Tagged: Society

News in Brief 10 April 2015 (PM)

10 Apr 2015

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Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, Stephane Dujarric leads the noon media briefing. UN Photo/Zach Krahmer

Death of protestor in Central African Republic deplored by UN

The United Nations says it deplores the death of a protestor who was part of a group which attacked a base of UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric says that the group of between 300 and 400 people attacked the base in Kaga-Bandoro, nearly 350 kilometres north of the capital Bangui.

“Peacekeepers tried to contain the protestors, some of whom were armed with knives and who tried to enter the camp and tried to set it on fire. Peacekeepers fired warning shots. The Mission deplores the death of one protestor. Several were injured and have been admitted to the Mission’s hospital.” (15″)

UN human rights chief visits Burundi

The UN’s top human rights official is beginning  a three-day visit to Burundi.

During his first official mission to the African country as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is scheduled to meet the President and other senior government officials.

The UN human rights chief will also travel to Gitega to visit the Humura Centre for victims of domestic violence.

He will also participate in a round table discussion on human rights and elections in Burundi.

Global agencies call for urgent action to avoid groundwater depletion

UN agencies and their partners have called on the international community to manage the increasingly urgent depletion and degradation of limited groundwater resources.

The call by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN cultural agency (UNESCO) and their partners comes as the 7th World Water Forum gets underway in South Korea.

Stephanie Coutrix, United Nations.

Duration: 1’32″

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Press Releases: Key U.S. Outcomes at the UN Human Rights Council 28th Session

The outcomes of the 28th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) underscored the importance of robust U.S. engagement at the Council, where the United States continues to work with countries from all regions to address urgent human rights concerns.  Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement to the Council during the high-level segment reaffirmed that U.S. leadership has helped to keep the Council at the forefront of international efforts to promote and protect human rights.  Seventy-eight states also made a groundbreaking commitment to countering violent extremism.  

Iran:  For the fifth year in a row, the HRC passed a resolution highlighting the human rights situation in Iran.  The United States joined Macedonia, Moldova, and Sweden in leading the resolution, which renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Iran.   

D.P.R.K.:  The HRC passed a resolution condemning the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for one year, and welcoming the upcoming establishment of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office in Seoul.   

Countering Violent Extremism:  Seventy-seven states joined a U.S.-led statement underscoring their commitment to countering violent extremism, while promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Syria:  The HRC passed a resolution on Syria, which extends the mandate of the Syria Commission of Inquiry (COI) for another year and condemns in the strongest terms the widespread and systematic violence by Syrian authorities, government-affiliated militias, and terrorist groups such as ISIL, as well as human rights abuses and violations of international law by all parties. 

Burma:  The HRC renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and urged the government to establish an OHCHR office.  The resolution expresses concern about anti-Muslim violence, the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state and the fighting in Shan and Kachin states. 

Democracy and Rule of Law:  The HRC decided to establish a forum for dialogue and cooperation on democracy and the rule of law.   

Libya:  The HRC created a fact finding mission led by OHCHR that will investigate violations and abuses of international human rights law in Libya since the start of 2014.  The mission will report next March and provide technical assistance to the government of Libya.

Guinea, Haiti, Iraq, and Mali:  A resolution on Guinea called for the international community to continue supporting human rights activities.  The mandate of the Independent Expert for Haiti was renewed for another year, while addressing the domestic pre-election conditions.  The HRC passed a second resolution that will continue reporting on the situation in Iraq, especially in regard to the conflict with ISIL.  The HRC renewed the mandate of the Independent Expert on Mali for another year. 

Item 7/Israel:  The United States opposed four biased annual resolutions that targeted Israel, all of which were adopted under the HRC’s agenda Item 7, dedicated solely to Israel.  We oppose all actions under this agenda item, the only one dedicated to a single country.

Freedom of Religion or Belief – 16/18:  The resolutions on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Combatting Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief preserved the international consensus on how to address the tension, as perceived in some areas, between respect for religion and protection of freedom of expression and conscience.  Both resolutions call on states to take specific measures to safeguard the human rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief.

Ban marks International Day by stressing need for concrete action to pursue human rights

24 March 2015 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today recalled, on the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, that the United Nations has over the past year supported commissions of inquiry on the Central African Republic, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, the recent conflict in Gaza and Syria to further the icon’s work to see that truth prevails.

“The best way to honour Monsignor Romero’s legacy of fighting for human rights and human dignity is by taking concrete action to fulfil the right to truth and other fundamental human rights in our time,” Mr. Ban said in a message marking the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.

The Day, observed on 24 March, was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly five years ago to honour in particular the Roman Catholic priest’s work and values as a human rights defender.

“Earlier this year, I had the honour of paying my respects at the gravesite of Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was murdered in El Salvador on this day in 1980,” Mr. Ban said. “Monsignor Romero was an icon for human rights and social justice.”

After witnessing numerous violations of human rights, Monsignor Romero began to speak out on behalf of the poor and the victims of repression. On 24 March 1980, an assassin fired from the door of the chapel where Romero, then Archbishop of San Salvador, was celebrating mass and shot him dead.

“The right to the truth – which is both an individual and collective right – is essential for victims but also for society at large,” Mr. Ban said. “Uncovering the truth of human rights violations of the past can help prevent human rights abuses in the future.”

“That is why,” he said, “the United Nations supports fact-finding missions, commissions of inquiry, and truth commissions to uncover the truth about gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

The UN works to promote justice, propose reparations, and recommend reforms of abusive institutions.

In addition to the numerous commissions of inquiry supported by the UN, the world body is also providing advice and assistance to a number of transitional justice processes, including in Cote d’Ivoire and Tunisia, the Secretary-General noted.

“I once again call for the full implementation of recommendations of commissions of inquiry and truth commissions,” he said.

