Friday, September 13, 2019


Office of the Press Secretary

Via Teleconference

2:08 P.M. EDT

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  I, first off, would like to apologize for the late start today.  That’s my fault.  And so we’re going to get started by saying thank you for all who have joined us.

     This call is a background briefing with a senior administration official on the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Report.  The ground rules are this is provided on background; attribution is to a senior administration official.  The embargo -- there is an embargo on the contents of this call until after the call is completed.  We’re going to cap this off at 30 minutes.

     So here’s the run of the show: I’m going to introduce our first -- our only speaker for today.  And once she has concluded her remarks, we will take questions.  And with that, our briefer for today is [senior administration official].

     Okay, over to you.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hi everyone.  So we are very excited that President Trump signed today the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Report.  It officially unveils the Atrocity Early Warning Task Force.  It announces new training requirements for foreign service officers on atrocity prevention and risk mitigation, as well as kind of identifying key measures to respond to atrocities.

     And it ensures that we continually work with civil society, with Congress, and with key stakeholders as we produce an annual report to Congress about what the U.S. has done to date, what we plan to do, and the evolving scene of how we build on lessons learned.

     So we’re very excited about this.  Just a little bit to flex and focus on the main element of this report, which we’re excited about, is the Atrocity Early Warning Task Force.

     So the Early Warning Task Force is stood up now.  It will be run by the White House, and it will be comprised of members of the Department of State, Department of Treasury, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community, and the United States Agency for International Development -- USAID.

     The task force essentially will utilize technical expertise and unique toolsets of the interagency to support our regional policy decisions and make sure that we are using the most effective and appropriate tools for prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities.

     With that, I think we can kick it off for questions.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay.  All right, so thank you very much.  So we have time for questions.  So if you could -- I’ll hand it over to you, sir, to facilitate question and answers.

     Q    Hi.  This is Andrew Feinberg with Breakfast Media.  Thanks for doing the call.  I have two questions.  The first is --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’m terribly sorry, sir.  I apologize for the interruption.  We can barely make you out.  Could you please speak a little louder?  Thank you, sir.

     Q    Is that better?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That’s great.  Thank you very much, sir.

     Q    Okay.  This is Andrew Feinberg with Breakfast Media.  I have two questions.  The first: In February, the Trump administration declined to submit a report to Congress on whether Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist.  Will the administration be complying with the Magnitsky Act in future instances?  Can you commit to that?

     And also, the Trump administration’s foreign policy has not prioritized human rights since the President has been in office.  Can we expect that to change at all?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hi.  Thank you for your question.  To your first question, I would defer to my regional colleagues on that specific case.

     Just to reference that the overall task force is looking at mass atrocities, so atrocities committed by government or non-government organizations on grand scale.  And we have certain definitions for that.  So just keeping that on topic.

     But on your wider question about human rights, the Trump administration remains dedicated to protecting human rights and going after violators of human rights, and that's proven in some of the tools we use.

     And you mentioned the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act.  I believe, since 2017, Treasury has taken more than 600 actions 680 individuals and entities engaged in activities that involves human rights abuses or corruption.  So it goes, again, on the strong stance we have against those who violate human rights.

     Furthermore, our U.S. Immigrants and Custom Enforcement Agency has arrested more than 400 individuals for human rights violations, and facilitated the removal of more than 900 known or suspected violators from the United States.  So it's kind of an active, comprehensive approach that we have to human rights, both externally and within our own country.

     This task force will also continue to elevate gross violations of human rights, so on a main scale.  Not that a small violation of human rights isn’t important, but we've really seen the need and importance for interagency response, where we can use all tools possible to go after persecutors of mass atrocities.

     Q    How do you distinguish a gross violation?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, so, "gross violation" is not necessarily a legal terminology, but "mass atrocities" also is not.  But we do define it in terms of -- you know, the civil society community, et cetera, has it.  But typically it's more than a thousand attacks per year within a country, and over 500 deaths per year in a country.

     Now, this is a loose definition and it's a proxy.  What we're trying to look at right now is other early warning risk factors that we can fold into this overall, kind of, rough metric, if you will, for mass atrocity violations.

     Q    Hi, this is James Rosen from Sinclair Broadcast Group.  Thanks for doing the call.  Two quick questions about this.  First, the press release that went out from the White House today stated, and I quote, "Today, President Donald J. Trump released a report detailing his administration's successful efforts to prevent, mitigate, and respond to mass atrocities."

     I wonder if you could identify for us which mass atrocities the Trump administration successfully prevented or, failing that, mitigated.

     The second question is: Whether by the standards that are operative here -- and I understand that you just tried to flesh out some of the definitional aspects -- whether the phenomenon of mass shootings in this country would qualify as a mass atrocity.  Thank you.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you very much.  So, you know, to the second question, I just want to kind of move it to: This task force is externally-facing to kind of global, wide issues, so I can't comment on domestic issues.

     However, going to your question -- which is a good one -- about how we've successfully stopped or mitigated atrocities, it becomes hard in a prevention space to look at a counterfactual, to say, "We have stepped in, and therefore lives have been saved."  But what we have on several occasions, including in Syria, with chemical weapon use -- some of our work in Burma with identifying it as "ethnic cleansing" -- you know, words matter, and high-level words matter.

     However, on particular cases -- case-by-case studies -- it's very hard to kind of get into what we've done in the preventative space.  Some of the things that we do is -- might not seem inherently like a strong action.  For example, electoral reform and ensuring that civil society can participate in government and that laws, such as the laws against blasphemy or religious persecution, might not sound compelling for actually saving human lives, but, in fact, those upstream efforts where this administration has participated in have effects along the way.

     So it's a difficult question and it's one that we continue to ask ourselves as we try to refine our metrics to see how we've been successful.

