Tagged: PublicHealth

End of milk quotas: cities and regions are concerned about the implications and are calling for steps to safeguard the incomes of all producers

Meeting yesterday in Brussels, the members of the Commission for Natural Resources (NAT) of the European Committee of the Regions raised concerns about the impact of the abolition of milk quotas in the EU, particularly in disadvantaged and sensitive regions. In a draft opinion drawn up by René Souchon (FR/PES), President of the Auvergne region, they call on the European authorities to take urgent measures to safeguard the incomes of all milk producers.

In the positions it has previously taken on abolishing milk quotas, the Committee of the Regions (CoR) expressed its concerns about the plan to end quotas on 31 March 2015, and was highly critical of a measure likely to have an adverse impact on the EU’s environmental and territorial cohesion objectives. The CoR is concerned that this will accelerate the concentration of production in the most intensively farmed areas, harming sensitive or disadvantaged regions, including mountain regions but also so-called “intermediate” crop-growing and cattle-breeding regions. These fears are largely confirmed by the Commission’s latest report (published in June 2014) on the development of the market situation in the milk sector. “In light of the milk surplus and low prices recorded since summer 2014, the outlook is extremely worrying because in many Member States and regions, milk production is an essential pillar of the regional economy and of agricultural added value”, emphasised the rapporteur René Souchon, before adding, “It is essential to ensure a steady income for milk producers throughout the EU in order to maintain agriculture and preserve rural communities in all regions, in the interests of meeting the EU’s territorial cohesion objective”.  

In the draft own-initiative opinion adopted yesterday, NAT members call on the European authorities to take steps to safeguard the income of all milk producers, as is the case in most other major milk-producing countries, such as India, China, Japan, South Korea, Canada and the United States, which have maintained or even strengthened their support and protection for the dairy sector.

The draft opinion calls for the following in the short term:

  • to quantify how many jobs, how much added value and how many public goods would be lost in “intermediate” and disadvantaged zones if milk production was abandoned;
  • to make contracting more effective by expanding the mechanism to the whole industry, including in particular large-scale retailers – contracting seeks to formalise a long-term commercial relationship between a producer and their client with the aim of ensuring adequate production in an outlet;
  • to improve the operation of the European Milk Market Observatory, and put in place the necessary resources for it to become a genuine steering mechanism, and not just a tool for post hoc observation;
  • to immediately enhance the safety net for a limited period in order to cope with the looming crisis, pending the introduction of another mechanism;
  • to take urgent steps to safeguard the income of all milk producers, and to examine in particular the European Milk Board proposal.

In the medium term:

  • to harmonise the compensation payments for natural handicaps , financed 100% by the EU budget, to restore milk collection aid, to support the promotion and development of the “Mountain produce” label for dairy products, subject to an adequate level of food self-sufficiency;
  • to encourage the preservation of dairy production , particularly using more mixed and hardy breeds which make use of the grasslands, rather than production from very specialised herds which consume ever increasing amounts of cereals and soya;
  • to draw up a major rural development plan for all countries which have small herds and where dairy farms are in the majority. It seems like their future may be at risk following the abolition of quotas, even though these farms remain the foundation of rural communities.

The NAT commission

The Commission for Natural Resources (NAT) coordinates the work of the Committee of the Regions in the areas of rural development and the common agricultural policy, fisheries and maritime policy, food production, public health, consumer protection, civil protection and tourism. It brings together 112 regional and local elected representatives from the 28 EU Member States. The commission’s chair is José Luís Carneiro (PT/PES), mayor of Bilbao.

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

January 05, 2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:30 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It’s nice to see you all.  Hope you’re feeling as rested and recharged as many of us here at the White House.  I know that I am. 

Some of you are — although I don’t see too many tan faces in the audiences, just on the side.  So —

Q    Happy New Year.

MR. EARNEST:  Happy New Year to you, Goyal.  So I don’t have anything to start, Julie, so let’s go straight to your questions.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Happy New Year.  Congress comes back tomorrow with Republicans in charge, and I’m wondering if the President has spoken to Mitch McConnell or the Republican leaders either while he was in Hawaii or since he’s been back, and if he has any plans to meet with them this week.

MR. EARNEST:  Julie, I don’t know of any presidential calls that occurred while the President was in Hawaii.  I believe that both the President and the incoming Senate Majority Leader were spending some downtime with families over the holidays.  But I would anticipate that the President will have an opportunity to sit down with congressional leaders in the first couple of weeks that they’re back here.  I don’t have a specific date at this point, but I would anticipate that that’s something that will happen if not this week, then the week or two after that.

Q    He’s occasionally spoken to Republicans at their retreat; that’s in Pennsylvania this year.  Do you know if he has plans to travel to that?  Has he been invited?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know whether or not he’s been invited.  I am aware that those are their plans, but I don’t know yet whether or not the President will attend.

Q    Okay.  One of the first things that McConnell has said that he plans to bring up is the Keystone pipeline.  There’s going to be a hearing on it on Wednesday.  The House plans to vote relatively soon.  The President was pretty non-committal in his end-of-the-year press conference.  When he was asked about a veto, he said we’ll take that up in the new year.  We’re now in the new year, we know that this is coming up.  If Congress sends him a bill forcing him to move forward on the Keystone pipeline, will he veto it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m going to reserve judgment on a specific piece of legislation until we actually see what language is included in that specific piece of legislation.  I will say, as you noted, Julie, he did discuss this at his end-of-the-year news conference a couple of weeks ago, and he did note that the pipeline would have I think what he described as a nominal impact on gas prices in this country.  But he was concerned about the impact that it could have on carbon pollution and the contribution it could make to carbon pollution, the negative impact that that has on the public health of people all across the country, and the impact that that has on our ability to build communities across the country.  As we see weather disasters worsen, as we see in the form of wildfires or more severe hurricanes, that only adds to costs.  So the President does harbor those concerns.

The other concern, frankly, that we have is that this is a — that pipeline projects like this in the past had been resolved in a fairly straightforward administrative way; that there is a process that is conducted by the State Department to evaluate a project and determine whether or not it’s in the national interest of the United States.  That’s how previous pipelines like this have been considered, and we believe this one should be considered in that same way too.

The last thing I’ll say about this is there also is an outstanding ruling that we’re waiting on from a judge in the state of Nebraska to determine what the route of the pipeline would be if it’s built through the state of Nebraska, which means there’s actually not a finalized plan on the table yet for final sign-off.  So we don’t want to put the cart before the horse here, and that is why in the past we’ve taken a rather dim view of legislative attempts to circumvent this well-established process.

So all that said, I’m not prepared at this point to issue a veto threat related to that specific piece of legislation, but we will take a careful look at it with all those things in mind.

Q    Is it fair to say that the President would be urging Democrats to vote against the legislation approving the pipeline?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ll see what the legislation actually includes before we start urging people to vote one way or the other.

Q    Okay.  And if I can just ask on one other topic, just on something that came up while the President was in Hawaii.  Representative Steve Scalise apologized for speaking to a white supremacist group 12 years ago.  Does the President believe that Scalise should stay in leadership?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Julie, it is the responsibility of members of the House Republican conference to choose their leaders.  And I’m confident that in previous situations we’ve seen members of the conference actually make the case that who they choose to serve in their leadership says a lot about who they are, what their values are, and what the priorities of the conference should be.  Now, we’ve also heard a lot from Republicans, particularly over the last few years, including the Chairman of the Republican Party, about how Republicans need to broaden their appeal to young people and to women, to gays and to minorities; that the success of their party will depend on their ability to broaden that outreach.

So it ultimately will be up to individual Republicans in Congress to decide whether or not elevating Mr. Scalise into leadership will effectively reinforce that strategy.

Q    So far, Republican leadership seems to be standing by Scalise.  Does the President feel that’s appropriate?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, he believes that it’s ultimately their decision to make.  But there is no arguing that who Republicans decide to elevate into a leadership position says a lot about what the conference’s priorities and values are.  I mean, ultimately, Mr. Scalise reportedly described himself as David Duke without the baggage.  So it will be up to Republicans to decide what that says about their conference.
Jeff.

Q    Josh, the Afghan President said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States should consider reexamining its timetable for taking U.S. coalition troops out of Afghanistan.  Is that something that the White House has discussed with him?  And is it something that the U.S. would consider at this point?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, what the President has been really clear about is what our strategy in Afghanistan is; that after the end of the year, we are now in a situation where the combat mission in Afghanistan for U.S. military personnel has ended.  The Afghans are now solely responsible for the security of their country.

There is an enduring U.S. military presence and NATO coalition military presence in Afghanistan to carry out two other missions.  The first is a counterterrorism mission.  We continue to see remnants of al Qaeda that do have designs on destabilizing the region and U.S. interests.  We also continue to see a need for U.S. military personnel to play an important role in training and equipping Afghan security forces to continue to take the fight to those terrorist elements and to preserve the security situation in the country of Afghanistan.

There are a lot of hard-won gains that have been made in Afghanistan as a result of the bravery of U.S. military personnel and our coalition partners.  Much of that work — many of those accomplishments are due to the effective coordination between United States military and Afghan security forces, and we want to see that kind of coordination continue, even as Republicans take on — Republicans — even as Afghans take sole responsibility for their security situation.

Q    Freudian slip?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  We’re all sort of working out the cobwebs from the layoff. 

Q    What was your reaction then, or the White House’s reaction, to his comments in that interview?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, and I guess this is the other part of the answer that’s also important is the fact that we continue to have military personnel in Afghanistan to carry out these two missions.  The counterterrorism mission and the training mission, the training of Afghan security forces, is indicative of the ongoing commitment that the United States has to the government of Afghanistan; that we built a strong working relationship with the unified government there and the United States and countries around the world who have invested so much in Afghan security continue to be invested in the success, both political and economic, of the Afghan people.

And the United States is prepared to continue that partnership.  But as it relates to the strategy associated with our military footprint, we’ve been pretty clear about what that strategy is.  More importantly, the Commander-in-Chief has been clear about what that strategy is.

Q    On a separate topic, oil prices continue to fall with some resulting falls in the stock market today.  Is the White House concerned about this trend?  And are you watching it?  What is your reaction to it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that.  The first is, I’m always very hesitant to draw any conclusions or offer any analysis about movements in the stock market.  I know that there are some who have observed — this is a little of a chicken-and-the-egg thing — that some of the fall in energy prices is a direct response to a weakening economy and a fall in the stock market.  So it may not be that one is causing the other; there could sort of be a reinforcing effect there.

What I will say more broadly is that we’ve talked before about why we believe that falling gas prices are, as a general matter, pretty good for the economy and it certainly is good for middle-class families that are being pinched.  And when they go to the pump and they see that the prices at the pump are up to a dollar cheaper than they were last year, that certainly means more money in the pocket of middle-class families.  That’s good for those middle-class families that the President believes are so critical to the success of our economy.

It also is a testament to the success that the U.S. has had over the last several years, in part because of the policies put forward by this administration, to increase production of domestic oil and gas.  It also is a testament to some of the policies this administration put in place five years ago to raise fuel-efficiency standards.

Q    But, Josh, I understand all these things that you want to list, but is the White House concerned about the economic implications of these falling oil prices?

MR. EARNEST:  This is something that we’re always monitoring.  I believe we talked about this a little bit at the end of last year.  But we’re always monitoring the impact that any sort of policy area would have on the economy, so it’s certainly something that we’re watching.  I think that as a general matter, speaking broadly, the impact of falling energy prices has been good for the U.S. economy.

Michelle.

Q    Any response to these recent statements by North Korea?  And are you surprised by the nature of some of them — that they’re coming from a state, even though that state is North Korea?

MR. EARNEST:  They’re not particularly surprising.  We’ve seen comments from the North Koreans in the past.  As it relates to the subject that’s received so much attention in the last few weeks, the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the administration spoke pretty clearly at the end of last week by putting in place a new economic sanctions regime against three North Korean entities and 10 individuals as part of our proportional response to that specific hacking incident.

Q    And the speculation that’s been out there from some analysts that it actually might have come from somewhere else besides North Korea, does the administration see no merit to some of those sort of statements out there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is an investigation that’s being conducted by the FBI.  They’ve obviously devoted significant resources to this.  They have their own area of expertise when it comes to these matters, and they have come to the conclusion, based on the evidence, that North Korea was responsible for this.  And I don’t see any reason to disagree with the conclusions that they’ve arrived at.  If you have questions about why they’ve arrived at that conclusion, you can direct it to them.

Q    And the President called this incident an act of “cyber vandalism.”  But we know that there is a review going on as to whether North Korea should be on the list of state sponsors of terror.  So does that mean that there’s a possibility the President is going to reconsider what he called this hack?  Or is that review of North Korea possibly being on the list based on purely other activities by North Korea? 

MR. EARNEST:  It does not mean that the President is reconsidering the way that he talks about this, but what is prudent is that our national security team is always reviewing the actions, particularly of nations like North Korea, to determine the proper policy response, and in some cases, whether or not that includes including them on the state sponsor of terrorism list.

Now, there are — I will say that there is a very specific technical definition for how states, or why individual countries, should be added to that list.  And so we will work very carefully to determine whether or not the actions that have been taken by North Korea meet that very specific technical definition.

Q    And I mean, the fact that North Korea is not on that list, Cuba is, both are under review — that doesn’t say a lot about that list and its weight.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I actually think that it might actually say quite a bit about the weight of that list.  The fact that we take so seriously those nations that do sponsor acts of terrorism, that they are in a very small club.  But that is a list that you don’t want to be on, and it’s a list that we take very seriously as we formulate a foreign policy that protects the national security interest of the United States. 

And the fact that we make a very — take a very deliberative approach to determining whether or not a country should be added to the list or removed from the list I think is an indication of just how serious a matter a state sponsor of terrorism is.

Q    Thanks, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  Move around a little bit.  Justin.

Q    I want to go back to Mitch McConnell.  He, in an interview this morning — from the Washington Post, said that the single best thing that the Republican Congress can do is not mess up the playing field for 2016, the Republican presidential nominee.  So I’m kind of interested in the inverse of that question, which is, is that President Obama’s kind of number-one priority headed in for the last two years?  Or to what extent is preparing the Democratic Party for the 2016 elections and the leader that would presumably continue his vision a priority or something that’s on your guys’ agenda?  And conversely, to what extent are you guys trying to foil Mitch McConnell’s plan to sort of — he wanted the Republicans to seem less crazy, I guess —

MR. EARNEST:  Scary, I think is the —

Q    Scary, yes.

MR. EARNEST:  Typically, the beginning of the year is a time for optimism, where we set our sights high, where we really pursue our grandest ambitions, we make New Year’s resolutions for ourselves about how much we’re going to read more books or go to the gym more often.  And suggesting that they’re going to be less scary is not exactly the highest ceiling I can imagine for their legislative accomplishments this year, but a worthy pursuit nonetheless.

What I will say is that the President does have, in the vein of ambition, a lot that he wants to try to get done this year.  And over the course of this week even, you’ll hear the President talk quite a bit about steps that he can take to strengthen our economy, particularly to benefit middle-class families.  The President believes our economy is strongest when we’re growing from the middle out.  And I do think you can hear the President — expect to hear the President talking in detailed fashion about some of the executive actions that he can pursue and some of the legislative proposals that he’ll put forward that he believes deserve bipartisan support.

And this is something — this is a little different than what we’ve done in the past — this is an opportunity for him to talk about the State of the Union address as we get closer to the date where he’ll actually give the speech.  So a little bit more of a preview than we’ve seen in previous years. 

And I do think it is indicative of the kind of energy that the President is feeling, and, frankly, even optimism that the President is feeling; that we can build on the kind of momentum that we’re seeing in our economy right now to put in place policies that will be good for middle-class families and be good for the broader U.S. economy.

Are Democrats and Republicans going to agree on every aspect of the President’s strategy?  Probably not.  But are there some things where we feel like we can work together to get things done that will be consistent with the ambitions of both parties, and consistent with a strategy that will be in the best interests of the country and middle-class families in the country?  Yes, I think we can.  And whether it’s — I also noted in that same interview, Senator McConnell talked about finding new ways to invest in infrastructure.  He talked about policies we can put in place to open up markets for U.S. businesses.  And he talked about tax reform. 

So these are all areas where there does stand the potential for bipartisan agreement, and the President is certainly going to pursue them.  The President is also going to pursue some other things that Republicans may not like that he can do on his own.

Q    So I mean, I recognize I kind of teed you up there to talk about the next week, but I am actually interested in the sort of 2016 question, the extent to which this is starting to enter your guys’ kind of calculations.  Politically, obviously the President’s time in office is waning, but his legacy and — will be extended and especially influenced by his successor.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President, as you may have heard from some of my colleagues after the last midterm election, that the way — the President sees it a little bit differently; that essentially, today marks the beginning of the fourth quarter of his presidency.  And as the President, an avid basketball fan, has observed, a lot of really important things happen in the fourth quarter.  And I think the President believes that’s true not just in an NBA basketball game, it’s also true of a presidency.  And he wants to make it true of his presidency.