He went on to say: “On this vital day, let us together pledge to help victims, their families and societies realize their right to truth and protect all who strive to see the truth prevail.”

Speeches: Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations

(As Delivered)

Date: 03/12/2015 Description: Assistant Secretary Crocker at the Council on Foreign Relations. - State Dept Image

Thank you first and foremost to the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting today’s conversation and to Stuart for guiding it, and for that kind introduction. Thanks also to all of you for coming this afternoon for a discussion of the status, purpose, and value of multilateral diplomacy.

I’m here today in the context of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, whose Charter was signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. That Charter, and the lofty aspirations contained in it, remains very much at the center of today’s international system, a system that has evolved and expanded well beyond the vision of its earliest promoters. But a system that has endured – remarkably – and a Charter that retains relevance even some seven decades on.

My comments today are not intended to be retrospective, but rather a brief survey of the UN and the larger international system as it is today, and the qualities and capacities that I believe will be crucial for its continued relevance.

As I begin, I take the liberty of assuming your stipulation to some guiding realities:

First, that pressing transnational challenges are only growing in scope, scale, and variety. In this category, I might offer climate change, food security, pandemic health challenges such as Ebola, the threat of violent extremism, and more.

Second, that these varied challenges require often urgent and sometimes simultaneous multilateral action. This truth is perhaps most evident often in the case of humanitarian crises.

Third, that today’s remarkable connectivity accelerates the pace at which events become available to global audiences, and thus in turn accelerates the pace at which the international community is expected and called upon to respond.

And finally, that an international system unable to respond to these truths would quickly become irrelevant on the global stage.

Seventy years ago, the need for an international body to provide a convening authority and a constraint for disputing nations was obvious. And though it is true that since that day in San Francisco there have been few constants on the international stage, it is also true that a body that was conceived primarily as a means to prevent war among the great powers of the world has met that fundamental objective.

The original 50 signatories of the UN Charter have grown to 193. The modern international system comprises dozens of organizations and agencies, with responsibility for engaging on innumerable shared priorities, and – let’s be honest – more than a handful most of us have never heard of. Civil society networks have emerged as a powerful complement to multilateral tools, and globalization has fostered economic and cultural linkages that would have been unimaginable at the end of World War II.

And yet, across that timeline and in all those categories, American leadership within the international system has been steadfast and instrumental. Now, in making that statement, I acknowledge that from its earliest moments, the UN has been the source of discomfort in some segments of the U.S. political universe. That said, it is notable that for all of its seven decades, the UN and the evolving international system have enjoyed the strong support of U.S. administrations and the Congress.

But why? Why is the vitality and agility of the United Nations and other international organizations of such importance to the United States?

In its most simple expression, it comes to this – we ask the international system to do a great many things on our behalf, and on the whole it is genuinely and actively responsive in that regard.

Yes, there are failings in the system, frustrations inherent in its history and exploited by its membership. There are recurring instances of mismanagement and inefficiency. There is a deeply-rooted anti-Israel bias that rears its ugly head across the system. And there is a persistence of division, call it North vs. South, NAM vs. the West, or G77 vs. the likeminded, that seems almost unthinkable given how much has changed on the global stage since 1945.

But the challenges we face today require as never before the multiplier effect of an effective international system. And the reality is that with the UN, that means we must take the good with the bad – accept the shortcomings, because the benefits to the United States still far outweigh the stories that grab headlines.

So today I will briefly discuss the UN’s unique capability and capacity, where today’s international system succeeds, where it falls short, and why we must remain relentless in our efforts to push it toward improved effectiveness, efficiency, and innovation and expand our efforts to encourage UN member states to break through tired voting habits and stale thinking. Any discussion of where the international system works must be predicated on an acceptance that the system is messy. With 193 UN member states, division is not uncommon – but we also have to remember how much gets done by consensus, even in the unwieldy UN General Assembly.

And, frankly, if member states were all of one mind, the need for an international system would be far from obvious. No, clearly our differences illustrate the need, create opportunities for unanticipated partnerships, and can make multilateral accomplishments all the more resonant. They are, in fact, the source of the legitimacy that the UN bestows when it speaks to an issue of global concern.

So, where does one look for such accomplishments? I’ll offer a few examples in three broad categories. First, we find accomplishment where the international system effectively channels shared aspirations.

Take, for example, human rights and the UN Human Rights Council. This is a body that has been fairly criticized as providing solace and protection to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers while focusing with unrelenting, unhealthy attention on a single nation – Israel.

When the United States decided to seek election to the Council in 2009, it was with a determination to redirect the Council’s energies, refocus its purpose, and begin strengthening its reputation as the global focal-point for universal human rights.

In the succeeding years, we’ve achieved a great deal. In 2011, we led an effort to pass a groundbreaking resolution on the rights of LGBT persons – the first such resolution in the UN system. We supported the Latin Americans in taking the lead on the follow-on resolution this past September. We have worked with our partners to lift the veil of secrecy on the horrendous human rights abuses in North Korea at the hands of the regime and to get this issue on the agenda of the Security Council – a huge accomplishment.

We have also led a sustained effort to promote the investigation of and accountability for human rights violations in Sri Lanka, and in fact consistently promote the utility of focusing on country-specific situations to highlight some of the most distressing human rights situations around the world.

That effort has resulted in Commissions of Inquiry and Special Rapporteurs on the human rights situations in Iran, Syria, Belarus, Burma, and North Korea and independent experts on the situations in Sudan, Somalia, and Mali. We have also led efforts to pass important thematic actions to bolster freedoms of expression and association, the rights of women and girls, the protection of civil society, and much more.

And, I would note, that we have achieved this level of success in spite of the recurring presence on the Council of some of the world’s worst offender states.