     Q    Hi, it's Steve Herman from the Voice of America.  As noted, the report today specifically mentions Burma.  I'm wondering if you could tell us how you characterize what's happened there in regards to the Rohingya.

     And the National Security Strategy from 2017 states, "The United States will hold perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities accountable."  So your findings on Burma, do they rise to that level?  And what are some ways that Burma would be held accountable if you proceed in that direction?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes.  So, on Burma, the report does mention Burma.  I can talk about some high-level things, but I really will defer to my regional colleagues who have better expertise within this area.

So, in terms of accountability, I'd like to go back to --

     (Call drops.)
     OPERATOR:  You are back on the line.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah.  I don’t know what happened.  There was a bunch of static and then we fell off. I'm sorry.

     OPERATOR:  I see.  We are reconnected and we are live with the audience.  Please continue where you left off.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay, so Steve Herman.  This is [senior administration official].  Can you hear me sir?

     Q    Yes, I'm here.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  You're here, Steve?  Okay.  Or do you remember the question?  Okay.  Go ahead [senior administration official].

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So just turning it over to your question about accountability in Burma, I was saying that, you know, I really can't go into great detail.  You know, I defer to my regional colleagues, obviously, who have that expertise.

     But I can point to a couple of actions that the United States has taken recently on Burma.  And I'd like to point to -- it's called the 7031 visas that State issued on Burma publicly going after key military members for the actions that they have taken in human rights violations.  And those visas are one of the many kind of toolsets that this task force will utilize.  And that’s obviously -- these are  restrictions for folks who have done gross violations of human rights, as well their family.  So that’s one instance out of many where we are trying to hold Burma accountable.

     Also, something I failed to mention before with this task force and within the wider space is, the U.S. certainly does not act alone within this space, and we look to our partners at the U.N. and other multilateral partners to help us hold the governments, like Burma, accountable.

     Q    Could I just ask if Burma is under active scrutiny by the task force?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, it’s a good question but one that we don’t have yet since the task force just got stood up.  We will be working internally and with civil societies to prioritize and to come up with an action plan.  So, stay tuned.

     Q    Hi, this is Hayes Brown with Buzzfeed News.  Thanks for doing this call.  Sorry, I joined a little bit late.  So I’m a little curious about the Atrocity Prevention Task Force that this new report talks about.  I was just wondering if you could go into a little bit more detail about how this differs from the Atrocity Prevention Board that was set up under the Obama administration.  And what are some of the major -- how often does this body meet?  And who exactly will be leading a charge on these issues?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, happy to.  So how this differs from the Atrocity Prevention Board is that this administration met with key members of civil society -- with the interagency -- and studied some lessons learned and tried to apply those lessons to this new task force.
     I think one of the areas that that would differ quite a bit is still trying to elevate this space, but it’s that we would like the task force to operate within a regional setting a little bit more.  So rather than running processes on our own and kind of setting up side processes, we’re trying to move the technical expertise and decision-making into regional decisions so that they are in real time, so that analysis is used right away and so that they actually ultimately -- an action occurs due to the kind of information received and how it’s disseminated.  So really kind of pulling more into that regional space.

     As it kind of mentions in the report, you know, we’ve talked about this -- about what’s the magic number.  At the kind of working level, the Atrocity Prevention Board will be meeting at least three times a year, with one time a year with leadership involvement.  But we really kept that space flexible for context-specific events and how they are arise.

     And I want to stress that these are, obviously, meetings over at the White House, but there will be other meetings that this group feeds into.  So that’s at the bare minimum, if you will.

     Q    And just really quickly, while I have you, is the vision though that this will be something that will be activated during times of emergency as well?  Or is it more of a case of just sort of being a more passive sort of body that passing on information to the agencies to do with it what they will?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So this will be an active group that doesn’t just do analysis but kind of offers appropriate tools, really bringing, kind of, that technical expertise.  It will be meeting regularly, and then it will flex dependent on what the emergency is at hand.

     So, I would say it's a little bit of both.  It is a, kind of, where the technical guidance lies.  And to that point, you know, looking at key toolkits that we can put out in the interagency, trying to work to improve effective interagency processes to make sure that we're all on the same page, but then, you know, to your point, also responding to things as they come up.

     Q    This is Sajinder (ph) from (inaudible).  And the statement from the Press Secretary said, you know, like -- is defined as "early warning task force."  So I was wondering what's going on in some parts of India, Pakistan, especially what's going on in Kashmir, which is, at this moment, an internal issue by India.  But there are conflicting reports what's going on.  So, according to this Early Warning Task Force, is Kashmir on your radar?  Can we expect something, whichever way it is going?  So how would you like to define your Early Warning Task Force and if Kashmir is on the radar or not?
     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you for your question.  So, as of now, since we've just started the task force, you know, I don't have any information as to how we would react, et cetera.

     But I would like to point to a component on the task force that might be useful.  It's that we really saw a need in terms of -- you mentioned that people didn't know what was going on.  And we saw a need to have external assessments that the U.S. government makes where they can look at key information in real time.

     I know State Department is working on something that we can work with civil society on.  And again, that gets to the civil society consultations so that we're all, kind of, operating on the same sheet of music.  So that was kind of a key issue of ours, kind of, moving forward and something that civil society has repeatedly said would be helpful to them.

     So, please look out for that as we move forward.

     Q    Thank you.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay, great.  Thank you very much.  I appreciate your time, ladies and gentlemen.  And thank you to (inaudible), and thank you very much to [senior administration official] as well.

     Just to go over the ground rules, this is on background.  Attribution to a senior administration official.  The embargo is lifted.  Thank you very much.

                                   END          2:29 P.M. EDT

No comments:

Post a Comment