And that I do think is why you will see the President pretty energized when he appears later this week, that he’s going to have a pretty ambitious list of priorities that he wants to achieve.  We’re going to look for opportunities to work with Republicans to make progress on those priorities.  And where Republicans don’t agree, you’re going to see the President take decisive action to make progress on his own where he can.

And that is, I recognize, not a significant departure from the strategy that we have employed in the last couple of years, but I do think that you’re going to see the President be even more energized and even more determined to make progress on behalf of middle-class families.  That’s, after all, the reason the President ran for this office in the first place.  And the President is going to spend a lot of time focused on that here in the fourth quarter of his presidency.

And I guess — so I guess the last part of that is — and all that is to say, that means that the presidential election in 2016 is quite a ways off still.  And the President believes that we should be focused on the kinds of policy priorities that are going to benefit middle-class families.  There will be plenty of time for politics.

Q    And then just on Steve Scalise, I know that you talked a little bit about it with Julie, but I’m wondering, did the President have a reaction to hearing that he had attended these rallies or the statement that you attributed to him?  Have you had a conversation with him about it?  Or does he think Steve Scalise should resign over this?  Are there those sorts of kind of feelings or sentiments coming from —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t spoken to him directly about this specific issue.  I can tell you that — but I do feel confident in relaying to you that the President does believe that ultimately it’s the responsibility of individual members of the House Republican conference to decide who they want to elect as their — as the leader of their conference.  And certainly, who those elected leaders are says a lot about who the conference is and what their priorities and values are.  And they’re going to have to answer for themselves whether or not elevating somebody who described himself as “David Duke without the baggage” sort of reinforces the kind of message that the House Republican conference wants to project.

Cheryl.

Q    Yes, thanks.  Just on the legislative agenda, do you see the omnibus as sort of the model where you’re going to start seeing legislation that may have some things that you really don’t like but you’re going to sign it anyway because it’s probably the best compromise you’re going to get?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a good question.  I would anticipate that anything — that the most substantial pieces of legislation that we hope to get done will necessarily be compromises.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that those pieces of legislation will include things that we strenuously oppose, it just may be that there are pieces of legislation that we feel like don’t go quite far enough but are certainly a positive step in the right direction.

But I think either of those scenarios fits what would be an acceptable definition of a compromise.  And I would anticipate that when we’re operating in an environment where we have Republicans in charge of the Congress and a Democrat in charge of the White House, that compromise is going to be the name of the game. 

And I certainly will hope, and the President certainly hopes, that Republicans are in — will pursue our work together in that spirit.

Olivier.

Q    Josh, the country’s largest police union today said the national hate crime statute should be expanded to include attacks on police officers.  Does the President agree?

MR. EARNEST:  I hadn’t seen that statement.  I think that’s something that we’ll have to consider.  Obviously, we certainly condemn in the strongest possible terms any sort of violence against police officers.  And just a couple of weeks ago in New York we saw a brazen act of violence that really shook that community in New York.  And even here a couple weeks later, the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House, including the President and First Lady, continue to be with the families of those two officers who were killed in that terrible attack.

So I think the question, though, is ultimately, what are the kinds of things that we can do to make it safer for police officers to do their important work.  And this will be among the things that will be considered by the taskforce that the President appointed at the end of last year.  They’re going to be holding their first public meeting next week.  They’ll hear from the representatives of law enforcement organizations.  Because the President does believe that building stronger bonds of trust between the community and the law enforcement officers who are sworn to serve and protect that community is in the best interest, both of the police officers and the citizens of those communities. 

So trying to find that common ground and putting in place policies and looking for best practices where other communities have been able to identify that common ground is going to be part of the very important work of this taskforce and the President is looking forward to their findings.

Jon.

Q    Back to North Korea.  Given that there have been some doubts raised about — private-sector analysts looking at this and raising doubts about whether or not North Korea was actually responsible for the hack, is there some consideration to declassifying the evidence that shows that, in fact, North Korea has done this to give some confidence in the finding of the FBI on this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know that I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there were a couple of private-sector organizations that have endorsed the findings of the FBI.  So there are some people who have looked at the evidence and come down on a couple different sides of this.  Obviously what they’re dealing with here is something that’s pretty sensitive.  The evidence that they have reviewed and obtained by making it public does give a pretty strong indication to the North Koreans and, frankly, to other bad actors about the techniques that we use to investigate and to attribute these kinds of attacks. 

So it’s a tricky business here.  I wouldn’t rule out in the future that the FBI may be able to be more transparent about their findings.  But I’d refer you to them in terms of what they feel like they can comfortably release without undermining some of the strategies that they use, both to protect our infrastructure but also to investigate intrusions.

Q    And by using the phrase or the word cyber vandalism to describe this, is the President downplaying the significance of it?  Cyber vandalism, or the word “vandalism” sounds a lot less serious than the word terrorism, as some others have suggested.

MR. EARNEST:  I think it sounds less serious, but the President certainly believes — takes this incident, this attack, as something serious.  It had a serious financial impact on this American company.  It obviously had a serious impact on some of the values that we hold dear in this country about freedom of expression and freedom of speech. 

So it was not the President’s intent to downplay this at all.  I think the President was looking for a way that most accurately described exactly what had occurred.

Q    Okay.  Two other topics.  One, the news over the weekend that Boko Haram has taken over a Nigerian base on the border with Chad.  How much confidence does the White House have in the ability of the Nigerian government to deal with this threat?  How significant do you think the threat of Boko Haram is, and what’s the United States — is there any role for the United States to do anything about it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple things about this, Jon.  The first is, there obviously is a counterterrorism cooperation relationship between the United States and a number of countries in Africa, including Nigeria.  And that kind of cooperation has been valuable in the past in trying to help central governments in Africa and other places in the world, frankly, combat some of these extremist elements in their countries. 

So that counterterrorism relationship is ongoing.  The clearest manifestation of that cooperation is the deployment of some military personnel that are on the ground in Nigeria to try to help recover those girls who were kidnapped from that school relatively early last year.  So that work is ongoing, but this is very difficult work and we’re going to continue to cooperate with the Nigerians as they try to do a better job of securing their country.

Q    But isn’t this an indication that that cooperation is not working at all?  I mean, first of all, the girls haven’t been rescued.  That’s on one side.  The other side, Boko Haram seems to be on the march.  I mean, they’ve actually overtaken a military base that was set up, in large part, to fight Boko Haram.  I mean, doesn’t this show that whatever cooperation we have with the Nigerians just isn’t working?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it shows that there is — that they face a very serious threat in Nigeria.  And the United States, it does have this relationship with Nigeria that we value, it’s a military-to-military relationship.  We also share some other intelligence assets that have been deployed to fight Boko Haram.  But this is certainly something that we’re concerned about.

Q    And just one last question on the Cuba deal.  Part of it was the Cuban government agreeing to release 53 political prisoners.  Do you have an update for us on how many of the 53 have been released?  Have they all been released, and who they are?

MR. EARNEST:  For a specific update — I’m going to have to take the question and we’ll get back to you — it’s my understanding that not all of them have been released at this point.  But as part of the agreement that was brokered that this prisoner release that the Cuban government decided to undertake on their own in the context of these discussions would take place in stages.

Q    so you’re confident they’re going to follow through on this?  I mean, there’s also been reports that the Cubans have arrested some additional political prisoners.

MR. EARNEST:  What I would say is, at this point, there is no reason to think that they are walking back any part of the agreement.  But we’ll see if we can get you some more details.

J.C.

Q    How concerned is this administration and how closely has this administration been and how closely has this administration been monitoring what is going on in Wall Street right now where the Dow has gone below 300, and the Euro has reached its lowest mark in nine years?  The concerns are the instability of the Greek government and new elections there; that Greece will, in fact, abandon the Euro.  What is the situation?  How does the White House look at this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, JC, I can tell you that we’re always monitoring movements in the financial markets.  But in terms of sort of ascribing what may be driving those fluctuations in the market, I wouldn’t speculate on that.  But obviously this administration has been working very closely with our partners in Europe as they’ve worked to deal with some of the financial challenges that they faced over the last several years, both as it relates to some members of the EU, but also as it relates to the broader economic trends over in Europe.
You’ll recall that the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman, spoke at this podium a couple of weeks ago, and he discussed some concerns about headwinds from Europe, that their weakening economy is certainly in the best interest of the U.S. economy.  But at the same time, the strength of the U.S. economy is due at least in part to some of the very important and difficult policy decisions that the President made early on in his presidency.
Mark.
Q    Gas taxes, Josh.  For the new year and of course the plunging oil prices and plunging price of the gallon has renewed the talk of raising gas taxes to help pay for infrastructure.  In the past, you guys have said that’s not on the table.  Is it on the table now?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s not something that we have proposed, and that’s been our policy.  We have put forward our own very specific proposal for how we believe we can make the investment that’s needed in infrastructure in this country.  That’s typically what the gas tax revenue is dedicated to, is investing in infrastructure.  And we have put forward our own specific plan for closing loopholes that only benefit wealthy and well-connected corporations, and using the revenue from closing those loopholes to investing in badly needed infrastructure upgrades.
There are some in Congress that have different ideas, including raising the gas tax.  That’s certainly something that we’ll take a look at it, but it’s not something that we have considered from here.
Q    Okay.  I ask because, among those proposals, Bob Corker and Chris Murphy have wanted to raise the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years, I guess it is; you say there are others.  Two questions:  Are you, A, ruling a gas tax increase out?  And, B, is the President going to say something specific on infrastructure and gas taxes in the State of the Union speech?
MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have anything to preview at this point about — from the State of the Union on this specific topic.  But we may have more in advance of the speech, so stay tuned.
As it relates to specific proposals from Congress, we’ll certainly consider proposals that are put forward, particularly bipartisan proposals like that one that you mentioned.  But we’ve been really clear about what we think is the best way to get this done, and that is simply to close loopholes that benefit only the wealthy and well-connected corporations, and use that revenue to make badly needed investments in infrastructure that everybody benefits from.  I recognize that there are some other ideas out there, and we’ll consider those too, but we’ve been really clear about what we support.
Mara.
Q    Just to follow up on that — the gas tax is a kind of permanent, ongoing way to fund infrastructure.  What you’re talking about is a one-time-only closing of loopholes to get some money for infrastructure investments.  Do you think, as others have suggested, that the gas tax as a funding mechanism for infrastructure is broken and should be replaced by another mechanism?
MR. EARNEST:  I’m not saying that, although some have pointed out that the fact that we have — that our vehicles that are on the road are becoming more fuel efficient, which means they’re using less gas, which means that there’s likely to be less revenue from a gas tax.  But what we have said is that we believe there is a very specific way that we can close some loopholes that will generate revenue that will allow us to make some badly needed investments in infrastructure.
Q    But that’s not a permanent funding stream for infrastructure.  That’s just a one-time-only —
MR. EARNEST:  Well, it could be, because we’re talking about permanently closing the loopholes. 
Q    And that amount of money —
MR. EARNEST:  That would be a change in the tax policy.  It could be.
Q    I know.  But do you envision it as something that funds infrastructure over time?  I don’t really understand how that becomes a permanent infrastructure funding source.
MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’re not suggesting that we abolish the gas tax, right?  But there is revenue that could be gleaned from reforming the tax code, and generating revenue that could be used to invest in infrastructure.  And so that’s what our strategy is. 
I recognize that there are other people that have other ideas, and we’ll certainly consider those ideas as they put them forward.
Major.
Q    Is there reluctance to talk about the gas tax because you believe gas prices trending downward are likely to reverse in the not-too-distant future and you don’t want to mess with anything in the price market or taxes for fuel?
MR. EARNEST:  I think the reluctance that you’re perceiving from me is that we believe, frankly, that we have a better idea for how to do this, which is that by closing loopholes that only benefit wealthy and well-connected corporations we can actually invest in the kind of infrastructure that will create jobs, stimulate economic growth and put in place modern infrastructure that we can all benefit from.  So we’re open to these other ideas that others have put forward, but we believe our idea is better.  But I’m not willing to —
Q    But no matter what the price of gas is?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I mean, this is a position that we’ve had for some time, right?
Q    I know.  And there are a lot of energy economists who have said, well, look, this is a different — this is a time for a different conversation, because the prices are down and there is more room within what people used to budget, and the infrastructure needs of the country haven’t gotten any better, they’ve become more pronounced, if anything; and it’s time for a fresh look at this.  And I hear from you, you’re not inclined to give it a fresh look, and I’m just trying to figure out why.
MR. EARNEST:  I think what I’m trying to say is that we continue to remain open to giving it a look if somebody wants to put forward their own proposal.  Again, this sort of goes to Cheryl’s question, in some ways, about compromise.  We don’t believe that the best way to fund modernizing our infrastructure is to raise the gas tax, but some people do.  And we’re willing to consider those proposals.  We believe that the best way to do that is to close loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected corporations.
Q    And interpreting your comments earlier that you may or may not have a meeting — the President may or may not have a meeting with congressional leaders on the Republican side this week, it sounds like he probably won’t, looking at the schedule.  Is it fair to say that that is a lesser priority than getting out on the road and sort of previewing the State of the Union and displaying the President’s energetic pursuit of his own agenda, and not treating the new congressional Republican majority as a secondary item, but not as important as his own rhetorical flourishes for this week?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think we’re less focused on rhetorical flourishes and more interested in substantive policy ideas that will get our economy moving and benefit middle-class families.  That’s what we’re going to be focused on on the road, and that’s what we’re going to be focused on in our conversations with Democrats and Republicans who are in leadership positions in Congress. 
Look, the President met with congressional leaders a couple of times during the lame duck session, and I’m confident that he’ll do it again early this year.
Q    Right, but it’s just a different crew and a different power structure than during the lame duck.  I mean, I know this is many of the same participants, but they’re — 
MR. EARNEST:  Pretty much all of the same participants, isn’t it?
Q    Right, but they have different levels of power, and their proximity to them is completely different. 
MR. EARNEST:  But even in the context of those meetings that they had in the lame duck, they were talking about this — everybody knew what was going to happen after the first of year, right?  Everybody knew that the President wasn’t just meeting with the Senate Minority Leader, he was also meeting with the incoming Senate Majority Leader.
So I don’t think that that will substantively change the kinds of conversations that they’ll have early this year, which the President believes is important and he’ll do, but certainly there’s no reason we can’t do both, right?  What the President wants to do is he wants to make progress by debating and putting in place where possible substantive economic policy ideas that will benefit the middle class.  Some of those he can do on his own and he is going to do it.  Some of those he is going to require cooperation with Republicans in Congress to get it done and he is eager to do that, too.

Q    Right.  I know you don’t want to preview the State of the Union but the last time the President gave an address like that there was no war against ISIS.  There was no ongoing airstrike and a coalition to confront in two different countries.  Now there is.  So two questions.  To what degree will the President use the State of the Union to give the country an assessment of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done?  And how does the ongoing conflict influence the Defense budget that’s being put together and the ongoing discretionary cap limits that have one more year to go in a full budget cycle after this?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, the State of the Union hasn’t been written yet, so I wouldn’t want to speculate —

Q    Yes, but Cody has been working on it, as you and I both know.

MR. EARNEST:  He is — he has been — but ultimately he’s not the author of it, even he has been working on it.

Q    No, I know, but it’s not like there’s a bunch of blank pieces of paper hanging around.

MR. EARNEST:  No, but it’s not as if the final words that are on the page are going to be the ones that will be read by the President of the United States on January 20th.

Q    But you know these things get blocked out.  What I’m just trying to figure out is how much does the President feel it’s necessary or worthwhile to assess what is a not-insignificant national —

MR. EARNEST:  You’re asking a very legitimate question.  I’m just trying to make it clear that those are — we’re still having those kinds of discussions about what actually is going to be included in there and to what extent it will be included.  But I am confident, as a general matter, that the President will use the opportunity of that national address to talk about the threat that we face from ISIL and what the United States continues to do by leading this broader international coalition of more than 60 countries to degrade and ultimately destroy them.  This is a multi-front strategy that includes airstrikes that were taken in support of troops on the ground; it involves combatting foreign fighters; it involves counter-finance, which you’ve heard David Cohen from the Treasury Department talk about from here.  It talks about important work that needs to be done on the humanitarian front.  And it continues — it also includes the efforts that we have undertaken, working closely with our allies, to counter ISIL’s message in the Muslim world.  So this is a multifaceted effort and I am confident that you’ll hear the President talk about this a little bit at least.

As it relates to the second question about the Defense Department budget, there obviously are — there is an impact on the Defense Department budget as a result of these ongoing efforts.  It’s one of the reasons that our priorities for the lame duck was getting some increased funding so we could ensure that we had the necessary resources to carry out this strategy.  And one of the other things that we talked about in the context of the omnibus was how disappointed we were that Congress didn’t act on the kinds of budgetary reforms that both the civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon said were desperately needed.

And so I would anticipate that all of that — maybe not discussed in that much detail in the State of the Union, but it certainly will be a priority as we talk to Congress about the FY16 budget.