It is also true that we have not succeeded in ending the ingrained bias against Israel, but we continue to advocate forcefully against that bias in the Human Rights Council and across the international system. In fact, as Secretary Kerry pointed out earlier this month, we have intervened on Israel’s behalf over the last two years a couple of hundred times in more than 75 different multilateral fora, both to defend it and to support its positive agenda.

This recent progress notwithstanding, the Human Rights Council will obviously never be flawless. But consider the outsized influence of this relatively small body of just 47 member states and the small Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. We measure that influence not just in the allergic responses often displayed by offender nations, but more meaningfully in the feedback we receive from civil society in those nations, who remind us frequently that Council action has a powerful impact on the ground.

Today, shared aspirations are evident across the UN system, from the heightened focus on gender issues, to strengthened humanitarian coordination across UN agencies, to the elevation of climate change and other (inaudible) issues, and in the energy and ambition fueling negotiations toward a Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Obviously, shared aspirations do not immediately or even necessarily equate to agreed action, but they serve to shape many of the conversations defining today’s multilateral diplomacy.

We also find accomplishment in the international system where it acts to promote peace and security. The headline institution here is of course the UN Security Council, which has not always warranted or enjoyed universal admiration. At times, disagreement between permanent members has inhibited action on urgent crises and Syria is an obvious example here.

But it should come as no surprise that in situations closest to our core interests, the United States and other permanent members won’t always – or even often – agree. And indeed the Council was created to give us a mechanism to air our differences and try to foster solutions without resorting to open conflict.

And where the P5’s interests align, the Security Council plays an indispensable role. We have continued to work effectively with Russia and the rest of the Council on combatting the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, on substantive actions to counter terrorism, counter piracy, on robust nonproliferation regimes targeting Iran and North Korea, on authorizing peacekeeping missions, and much more.

To be sure, the Council’s failures on matters such as Syria are as inexcusable as they are unsurprising. And over time, failure to act time and again to address front-burner issues could undermine the body’s legitimacy. But as often as that has been predicted it has been disproved, as even when we and others have acted without Council authorization, we have generally returned to the Council to bestow legitimacy and to coordinate on additional actions.

UN peacekeeping is also a widely-known UN peace and security tool, and lends itself well as an example of multilateral burden-sharing. UN peacekeepers, in fact, are currently the largest deployed military force around the world, with 16 missions and over 130,000 personnel today. We’ve had UN peacekeeping missions nearly as long as we’ve had the UN itself, and like the parent body, they have not always measured up. In particular, we see the challenge when missions are mandated to take actions they don’t deliver on, such as the protection of civilians.

We learned from the experiences of Rwanda, of the Balkans, and elsewhere that missions needed strengthened mandates to make clear the authority to use force and protect civilians. Today, more than 95 percent of peacekeepers serve in missions with a responsibility to protect civilians. Today, the problems we see relate more to how to plan for such operations, how to get host nations to do their job, how to make sure troop contributing countries are able and willing to enforce robust mandates – and a lack of the political underpinning needed to ensure missions’ success.

We are committed to modernizing peacekeeping missions and pressing to fill critical gaps and as the nation contributing over 28 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget and with a seat on the Security Council, we obviously have strong views. We are engaging with and support the new Independent Panel chaired by former President Jose Ramos-Horta to review UN peace operations, and in fact held serious discussions with panel members at the State Department on Tuesday.

Also earlier this week, both Ambassador Power and Deputy Secretary Blinken spoke forcefully on the continued U.S. commitment to peacekeeping and the gaps we are focused on filling, and President Obama will host a Peacekeeping Summit in New York in September.

Finally, we find accomplishment where the international system provides unique specialized and technical expertise. Consider, for example, the ongoing negotiations related to Iran’s nuclear program. While I want in no way to prejudge the outcome of those negotiations, I do think they offer an important reminder of the need to invest in credible international organizations. In this instance, I’m referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which occupies an indispensable place on the global stage as an authoritative technical entity.

As the Iran negotiations continue through the P5+1 process, the IAEA has the proven capacity to undertake the monitoring and verification roles that would likely be required of it under any agreement and that have been required to verify compliance under the Joint Plan of Action. Imagine how much more difficult these already highly technical and complex negotiations would be without the existence of this international agency.

In a similar vein, I think it fair to speculate that the international community would have struggled mightily to deal with the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles in the absence of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I take little risk in suggesting that not all of knew about the OPCW before their services and capabilities were required in Syria, and the fact that those capabilities were employed effectively further endorses the sustained investment required to maintain the many and varied elements of our modern international system.

Now, these accomplishments are real, they are valuable, and in many cases they contribute directly to our national security. There are also, to be sure, areas in where the international system falls short, and while I have alluded to several already, they bear repeating.

First, there is one suite of issues that I believe represents one of the UN system’s biggest sustained failures. That is, of course, the treatment of Israel-Palestine issues.

There remains a persistent, corrosive bias against Israel in many UN fora, including the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, UNESCO, and beyond. It is made manifest in resolutions and commissions of inquiry, and reinforced by incendiary language and bloc voting. This bias diminishes every international body in which it is allowed to persist, and does nothing to advance the vision of a two-state solution in the Middle East.

Recently, more assertive Palestinian action has compounded the challenge. They have sought to elevate their status in the General Assembly and elsewhere across the UN system. They sought and won member state status at UNESCO, which triggered a legislative requirement that the U.S. cease funding that organization. They signed the Rome Statute and are seeking to employ the ICC to adjudicate questions that should be left to negotiations to resolve.

This appropriation of the international system is more than a dangerous precedent. It poses a threat to the legitimacy and viability of institutions, and provides ready ammunition to those who would seek to diminish U.S. leadership across the international system.

