the council again to lay down a strong marker on behalf of the United States in terms of our focus on country-specific resolutions, as they’re called at the council, which are the resolutions that shine a spotlight on the human rights records of countries around the world; and just the importance that the United States places on this institution, which is the only global intergovernmental body that deals with human rights issues in this way and remains in that regard an incredibly important mechanism both, again, for looking at country-specific records but also for advancing the global normative agenda on human rights.

And of course, a constant preoccupation and concern for the United States at the Human Rights Council, as it is throughout the UN system, is the undue and biased focused on Israel in the Human Rights Council, and so that is one of the other reasons that we’ll be looking forward to the Secretary tomorrow making a strong statement about our concern and our hope that the council will continue to shift its focus away from Israel and really focus on the bad human rights violators throughout the world.

So I think I’ll stop there but would be happy to take any questions about specifics.

MODERATOR: Thanks, great. You want to do Russia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. I mean, I don’t have much to say.

The Secretary also will be seeing, as you know, Foreign Minister Lavrov in Geneva on the same day as his remarks. That meeting – it won’t surprise you – will be focused to a large extent on the ongoing nuclear discussions with Iran, on the situation in Syria, and on Ukraine. The Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov last met in Geneva when we were both in town for the Munich Security Conference. And happy to answer any other questions. I don’t know if, (inaudible), there’s anything you wanted to add at this point.

We can take questions.

QUESTION: Are you going to do Iran, too?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, sure. Yeah. And so then from Geneva we’ll be proceeding to Montreux about an hour and a half away for two-ish days of nuclear discussions with Iran. The Secretary will be leading the delegation, also joined by Secretary Moniz and the usual slate of negotiators and experts.

From there we’re – want me to just do the rest of the – the rest of the thing?

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: All right, we’ll leave it there. Thanks.

MODERATOR: All right, let’s take some questions. Let me start with Pam since she’s right up here.

QUESTION: This is in reference to the meeting with Lavrov. In the past few days, there has been some Russian pullback in Ukraine. Is it the sense at this point that this is a lasting effort by Russia to abide by the terms of the ceasefire, or is this considered temporary and something that perhaps needs further work? And also, is this something that Kerry is going to raise in his meeting with Lavrov?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’d say we’ve seen the same reports that you’ve seen. We’re not going to judge at this point whether it’s temporary or permanent. We’re going to be paying very close attention to what we see on the ground. There are obligations that both sides have under the agreements that have been made, and at this point a full pullback of all heavy weapons is what’s required. There are continued violations of the agreement that we’ve also noted. So at this point, too soon to tell that we’re in any way out of the woods.

MODERATOR: I would just add that certainly while he’ll reiterate that, certainly as part of the discussion he will reiterate that there are ongoing discussions within the Administration and with our European partners about additional steps that would be taken should Russia not decide to take additional steps to abide by the Minsk protocol and the follow-up agreement from February 12th.

QUESTION: Two things. If the Russians for the most part adhere to the ceasefire but remain – not the Russians, the separatists – but remain in control of Debaltseve, is it conceivable that you would not go ahead on imposing sanctions? Do you get that? In other words, if they keep holding on to Debaltseve, don’t you have to impose sanctions?

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: That you would not impose sanctions.

And then the other question is for the first official. How much do you expect the Secretary to talk about North Korea at the Human Rights Council?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, look, the honest answer at this point is we’re still discussing exactly these things and I don’t want to get ahead of the discussions about what steps we may or may not take. We’ll be looking at a broad range of factors related to compliance with the agreements that have been made and related to Russian actions on the ground, but I don’t want to set one particular aspect of it as a trigger for – a definite trigger for action or inaction one way or the other at this point.

QUESTION: On DPRK?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And the question on North Korea, we expect that the Secretary will focus a good bit of attention in his remarks on North Korea. As you may know, the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry released its report last winter around this time on the situation in North Korea, and it was just a devastating and horrific report that was followed up by action in the UN General Assembly and then ultimately with getting the DPRK human rights situation on the agenda of the Security Council.

And so this year we will be focused on extending the mandate of the special rapporteur in the DPRK, including in that also looking forward to the opening of an office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, and some particular focus we hope and expect this year in the resolution on executions in prison camps.

QUESTION: Will the Secretary be talking with Lavrov about Boris Nemtsov, and what will the message be if that’s – if they talk about it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So I think it’s undoubtable that the topic will come up. I think the Secretary will be interested in the status and progress of the investigation, which we’ve said it’s critical that it’s conducted not only into whoever pulled the trigger but into whoever may have helped organize, fund, order an attack like this, which, as our statement made clear over the weekend, was just an egregious assault on a political actor inside Russia. And the Secretary, I am sure, will be raising these issues with Foreign Minister Lavrov.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Given that this week on the Hill the Secretary said that Russian officials have been openly lying “to my face,” quote/unquote, what is the utility in talking to Minister Lavrov if you don’t believe what he’s actually saying to you about any of the situations, perhaps barring Iran, in which I believe there is still some unity?

And a second question: On Iran, can you state for the record how many meetings are planned with Foreign Minister Zarif over what days? Thank you.

MODERATOR: So on your first question – I’ll just start here – the Secretary was referring to what many Russian officials have said publicly as well as through the Russian propaganda machine about what they convey or claim is happening in Ukraine, which doesn’t correspond to the facts on the ground. He raises these issues regularly with Foreign Minister Lavrov. They have a discussion about it. What is said publicly doesn’t – is not different from what’s said privately. But his point is we’ve seen what’s happening on the ground. We have evidence of that. That’s what we need to look at and what needs to be the basis of discussion.