Q    And during the holiday break, several more detainees were repatriated from Guantanamo.  And the indication is that that’s going to be something that will be rather common in the next three or four months.  Would you be willing to say that this is something that this administration intends to accelerate in the early part of 2015 — to move as many detainees as are moveable out of Guantanamo in the early part of this year?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have, frankly, a lot of insight into what the short-term plans are in terms of who is — and sort of what sort of agreements are being contemplated and what troops are up for transfer in the short term.  I can tell you that it continues to be an important priority of this administration to ultimately transfer all of the detainees out of Guantanamo.

Q    But the President has conceded publicly that’s not possible.  That some of them are too dangerous, it can’t be tried.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, which is why we need Congress to take some action to remove some of the obstacles that are preventing the President from doing something that he believes is clearly in the national interest, which is closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Q    One last thing.  David Cameron said over the weekend that the President calls him “bro.”  Is that true?  And is there any other pet names he has for world leaders?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Well, to paraphrase a local baseball player here in Washington, D.C., that’s a clown question, bro.  (Laughter.)  I’m just teasing.

Q    You don’t mean that.

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t.  Mostly because I just wanted to use “bro” in my own response.  (Laughter.)  I am not able to give much more insight about the private communications between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom other than to —

Q    Having been revealed publicly, do you have any reason to doubt the Prime Minister’s assertion?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t because, as you know, they have a special relationship.  (Laughter.)

Peter.

Q    Given Mitch McConnell’s unusual admonition to the Republican majority that they should not be scary, I want to get a sense from you right now.  Does the President think the American people should be scared of a Republican governing majority?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s an interesting question.  (Laughter.)  I think the President has been pretty clear that there is a pretty stark difference of opinion about which policies are actually in the best interest of the country, about which — what kinds of policies are going to be in the best interest of middle-class families.  That is, after all, the President’s priority.  And I think by some of the policy choices we’ve seen some of the Republicans make, they don’t share that priority.  And that certainly is a strong difference of opinion. 

But, ultimately, I guess we’ll have to sort of see whether or not members of Congress choose to abide by the admonition of the new Senate Majority Leader.

One example I guess I can think of is the prospect of defaulting on the debt for the first time in our nation’s history is a scary prospect.  Hopefully it’s not going to come to that.  But we’ll have to see.

I guess I would say it this way.  The President does believe that there are some areas where we can cooperate.  So setting aside whether or not they’re scary or not, we do believe that there may be an opportunity for us to find some areas of common ground where Democrats and Republicans can come together to open up overseas markets for American businesses or to reform the tax code in a way that would actually make it more simple and more fair, and close loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and the well-connected.  So there may be some things that we can do to cooperate and actually make some progress for the American people.

Q    We know mayor — back to law enforcement and New York City Police Department but police departments nationwide, some of which have indicated the rank and file, they feel betrayed by the President, by Attorney General Eric Holder.  Earlier you indicated that the President basically feels — certainly feels a sympathy for the loss experienced by the families in New York, but does the President feel a sympathy with those police — members of police departments right now who feel targeted?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what the President believes is that it’s clearly in the best interests of people who are living in communities that have legitimate concerns and clearly in the best interests of law enforcement officers that have legitimate concerns to come together and try to strengthen the bond of trust between law enforcement officers and the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.  And that is a pursuit that is important and would benefit communities all across the country.  And it certainly would stand to benefit law enforcement officers who do the heroic work every day of getting up and putting on a blue uniform, and putting their lives on the line to protect the community that they work in.

And that is a calling that the President believes is worthy of our honor and respect.  And if there are things that we can do to make it safer for them to do that important work while at the same time inspiring greater trust in the communities that they are sworn to serve and protect, that that’s a good thing, that that is a laudable goal and ultimately it will have the effect of fighting crime in communities all across the country.

Q    Mayor Bill de Blasio is going to speak in a matter of moments — when we leave this briefing, we’ll hear some of his remarks given the latest that’s been taking place up there.  Recently, Police Commissioner Bratton has called it very inappropriate that the officers turned their back to the mayor during the eulogy for officer Ramos.  Does the President agree with Bratton?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t spoken to the President about it.  I do think that Commissioner Bratton did have I think an important view that he expressed on this.  He described — this is a letter that he sent to police precincts all across the city of New York.  And he said, “It was not all officers, and it was not disrespect directed at Detective Ramos.  But all the officers were painted by it, and it stole the valor, honor and attention that rightfully belonged to the memory of Detective Rafael Ramos’s life and service.  That was not the intent, I know.  But it was the result.” 

Q    So I guess, simply, even if — broadly speaking, does the White House think that action is inappropriate?

MR. EARNEST:  I think what I will say is that the part of Commissioner Bratton’s letter I think that resonates most strongly here at the White House is that those who are attending those funerals are there to pay their respect for the service and sacrifice of the two officers who were being laid to rest.  And certainly the President has — believes that their service and their sacrifice is worthy of celebration and respect, and should be afforded all of the outward symbols of honor that they’ve been given.  And I think that’s what the vast majority of the people who attended those funerals, including police officers who attended those funerals, actually gave.

Q    Digressing very briefly, we just learned a short time ago that two aspiring U.S. ski team members were killed in an avalanche in Austria.  That information is just coming to us, I don’t know whether you guys have been made aware or if the President was aware or had any thoughts, given that tragedy to U.S. aspiring Olympic athletes.

MR. EARNEST:  Peter, I was not aware of that report.  Obviously, the President has on a number of occasions had the opportunity to welcome Olympic athletes to the White House, both as they’re preparing for competition and after they have competed.  And, obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with those who were apparently lost in this specific incident.

These are young men and women who make our country proud, and certainly they dedicate their lives to their pursuit and their calling and their passion, which is the performance in their sport.  And so I am not aware of this specific report but certainly if it’s true it is a tragedy.

Q    Josh, another update over the holidays would be these recommendations to reform the Secret Service.  And I wonder, has the President actually been given some sort of a report or a briefing?  And where is the White House specifically on this increased speculation that we might see the security fence outside raised?  That was one of the recommendations.  So where specifically is the President, White House staff on that?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a good question, Ed.  I don’t know whether or not the President has received this specific briefing but we’ll follow up with you on this.  And as you’ll recall, the President did have interest in reviewing this report.

Q    Right.  I just wanted to get it on the record.

MR. EARNEST:  We’ll follow up with you.

Q    Specifically working with Congress, following up on both Julie and Major on the meeting — not just the meeting itself, but why not meet with Republican leaders this week.  But you and others are giving this impression the President is ready to work with Republican leaders but no meeting this week probably.  Instead, he is going out on the road on his own and he did this interview with NPR over the holidays where he said, I’m ready to start vetoing a lot more stuff and there’s going to be a lot more executive action.  So aren’t you saying he’s going to work with Republicans, but his actions are actually speaking louder than those words?

MR. EARNEST:  Well Ed, I think the President’s action to invite Congressional leaders, both Democrats and Republicans to the White House just a couple of days after the midterm elections, and talk about where that common ground is, I do think that speaks to the President’s — the priority that the President places in working with Republicans to make progress for the American people.  But you’re also right that the fact that the President is going to start the new year by announcing some new executive actions and some new policy proposals that will benefit middle-class families indicates that he’s most focused on results.  He’s mostly focused on substantive policy ideas that will benefit middle-class families.

Q    But they haven’t even been sworn in yet, and you’re already talking about, he’s moving forward on executive action.    He’s going out on the road to go directly to the American people — he’s free to do that but they haven’t even been sworn in yet, and you’re saying he’s getting ready to do more executive action.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, he is.  And the President is determined to make progress where he can on his own.  As the President has said many times, particularly in the aftermath of the midterm elections, we can’t allow a disagreement over one thing to be a deal-breaker over all the others.  So, I have no doubt that there will be some Republicans who are going to be critical of policy proposals that the President pursues on his own to benefit middle-class families.  That may be an area where an honest disagreement exists. 

What we’re mostly focused on when we have conversations with Republicans, though, is figuring out, where is there common ground?  Where do we agree?  And the disagreements may be more plentiful, but that’s all the more reason we should spend a lot of time looking for that area of common ground and the President will do that.  He did that at the end of last year, he’ll do it as this year gets underway as well.

Q    Last thing.  Republicans talking again as they have many times before about trying to change the President health care law.  And I want to ask you specifically, not about that, but about this new book from Steven Brill, because this was not a quick drive-by.  He spent I believe 19 months interviewing a lot of people around here and from what I’ve seen of it so far, he points out the good of getting millions more people insurance, but both in the book and some of his early television interviews he’s indicating that he believes — this is after studying it very closely — it’s a raw deal for taxpayers; that a lot more people are getting insurance but the taxpayers are picking up that tab.  And that the health care costs are not coming down because of the law itself, despite what was promised.

MR. EARNEST:  Well let me say a couple things about that, Ed.  The first thing is it’s important for people to remember the Affordable Care Act substantially reduced the deficit, which is good for the economic health and the fiscal health of the country, and also good for taxpayers.  And we have seen that the growth in health care costs has been lower than at any other time in recorded history — in almost 50 years since they’ve been measuring that specific statistic.

We’ve also seen the average premium for employer-based health care coverage — these are individuals who are essentially not really affected by the Affordable Care Act and certainly aren’t getting health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act — they saw that their premiums only went up 3 percent, even though in previous years it had been going up by double digits every year.

So one of the goals, as Mr. Brill points out in this book, has been to limit the growth in health care costs and the numbers indicate that very early on, that there has been very important success associated with the Affordable Care Act in doing exactly that.  And that’s something that we’re going to continue to do in addition to expanding coverage and getting more people covered with health care; in addition to putting in place the kind of patient protections that the President has long advocated — everything from ensuring that men and women can get the kind of preventative health care maintenance, annual checkups and things;  that those can be covered free of charge; that you can’t be discriminated against because you have a preexisting condition.  We can put in place all of those things and we can actually limit the growth in health care costs, and that’s what the Affordable Care Act has done.

Q    And he also has this conclusion that from talking to the President own advisors, that people in the West Wing believe that the real chief of staff is Valerie Jarrett, and that when the author pressed the President himself in an interview, he just wouldn’t comment on that.  Why wouldn’t the President knock that down, why wouldn’t he say Valerie Jarrett is not my chief of staff?

MR. EARNEST:  I think because everybody already knows that.  And I think that Ms. Jarrett obviously plays a very important role here in the West Wing and in advising the President of the United States, but I think even she would tell you that she’s not the chief of staff and doesn’t want to be.

Alexis.

Q    Josh, can I follow up?  I have two quick questions.  One is a personnel question.  You had anticipated that the President’s Counselor, and maybe his senior advisor — I’m talking about Podesta and Pfeiffer — might leave in a few weeks.  Can you update us on whether they’re going to be departing the White House soon?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any updates on any personnel matters at this point.

Q    You can’t say whether John Podesta will indeed be leaving?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can say — I mean, we said that when he started last year that he would essentially be serving through the end of the calendar year.  He’s going to stay on at the beginning of this year to help with the State of the Union.  I don’t have an exact date for his departure though.

Q    But maybe February?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any guidance on that, but we’ll keep you posted.

Q    Ok.  And you don’t want to say anything about Dan?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’d say lots of things about Dan.  (Laughter.)  But in terms of any personnel announcements associated with Dan I’m not aware of any.

Q    The second question is, at the end of the year, the percentage of people who said that they approved of the job that the President was doing went up.  And lots of people have analyzed the polling numbers and why that is, and I was just wondering if the White House could share its own interpretation of why that percentage went up at the end of the year.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think, like financial markets, it’s always a tricky, risky business to try to analyze what’s actually driving fluctuations in poll numbers.  I can tell you that — I think what I’d rather do is sort of convey to you why so many people in this building felt really optimistic heading into the holidays at the end of last year, and that is because we did feel like over the course of the last six weeks or so of last year that we had been able to make a lot of progress on a variety of important policy priorities that the President ha

STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS BY HIS EXCELLENCY LT. GEN. SERETSE KHAMA IAN KHAMA,

STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS BY HIS EXCELLENCY LT. GEN. SERET…

13/11/14

1. Madam Speaker, before we begin may I request that we observe a moment of silence for those of our citizens who have departed from us during the past year. Thank you. 2. Honourable Members, it is my pleasure to once more present an updated assessment of how Government intends to move Botswana forward by seizing opportunities to secure our future. 3. As this is the first session of the 11th Parliament, let me preface my remarks by welcoming the newly elected members of this Assembly. Let me further congratulate you Madam Speaker on your own election.

STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS BY HIS EXCELLENCY LT. GEN. SERETSE KHAMA IAN KHAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF BOTSWANA, TO THE FIRST SESSION OF THE ELEVENTH PARLIAMENT – “MOVING BOTSWANA FORWARD”

 

INTRODUCTION

 

1. Madam Speaker, before we begin may I request that we observe a moment of silence for those of our citizens who have departed from us during the past year. Thank you.

 

2. Honourable Members, it is my pleasure to once more present an updated assessment of how Government intends to move Botswana forward by seizing opportunities to secure our future.

 

3. As this is the first session of the 11th Parliament, let me preface my remarks by welcoming the newly elected members of this Assembly.  Let me further congratulate you Madam Speaker on your own election.

 

4. Today’s gathering is an outcome of our 11th consecutive general election. As is our tradition, the ballot was conducted in a peaceful, free and fair manner. For this we can once more thank Batswana in general, as well as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and other individuals and organisations that helped to ensure the poll’s success.

 

5. In any democracy elections are the means to the greater end of forming a Government capable of translating the popular will into public service delivery. We who have the honour of sitting in this House are accountable to the hundreds of thousands who entrusted us with their votes. Although divided in their choices, the voters were united by a shared desire for a better future. It is, therefore, our responsibility to ensure that together we deliver that future by at all times putting the national interest before our own.

 

6. Last month my party, the Botswana Democratic Party, was re‐elected on the basis of a detailed manifesto that promised to secure our common future by building on our past achievements. Today, before this House I reaffirm our commitment to honour that pledge.

 

7. In as much as we recognise that a government of and by the people is not an event but a process; this administration shall continue to engage Batswana across the country about their concerns through various fora and media, from the venerable realm of dikgotla to the digital world of interactive online communication. It was as a result of wide-ranging consultation that our manifesto was predicated on what we understood to be our citizens’ core aspirations. These include achieving:

 

• Job creation for sustainable livelihoods and income generation;

• Food security through continued agricultural renewal;

• Expanded access to land and housing ownership;

• Access to world-class quality education that caters to current and future needs;

• Citizen, including youth, economic empowerment;

• Dignity for all through the eradication of poverty;

• Zero tolerance for corruption in all of its manifestations;

• Elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV; and

• Government reform that leverages on the application of new technologies. 

 

8. Each of these commitments is based on realistic analysis of where our country is and needs to go in order to meet the reasonable expectations of its people, while improving our global standing in an ever more competitive world. Taken together they are consistent with our broader vision of achieving inclusive sustainable development that upholds the dignity of all.

 

ECONOMIC OUTLOOK

 

9. Madam Speaker, owing to the prudent economic and financial management by my Government, the country was able to survive the 2008/09 global financial crisis and economic recession with minimum impact on the domestic economy. We were able to save jobs in both the public service and private sector, as well as continued to provide essential public services to our people.

 

10. Having successfully weathered the storm of the economic downturn, we can look forward to better days ahead, with economic growth buttressed by reduced inflation. These positive trends should allow us to revive some of our postponed projects, along with outstanding issues affecting the conditions of service among public employees. Our optimism is in part based on forecasts of continued, albeit still fragile, global economic recovery, with worldwide output projected to grow by 3.3% in 2014 and 3.8% in 2015.

 

11. Turning to the domestic economy, the gross domestic product (GDP) at current prices stood at P124 billion in 2013 and it is projected to expand to P136.5 billion in 2014. In real terms, the GDP grew by 5.8% in 2013, and is projected to grow by 5.2% in the current year, driven by both the mining and non-mining sectors.   Within the non-mining sector, retail and hospitality industries, as well as agriculture are experiencing growth.

 

12. Average national inflation continued to decline from 8.5% in 2011 to 7.5% in 2012 to 5.9% in 2013 and further to 4.5% in September 2014, which is well within the Bank of Botswana objective range of 3 to 6%. This positive trend gives us confidence in our ability to maintain a low inflation environment, which is necessary for domestic enterprises to compete in the global market.

 

13. In terms of our fiscal management, Government succeeded in restoring a balanced budget during 2012/13 financial year, after four years of budget deficits. For the 2013/14 financial year we were able to collect P 48.9 billion, up from the P 41.7 billion received in 2012/13, while total expenditures and net lending for 2013/14 amounted to P 41.73 billion. This resulted in a budget surplus of P7.2 billion, largely due to the good performance of the mineral sector. For 2014/15 a budget surplus of P1.3 billion is currently projected. These savings will allow us to reduce our debt burden and rebuild our financial reserves.

 

14. To sustain a positive balance sheet will, however, require expanded revenues. Here I can report that we were able to collect P48.9 billion in the 2013-14 financial year, up from the P41.7 billion received in 2012-13. The 2013/14 outturn for expenditure and net lending was P41.7 billion.