In a similar vein, the UN system is frequently and justifiably criticized for providing open venues for rogue states and bad global actors. I’ll brace myself for the laugh track when I tell you that Venezuela is on the Security Council and China, Russia, and Cuba are members of the Human Rights Council. Bloc voting can result in counterintuitive outcomes, and bad actors are sometimes determined to employ multilateral venues to advance goals antithetical to the hosting organization.

I think we can all agree that these realities are unfortunate at best and all too often corrosive and damaging. And there are times when the system in which we’ve invested so much just doesn’t perform as well or as quickly as we’d want – for example WHO being so slow off the mark in responding to the Ebola crisis.

Finally, in the category of shortcomings we need to make special note of continued management, transparency, and accountability failings. Such failings have a profound impact on the international system – damaged credibility, diminished impact, and justifiable exposure to critics. In this category I would include a long history of poorly managed or mismanaged budgets, a sclerotic personnel system, an opaque response to crises such as sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.

The United States is at the forefront of efforts across the UN system to promote the positive evolution in the management cultures of all organizations and agencies. Sometimes we feel a little lonely in that position, but our sustained focus on these issues is beginning to make a difference. There is more budget transparency and accountability in many organizations today. There are more robust investigation tools. There is momentum toward addressing the lack of uniform whistleblower protections.

These steps and others are important, but we must be unrelenting in our demand for continuous, thoughtful evolution of the UN’s psychology and physiology.

In order to see that evolution realized, member states must care, and many do, including of course the United States. We care because we’ve built this system to manage shared responses to global challenges. As many before me have said, if the United Nations didn’t exist, we would almost certainly have to invent it – and I’m not sure in today’s world, that we could.

The United Nations at 70 shows some of its age, to be sure. But the questions facing the global community today demand an invigorated international system, not an internment. And that system is trying to get a lot done this year – in its 70th year – from major negotiations on post-2015 and climate, to peacekeeping reform, to addressing the threats of (inaudible) by violent extremism, to negotiations around the UN budget, to major discussions on internet governance and cyber security and Security Council reform. And let’s not forget the geopolitical shifts that underlie all these questions – from a revanchinist Russia to an increasingly assertive India, China, and Brazil.

Indeed, in some ways this seems like a test year for the UN system: can it still deliver on the kinds of big-ticket multilateral agenda items it is trying to get done? Can it prove that it has evolved and is continuing to evolve to take on new challenges? Will we and other member states continue to see value in using this system – will it continue to deliver for us?

These important questions will all be tested as the year proceeds, and I hope I’ve given some flavor today of why it’s so important that the answers continue to be “yes.”

For now, I want to thank you very much for your attention this afternoon, and I look forward to our conversation.

Secretary's Remarks: Remarks at the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council

Let me start by thanking the Council’s president, Joachim Rucker, for convening this session. And I particularly appreciate the opportunity to be here at such an extraordinarily important time not only for the future of this body, but for human rights around the globe. President Obama believes deeply in the mission of the Human Rights Council, and he recognizes the importance of engagement – U.S. engagement; other engagement – and leadership within the organization. He made the decision to re-engage shortly after he became President because he knew it is vital for the United States and for allies to have a seat at the table as the HRC sets its priorities and implements its agenda.

The moral standard that summons us all here and unites us in common action does not belong to any one nation or continent. The fundamental struggle for dignity has been a driving force in all human history worldwide, and what drives us are a set of universal values and aspirations. We in America know well that even in our own journey, there is still more work to be done. We also know that it is because of the courage and commitment of citizens in each generation that the United States has come closer and still works to always live up to its founding ideals. Our journey has not been without great difficulty or, at times, contradiction. But I think we can fairly say that we have dared to discuss these challenges openly and hold ourselves accountable, including through our free press and unyielding commitment to protecting freedom of expression. And even as we acknowledge the challenges of our history and those that we continue to face today, I can say, I think safely, I don’t know any other country that has worked harder to promote human rights than the United States of America. And we are proud of that.

President Obama and I support the HRC for a simple reason: We believe in its mission and its possibilities. We know that at best this council can be a valuable means for reminding every nation of its commitments and obligations and holding countries accountable when they fail to meet international standards. It can help countries to respond successfully to respond to domestic human rights challenges, as we’ve seen firsthand in Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere, and advance global norms like LGBT rights. It provides a means for self-evaluation on the part of individual nations, including through the universal periodic review process. And we have seen this type of self-examination and engagement with the international community actually produce real process on the ground.

And, of course, the HRC can play a critical role in shaping the global response to situations where human rights violations have reached levels that stagger the imagination and shock the conscience. And sadly, that is the case in far too many countries today. In parts of the Middle East and Africa, violent extremists have made it clear that not only do they have zero regard for human rights, they have zero regard for human life, period. We’ve seen groups like Daesh burn human beings alive, barbarically behead prisoners, sell girls into slavery, and execute widely and indiscriminately. And recently, the UN reported the horrifying ways that Daesh treats even its most vulnerable captives: crucifying children, burying children alive, hand-picking mentally challenged children to serve as suicide bombers and kill even more innocent people. Almost every week brings new examples of just how far the evil of these groups reaches.

But we also know that the best antidote to violent (inaudible) – best ally is civil society, that activists, journalists, community organizers, critical thinkers, all of whom reject extreme ideologies while showing people a way to express hopes and grievances peacefully. So it is especially troubling that so many people in so many places are facing grotesque restrictions on their freedoms and rights from their own governments, including in some cases their right to life.

In Syria, those who escape the horrific attacks of extremist thugs do so only to face a brutal dictator who gasses his own people, starves them as a weapon of war, and continues to barrage them with barrel bombs that fall on their schools, their hospitals, their mosques, their children and women indiscriminately. Anyone who has seen the images will never forget them – in the images of the Caesar photos, maimed bodies, people with their eyes gouged out, emaciated prisoners. It defies anybody’s sense of humanity.