In terms of Iran – or do you want to – on the Iran question, it’s a question – as you know, with these negotiations oftentimes it can be either a flowing meeting that runs into another or there’s a combination of meetings that involves experts and others, or smaller meetings. So we can’t tell you right now how many meetings there will be. There will be over the course of two and a half days.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: Correct.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, it would be starting in the evening of the first day and continuing until Wednesday afternoon. But how many discrete meetings is sort of hard. I mean, sometimes these things just flow into each other and a lot of it is determined by the course that the talks are taking. So --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Most likely starting Monday, Monday late afternoon, I would say, or early evening. Something like that.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official Two], two questions – one for you and then one for [Senior State Department Official One]. I believe President Putin has said he’s going to personally oversee the investigation into the killing of Nemtsov. Do you think there should be an independent investigation, or do you think it’s satisfactory – a satisfactory arrangement to allow Putin to oversee and guide this investigation?

And then for [Senior State Department Official One], could – I just don’t know. On the Human Rights Commission, could you please tell us what Israel-related issues may be before the commission at this particular meeting and what’s going on with that? What are they trying to do? And what is the U.S. representations going to be with regard to Israel at this upcoming meeting? I just – are you going to defend them against something, or do you have some concerns about human rights issues in Israel? What’s going to be the U.S. stance on that? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Michael, on your first question, I guess I’d just say at this point our view is the investigation has to be credible, it has to be thorough. It has to include, as I said, not just an inquiry into who conducted the killings, but go back further in the sort of chain of conduct of this crime to who ordered, funded, coordinated this effort. Beyond that, I’m not going to get into any specific calls for how it should be conducted, but it needs to be credible, it needs to be thorough, it needs to sort of pass muster in the eyes of both the Russian people and internationally.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Michael, on the Israel-related question, I would start by just saying this is the Human Rights Council which is the successor body to the ill-fated Human Rights Commission. So this is the body that’s been in place since 2006. It is, unfortunately, also a body in the UN system that has a standing agenda item – it’s so-called Agenda Item 7 – on Israel. Israel is the only country on – that has a standing agenda item on it at the Human Rights Council.

And so one of the strong focuses of the United States consistently at the council is to try to push back against the resolutions that are run under Agenda Item 7 on issues in Israel. We sometimes are the sole no vote on those resolutions, but we work very hard diplomatically and are hopeful that through those efforts we will be able to get other countries to also vote against the resolutions or at least abstain from voting on them. The biggest concern in this session is the upcoming release of the Commission of Inquiry on Gaza, the Gaza Commission of Inquiry, which is expected to be released at some point prior to the 23rd of March. And so we are also very focused on trying to work on the vote-count question on any resolution that might be run in the council about the commission of inquiry report, and in particular, to try to protect against any follow-on mechanisms depending on the report that may – that countries may try to put in.

So in general, our position is always very much in defense of Israel, in protection of Israel’s interests at the Human Rights Council. And we also have helped them on occasion with their affirmative agenda at the council. So for example, when they wanted to be a member of a regional grouping with the Western European countries, we helped them to get that status in Geneva.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t know what might be in the report, so we don’t know whether there will be – they will make any calls for any kind of follow-on mechanism. So it’s just a – we will just be watching that space.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: If they call for an additional commission, if they call for an additional report – something like that. But again, we have no idea at this point what may be contained in the report, so it’s hard for us to gauge what that might look like.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And building on what [Senior State Department Official One] said, I think it’s worth adding, in light of the heavy focus in the United States and elsewhere on Israel this week, the extraordinary lengths that President Obama, this Administration, Secretary Kerry in particular, have gone to to stand up for and defend Israel’s interests in international institutions – not just in the Human Rights Council but in places like the International Criminal Court, in the UN system more broadly, and sort of repeatedly throughout the course of the last several years. And the Secretary will be speaking to that as well in his remarks to the Human Rights Council.

QUESTION: Sorry. He’ll be speaking to the U.S. defense of Israel? Okay.

On the extension of the mandates for the special rapporteurs on North Korea, Iran, Burma and Syria, are they in danger of not being extended? Are there any – is there any – are there any countries other than the ones that are being looked at pushing hard against an extension?

And then, [Senior State Department Official Two] – sorry, Senior Official Two, be honest: Do you think any investigation, Russian investigation into Nemtsov’s murder is going to produce the kind of findings that you’re – that you deem to be transparent and credible? Please be honest.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t expect ultimately any trouble with passing the resolutions on the extending the mandate of the commissions of inquiry for Syria and the special rapporteurs for Iran and North Korea. There will be votes, at least on Iran and North Korea. They may be closer than they were last time around just given the changed makeup of the council, but we expect, ultimately, that they will pass.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: -- taking – bearing in mind the direction to be honest, I will just say that, at this point, we’ll judge the investigation based on how it proceeds and on conclusions and – that are reached and the work that it conducts. So I’m not going to decide today, before any of the work has been done, what our opinion of the investigation and its outcome should be.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: It has to do with Israel. Is it the United States – the opinion of the Administration that Israel should never be investigated by the commission for anything?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The position of the United States is that if there are investigations into the situation in Israel and Palestine, they should be objective and neutral and not as one-sided and biased as they tend to be, particularly in the Human Rights Council context. So our particular concern, for example, on the Gaza Commission of Inquiry is the way in which the mechanism was set up, the resolution calling for it, and it’s incredibly one-sided.

That tends to be the way the council focuses on Israel, and that is a point that we consistently make, in addition to the fact that it’s absurd for the council to spend so much of its time focusing on one particular country. But again, part of the U.S. efforts and part of where we’ve been very successful in our engagement is getting the council to broaden its focus and to shine the spotlight really on the bad human rights violators throughout the world.

MODERATOR: All right. Okay.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: Oh, just for the purpose of the transcript, I said “senior Administration official.” I meant senior State Department official. I know you all know that, but just for the purpose of the transcript.