 

EMPLOYMENT

 

15.  Madam Speaker, to be meaningful to Batswana, economic growth has to be accompanied by expanded employment, which is why our manifesto listed job creation at the top of our aspirations. To reiterate what I said in my own message to the voters, of all our campaign promises tackling unemployment is the most important one. While there has been some progress in recent years, current estimates put unemployment among those 18 and above at just over 17%. Although this reflects a modest reduction since 2007, it has been insufficient to absorb all those seeking employment, especially among our talented youth. We can and shall do more.

 

16. Our Economic Diversification Drive (EDD) is a key instrument for job creation. Since its 2010 inception, EDD has been facilitating employment generating business opportunities by promoting the consumption of local products. While our immediate focus has been leveraging public procurement in support of domestic industries, as we move forward our emphasis will shift to developing greater internal capacity for export-led growth, while continuing to value local goods and services.

 

17.  So far a total of P13.3 billion worth of goods and services were recorded since the inception of the initiative. Out of this figure, the value of local manufacturers and service providers (EDD purchases) amounted to P590.5 million for 2010/2011, P1.8 billion for 2011/2012 and 2012/2013 and P2.3 billion for 2013/2014. Over one thousand enterprises have so far been registered under the EDD Programme, which has contributed to the employment of 28,000 Batswana.

 

18. We have already begun implementing our EDD Medium to Long Term Strategy, to develop sustainable sectors for economic growth and diversification. A leading example is the Leather Sub-sector Strategy, which is focused on the establishment of a Leather Park in Lobatse at a total cost of about P225 million. Government has agreed to finance the park’s primary infrastructure, a Common Effluent Treatment Plant, estimated to cost P102 million, while other components of the project will be financed through private sector investment.

 

19. Government had also budgeted over P20 million to provide temporary assistance for over 12 months to support 34 textile companies, employing 2,912 workers.

 

20. While the nurturing of SMMEs, support for existing industries and value addition remain critical in our achievement of job creation, we further anticipate that over the next few years local formal sector employment will be generated with the emergence of new economic opportunities through the synergies generated by the development growth nodes or clusters across the country.

 

21. In the Chobe region, for example, we anticipate an expansion of opportunities in tourism, construction, transport services and agriculture resulting from the construction of the road and rail bridge at Kazangula and phase one of the water pipeline to Pandamatenga, along with associated infrastructure. It is estimated that when completed these two mega-projects will create over 9000 permanent jobs.

 

22. Additional emerging labour intensive opportunities are already being generated in our urban areas, as reflected in Selebi-Phikwe’s development as a metallurgical hub, the continued growth of Gaborone as a global diamond as well as regional technical services centre, and Francistown’s growth as a nexus for trade and transport. We further anticipate additional jobs through synergies generated by new mining activities, the continued expansion of commercial agriculture and the development of Trans-Kgalagadi road and potential rail corridor.

 

COMPETITIVENESS    

 

23. A key to unlocking these job creation opportunities will be increasing our global competitiveness. To improve our competitiveness ranking in the area of goods market efficiency we have tightened our market monitoring for greater efficiency in the provision of goods and services, while the Competition Authority is reviewing mergers and potential cartel activity involving both local and foreign companies.

 

24. Madam Speaker, job creation is inevitably linked to investment. In this respect the latest FDI Intelligence report indicates that Global Greenfield FDI showed signs of recovery, increasing by an estimated 11% from 2012 to 2013. The increase in local investment has been even greater, with UNCTAD’s 2014 World Investment report showing Botswana having grown by 27% in 2013.

 

25.  The Botswana International Trade Centre (BITC) continues to promote our country as a competitive location for investment, making business contacts and generating leads. During the 2013-2014 financial year, BITC helped realise a total combined investment capital of just over 1 billion pula, of which P 642 million was from foreign direct investment (FDI) and P449 million came from new domestic investments. In 2012/13, BITC further recorded P1.9 billion worth of goods and services exported into the region and beyond, of which P738 million was attributable to financial and international business services by the financial services cluster.

 

26. Botswana was ranked number one in the 2014 Baseline Profitability Index, surpassing Hong Kong as a location for medium to long term returns on investment. In essence the Index suggests that investors can expect to do well here once they have established themselves in our market.

 

27. Government is, furthermore, working to limit the number of licenses and permits, while allowing mixed land use zoning, adopting risk based approach for Environmental Impact Assessments and Management Plans, and decentralising the management of electricity connections.

 

28.  Government has also embarked on a National Work Ethic programme to promote productivity. So far, 254 facilitators have been assessed to implement the programme, which commenced in May 2014.

 

29. The drafting of a Bill which will provide the legal framework for the establishment of Special Economic Zones and the Special Economic Zone Authority is being finalized.

 

30. The Rural Development Council (RDC) has been upgraded as the national consultative body to promote and coordinate the implementation of rural development policies and programmes. As a result community based projects such as the Zutshwa Salt Project and the Mogobane Irrigation Scheme, to mention some, have been resuscitated.

 

CITIZEN EMPOWERMENT

 

31. Madam Speaker, it is pleasing to note that to date, CEDA has funded 5,462 enterprises with a total value of nearly P8.55 billion, in the process creating over 48,935 thousand jobs.  During the 2013/14 financial year, CEDA assisted 151 new enterprises with a total monetary value of P152 million, collectively generating 1042 new jobs.

 

32. Since its inception, LEA has also facilitated the creation of 4995 new jobs, including 568 in the ongoing financial year. The Authority has further trained a total of 9,317 entrepreneurs. In an effort to inculcate an entrepreneurial culture, LEA embarked upon the Entrepreneurship Awareness Workshops among secondary school leavers, vocational trainees and prison inmates; over 26,000 of whom have been trained.

 

33. Madam Speaker, through the Botswana Bureau of Standards (BOBS), we have encouraged our small and medium enterprises to implement quality assurance activities within their businesses. Progress has been made in certification of goods especially in the building and construction industry. To further ensure that prescribed goods entering our borders comply with domestic standards, a BOBS office has been opened at the Tlokweng Border.

 

RULE OF LAW

 

34. Madam Speaker, adherence to the rule of law remains a cornerstone to our national development. It is thus encouraging that independent comparative surveys, as well as domestic polling, consistently place us among the best in the world as well as first in Africa in terms of our upholding the rule of law while ensuring the safety and security of all our citizens. These surveys include:

 

• 2014 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, where we ranked first in the category of safety and security;

• World Justice Project’s 2014 Rule of Law Index, where we were ranked 25th in the world as well as first in Africa;

• 2014 Global Peace Index where we were at 36th place, ranking above half of European countries surveyed;

• 2014 Legatum Index for Governance and Rule of Law, where we were ranked 28th in the world; and

• 2013 Global Democracy Index, where besides ranking 35 out of 167 countries we achieved a near perfect score in the area of civil liberties.

 

35.  In light of such reputable findings it is unfortunate to say the least that some individuals, working through foreign as well as domestic media, including rumour mongering on social media, have attempted to instil the perception of Batswana living in fear. This is in an apparent effort to undermine this country’s longstanding and shared record of peace, order and good Government.

 

36. While the mass circulation of false and malicious reports intended to incite undue alarm may be aimed at promoting the political agenda of some, it is at the collective cost of tarnishing the image of the country as a whole. It is also a threat to the economy we all must depend upon for our livelihoods. Such disinformation should therefore be rejected with contempt by all peace-loving Batswana. All citizens, residents and potential visitors to Botswana can be confident that this Government will continue to both abide and uphold the rule of law without fear or favour.

 

37. Let me, nonetheless, also observe that we have not, and shall not, allow past achievements or international accolades to breed complacency as we recognise that, here as elsewhere, criminal activity is constantly evolving and increasingly sophisticated. We therefore remain determined to pursue a zero tolerance approach to all forms of criminal activity, including corruption.

 

38. To counter emerging domestic and trans-national challenges the Police Service has deployed integrated law enforcement strategies to combat all forms of criminality and anti-social behaviour. This has involved an ongoing redirection of resources to deal with violent and intrusive, cross border and cyber based criminal activities.

 

39. Whilst total recorded crime excluding road traffic violations rose by 4.7% during the year 2013, significant reductions were, however, registered in respect of violent and intrusive crimes.  Offences in this category, which included burglary, store breaking, robbery, house breaking, threats to kill, murder, rape, motor vehicle and stock theft, declined by 15.4%.

 

40. Road traffic management poses an additional policing challenge. Analysis of road accidents shows a youth bias, expressed in reckless driving, often aggravated by the influence of alcohol. As a result of the increase in the intensity of road policing initiatives, the number of detected road traffic offences rose by 32.4%, while there was a corresponding decrease in the number of fatal road accidents by 2.6%.

 

41. Madam Speaker, the Department of Prisons and Rehabilitation continues to improve security in the prisons and rehabilitation of offenders. While overcrowding has been a problem in some of the Prison institutions, there has been substantial reduction in congestion since 2008. In June 2014 there were 3824 offenders held in prisons, which was 13% below the authorised holding capacity.

 

42. Madam Speaker, the internal and external challenges of today’s constantly changing security landscape, call for a structurally aligned, strategically focused and adequately resourced, as well as highly trained and motivated, defence force. The BDF will thus continue to evolve its structures and strategies to defend the nation, while continuing to provide assistance to other law enforcement agencies in combating crime, including poaching.

 

ACCESS TO JUSTICE

 

43. Madam Speaker, as was most recently demonstrated in the Judgments of the High Court and the Court of Appeal upholding the constitutionality of the Standing Orders of this very House, our Judiciary continues to independently and effectively deliver on its constitutional mandate of settling disputes, both large and small, without fear or favour.  This Government will, as always, respect decisions of the Courts and expects all citizens to do the same.  Equally, we must all display tolerance and recognize everyone’s right to approach the Courts for the resolution of any legal issue no matter how strongly we may disagree.

 

44. To improve everyday access to justice several special court projects like the stock theft, maintenance, traffic, small claims and most recently corruption court have been put in place so as to speed up and improve the case disposal rates, while promoting greater access to justice by simplifying court rules and processes to make them more user friendly.  In addition a Court Annexed Mediation will be in place by the end of the current financial year.  This f

Map of the Day: Suicide as a Global Health Priority

More than 800,000 people commit suicide each year. Compare that to the Syrian Civil War, which has killed almost 200,000 people in the past three years. Which topic has gotten more coverage in the media? Suicide rarely receives the attention that it deserves, and as a result, many suffer in silence, too afraid to reach out for help.

The topic may get more of the exposure that it needs due to the WHO’s new report, its first-ever global survey on suicide. The report includes some startling statistics. Globally, suicides account for 50% of all violent deaths in men and 71% in women. Among young people aged 15-29, suicide is the second leading cause of death globally, after traffic accidents. A person dies by suicide somewhere in the world every 40 seconds.

The WHO admits that its data isn’t perfect, but it does gives a general sense of the prevalence of suicide around the world. In terms of absolute numbers, India is the unfortunate leader. A quarter million Indians committed suicide in 2012. North Korea has the highest rates, experiencing approximately 39.5 suicides per 100,000 people in 2012, compared to a global average of 11.4. South Korea is not far behind, with 36.6 per 100,000. The former Soviet Union and East Africa are also particularly affected.

suicide map, WHO

Source: WHO

In high-income countries, men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women, while in lower-middle-income and low-income countries, they are only 1.7 times more likely.

Last year, the WHO launched a Mental Action Plan 2013-2020. As part of the plan, member states pledged to work toward a 10% reduction in suicides by the end of the decade. This goal actually might be achievable. The global number of suicides fell from 883,000 in 2000 to 804,000 in 2012, a 9% reduction, despite a large increase in world population. But this hides regional variation. China, for example, has reduced suicide rates by 60% in the past 12 years, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central Africa Republic both saw their suicide rates increase by more than 20%.

Much more can be done to actively decrease suicide rates. Only 28 countries have national suicide prevention strategies, and 25 countries still have laws on the books that punish individuals who attempt suicide. Although those laws are usually not carried out, they indicate a failure to classify suicide as a public health problem. A taboo and stigma still surrounds suicide in many places.

Ultimately, suicide is preventable. Individuals at risk can be targeted for help. Risk factors such as previous suicide attempts, mental disorders, harmful use of alcohol, chronic pain, and a family history of suicide can be monitored. Health systems can be changed to allow easier access to care. Media reports can avoid sensationalizing suicide and inspiring “copycat” attempts.

One of the most effective ways to prevent suicide is to simply restrict availability of the means of suicide. Suicides are not always planned out days ahead of time. According to the WHO, “many suicides occur impulsively in moments of crisis and, in these circumstances, ready access to the means of suicide – such as pesticides or firearms – can determine whether a person lives or dies.”

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. The findings in this report make its goal particularly urgent.

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, 7/28/2014

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

July 28, 2014

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

**Please see below for a correction marked with an asterisk.

1:10 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Hope you all enjoyed your weekend.  It’s nice to see you on this Monday afternoon.

We are starting pretty close to on time today, which is a nice, new trend, hopefully that we’ll be able to continue.  The reason for that is I have alongside with me here today the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, who is going to talk to you about a telephone call that the President convened with some of our allies in Europe today. 

I know that over the last couple of weeks you guys have had a lot of questions about what the President is doing in terms of leading the international community’s response to the downing of the Malaysian Airlines jetliner a couple of weeks ago now.  There have also been, obviously, a series of coordinated efforts to increase international pressure on Russia for the actions that they have taken in Ukraine.

So Tony is here to give you a detailed readout of that telephone conversation that the President convened today and answer any questions you may have about our ongoing efforts to coordinate the imposition of economic costs on the Russian regime.  He probably only has 10 or 15 minutes here, so we’ll go through that part of it relatively quickly and then I’ll be around to answer remaining questions you may have.

But I would encourage you, as you’re thinking about the questions you want to ask Tony, to focus on the Russia and Ukraine situation.  I know that there are a lot of newsy developments in Gaza as well, so he can take one or two of those before departing.  But we have to limit this to 10 or 15 minutes. 

So with that, I present Tony Blinken.

MR. BLINKEN:  Josh, thank you. 

Good afternoon.  Let me start by giving you a readout of the President’s videoconference with Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom, President Hollande of France, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, and Prime Minister Renzi of Italy.  I should add that Chancellor Merkel was actually on the phone; the others were on a videoconference.

The primary focus of the conversation today was to talk about Ukraine, and they discussed next steps concerning the crisis there, but also efforts to achieve a cease-fire in Gaza, and the situations in Iraq and Libya.

On Ukraine, they stressed the continued need for unrestricted access to the shoot-down site of Malaysia Air Flight 17 to allow for the recovery of the victims’ remains and for international investigators to proceed with their efforts.  They agreed on the importance of coordinated sanctions measures on Russia for its continued transfer of arms, equipment and fighters into eastern Ukraine, including since the crash, and to press Russia to end its efforts to destabilize the country and instead choose a diplomatic path for resolving the crisis. 

Concerning Gaza, the President noted that Israel has the right to take action to defend itself.  The leaders agreed on the need for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire, noting shared concern about the risk of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.

On Iraq, they discussed the security challenges, welcomed developments in the political process, and urged the swift completion of government coordination and hopefully an inclusive government that results from that.

And then, with respect to Libya, they agreed on the need for an immediate cease-fire among the militias of Tripoli, calling for the seating of the newly elected Council of Representatives, and underscoring support for the U.N. in seeking a resolution to the conflict.  They condemned any use of violence to attack civilians, intimidate officials, or disrupt the political process.

Having said that, let me just spend a few minutes if I can on Ukraine to put this in context.  This was, I think by our count, about the 50th call or videoconference the President has had with his European counterparts since the beginning of this crisis.  And ever since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its campaign to destabilize Ukraine, the President has led the international effort to isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine, to support Ukraine itself, and to reassure our allies.

This effort has produced major strategic gains.  We’ve created space for Ukraine to hold successful presidential elections despite Russian efforts to disrupt them.  And that’s produced the strongest leadership Ukraine has seen since the end of the Cold War.  We’ve created space for Ukraine to sign an association agreement with the European Union despite Russian efforts to prevent that.  And recall that the former President Yanukovich’s last-minute about-face on signing that association agreement is exactly what precipitated this crisis in the first place.  And we’ve forged a robust financial support package for Ukraine led by the IMF.

None of these things just happened.  They were the result of a major, sustained effort by the President to lead the international community.

All of that said, the challenge to Ukraine remains acute.  Ukrainian forces are right now making major gains to regain sovereignty in the east, but at the same time, Russia is doubling down on its own efforts to support the separatists and destabilize the country.  Indeed, it is cynically using all of the attention focused on the crash of MH17 as a cover and distraction for its own efforts.  It’s increased the provision of heavy weaponry across the border.  We’ve seen convoys of tanks, multiple rocket launchers, artillery and armored vehicles.  There’s evidence it’s preparing to deliver even more powerful multiple rocket launchers. 

It is firing from positions inside of Russia into Ukraine — something that we documented this weekend.  And we’ve seen a significant re-buildup of Russian forces along the border, potentially positioning Russia for a so-called humanitarian or peacekeeping intervention in Ukraine.