In North Korea, tens of thousands of people live as virtual slaves in 2015. There is no freedom of expression, worship, or political dissent. Kim Jong Un executes those who disagree with him, purging his country of anyone he knows or imagines to be disloyal. For decades, the government has subjugated its citizens, starving them, torturing them, incarcerating them, or worse. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives.

And then there’s the crisis in Ukraine, and here I urge the council: Look at the facts. Do not allow yourselves to be misled. In Crimea and in the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, men, women, and children are being killed. They’re being tortured, they’re being raped and sexually assaulted, detained arbitrarily, abducted for ransom, forced into labor, prosecuted and persecuted because of who they are and where they worship. And that is what is happening, and it’s up to the HRC to shed light on it and to help to hold accountable those who violate those human rights.

The bottom line is that too many people in too many places are facing unbearable realities. We cannot accept that – we, all of us collectively – and we do not accept that. And this council, working with governments across the globe, can help to create a future that is much brighter than the present or the past. I believe it is fair to say that we are already making historic progress, gains. And I’m proud to say that since 2009, the United States has been privileged to join with many of you and work hard in order to achieve those gains. Consider the unprecedented resolutions this council has passed to respond to threats facing civil society, to better protect the human rights of LGBT persons, to promote freedom of religion and freedom of expression, including through resolution 16/18. Consider the indispensable role the HRC has played in encouraging leaders to live up to their promises and commitments in countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka, where there are opportunities for real change. Consider the mountain of evidence we’ve compiled detailing horrific human rights abuses by government forces and terrorists in Syria.

The wheels of justice may not turn as rapidly as all of us would wish, but the foundation for establishing justice is being prepared. Consider how the Commission of Inquiry created by this council changed the conversation regarding the DPRK’s appalling record on human rights. As a result of the COI’s conclusions, the Security Council put the DPRK on its agenda, a clear condemnation of what is happening in the country and an important acknowledgment of the link between human rights and international security and peace. And consider the great work of the special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, which spotlighted violations there. Make no mistake, these are all significant accomplishments. The more the international community understands about specific human rights violations, the greater the pressure will be on bad actors to change course. And eventually – not always overnight, but eventually – that pressure often translates into the kind of change that saves lives and expands freedom.

My government believes that together we can continue to make progress and help this body fulfill its mandate to make the world a better and safer place. But for that to happen, we have to get serious about addressing roadblocks to our own progress. And the most obvious roadblock, I have to say to you, is self-inflicted. I’m talking, of course, about HRC’s deeply concerning record on Israel. No one in this room can deny that there is an unbalanced focus on one democratic country. No other nation has an entire agenda item set aside to deal with it. Year after year, there are five or six separate resolutions on Israel. This year, there was a resolution sponsored by President Assad concerning the Golan. How, I ask, is that a sensible priority at the very moment when refugees from Syria are flooding into the Golan to escape Assad’s murderous rule and receive treatment from Israeli physicians in Israeli hospitals?

It must be said that the HRC’s obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization. It has the potential to limit the good that we have to do. No one should doubt for a second that the United States will measure these things, I hope, fairly and dispassionately, but we will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the UN system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel, not just in the HRC but wherever it occurs. When it comes to human rights, no country on earth should be free from scrutiny, but neither should any country be subject to unfair or unfounded bias.

My friends, the United States absolutely remains deeply committed to this important mission, and we certainly intend to remain deeply involved in the HRC, which is why we are running for reelection. When the stakes are as high as they are today – and believe me, they could not be higher – when people in every corner of the globe are denied the rights that they deserve, the HRC must live up to the standards upon which it was created. Together, we have to be the voice for those who are silenced by their leaders. We have to be a ray of light for those who spend their days locked away without cause, many times in anonymity, in dark and dank cells somewhere in the world. We have to be the source of hope for those who fear that their suffering may never end or never even be recognized. This is the kind of organization – this council – that the world desperately needs. But it needs us, all of us, to dare greatly and to live up to the highest standards. And this is the kind of organization that, when it does that, can help all of our nations live up to the ideals that we share. Thank you. (Applause.)

Forging a gender-balanced economy

Getting more women into work is a priority goal of G20 policy, but gender inequality is a barrier. To overcome this, the OECD, ILO and others have identified ways forward.

Today, though far more women go out to work than a century ago, female participation in the workforce remains below that of male in all G20 and OECD countries. Yet millions more women could and would work if hurdles were removed and the conditions were made right for them to do so.

Policymakers are taking notice. In its G20 programme Australia believes that by reducing the gender gap in employment by 25% by 2025, over 100 million women would join the workforce in G20 countries, boosting GDP growth by up to 1.6%.

The G20 now wants national growth strategies to incorporate measures to promote much greater gender equality, from access to quality education, to finance and productive, rewarding jobs. Fostering female labour market participation features at the heart of many G20 priorities, for instance, as part of the structural reforms initiatives and the G20 Task Force on Employment on the integration of under-represented populations.

Both the OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship and International Labour Organization (ILO) maternity conventions and recommendations support these goals (see references).

But, merely increasing labour force participation among women is not enough: women should never be subjected to discriminatory low pay, or be involuntarily confined to part-time employment or menial, vulnerable jobs. To ensure women are fully integrated in society and the workforce, policymakers must overhaul their rules and overturn social and cultural attitudes as well.

The gender gap in labour force participation is wide. For the working-age population it narrowed from an average of 23 percentage points across the OECD area in 1990 to 13 percentage points in 2012; among the G20 countries the range is quite wide, with a low of 7 percentage points in Canada, more than 20 percentage points in the likes of Italy, Japan and Korea, and well over 50 percentage points in India and Saudi Arabia. Since 2000, female employment rates have increased in most countries and, by 2012, reached 60% or more in half of the G20 countries. Nevertheless, gender employment gaps were wider than 10 percentage points in 15 G20 countries.