So there’s urgency to arresting these developments, to ending the efforts to destabilize Ukraine.  And the urgency is this:  First, everything we’re seeing is a real drag on the Ukrainian economy.  The military expenditures that Ukraine has to make are a drag, and the fact that Luhansk and Donetsk, which represent 15 percent of Ukrainian GDP and about 25 percent of its manufacturing exports, are basically taken out of the Ukrainian economy equation is also a drag on the economy.

Second, the longer this goes on there’s the risk of further outrageous actions by the separatists or by Russia that deepen the international crisis.  So there’s a need to take further action now to convince Russia to change course and cease its efforts to destabilize Ukraine. 

On the call, the European leaders clearly shared this assessment and a determination to act.  We expect the European Union to take significant additional steps this week, including in key sectors of the Russian economy.  In turn, and in full coordination with Europe, the United States will implement additional measures itself.

Our purpose here, again, is not to punish Russia, but to make clear that it must cease its support for the separatists and stop destabilizing Ukraine.

Let me just finish by putting this in a larger context.  Everything we’ve seen as a result of Russia’s actions and the actions that the President has led in the international community over these many months has turned what is happening in Ukraine into a strategic loser for Russia.  First, we’ve seen a dramatic impact on the Russian economy by the sanctions that the United States, Europeans and others have taken. 

These are acknowledged by the Russian Finance Minister and, indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister, even Putin himself.  Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia and a proxy for the larger economy, a month ago, in announcing a steep decline in profits, said, “In particular, recent events in Ukraine significantly impacted the dynamics of the Russian economy.”

We’ve seen the financial markets go up and down, the ruble hitting lows, the Central Bank has had to spend $37 billion to defend the ruble, about 8 percent of its foreign exchange holdings.  The result is higher borrowing costs and a decrease in the value of Russian savings. 

Capital flight — $70 billion in the first half of this year, more than all of 2013 combined.  And projections for the entire year put it at between $100 billion and $200 billion. 

Foreign investment is drying up.  Investors are looking for stability; they’re looking at countries that keep their international commitments; they’re looking at countries that have connected to the international economy.  On all three counts, Russia is giving them great pause.  The credit rating for Russia was cut to just above the junk level; financing yields are frozen; Russian companies are not issuing bonds to raise capital. And as we’ve seen overall, Russia is heading for economic contraction, not growth, a significant reversal from just a few months ago.

Let me add as well, there’s talk that Russia has “won Crimea.”  But the fact of the matter is what’s happened is it’s lost Ukraine.  Ukraine is more united in a Western orientation than ever before and has a much greater sense of national identity.  We’ve produced, as I mentioned before, the space for elections and the signing of the association agreement with the European Union. 

Crimea itself is becoming a dead weight on the Russian economy — $7 billion a year at least in budget and pension support; $50 to $60 billion required over the next several years for critical infrastructure.  And Russians themselves are asking why this money is being spent in Crimea and not in Russia.  There’s downward pressure on defense spending; there’s downward pressure on discretionary spending as a result of this.

We’ve seen the actions in Ukraine reenergize NATO.  There’s a deeper commitment to Article 5.  NATO itself, it now has a virtual regular presence, a continuous air, land and sea presence on the territory adjacent to Russia.  And we’ll see what happens at the NATO summit, but there’s at least the prospect now for reversing the downward trend in defense spending.

We’ve seen on energy reform a jolt to the Europeans to take real steps to decrease dependence, to diversify supply, to upgrade infrastructure, to develop new sources.

And then, finally, I would say this:  For the Russians and for President Putin, power equals a combination of geopolitical influence and economic strength to provide for the Russian people.  There was a recent survey in Russia — the top two priorities of the Russian people were evenly split:  international influence and creating the conditions for individual prosperity.  As a result of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and as a result of the leadership we’ve exerted, both of those are in jeopardy.  And so is President Putin’s compact with his own people.

There is a way out:  Integrate Russia with the international economy, diversify away from fossil fuels, and play by the rules. That is still on offer.  That is still a possibility.  We would like nothing better than to resolve this crisis in Ukraine diplomatically.  And that’s now up to President Putin.

Q    Thank you very much for this update.  Could you also update us on the U.S. response to the criticism that Senator Kerry has come under in Israel after his attempts to implement a cease-fire there?  Is that damaging to the U.S.-Israel relationship?

MR. BLINKEN:  Let me say this about Secretary Kerry:  Israel has no better friend, no stronger defender.  No one has done more to help Israel achieve a secure and lasting peace.  He has been tireless in his efforts.  And I think that Israel and many countries and friends around the world recognizes exactly that.

Q    Has the President raised this in his call with the Prime Minister yesterday?  Or have U.S. officials been complaining about the criticism to counterparts in Israel?

MR. BLINKEN:  No.  Look, what you see, I think, unfortunately on a regular basis, are people leaking things that are either misinformed or attempting to misinform.  And in particular, with regard to criticism that was levied by undisclosed sources about the proposal for a cease-fire, the proposal that was criticized was not a U.S. proposal, it was a draft to illicit comments from the Israelis.  It was basically a discussion paper based on the original Egyptian initiative.  Virtually every element that unidentified sources complained about was in the initial Egyptian proposal and agreed to by Israel 10 days before.

In that, there was no mention of the need for disarmament. The document underscored the need for discussion between Israel and Palestinian factions.  It called for the opening of border crossings.  It did not make mention of tunnels.  All of this, again, in the Egyptian proposal that the Israelis had accepted and unfortunately Hamas did not.  The document also reflected the strong view that we have that demilitarization as well as reconstruction in Gaza are critical agenda items for any negotiations that follow a cease-fire.

So the bottom line on this is that what was leaked, unfortunately, was I think an effort to misinform or was just misinformed.

Q    The sanctions that we’ve seen so far have been fairly targeted against Russia.  Would you describe the sweeping nature of what you’re talking about later this week being coordinated between Europe and the United States?

MR. BLINKEN:  I don’t want to get ahead of where the Europeans are or where we are, and we’ll see that in the days to come.  But what we know is this:  The Europeans made clear last week that they were prepared to act in key sectors of the Russian economy, including the financial sector, the arms sector, the energy sector.  And so I think you can anticipate actions in those areas.  Similarly, they’re looking to broaden criteria by which they can sanction people or entities.  And I think one of the things they’re looking at is to bring in some of the cronies of President Putin. 

So we’ve already seen with the sanctions to date, as I went through a few moments ago, a very serious impact on the Russian economy.  And indeed, it’s the sanctions themselves and then the climate of tremendous uncertainty they create, even with the prospect of more sanctions, that has led to capital flight, investment drying up and the growth projections going down to basically zero.

Q    And when you talk about this force that’s building up  — the Russians are building up, are they preparing a Russian invasion of Ukraine?

MR. BLINKEN:  One of the things that we believe Russia has been trying to do is, for example, to get the Ukrainians to take some action that they can then use as “justification” for some kind of intervention — so-called humanitarian intervention, or so-called peacekeeping intervention.  So that’s one of the things that we think is in the potential Russian playbook.

The other thing they’re doing, most significantly, is increasing the supply of heavy equipment, weapons and fighters to the separatists across the border.  And this is well documented in what we’ve seen; it’s well documented in social media.

Q    In talking about that buildup and the heavier artillery, are we talking about more surface-to-air missile capability?

MR. BLINKEN:  We are talking about multi-rocket launchers — that’s one of the things we’re seeing — artillery pieces, tanks, armored vehicles, and the concerns, as I said at the outset, about increasingly heavy weaponry.  And I think there’s a reason for this, and the reason is that on the battlefield itself the Ukrainians are doing very well against the separatists in trying to regain the sovereignty of their entire country.  So Russia’s proxies are right now on the losing end of the fight.  And that’s why we think Russia is doubling down.

Q    Do you think there are still Buk missile launchers within Ukraine at this point?

MR. BLINKEN:  We believe that there are SA-11s that are still within Ukraine, including potentially in separatists’ hands.

Q    A two-parter.  How did you arrive at $37 billion spent to defend the ruble?  And second, are there any other security things you’re looking at besides rocket launchers and tanks and heavy equipment? 

MR. BLINKEN:  I think the $37 billion has actually been fairly well documented in the financial press and by other statements that have been made.  We can get you the backup for that.

And in terms of the military equipment that the Russians are providing, again, those are the main elements, but there are certainly other things that are going in.  But in terms of heavy weaponry, those are the critical elements.

Q    You’ve been talking about actions that have been taken this week by the EU and U.S.  I want to go back to something that Josh said from the podium Friday about Russia and Putin were culpable for the downing of Flight 17.  Is there a chance, is there a possibility that Putin could be charged in the International Crimes Court with war crimes, by any chance, with all of this that’s going on right now?

MR. BLINKEN:  When it comes to Russian culpability, I think the record is clear.  The Russians have been directly supporting the separatists with the provision of weapons.  We believe that the SA-11 that was used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner came from Russia.  We don’t know who was operating it.  We believe the weapon itself came from Russia.  The three top leading separatist leaders are all Russian nationals.  So it’s clear that Russia has a significant influence over the separatists and could, if it so desired, get them to cease and desist.

So, in that sense, there is a clear and ongoing culpability by Russia for events in eastern Ukraine and for a failure to de-escalate the situation, and indeed, for the context in which all of this is happening, including the shoot-down of the airliner.

In terms of pointing to exactly who pulled the trigger, that we don’t know yet and we’ll see if we can develop that information.  But the bottom line is this:  Through its ongoing support and increasing support for the separatists, Russia bears responsibility for everything that’s going on in eastern Ukraine.

Q    So you’re saying technically he could be brought before the International Crimes Court?

MR. BLINKEN:  Look, I don’t want to get ahead of anything.  Again, the main point is to emphasize that Russia bears responsibility and has the ability to actually de-escalate this crisis by moving it onto a diplomatic track.  That is what we’d most like to see.

Q    I don’t know if you’re aware of reports that just came now that Gaza Central Hospital has been hit, and 10 more dead Palestinian children.  You said that the United States is Israel’s best friend, which I tend to agree with you.  You also provide them with $3 billion a year, and you give them the Iron Dome that saved countless lives.  How come you don’t have any leverage over Israel to extract a humanitarian cease-fire that would last for seven days?  Does that mean that you basically have no influence over them, or that just Israel doesn’t care?

MR. BLINKEN:  First, I haven’t seen those specific reports. Second, the record is clear:  Israel has repeatedly accepted cease-fires that Hamas has rejected.  So the bottom line on that is clear.

Let me say more generally, no country can abide rockets raining down on its people or terrorists tunneling underground to kill or kidnap its people.  We have consistently and repeatedly defended Israel’s right to defend itself.  Hamas intentionally targets civilians.  And indeed, Iron Dome, thankfully, is there and has protected many of those civilians.  And it uses the Palestinian people as human shields, wrapping them around its weapons and strategic sites. 

In contrast, Israeli policy is to avoid civilian casualties. Indeed, it holds itself to the highest standards to take every precaution to avoid those casualties.  But the fact is, despite its efforts, the civilian suffering in Gaza is great and growing every day.  So the practical reality is that it is difficult for Israel to meet its own high standards.  Civilian casualties are increasing.  It’s especially heartbreaking to see children suffering in this crisis.

This is a problem we have grappled with in Iraq and then in Afghanistan because we, too, hold ourselves to these standards.  It’s incredibly difficult to sustain them.  But I think this underscores the urgency of getting an unconditional, immediate, humanitarian cease-fire.

Q    — said yesterday — just a quick a follow-up — that he wants Gaza demilitarized.  What does that mean in terms of a long-term strategy or a peace negotiation or now as we talk in the next week or so?

MR. BLINKEN:  As I said, we support an immediate, unconditional, humanitarian pause leading, we hope, to a sustainable cease-fire.  We also believe that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must also lead to the disarmament of terrorist groups.  And what we intend to do is to work closely with Israel, regional partners and the international community to achieve this goal.
MR. EARNEST:  Ann, I’ll give you the last one, then we’ll let Tony go.

Q    Thank you very much.  On Russia, if all the impact of all of these sanctions and all the threat of sanctions are as dire as you’ve described, why hasn’t Putin blinked?

MR. BLINKEN:  He has to make a strategic decision.  And you’re exactly right, he hasn’t made it yet.  We’ve seen him on a regular basis pull back tactically, say the right things in public while he’s doing the wrong things behind the scenes.  So he’s clearly sensitive to the pressure that’s being exerted.  But it’s precisely because we’ve not yet seen a strategic turn from Putin that we believe it’s absolutely essential to take additional measures.  And that’s what the Europeans and the United States intend to do this week.

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you, Tony.

MR. BLINKEN:  Thanks, Josh.  Thank you.

Q    Thank you, Tony.

MR. EARNEST:  All right before we move on to other topics, I do want to do one thing at the top.  And I believe we have a slide that goes along with this — there it is.  Today we got some very good news about Medicare’s financial future.  In the President’s first year in office in 2009, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security trustees projected the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would not be able to pay its bills in 2017, just three years from now.  Today’s new date is 2030 — 13 years later than that projection in 2009, an improvement that is thanks in part to the reforms of the Affordable Care Act, such as efforts to reduce hospital spending on preventable readmissions.  And today’s date, you’ll note, is actually even four years later than was projected just last year.

A couple other relevant statistics that are included in the report:  Furthermore, per-capita growth, or the amount spent per Medicare beneficiary has slowed dramatically in recent years, falling to one-third of what it was, and to nearly zero last year — helping to restrain overall growth in Medicare spending even as millions of baby boomers enter the program. 

In addition, the trustees project that the Medicare Part B premium will not increase, which would make 2015 the second year in a row that premiums in Medicare stay flat.

While today’s report focuses on Medicare, it reflects broader trends in the health care system toward much slower growth in costs, a trend that has continued into 2014.  Over the 50 months since enactment of the Affordable Care Act, health care prices have risen at a slower rate than over any comparable period in 50 years. 

So that is a report that is being released as we speak, and so there will obviously be some more details included in that report later today when you get a chance to review it.

So with that, Nedra, do you have any additional questions today?

Q    I do.  Can you give us your response to the VA deal?  Does the President think it does enough to solve the problem with the health care system?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nedra, this compromise has been announced between House Republicans and the chair of the Senate Veterans Committee.  We certainly welcome that announcement.  There are a couple of reasons based on published reports that we’re encouraged by that compromise.

The first is, as you even heard me mention on Friday, there are much-needed reforms that need to be implemented into the Veterans Administration.  The President and others have called for those important management reforms to be implemented, and again, based on press reports, the indications of those reforms are that many of them are included in this bill.

The second thing — and this is really important — on July 16th, Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson called for Congress to provide VA the additional resources necessary to deliver timely, high-quality care to veterans through a strengthened VA system while also temporarily using care in the community to help ensure veterans can get the care they need when they need it.

When he asked for those additional resources to address some very specific concerns that he had laid out, that was something that had previously not been part of the debate as it relates to this VA reform package.  So the inclusion of these additional resources at the strong urging of the Acting Secretary is a positive step in the right direction, and something that we think will be very important to the success of some of the reforms that are contemplated by this bill.

In addition, this proposal for on a temporary, as-needed basis to allow some veterans to get some access to care in the community is also the kind of thing that could address the immediate need that many veterans have, but by adding these additional resources over the long term, we feel like those are benefits and care that can be provided through the VA.

So the details of this compromise have yet to be unveiled, so I don’t want to get ahead of the announcement that is planned for Capitol Hill later today.  But the early reports are positive.

Steve.

Q    Josh, Susan Rice was on MSNBC a while ago.  She talked about a grave and deepening concern at the civilian casualties in Gaza.  What exactly would you like the Israelis to do?  Are you calling on them to call off the offensive?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Steve, we have said many times — I think Tony just had the opportunity to say that we defend Israel’s right to defend themselves.  In fact, you could make a case, and many Israeli political leaders do, that they have a responsibility to make sure that they’re taking steps militarily to account for the safety of civilians on the Israeli side of the border.  This is, after all, the Israeli population that elected them, and they are in the best position to determine what steps are necessary to protect their citizens.  That is their right.

At the same time, Israel leaders often say that they have in place very high standards to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians on the other side of the border, as well.  That stands in stark contrast to the strategy that is deployed by Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza that are intentionally targeting civilians on the other side of the border.  They are also intentionally using civilians on their side of the border to try to essentially shield their equipment and their personnel from Israeli military activities.  So there is a stark contrast in the approach that’s taken by the Israelis and taken by Hamas and other extremist groups. 

That said, as I mentioned, Israel and their political leaders often talk about the high standards that they put in place for their military operations to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians — innocent civilians on the Palestinian side of the border.  Based on published reports, it’s apparent that there is more that they should do to live up to those standards that they have set.  And that is something that we routinely encourage them to do, while defending their right to defend themselves.  The President reiterated that in his phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday.

Michelle.