Data show that women are less likely to work full-time than men in all countries, or progress in their careers. They show that young women are more likely to be categorised as neither in employment, education or training (NEETs) than their male counterparts, particularly in India, Mexico and Turkey.

The wage gap between men and women is substantial too, in part because many women work in welfare, education, health care and administrative jobs, and are over-represented in informal employment, particularly in emerging economies. However, even when there is no obvious reason wage gaps for men and women in the same job can exist.

Women are widely regarded as excellent entrepreneurs–some women have remarked with humour that a Lehman Sisters would never have collapsed–yet make up only 25% of business-owners with employees in G20 countries. Women rarely own large businesses and their average earnings from self-employment are up to 60% lower than for men.

Looking at the educational performance of boys and girls, and younger men and women, it is hard to believe that these gender gaps exist at all. Girls aged 15 outperform boys in reading competency and lag behind in mathematics, but to a much lesser extent than boys lag behind in reading. And women between the ages of 25 and 34 are more likely to have a tertiary degree than men in the same age group. However, gender differences persist in choice of study, with too few women in sciences, for instance.

A way forward

Gender gaps are conditioned by a mixture of economic and socio-cultural factors, and narrowing these gaps demands a range of bold measures. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of good practice which the OECD has documented for countries to emulate, and these can be found in the references below. A report by the OECD, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), ILO and World Bank, identifies four broad areas for policy action.

First, policymakers should introduce legal measures to eliminate unequal treatment in the labour market. Discrimination against women is all too commonplace in OECD and G20 countries, even though discrimination based on gender, maternity, paternity and family responsibilities is against the law in most OECD and G20 countries. Where it is not, policymaker should establish clear legislative frameworks. All countries should ensure the law is applied evenly, and that women and men are treated equally, with restrictions removed on hiring women for some occupations, even manual jobs, for instance. The principle of equal pay for equal work or for work of equal value should also be upheld by law, and insisted upon in collective bargaining. Governments can help by setting voluntary targets, and encourage private initiatives to promote more women in decision-making positions, for instance. Pressure for change can be maintained via monitoring, labour inspection, equality commissions and the courts. Publishing data on discrimination helps to keep track of changes and to hold feet to the fire.

Second, governments should build an enabling environment for gender equality in labour markets to take hold. Measures to ensure a female-friendly labour market include maternal health services, covering prenatal, childbirth, postnatal and reproductive health. Girls must have equal access to the same good-quality education as boys, equal rights and opportunities to complete schooling and to enter all higher education courses, and afforded proper guidance as to their field of study and career path.

Measures that help both women and men to reconcile work and family life are also essential. There are examples of good practices in some OECD countries, such as employment-protected paid maternity and paternity leave for everyone, including informal workers. Policymakers should also ensure good-quality early childhood education and care services.

Family-friendly workplace support, including for nursing mothers, quality part-time employment options and flexibility with regard to working time, would also help.

Third come measures to make work pay, improve the quality of jobs and reduce the informal labour market. A country’s tax/benefit system can dissuade women from going out to work, but should be designed so that men and women have broadly the same financial incentives to go out to work and have the same level of coverage. Minimum wages and social security coverage for low-paid part-time workers should be enhanced, while cash transfers, such as earned income tax credits, can encourage more women to join the labour force.

Policies are needed to improve employment conditions, and increase access to training, including for informal self-employed workers and domestic workers.

Fourth, policymakers should introduce measures to promote entrepreneurship.

A range of actions is required, from ensuring equal access to finance, markets and advice, to establishing gender-neutral legal frameworks for business. Governments should improve conditions for small and medium-sized firms for men and women, and encourage microfinance for informal businesses. They should also conduct awareness-raising campaigns and support training programmes.

The factors underlying the persistency of the female labour market disadvantage must and can be challenged, and while women and men can work together to effect change on the ground, government leadership can make the difference.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Miles Franklin’s death. What more fitting tribute than for G20 countries under the presidency of Australia, a pioneer in giving women the right to vote and be elected, to underline their commitment to reducing gender inequality so that women everywhere might have a shot at their own brilliant careers?

Rory J. Clarke

For more information on gender issues, contact Willem.Adema@oecd.org.


Adema, Willem (2014), “Closing the gender gap can boost the economy”, in OECD Observer No 298, Q1, see http://oe.cd/Ko, key word: Japan.

Franklin, Miles (1901), My Brilliant Career, Penguin Classics.

OECD et al (2014), Achieving stronger growth by promoting a more gender-balanced economy, available at http://oe.cd/Kg: includes many concrete examples of good practice in gender equality policy from a wide range of G20 countries.

OECD (2014), Enhancing Women’s Economic Empowerment through Entrepreneurship and Business Leadership in OECD Countries, available at http://oe.cd/Kh.

OECD (2013), Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship, Paris, available at http://oe.cd/Ki.

Visit www.oecd.org/gender

Visit www.ilo.org/gender

© OECD Observer No 300, Q3 2014

Useful links:


G20 Brisbane 2014

Australia: Brisbane 2014 special

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Press Releases: Remarks at a Press Availability

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon, everybody, and thank you. And I apologize for keeping you waiting for a few minutes.

A little while ago, as I think you know, I had the opportunity to address the UN Human Rights Council here in Geneva. And since the United States made the decision to re-engage on the council, we have worked hard to try to drive a number of significant steps to be able to bring new levels of international attention to some of the world’s most egregious human rights violations, and also to focus on some of the worst abusers – particularly, obviously, we have focused on North Korea and Syria.

We’ve also worked hard to try to create new mechanisms that explore and address serious human rights infringements on the freedom of assembly, expression, and religion, and the rights of LGBT people. And as many of you know, just the other day, I had the privilege of making the appointment for Randy Berry as the first special envoy for global LGBT rights for the State Department.

Because of the important progress that we have seen over the course of the past five years, the United States very much continues to believe in the potential of the Human Rights Council, and we’re dedicated to try to work for its success. At the same time, however, as I mentioned earlier, we recognize that there are places where it needs to improve, and most notably, as I cited earlier, has been the excessive bias, in our judgment, on one country, on Israel. So we wanted to make it clear today that we think that that is an impediment that stands in the way of the progress that should be achieved here when we look at the wide array of the world’s ills and the many challenges that we need to speak out on with respect to human rights.

I made it clear that the United States will oppose any effort by any group or any participant to abuse the UN system in order to delegitimize or isolate Israel. And we think it’s important that for the right – for the council to be able to achieve the breadth of goals that it is faced with – the breadth of the – to address the breadth of the challenges that it currently faces, it really needs to break out of an older mold and begin to put the time and energy and major focus on some of those most egregious situations. And that is really what has happened within the Council over the course of the last five years, particularly if you look at the commission of inquiry work that has been done with respect to the DPRK and other work it has done.

I also met this morning with Foreign Minister Lavrov. And we spent a fair amount of time discussing Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, and Iran. I reiterated the urgency of Russia’s leaders and the separatists that they back implementing the full measure of the commitments under the Minsk agreements and to implement them everywhere, including in Debaltseve, outside Mariupol, and in other key strategic areas. And I underscored this morning that if that does not happen, if there continue to be these broad swaths of noncompliance, or there continues to be a cherry-picking as to where heavy equipment will be moved back from without knowing where it’s been moved to, or if the OSCE is not able to adequately be able to gain the access necessary, then there would be inevitably further consequences that will place added strain on Russia’s already troubled economy. Now, obviously, Ukraine is just one of the issues, as I mentioned, that we focused on. And it’s only one of the issues, frankly, on which the United States and Russia together are focused.

This morning, Foreign Minister Lavrov and I also spoke at some length about Syria. The situation in Syria actually grows worse, if that’s possible for people to imagine. Almost three-quarters of the entire country is now displaced people – half of them refugees in mostly Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, but many of them displaced within the country and unable to move because of ISIL, Daesh, al-Nusrah, the regime, or some other extremist group.

So we spoke at length about steps that might be able to be taken in order to try to see if there is a potential of common ground. And we agreed that there is no military solution; we agreed there is a need for a political solution; and we agreed on the need of those countries who have been supporting people in this endeavor, in this conflict, to be able to search yet again to see whether or not there is a path either to Geneva 1 or to some hybrid or some means of ending the violence. And one of the things that drives that interest, that common interest, is the reality of Daesh, the reality of what is happening to Syria as a result of the presence of Daesh there and its use of Syria as a base for spreading its evil to other places.

We also talked about the Iran nuclear negotiations, where we are, together with the other P5+1 members – where we are all focused simultaneously on the need to elicit from Iran answers to questions about their nuclear program – not just answers for today, but answers that are capable of lasting well into the future in order to be able to provide people with a confidence that the program is, indeed, a peaceful nuclear program.

We continue to believe, all the members of the P5+1, that the best way to deal with the questions surrounding this nuclear program is to find a comprehensive deal, but not a deal that comes at any cost, not a deal just for the purpose of a deal; a deal that meets the test of providing the answers and the guarantees that are needed in order to know that the four pathways to a nuclear bomb have been closed off. And that is the task. And we hope it is possible to get there, but there is no guarantee.

Sanctions alone are not going to provide that solution. What needs to happen is that Iran needs to provide a verifiable set of commitments that its program is in fact peaceful. And that average people and experts alike looking at that verifiable set of commitments have confidence that they are sustainable, that they are real, and that they will provide the answers and guarantees well into the future.

Any deal must close every potential pathway that Iran has towards fissile material, whether it’s uranium, plutonium, or a covert path. The fact is only a good, comprehensive deal in the end can actually check off all of those boxes.

Now, I want to be clear about two things. Right now, no deal exists, no partial deal exists. And unless Iran is able to make the difficult decisions that will be required, there won’t be a deal. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That is the standard by which this negotiation is taking place, and anyone who tells you otherwise is simply misinformed.

Now, we are concerned by reports that suggest selective details of the ongoing negotiations will be discussed publicly in the coming days. I want to say clearly that doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share in order to get a good deal. Israel’s security is absolutely at the forefront of all of our minds, but frankly, so is the security of all the other countries in the region, so is our security in the United States. And we are very clear that as we negotiate with Iran, if we are able to reach the kind of deal that we’re hoping for, then it would have to be considered in its entirety and measured against alternatives.

Second – I cannot emphasize this enough. I have said this from the first moment that I become engaged in this negotiating process, President Obama has said this repeatedly: We will not accept a bad deal. We have said no deal is better than a bad deal, because a bad deal could actually make things less secure and more dangerous. Any deal that we would possibly agree to would make the international community, and especially Israel, safer than it is today. That’s our standard. So our team is working very hard to close remaining gaps, to reach a deal that ensures Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively and verifiably peaceful, and we have made some progress, but we still have a long way to go and the clock is ticking.

That’s why I will leave here momentarily to head to Montreux to meet with Foreign Minister Zarif and continue the negotiations. And in the days and weeks ahead, we’re going to answer a very simple question. We’re going to find out whether or not Iran is willing to make the hard choices that are necessary to get where we need to be. I’m happy to take a few of your questions.

MS. PSAKI: Michael Gordon, New York Times. Right over here.

QUESTION: Sir, Minister Lavrov asserted in his address that the ceasefire in Ukraine was being consolidated, but you made clear that Russia cannot expect to consolidate its gains in Debaltseve and avoid economic sanctions. Did Minister Lavrov offer you any assurances that Russia would arrange for the separatists to pull back from Debaltseve? And how long is the Obama Administration prepared to wait before imposing those additional sanctions you’ve been talking about? And did he have any response to your assertion to Congress last week that Russians have lied to your face?