Q    For months, we’ve been talking about increasing sanctions against Russia, and sort of the ultimate would be these sweeping sectoral sanctions.  So can you explain why that hasn’t happened now?  Why is this not the time to go that far, and still do these kind of slow, incremental building sanctions?

MR. EARNEST:  I would say that the sanctions regime that the President rolled out about a week and a half ago, the day before the downing of the Malaysian Airlines jetliner, did take a step in that very direction.  These were sectoral sanctions that were aimed at specific entities in the defense, financial and energy sectors. 

There was an indication from our European partners that they were taking the preliminary steps necessary to implement similar sanctions in their own right, but those steps have not yet been taken by the Europeans.  That is something that was discussed by the President and his counterparts in Western Europe earlier today, as Tony mentioned.

So there have been some steps that the United States has taken to put in place and impose economic costs against President Putin and the Russian regime.  Tony detailed the economic impact that those sanctions were having.  But as Ann rightly pointed out in her question, it is true that the costs have not yet led to the kind of strategic re-evaluation that we would like to see the Russians undertake.  That is why the international community is actively considering imposing additional costs by having the Europeans increase the amount of sanctions that they have currently levied.  It’s also why the United States is considering additional steps that we could take that would pose additional economic costs on Russia and on President Putin.

Q    Well, so the question was really — I mean, we all know that it’s sort of these very precise, let’s pick this bank or that bank; it’s not on the entire Russian banking system.  Do you think there’s still any leverage left in doing it that way?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m certainly not an expert in terms of the way that these tools are deployed.  But it is our view that there is additional leverage that can be gained.  That is certainly why they’re being contemplated both by leaders in Western Europe, but also by those who do have an expertise in this field in this country. 

As Tony documented, there are a number of economic consequences that Russia has already had to bear in terms of the outflow of private capital, in terms of the downward revisions in their economic projections.  We’ve also seen Russia expend significant sums of money to try to shore up the strength of their own currency.

So there are a number of steps that Russia has taken, and a number of outside evaluators who have reviewed the situation to confirm our suspicion that the economic costs have taken a toll on the Russian economy but they have not yet led President Putin to re-evaluate his strategy in Ukraine.  And that ultimately is our goal.

Bob.

Q    Josh, a quick follow-up on the VA bill.  Is $10 billion enough?  They’ve unveiled it up on the Hill, so is $10 billion enough to take care of the system with its deep, deep troubles right now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’re still evaluating the specifics and details of their package, so I don’t want to get — I don’t want to say any more than I already have.  But in the next couple of days, we may be in a position to comment on that a little further.

Cheryl.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  The House and Senate are very divided on the border supplemental right now.  If they can’t come to agreement by the end of the week, what is the practical effect?  Can you wait until September?

MR. EARNEST:  Cheryl, I would refer you to the individual agencies for the impact that Congress’s failure to pass the supplemental appropriations request would have on their ability to perform the functions that they are required to perform. 

We are hopeful that Congress will take the kind of action that is required.  Both Democrats and Republicans have spoken quite publicly about their concerns about the situation at the border.  This administration has been really clear about what we feel like we need in terms of resources to deal with the influx that we saw of those who were apprehended at the border earlier this summer.

So there’s a detailed package that we’ve put forward.  As I mentioned last week, the Speaker, at a news conference at the end of the week, said that he was still discussing this matter with members of his own caucus.  That was a pretty disappointing development in the part of this administration.  We put forward a detailed package — I happened to bring it with me right here — it includes very detailed numbers about what we feel is necessary.

I noticed that the new Republican Whip was on one of the Sunday shows yesterday and noted that the administration was asking for a — what he described as a blank check.  It makes me think he’s not sure — that he doesn’t know what a blank check is.  We’ve actually been very specific about the numbers that we feel are necessary to deal with this problem and to address the range of concerns that many people have raised about those who have been apprehended at the border.

So we hope that there will be prompt congressional action on this that is in line with their rhetoric on this issue.

Q    Can I follow on that?

MR. EARNEST:  Sure, Wendell, go ahead.

Q    Why isn’t the change in the 2008 law on non-contiguous migrants’ deportation part of that package?  The President had indicated that he supported a change and his advisors say that changing that law would be necessary to send the kids at least from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador back as rapidly as those from Canada and Mexico.  So why is that not a part of that package?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you would have to talk to members of Congress about how they want to put this all together.  What we believe is most important is ensuring that the federal government has the resources necessary to address the range of challenges that are posed by this situation.  Remember, it includes some additional security at the border in the form of surveillance equipment.  It also includes the ability of the federal government to open and operate additional detention centers so that we can detain those individuals who have been apprehended at the border.  It includes some funding for HHS that would allow them to evaluate the basic health needs of those individuals who have been apprehended, both to meet their humanitarian needs, but also to ensure the safety of the broader communities in which they’re detained.

It also includes funding that would allow these repatriation flights to take place so that we could more quickly return those individuals that have been apprehended here to their home countries.  It also, of course, includes additional resources to ensure that those who are apprehended at the border receive the due process to which they’re entitled.  So this means hiring new judges and prosecutors and asylum officials to ensure that that can take place.

Q    But notwithstanding Democrat and Republican differences over the amount of funding, the Republicans say in order to approve some, they’re going to need to change that 2008 law.  Does the President support that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it is unfortunate that you would see them take an absolutist position on this.  We certainly do support Congress taking the necessary steps to give the Secretary of Homeland Security the flexibility he needs and the discretion that he can use to more efficiently and effectively enforce the law.  That is a priority of this administration.

But we should not allow the debate around what should be included in that language to hold up something that everybody agrees is necessary, which is additional resources that can be used by the federal government to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those individuals who are apprehended, but also provide funding that can be used to more quickly return those who are found by the courts to not have a legal basis for remaining in the country.

Chris.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Some members of the Republican Whip team on that have suggested that they’ve gotten surprising support for what is a much smaller check than the one that the White House is asking for, and the $2.7 billion being put forth by the Senate is getting some pushback from Democrats like Joe Manchin, Mary Landrieu and doesn’t seem to have a lot of support on the Republican side.  And you also have a situation where Congress is in session for three and a half days this week.  So with the clock ticking, what do you see as the prognosis and what happens if none of this goes through?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are those here in town and probably those of you here in this room that have a little bit more experience in evaluating congressional action than I do.  So I will leave that analysis and prognostication to the experts.  I’ll simply observe that this administration three weeks ago today put forward a very detailed request before Congress, and asking for those additional resources to address a problem that I think to a person every single member of Congress agreed existed. And what we have seen in Congress is a lot of talk, particularly from Republicans, but not a lot of willingness to act.  And that is rather unfortunate.

And we are hopeful that in the pivotal week that remains before Congress departs Washington for the traditional five-week recess that they’ll take the important steps that are necessary to ensure the federal government has the resources to deal with a problem that, again, I think every single member of Congress agrees exists.

Q    Can I also ask you about a Reuters’ report that just came out?  I don’t have any more details than this, that Netanyahu says Israel “must be prepared for protracted Gaza campaign.”  And I wonder if it’s possible that there could be a military victory for Israel, but a loss for them in both the political realm and the court of public opinion.  Can I get your reaction to that statement by Benjamin Netanyahu?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s hard to react to a statement that occurred while I was standing up here.  But let me say that it is the position of the United States that it is in the best interests of people on both sides of the border for a cease-fire to take effect.  And the reason for that is pretty simple, that as long as the violence continues across the border, there are going to be innocent civilians in harm’s way.  And having those innocent civilians face that extreme danger has already had terribly tragic consequences for both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people.  And that’s why we want to see that cease-fire put in place. 

There will be an opportunity once that cease-fire is in place for us to have discussions around the kinds of concerns that have legitimately been raised by the Israelis, in particular about Hamas’ repeated willingness to use tunnels and to fire rockets aimed squarely at doing harm to innocent civilians.

So it is the priority of this administration for a cease-fire to be put in place.  That is why you’ve seen Secretary Kerry doggedly pursue diplomacy to protect the lives of innocent civilians on both sides of that border.

Q    Moving on —

MR. EARNEST:  Sure, Ann.

Q    What are the two or three, maybe three or four absolute necessities that the President thinks Congress has to get done by the end of this week?  Would he ask them to delay their recess?  And would he ever consider skipping Kansas City?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as we always say with the President’s travel, his trip to my hometown notwithstanding — (laughter) — as is always the case with the President’s travel, if there is a critically important function of the presidency that cannot be performed from the road, the President will not hesitate to change his schedule in order to fulfill those functions.  So I do not anticipate that anything that’s happening in Congress would require that at this point.  But if something does emerge, something unexpected does emerge, I’m sure that is something that the President would consider.

Q    Will he ask Congress to delay its break?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll let him speak to that.  If he decides that that’s what they should do, then he will say so.  At this point it’s the responsibility of the leaders in Congress to determine their own schedule.

There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of important work that needs to get done this week.  That includes continuing to follow through on these VA reforms on which an agreement was announced over the weekend.  So hopefully that can move forward without any delay or incident.

We certainly would like to see a step taken in terms of passing the supplemental appropriations request that this administration put forward several weeks ago to ensure that the administration has the resources necessary to deal with the problem at the border.

That being said, we could certainly address many of the problems at the border if Congress — if the House were to take action on comprehensive immigration reform legislation that’s already passed the Senate.  The Senate did their work more than a year ago.  Just by taking one simple vote, the House of Representatives could approve that legislation.  The President would sign it.  That would do more to improve our economy, create jobs and reduce the deficit than so many other things that Congress is debating right now.

I think what is the source of particular disappointment on this end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and I think of people in both parties across the country is to see that Congress — House Republicans in particular — are using this very valuable time to debate a piece of legislation that would allow House Republicans to file a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the President of the United States.  I certainly don’t think that rises to the level of a priority that so many of these other things Congress is ignoring right now. 

Let’s move around a little bit.  Leslie.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  With Secretary Kerry unable to get a cease-fire during his trip, and the President talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu last night in what sounded like pretty blunt terms — what are the next steps for the White House?  And do you — to follow up on a previous question, do you believe that there is any leverage left for the United States with Israel?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the United States remains deeply engaged in this effort.  Secretary Kerry has been leading that effort over the last week in terms of the dogged diplomacy that he’s been pursuing.  He’s been meeting with his counterparts not just in Israel and among the leaders of the Palestinian people, but also with his counterparts in Egypt and Qatar and Turkey and the Arab League, the U.N.  He’s been deeply engaged in these conversations in pursuit of a multilateral, international effort to try to bring both sides together and reinstate the terms of the 2012 cease-fire, to try to get those civilians who right now are in harm’s way into a safer position.  That’s been the focal point of our efforts, and we remain engaged in it. 

In terms of our relationship with Israel, the United States remains a strong ally of the nation of Israel.  American leaders say that; Israeli leaders say the same thing.  The best evidence that I have of that is the assistance that the United States has provided to the Israeli government to construct the Iron Dome system that right now is, thankfully, protecting so many Israeli civilians from these rockets that Hamas is firing.  So that relationship remains strong. 

And the reason that Secretary Kerry remains so committed to this effort is that — or at least is in part that we believe it is clearly in the interest of Israel’s long-term security for this cease-fire [violence]* to be brought to an end, and for negotiations between the Palestinian leaders and Israeli leaders to get started in terms of trying to eventually down the line reach this broader, two-state solution.

Roger.

Q    I want to go back to what Tony was saying about the sanctions and the outlook for them.  Is that — if I understood it correctly, the EU is going to go first with their sanctions and probably — or possibly this week, is that correct?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know that he was in a position to talk about the sequencing of the announcement.  But I do think that he committed to our expectation that we would see Europe act before the end of the week.

Q    Would the U.S. act before the end of the week?

MR. EARNEST:  Our position is that the options like that remain on the table, that the United States is prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for their destabilizing activities in Ukraine.  I’m not in a position to confirm for you whether any decisions have been made about carrying out that action or what those actions might look like.   As we’ve talked before, it would be a strategically unwise thing to do to talk about the details of those sanctions before they’re implemented. But I am in a position to confirm that those kinds of options remain on the table when it comes to the United States.

Q    One final — would the U.S. concentrate on any particular sector?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, if we have additional sanctions to announce, then we will be able to get into those kinds of details.  But at this point, it would be preliminary for me to do so.

Q    Josh?

MR. EARNEST:  Goyal. 

Q    Thank you.  Two questions.  One, some people in the Congress want to close down the 84-year-old Export-Import Bank.  And many small businesses are saying that it is helping small businesses export U.S. goods abroad and also creating thousands of jobs in the U.S.  My question is that some people in the Congress are saying that it is helping only the big companies.  What is the President’s action — or reaction about this bank?  Next month will expire the —

MR. EARNEST:  The President does believe that Congress should take steps to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.  That’s not just the view of this administration and many Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, it’s also the view of organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce.  Those are two organizations that don’t often agree with the President when it comes to some aspects of American economic policy.

But that is an area where this administration agrees that the Export-Import Bank plays a positive role in creating jobs and creating opportunities for American businesses to succeed by opening up markets around the world.

Q    Second question — oh, by the way, it has also created jobs between India and U.S. trade.  Second question is that as far as U.S. ambassador to India is concerned, you think U.S. will have an ambassador before Prime Minister Modi visits the White House end of September?  And second, what is happening as far as Mr. Modi’s address to the Congress?  Is White House is supporting it?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any personnel announcements at this time, Goyal.  But when we have any updates in terms of appointing an ambassador to India, we’ll let you know.

Q    And address — U.S. address, Mr. Modi’s address to the U.S. Congress, is White House supporting it, the President?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of those conversations.

Bill. 

Q    Josh, there was an unusual editorial in The New York Times yesterday, I’m sure you saw, urging the lifting of the prohibition against — the federal prohibition against marijuana. What is the White House’s position on that?  Would you endorse that?  It’s been there for 44 years.  Maybe too long and time to change it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I did read the editorial yesterday, Bill.  The administration’s position on this issue has not changed.  We remain committed to treating drug use as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice problem. 

In light of state laws that legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults in Colorado and Washington, the Department of Justice issued updated guidance last August to federal prosecutors in all states.  That guidance reiterates that marijuana remains an illegal substance based on the laws that Congress has passed.  But it also recognizes that we have limited enforcement resources, and that those resources are best used to address the most significant threats to our communities.

That was the policy before The New York Times editorial, and it continues to be our policy today.

Q    So does that mean that if other states follow Colorado and Washington, the administration would also give them a green light to go ahead and legalize marijuana without federal interference?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not sure a green light is the technical term that the Department of Justice has used.  (Laughter.)  But in terms of the guidance that might be offered to those states, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.

Q    “Blessing” or whatever word you’d want to use.

MR. EARNEST:  The Department of Justice issued guidance like that.  So if there are other states that are contemplating these kinds of steps, you should check with the Department of Justice about that.

Yes, ma’am.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  Yesterday, North Korea military member had announced that North Korea will attack United States, and especially they point to the White House and Canada with using their nuclear missiles.  What is your comment on their threatening like this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I have not seen the reports of those specific threats.   I would encourage you to check with my National Security Council colleagues about that.  The United States remains very committed to our alliance with the Republic of Korea, and that alliance allows us to have a strong military-to-military relationship with South Korea to ensure their security.  The United States remains committed as ever to the safety and security of the Republic of Korea.

Q    So you don’t have a strong reaction to them?  Because this is the first time they mentioned the White House and Pentagon specifically.

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I’m not in a position to comment specifically in reaction to those comments because I have not seen them. 

Q    Can I follow on Israel please?

MR. EARNEST:  Let’s move around a little bit.  Zeke. 

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Just with regards to the President’s trip tomorrow, can you give us any reason why is he staying an extra night in your hometown if he’s not doing a fundraiser as you said on Friday?

MR. EARNEST:  At my own personal recommendation.  (Laughter.)  No, look, we’ll have a little bit more about the President’s trip tomorrow.  This will be an opportunity for the President to spend some time in that wonderful community.  He’s going to spend some time talking to individuals who have written him a letter.  You’ve seen on the last couple of trips the President has taken across the country, he’s spent a little extra time in the community to visit with those who have written him letters about the way that individuals in these individual communities are benefiting from some of the policies the President is putting forward and how they could benefit from some of the policies the President is pushing on Congress to implement.  So we’ll have some more detail on that tomorrow.

Q    Tuesday night or Wednesday?

MR. EARNEST:  The President is departing tomorrow.  He’ll remain —

Q    — the letters segment, when he’s going to visit people, is that going to be —
MR. EARNEST:  I believe he’ll have the opportunity to do that both Tuesday evening, as well as on Wednesday. 

Q    One other real quick, just on Secretary Kerry.  Those leaked conversations or however you want to categorize them, is that jeopardizing the U.S. government’s ability to have candid conversations with the Israeli government?  Or do you envision any sort of lasting impact on sort of the relationship between the Obama administration and the Israeli government as a result of these leaks?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think Tony made clear that we were disappointed to read them.  But I do not anticipate that they are going to have much of an impact on the very strong, robust relationship that exists between the United States and our allies in Israel.

Q    And, finally, does Secretary Kerry coming back to the United States and the President conducting that phone call yesterday and the one today, is this a shift — is the President going to take a more active personal role now that Secretary Kerry’s efforts have at least temporarily failed?  Is the President going to try to use his own convening authority?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I do anticipate that the President will continue to be in regular touch with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  That has been the case over the last several weeks of this crisis that has been ongoing in Gaza.  And I do anticipate the President will continue to get regularly briefed by his team and will continue to be on the phone with his counterparts in the region who have concerns about the outcome here.  So I do think that the President will continue to be engaged in this. 

In terms of the next steps, those conversations will continue.  But ultimately, as we’ve said in similar circumstances as it relates to situations like this, it’s ultimately the responsibility of the two sides to come together.  What the international community and what the United States can certainly do is use our influence with both sides to press them to come to an agreement that’s in the best interest of their citizens.

As we’ve pointed out many times, we believe that a cease-fire is in the best interest of civilians on both sides of this conflict.  We just need the leaders of both sides to take the kinds of steps that will impose a cease-fire and allow the leaders to sit around the table and try to broker an agreement here.  And that’s what we’re going to continue to be focused on.

Q    But over the last week, Secretary Kerry was the point person in trying to bring those two sides together.  Has that changed this week?  Will the President be trying to bring the two sides to a multilateral agreement together?

MR. EARNEST:  I guess what I would say — the point that I’m trying to make, Zeke, is that I think there have been a range of officials who have been actively engaged in trying to resolve the situation — the President, first and foremost among them.  It was, however, the case last week that Secretary Kerry was the most senior U.S. official on the ground in the region trying to roll up his sleeves and broker an agreement between those who were involved in this situation. 

So those efforts will continue, even though Secretary Kerry is not actually in the region.  But if he needs to return, I’m sure that he will not hesitate to hop back on the plane and get back to work.

Chris.

Q    Josh, while you were at the podium, the Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed that Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  It’s the third federal court appeals ruling and the latest in an unbroken string in rulings against the marriage ban since the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA last year.  Any thoughts on this latest decision and the unanimous string of these decisions against marriage bans?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Chris, I haven’t — as you pointed out, the decision was handed down while I was up here, so I have not had an opportunity to talk to anybody on our team who was able to analyze the decision.  But based on the way that you’ve described it, it does sound like the kind of decision that is consistent with the President’s views on this topic.  I think that’s the best I can do. 

All right, guys, we’ll see you tomorrow. 

END
2:04 P.M. EDT

Press Releases: Remarks on the Trafficking in Persons Report 2014

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Thank you, operator. I’m Jeff Rathke, director of the Press Office here at the State Department. And today we’re doing a call with Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who is Ambassador-At-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons. So today’s call will be on the record, but it will be embargoed until the end of Secretary Kerry’s rollout event.

So Ambassador CdeBaca has been in this position for a number of years; he doesn’t really need any introduction to most of you. So I will just turn it over to him and ask him to give us introduction to this year’s report, and then we’ll take some questions afterwards. So please, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Thanks, Jeff. Hello, everybody, and welcome. As Jeff said, Secretary Kerry will be unveiling the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report. This, of course, is a congressionally mandated report that has us look at the governments around the world and what they are doing to combat trafficking in persons – modern slavery – through the lens of what we call the 3P paradigm of prevention, protection, and prosecution. And in fact, I think as you see the embargoed copy of the report that I think many of you have, you’ll notice that each of the narratives of what’s happening in the countries actually are laid out in that fashion so that you can kind of see exactly how it is that we are analyzing the countries, and frankly, what the evidence is for the eventual ranking.

The rankings – the – it’s a four-tiered ranking system, and so – because it was made by us in the United States by our Congress, it has three tiers for its four-tier ranking. Let me explain what that means. We have Tier One, which is a country that’s actually meeting the minimum standards of fighting human trafficking. And those minimum standards are set out in our trafficking law of 2000, but really track the international standards and best practices that we see around the world. A Tier Two country is one that is not meeting those goals but is striving to do so and has results that you can point to to show that it’s doing a decent job, but could definitely improve.

A Tier Two Watch List – and this is how we get four tiers out of a one, two, and three. The Tier Two Watch List is kind of like a C minus or something like that in the American grading system. It’s warning the countries that are on the Watch List that they are in danger of falling to Tier Three. And one of the biggest categories for that is if what the country is doing is simply in the form of promises of future action. Again, we look for results. And if we can’t show the results on the ground, the actual outcomes, et cetera, then that does not bode well when we’re doing the analysis. And then finally Tier Three, which is a country that is not responding sufficiently to its trafficking problem, isn’t taking those affirmative steps forward, and we’re not – excuse me – seeing the progress that we need to see, especially in light of their particular trafficking problem.

So that’s a quick tour through the tier rankings, and I think that a lot of folks are very interested in that, much like horserace coverage of elections. But I want to talk a few of the top lines as well, as far as what are we seeing in the global fight against modern slavery this year. Very quick review of what we’re talking about when we talk about human trafficking, the definition – this is a umbrella term that the United States Government considers to cover all of the activities involved in reducing someone to or holding them in a condition of compelled service. So there’s nothing in there about moving them across international borders. There’s nothing in there that limits it simply to women or girls. There’s nothing in there that limits it to only in other countries. And there’s nothing in there that limits it only to prostitution or the sex industry as opposed to other forms of trafficking.

So each year for every one of these countries, we’re looking at what are they doing for all of the populations that are victimized by trafficking: How are they helping them? Are they prosecuting the perpetrators and bringing them to justice? And are they working to prevent? And when I say “they,” I mean all of the governments that we look at.

And one of those governments is the United States. The United States has been included in the trafficking report since 2010. The State Department began to rank ourselves in that report for two reasons. First of all, I think that there was a sense during the Obama Administration that it was simply a matter of fairness to all of the other countries; if we’re going to hold them to these minimum standards, that we needed to hold ourselves to them as well. But then also the notion of as a diagnostic tool. If these 11 minimum standards that you’re supposed to look at to see whether you’re doing a decent job on fighting trafficking – if those are truly to be a good diagnostic, then we owed it to ourselves to apply that diagnostic and to see where we could be doing better as the United States.

As far as that’s concerned, I want to just make the point that I think many of you may have already heard me or the Secretary say, which is that no country is doing a perfect job on the fight against human trafficking, and that includes the United States. We are all in this together, because we’re seeing people around the world – whether it’s in agriculture or whether it’s in mining, whether it’s in manufacturing, whether it’s in the sex industry, whether it’s as domestic servants – that when you have unscrupulous and cruel bosses and vulnerable people, you have a recipe for human trafficking. And that’s as true here even in the Washington, D.C. area and the suburbs, as it is in countries around the world.

So I’d certainly, although I think that we’ll probably be looking at some of the other countries, I’d certainly recommend to you all the U.S. narrative as well so you can see what the U.S. Government is doing but also what’s happening out in our communities across the United States, whether it’s to Native American girls, whether it’s to vulnerable men and women because of a disability or a drug addiction, or whether it’s to the young men and women, boys, and girls, who fall prey to the blandishments of pimps who offer a better life and opportunity.

Let me take it a little bit more international though. This year, we see of the 188 countries that are on the report, we see some movement up and down. There’s, I think, some real progress stars, I guess, for lack of a better word, some countries out there that have – that we’ve seen some real progress on. For instance, both Chile and Switzerland are moving up to Tier One on the report this year. Switzerland because they took aggressive steps to close some legal loopholes that actually inadvertently made it legal for people to have children in prostitution. Chad has really stepped up on victim identification and demobilization of child soldiers. We’ve seen the first convictions in the Bahamas and Aruba – small countries, small island countries that, frankly, five years ago would’ve said that they didn’t have any human trafficking. But they’ve realized that it’s something that they have to look for. And once they’ve looked for it, they’ve found it and been able to free some of its victims.

We’ve seen the first government-run shelter being opened by the Government of Jordan. The – a new law recently passed in Haiti – the first time now in 215 or so years in which it is now a crime to enslave someone in Haiti, a law much-awaited in South Africa that we hope will be a good tool in that which is very much the destination country for the southern tier countries in Africa. And even a country that has historically not been a leader on human rights issues, Sudan, the enactment of a modern human trafficking law that’s really the culmination of that government’s coming out and wanting to be able to have those modern tools so that they can help their own citizens and others who might be enslaved and exploited.

There are also downgrades, and I think that that’s something that we see every year – countries that are perhaps taking the foot off the gas pedal a little bit or aren’t doing the kind of work that we would see under the law. And I think one of the things that’s, of course, since the 2008 reauthorization that is of particular note under the U.S. law is what we call the auto-downgrade provisions of the law. This came into effect fully last year for the first time. The law in 2008 basically said that countries cannot be on that Tier Two Watch List that I described a minute ago for too many years in a row, because there was a concern, frankly, on the part of Congress that strategic countries and other countries were being given a bit of a pass and not being taken down to Tier Three but holding steady on Tier Two Watch Lists almost, it seemed to Congress I think, interminably.

And so they put a time limitation on that and – by which time a government has to either improve or will be dropped down to Tier Three on the report. There were seven such countries this year that were in that situation no longer eligible for a waiver in the U.S. national interest. And those were Afghanistan, Barbados, Chad, Malaysia, the Maldives, Thailand, and Venezuela. And what we’ve seen is the two – excuse me, three – of those Tier Two Watch Lists auto-downgrade countries were no longer eligible, and we concluded that there hadn’t been the type of sufficient progress to justify an upgrade. And those were Thailand, Malaysia, and Venezuela. And so each of those countries has now been placed on Tier Three in the report.

In the other countries – Afghanistan, Barbados, Chad, and the Maldives – in each of those countries we see fresh activity. We see new commitments to doing work. We see this notion of cases being done in the first place or victims being helped in new ways. And it’s certainly something that is welcome. And frankly, these are countries who may not have, if it weren’t for the pressure of the auto-downgrade and the good work of our men and women out at our embassies in those countries and others to work with them, might not have been able to make that journey.

I want to say two things about sectoral issues that we’ve been identifying that may be news to some. I think that many people may be aware of some of the abuses that we’ve been recognizing in the last few years in the fishing industry. And in fact we’ve seen the fishing sector now – 51 of the narratives in the TIP report this year are identifying abuses in the fishing industry. And that’s both men that are enslaved out on the boats out at sea and folks in the seafood packing huts and things like that.

But we’ve also seen forced labor in mining noted in the narratives of 46 countries and zero prosecutions or convictions around the world. So we’re very much looking for countries to step up on the mining sector, and that’s everything from things that we might call conflict minerals in Africa or conflict diamonds in North Africa, Northwest Africa, or what we see with the gold mining sector, for instance, in Peru and other places.

And sadly, just as we’ve seen in the fishing industry or the logging industry, there are follow-on effects of a subsidiary sex trafficking that happens – basically men who are enslaved in these camps, held in debt bondage through the old company store scheme, they then bring the women in to serve them as well. So whether it’s in Guyana, Peru, or other places like that, you end up seeing sex trafficking related to the mining sector. And we want to commend Senegal for being the only country in the world this last year who actually achieved a conviction of folks for holding girls in sex trafficking in that mining sector.

Lastly, just want to also point out that there is the child soldiers and Child Soldier Prevention Act list, which is part of the trafficking report each year. And this year one of the countries on that was removed, and that is Chad, as I mentioned earlier, who’s, I think, coming at this with a real energy now. And we hope that we’ll continue to see that on their part.

So I think perhaps we should turn it over and do some questions. Jeff, I’ll leave it back to you.

MR. RATHKE: Thanks very much, Ambassador. Operator, could you please inform everyone or remind them how to register – intend to ask a question?

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in a queue, and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press *1 at this time. And a moment here for the first question.

MR. RATHKE: All right. That’s great. We’re ready to go to the first question then, so could you please call the first question, operator?

OPERATOR: Our first question comes from the line of Dana Hughes at ABC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I have a question about what role you see governance or the breakdown of governance in these rankings. For example, Thailand’s been downgraded and they had a coup. Chad is really increasing its governance. Do you see a direct correlation?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, it’s interesting, because the Thailand narrative and the Thailand ranking is based on everything that happened from April 1st, 2013 through March 31st, 2014. And so the coup that you mentioned didn’t happen within that time period. Obviously, there was some fraying around the edges within the Royal Thai Government, and yet the committed folks within the government who were trying to work on this within their own agencies, the – some folks at the Royal Thai Police and folks in the ministry of health and social development – they continued to go out and try to fight trafficking because it was something that they had that personal commitment to.

What we see that’s, I think, perhaps somewhat relevant to that in the Thailand situation that’s very much part of the – kind of permeates the narrative is the anchor on those good efforts of those good people that public corruption and complicity on the part of government officials then places around those who would try to do better. So I think that that kind of corruption and its effect on governance directly undercuts the good work of the folks who are trying to get everything right.

It’s interesting because I think that what we see is this is a rule of law problem. It’s a human rights problem as well. But there are a number of countries in which the government functions at a very high level that human trafficking victims simply aren’t on the radar. And I think that that’s reflected kind of throughout the report that rule of law only is going to work for trafficking victims if governments affirmatively try to bring it to bear on the plight of these vulnerable communities.

So while some of those kind of looking at instability and looking at general governance issues, there often seems to be some correlation. I think that we’ve also seen a lot of human trafficking in cases that are – in countries that are viewed as being governed well and that do well on indices, whether it’s Freedom House or otherwise.

MR. RATHKE: Okay, thanks. Could we move on to the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Okay, our next question comes from the line of Jo Biddle at AFP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, good afternoon. Thank you very much. I wanted to ask you about sanctions. I know that there’s a possibility that downgrades can be accompanied by sanctions if the President so decides. And last year we saw Russia and China both downgraded into Tier Three. Were there any sanctions that were accompanied with that, and do you anticipate that with these new downgrades of Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela that there could be sanctions forthcoming if they do not get their act together?

And I had a follow-up – a different question as well, but perhaps I’ll just ask that one first.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Of course. The sanctions determination is something that we’ll be turning to at this point. There are not just those three countries that are on Tier Three. In fact, there are 23 countries on Tier Three this year. But I think that what we look at each year is, first of all, we have to see what is it that the sanctions analysis has to look at. And first stop is to actually look at what foreign assistance we have because that’s really what we’re talking about. The sanctions here is whether or not the United States will continue to provide foreign assistance. So the first thing that we always have to look at is what is being provided to those particular governments and then also to look to see to what degree we’re providing aid that goes directly to helping fix the thing that we’re trying to solve. So you certainly wouldn’t want to halt the – any assistance that’s going specifically to increasing the capacity of our partners in those governments to fight human trafficking or to help its victims.

So those are some of the things that we’ll take into account as we work with the White House and as we give our recommendations to the President. At the end of the day, this is his decision. And last year, the three auto-downgrade countries that you mentioned – China, Russia, and Uzbekistan – the President decided that it was in the U.S. national interest and would promote the purposes of the trafficking law to waive sanctions against them as well as several other countries. And those are countries that we, again, are very much wanting to and feel we can engage with in order to move forward.

Last year, full sanctions were applied against Cuba, Iran, and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and partial sanctions were applied against the DR Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you very much. And I wondered if I could ask about – I had another question. I wondered if I could ask about the situation in the United States. You give the United States a Tier One ranking, but I believe there have been some issues with money, funds running out for shelters for survivors, and there’s also an issue of, particularly in the sex trafficking, with children being treated as criminals rather than being treated as victims and ending up in front of courts or in cells instead of in – or in police cells rather than in shelters. I did note in the report that you say that there’s much more to be done still in the United States. What are you recommending specifically for the United States in terms of improving your own balance sheet?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Yeah. I mean, I think that to the notion of the funding issues, clearly a lot of social service providers, not just in the trafficking arena but others as well, that were depending upon per capita type of reimbursements from the United States Government, didn’t necessarily get those as quickly as they could have last year. We had a number of things, including the near – the government shutdown and the sequester and other things like that.

Our funding stream that HHS – the Department of Health and Human Services – does is actually – it is a per capita reimbursement. It’s not a kind of one-time grant at the beginning of the year that then the nongovernmental can draw down on. And one of the reasons for that is that there are thousands and thousands of service providers across the United States who may encounter a trafficking victim, and it may be that that’s not their fulltime job, so they wouldn’t be writing a grant specifically for that.

My understanding is that those reimbursements were able to continue and that folks have been backfilled for any monies that they spent on behalf of the trafficking victims. But I think it does show that there’s a need for better thought to be put in.

And that was one of the reasons why, on the plus side of the column this year, we announced in January at the White House the first-ever victim services strategy for the United States, which was brought together by the President’s interagency task force to actually look at this action plan. And we’re very proud of the fact that that was brought in with close consultation with survivors of trafficking, so that we could hear what it was that they had been through, what they saw as the shortcomings.

One of the things, frankly, that we’re having to deal with is a bunch of legacy systems. The child protective services systems in all of the states, each grew up independently and they grew up at a time before the Trafficking Victims Protection Act started looking at child prostitutes, for instance, as victims rather than as criminals. So going back to each state now and trying to get it so that they can make it very clear that these are not delinquent children but dependent children under each of the state laws and making sure that the child protective services understands that these are not criminals but victims is unpacking a multi-billion dollar effort across 57 states and territories as well as at the federal level.

So I think that, in looking at that and looking at the problems of the foster care system, et cetera, we’ve started to see not only the Administration but Congress focusing on that. But at the end of the day, all of the money that’s been appropriated for human trafficking work and all of the legislative fixes to some of those programs are just a drop in the bucket compared to the enormous child protective services structures that we need to turn around to recognize the trafficking victims in their midst.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Thanks. Next question please.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from the line of Luis Alonso at AP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon. Many thanks for doing this. I have two questions as well, if I may. The first one is I couldn’t find a regional summary of the report, so I would like to ask if you could please give – provide us with a comment on the Western Hemisphere, how – what the general trend, how many countries were downgraded – how many countries were downgraded, is it improvement or not compared to last year?

And my second question is, given – related to the unaccompanied minors that are coming through the south border from Central America, is – we all know that the United States has put all those kids into removal proceedings right now. If a big number of them end up being deported and go – sent back to their countries where there is extraordinary violence and many presence of human trafficking, do you foresee that the United States could drop the Tier One position because of this element of the unaccompanied minor who comes into America? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, let me answer that backwards with the second question first. I think that one of the things that we’re doing is that we are working with the governments in the region to try to improve not only the situation so that families don’t feel that they have to get their children out of harm’s way, whether it’s with gangs or otherwise, but also so that those children can be reunited with their families back home.

The law in question, of the unaccompanied alien minors, is looking to protect them, and which is one of the reasons why the Department of Health and Human Services is involved, unlike with adults who would be interdicted at the border. And in fact, one of the things that is done as part of the unaccounted – unaccompanied alien minor screening is to see whether or not those children were victims of trafficking in that situation. And as with all folks who come before the immigration judges and go through the system, we hope that that kind of screening would be able to help us find the people who need the particular services that trafficking victims so desperately need, and to be able to get them those services.

As far as the hemisphere as a whole, I think that is some movement up, there is some movement down within the hemisphere. Perhaps the most notable downgrade in the hemisphere is not the Venezuelan story from Tier Two Watch List down to Tier Three, but rather the downgrade of Colombia, a country that’s been on Tier One for many consecutive years. I think that what it stands for is the notion that Tier One is not a reprieve, it’s a responsibility, and the responsibility to continue to investigate cases, to continue to seek out good victim care interventions, and to look at all forms of trafficking. The Colombians were focused so much on international sex trafficking of Colombians and transnational cases that cases of Colombians at home and others, whether it was in the mining sector, whether it was in the sex or domestic servants, simply weren’t registering. And as a result, we now see them on Tier Two.

So the movement on the one hand of Chile up to Tier One because of the new law that they passed a few years ago and their very aggressive stance in enforcing that new law unfortunately then is kind of paired with the Colombian situation, where a bit of stagnation cannot keep a country on the highest level.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of (inaudible) at US News and World. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about Thailand’s downgrade, specifically the government’s shortcomings, considering all the media reports this last year or so discussing their human trafficking problem and why the government has failed to really address it.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, as I said earlier – and I want to make it very clear that we know and we have worked with some very good actors in the Thai Government who are kind of on the front lines who are trying very hard to make a difference over there. But the widespread official complicity in human trafficking that continues to hinder their performance against sex trafficking and forced labor, the government as a whole did not demonstrate serious efforts to address that. It made few efforts to address forced labor and debt bondage among the most vulnerable communities – the foreign migrant workers, including in the fishing industry.

And even though we saw this notion of some better data collection and some – an uptick in investigations by the royal Thai police, those didn’t necessarily translate over into completed convictions. You’ll see in the report, for instance, a situation where some Burmese members of a conspiracy were arrested and ended up being sentenced to 30 years in prison for their role in trafficking men in the fish industry, and yet the Thai co-conspirator, who held 14 men in confinement as part of the slavery scheme, he ended up only getting three months as an alien smuggling conviction.

And so we’re looking at each of the cases that we know about. We’re looking at the situations on the ground to see – is this something that the bosses in the brothels and the bosses in the fishing packing sheds and things can simply brush off as business as usual? Is it something that they can bribe their way out of? Or is it something that has real teeth going forward? And we look forward to working with the Thais in the coming year to not only provide that real teeth, but hopefully achieve some real results.

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: All right. Our next question comes from Josh Stilts at Intrafish Media. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks again for hosting this. You said earlier that there were some 53 countries that have shown instances of slave labor or human trafficking in the fishing and seafood industries. Beyond Thailand, what other instances are you guys seeing?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: I think it’s actually 51. Sorry if —

QUESTION: Fifty-one, sure.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: — I misspoke. Well, we’ve seen, as far as a country that’s acting, the Indonesians have actually arrested some folks and there’s prosecutions going there. But there are some very nontraditional places. There – I don’t think a lot of people think of South Africa necessarily in this context, and yet the South Africans suddenly found themselves with a boatload of fishermen with – who had been basically shanghaied from Cambodia. We’ve seen in the Caribbean, in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, situations where this has been discovered on the boats; Costa Rica on the west coast, finding Chinese fishermen in these dire straits; African men and African children on boats in the gulf off of the Green Coast and everything kind of ranging down from Liberia all the way down to Nigeria.

And I think that that’s one of the things that the more we look at this, the more we find this in surprising places. There were reports this last year by Stella Maris, the apostolate of the sea, which is the Vatican’s kind of specialized unit of – I call them the sea priests, who go out on the boats to try to mission to the fishermen. And at a conference that the Pope hosted in – earlier this year with those priests, suddenly there were reports coming out from the fishery in Scotland of abuses up there.

So I think it’s something that we’re hearing about. We’re hearing about it on inland fisheries such as Lake Victoria and Lake Volta, but we’re also hearing about it in the Baltics and in, as I said, places as unusual as Scotland or South Africa.

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Thanks. Next question please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Maya Rhodan from the TIME magazine. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks again for the call. I have a question about the LGBT community and how – can you just speak to how instances of trafficking that involve LGBT people were factored into any of the rankings or if there are any countries where this is a particular issue or if there’s still more digging around that needs to be done on that?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: I’m very glad you raised that. It is something that we’re seeing more of. I think that it’s something that, because it’s been so taboo for a lot of countries to even admit that these communities are part of the social fabric, much less worthy of protection, that in some ways we’re just kind of opening the bidding on this issue. I think a lot of folks are aware of and know of issues of survival sex of the homeless kids who are in many ways trying to put together their own families and their own communities. But I think a lot of folks, whether it’s in the public health arenas or even in the LGBT activist communities, have tended to look at that and not see the pimps and the controllers that sometimes are behind that.

And we’re seeing in a number of countries around the world – I remember last year, when I was in Kenya, for instance, the interplay, the horrible interplay between on the one hand the effects of terrorism in the northeast and even in Somalia, with families trying to get their kids out of that area so that their sons don’t have to be fighters for Shabaab, and then they end up in sex trafficking down on the coast in the tourist zones. And I think it’s one of those things where, because of attitudes against the LGBT community, a lot of folks that were even working or willing to talk about other forms of trafficking were having a very hard time even wanting to admit that those young boys might have been in human trafficking situations.

And this happens in the United States. There was a case, I think it was last year, in the Atlanta area where a man was convicted for human trafficking of a teenaged American kid who, frankly, he lured in because of that kid’s loneliness and seeking to have some meaning as he struggled with his own sexuality.

So it’s something that we’re going to be looking at a lot more carefully. It’s like the fishing issues a few years ago, where we had just started to hear it, and then now that we’re looking for it, we’re seeing it in a lot of different places. I think that we’re going to be seeing more coverage of this in the coming years. And we’ve started having conversations with some of the key players in the United States, like the Human Rights Campaign and others, so that we can bring to bear the folks who are working in the affected communities.

MR. RATHKE: All right. I see – I think we have three questions remaining, so we will go through those, and then we will wrap up from here. So, operator, could you call the next question?

OPERATOR: All right. The next question comes from Jeanine Stewart at Undercurrent News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for having this, first of all. So first off, I’m wondering two things. How much has human – has the human trafficking problem grown in the fishing industry in 2013 over 2012? I’m just curious, is this a growing problem or is this just something that we’ve become more aware of with Thailand in the spotlight over it? And also, how much certainty is there in the investigation? Can you reveal anything about how they were conducted or how sure the State Department is that Thailand’s officials were complicit in some of the human trafficking that occurred? Because I – since I know that the Thai Government has said that’s not true. So how do we weed through the “he said, she said” on that one?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, I think that what we’ve seen in – as far as complicity in Thailand is whether – it’s not just in fishing but in a number of different sectors, the very reputable researchers, whether it’s your Human Rights Watches, whether it’s Transparency and some of the other indices looking at corruption as an issue. But specifically, there’s I think been some very good reporting even by the media as opposed to by academic researchers or others as to the involvement of Thai officials. And that’s something that’s reflected in the narrative.

One of the things that’s also reflected in the narrative is then how the parts of the Royal Thai Government have responded to that type of reporting by journalists being charged with criminal defamation —

QUESTION: Mm-hmm.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: — journalists and the folks who are willing to reprint articles even being charged. So that notion of not only is there, we think, good and solid reporting by a number of different actors, whether it’s, again, activists, academics, or journalists, but also the work that’s being done increasingly now by the food industry itself. And we very much encourage the seafood industry to start looking at these supply chain issues. We know that they can trace their product from the store shelf all the way back to the particular boat. We’ve seen the bar codes on the tubs, the plastic tubs of shrimp in the packing shed that are required that if there’s a health outbreak, they can take it all the way back to the particular shed, take it all the way back to the particular boat.

So since we know that the shrimp and the fish is traceable in those instances, we think also that what the particular captains and what the labor brokers that are working with them are doing needs to be something that comes under the microscope for the companies and their consumers as well.

MR. RATHKE: Okay, our penultimate question please, operator.

OPERATOR: All right. Our next question comes from Dmitri Zlodorev from ITAR-TASS. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Dmitri Zlodorev. I am from ITAR-TASS news wire service of Russia. You placed Russia to the third group, and how you would characterize the U.S.-Russian cooperation in this area? And am I right that right now you are not plan to impose sanctions against Russia? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Thank you, Dmitri. We can’t speak to sanctions at this point in time. It’s something that the White House will be looking at for all of the countries on Tier Three, and so I can’t speculate as to what would happen on that. I think we had talked about that a little bit earlier as far as last year was concerned.

But your question as far as what kind of cooperation between the United States and Russia on this, we’ve had a – I think a good dialogue over the years on human trafficking with our Russian counterparts. And we’re looking forward to what we hope will be some efforts in the coming year. We know that the government submitted an anti-trafficking action plan to the National Security Council and at this point has not heard back. We think that that certainly would be a very good step, to have a public and transparent anti-trafficking action plan. And it would be a sign of political will on the part of the Russian Federation.

One thing that I would like to say as far as U.S.-Russian cooperation is that we have been able to continue to work together over the last year to announce a trafficking shelter in St. Petersburg with space contributed by the municipality – so Russian government funding – and support from the United States Embassy in Moscow. Now that shelter is only going to be able to hold and serve eight trafficking victims, and the scope of trafficking in Russia that’s pointed out in the report, with the migrant foreign workers and others, is many, many more than that. But we do feel that it’s a good step and that we hope that working together, the Russian Government and the United States Government and the Red Cross partners will be able to provide a better life to the women who are able to avail themselves of that shelter.

MR. RATHKE: Okay, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Teresa Busa from EFE. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wanted to ask you about the specific case of Venezuela. I wonder if you could comment on that: how bad the situation is and what are the most worrying trends, and how is the U.S.-Venezuela cooperation in this area?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Indeed. Well, thank you for your question. I think that we were – a few years ago, as you know, Venezuela was brought up off of Tier Three in recognition of a number of cases that they were investigating and what looked like a commitment to working jointly between the police and the health service. And unfortunately, this last year we just haven’t really been able to see those same type of efforts. There’s a little bit of awareness raising and tourism training, but unlike most of the countries in the world, there’s not an interagency coordinating council that’s been brought together around the issue. There’s not an action plan or even a draft action plan. There’s no formal mechanism to identify the victims, and there’s no shelters that are designated for trafficking victims. In many ways, it seems that all of the victim care in Venezuela is being done by the nongovernmental organizations or by the international organizations.

And so we call on Venezuela to step up and to be involved in the victim care. And there’s so little public data on law enforcement that it does not appear that there were any reported convictions in 2013, as opposed to in 2012, where at least we were able to identify one person convicted of sex trafficking.

So as with all of these countries, we very much want to continue to be able to work together on this. This is a shared problem. It affects Venezuela, it affects the United States, and it affects the Western Hemisphere. And so we’ll be looking for ways in which we can continue to try to engage with the Venezuelans.

MR. RATHKE: Operator, we would have time for one final question, if there are any in the queue.

OPERATOR: All right. We did have one final question from Matthew Russell Lee at Inner City Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure. Thanks a lot, and thanks for taking the question. I was looking at Myanmar – Burma – and also at Sri Lanka. And in both cases, it seems to say – the report seems to say that that government is either, in the case of Burma, directly involved in trafficking in coercion; or in the case of Sri Lanka, suspected of complicity in it. So in those two cases, I wondered as the U.S. sort of re-engages with Myanmar or Burma, how does this issue get raised and how is it going to be resolved? And the same in the case of Sri Lanka where there’s this human rights inquiry. Is this – what can be done in terms of actual government complicity in trafficking?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, it’s interesting. Let me start with Burma. We – this is one of the first things that we re-engaged on. I was in Burma within I think about three weeks or a month after Secretary Clinton took her first historic trip there, and when I met with Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the things that was very interesting to me was that she recommended to me that I needed to talk to her jailor. And I asked her, “What do you mean?” And she said, “The guy from the secret police who was assigned to me to be my warden all of these years would bring me articles on human trafficking off of the Internet, and we would talk into the night about how we would work together to help end human trafficking and slavery for our people if things ever changed.” A lot of people forget that she spent her Nobel Prize money while she was in prison. She sent it World Vision, an NGO, to provide food and shelter for about 200 Burmese trafficking victims in Thailand. The first place that she went after she was able to travel was to the shrimp-packing sheds in Thailand where so many Burmese are affected by this crime.

So it was interesting to see not only her, but then eventually what came true is the new head of the anti-trafficking unit – the central body against trafficking in persons for the Burmese Government in the new era – is the very person who she recommended to me that we should work with. He’s written a book on trafficking; he’s gone to other parts of the region. I think there’s a real desire on the part of the Burmese Government to engage and to bring on some of these modern approaches.

And to that end, they even passed a law abolishing the 1907 Villages and Towns Act, which is what gave them the legal ability to enslave their own people. So the notion of giving that up as part of the process of opening up to the outside world. I think that, as with every country, there’s a long way to go, and we’ll continue to work with them. We have an established and formal dialogue with them that was agreed to by both presidents during President Obama’s visit a year and a half ago, and it’s something that I’ve been to Burma for that dialogue and will be, I think, going again in the fall for the second round of that. So we’re – in that situation, I think that we’ve got a formal way to work with them.

Sri Lanka on the other hand, I think that that’s a bit of a work in progress. We don’t see – first of all, we’re not digging out of the years of exclusion from the international community that we had seen with the Burmese Government, but we’ve got this notion of three years in a row the trafficking statute that they have, which is a pretty good one – it prohibits all forms of trafficking, which not every SAARC country, not every country in the region has laws that prevent forced labor as well as sex trafficking – and yet three years in a row without any convictions, no services really for male trafficking victims, sex trafficking victims punished, and the folks who come home from overseas, no real way to screen for or help them the way that other source countries like the Indonesians and the Filipinos have.

So I think that there’s a long way to go, but they have this inter-ministerial structure that they have now adopted, and I think that for us both here in Washington and at the Embassy in Colombo it provides us some interlocutors who we hope that we’ll be able to work with going forward.

QUESTION: Just one follow-up on Burma. Do you see this issue of the Rohingyas, is it – does it make them susceptible to trafficking, this kind of stateless status? And how – do you have more – do you see this – do you see it through the light of trafficking, or is it a separate issue?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, I think that we see with any displaced and vulnerable communities that are suffering from social exclusion, and I think that the plight of the Rohingyas has pretty been – has been pretty well documented. That is the type of population in which we often see in this type of situation.

Now, I mean, obviously, we remain concerned about all of the humanitarian issues that are around the Rohingya and other vulnerable ethnic and religious communities. We actually shed some – a little bit of light on this both in the Burma narrative but also, frankly, in the Thai narrative as we’re looking at the exploitation and even alleged sale of Rohingya refugees once they get to their destinations as they’re moving for all these different reasons.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot.

MR. RATHKE: Okay, thank you very much, participants. That’s the end of our question period. Want to thank Ambassador CdeBaca once again and thank you for your questions. A reminder this call is on the record but it is embargoed until the end of the Secretary – Secretary Kerry’s rollout event. Thanks once again, and we’re signing off here.