And lastly, you’re meeting shortly with Foreign Minister Zarif on the Iran issues. You told Congress last week that you hoped to know soon, “whether or not Iran is willing to put together an acceptable and verifiable plan.” What do you need to hear from Mr. Zarif today, and what do you need to get done over the next three days to stay on track for the framework accord? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Michael, first of all regarding Russia, it’s clear from the conversations that I’ve had with President Poroshenko as well as with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and the conversations that we’ve had in Washington in the aftermath of the Minsk negotiations, that there was not a clarity with respect to Debaltseve, which we obviously saw play out in the drama of the soldiers who were left there and who were fighting and who eventually fought their way out, with many being killed. What is critical here is that the maps that were agreed to show several different areas of drawback on both sides from the line of contact and according to the size of the weapon, the gauge of a particular weapon, they have to pull back different amounts.

Right now, the OSCE has complained to us, at least, that they have not been granted full access to be able to make those judgments, and particularly the end zones as to where items that have been withdrawn have actually been placed, whether they’ve been placed there or not.

So there’s been a kind of cherry picking, a piecemeal selectivity to the application of the Minsk agreements. And as we all know, shooting, shelling has still been going on and people have still been killed over the course of these last days. So there is not yet a full ceasefire, and it’s extremely difficult for the full measure of the Minsk agreement, which includes a political component, to begin to be implemented until you actually have the full measure of security that comes with OSCE monitoring and an actual ceasefire. So our hope is that in the next hours, certainly not more than days, this will be fully implemented. I might add, a convoy that came through from Russia passed across the border into the eastern part of Ukraine without being properly inspected also.

So these are the issues I raised with the foreign minister. He assured me that they are intent on seeing to it that the accord – that the agreements are, in fact, implemented. He said he would get back to me with respect to a number of the issues that I raised. And our hope is, indeed, that this will prove to be a road to further de-escalation rather than a road to disappointment, potential deception, and further violence. But that’s going to have to play out, obviously, over the course of the next few days. So I’m very hopeful that it will, in fact, be the start of a change which would be an improvement for everybody.

With respect to Iran, I really just articulated – I just said it – France doesn’t have to answer questions here, Germany doesn’t have to answer questions here, Great Britain doesn’t have to, China doesn’t, Russia doesn’t, the United States doesn’t. We’re not the ones who have been pursuing a program outside of international norms. Iran has posed the questions over the course of time sufficient to invite United Nations sanctions, United Nations Security Council resolution, and IAEA outstanding questions. Iran needs to answer those questions and Iran needs to give confidence to the world that its many articulations of a peaceful program can have the confidence of verification. Every arms agreement in history has been subject to verification to clear levels of access and knowledge and insight, transparency, that allow people to be able to measure that program.

And one of the reasons I make it clear to people that we’re not going to accept a bad deal is because we know that whatever agreement is reached here doesn’t suddenly get stuffed in a drawer and put away and disappear to be implemented; it is going to be scrutinized by people all over the world – leaders of countries, scientists, nuclear experts, every NGO involved in nonproliferation – not to mention, obviously, all the countries in the region most affected by the choices we are making, and all of the members of the United States Congress House and Senate.

This is going to be highly judged and we’re aware of that, and frankly, we would be either – well, I’m not going to – we just – we’re not about to jump into something that we don’t believe can get the job done. Now, there may be disagreements; if somebody believes that any kind of program is wrong, then we have a fundamental disagreement. And clearly, sanctions are not going to eliminate just any kind of program. You can’t bomb knowledge into oblivion unless you kill everybody. You can’t bomb it away. People have a knowledge here. The question is: Can you provide an adequate level of the management of intrusive inspections; structured, tough requirements; limitations; all the insights necessary to be able to know to a certainty that the program is, in fact, peaceful?

That’s what the IAEA was set up to be there for, that’s what the NPT is, that’s what the additional protocol – the NPT is. There are all kinds of tested components of this. This isn’t happening at first blush. This has been in effect for a long time with a lot of countries, and there are ways to be able to make certain that a program is peaceful and the test – what we’re looking for in the next days, Michael, is adequate satisfaction that this program is, in fact, going to be complying with its own promises, that it is a purely peaceful nuclear program.

MS. PSAKI: Frédéric Koller from Le Temps.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. You just said on Iran that sanctions cannot eliminate problems. And I would like to know – with the Ukrainian situation, it seems the conflict in Ukraine becomes more and more conflict between Russia and Western countries – Russia and United States. And I would like to know how to deal with these problems, knowing that United States threatens now Russia with more sanctions if the Minsk agreement is not implemented. And a few years ago, you were here in the – at the hotel – Intercontinental Hotel, and you started – well, it was Hillary Clinton at the time who started with this reset policy with Russia. What went wrong with Russia? And how to deal now with Russia? Comprehensive agreement somehow is needed between Russia and United States, I guess to deal with —

SECRETARY KERRY: How what? I’m sorry. I missed the last part. How to?

QUESTION: How to deal with Russia. We understand that Russia needs something more to build a new confidence with the United States and Western countries. When we hear Mr. Lavrov this morning at the Human Rights Council, he has very strong statement against United States and its values – it’s kind of clash of values. How to deal with today’s Russia?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it may be a clash of realities. I don’t see it as a clash of values. It seems to me that on sanctions, there’s a real distinction between sanctions that are calculated to have an impact on a nuclear program which is one set of choices for a particular country, and sanctions which are broadly adopted by many nations because of a violation of a norm of international law and which particularly have an impact on the – particularly have an impact on Russia’s choices at this particular moment, given a lot of other variables like oil prices, other exigencies that Russia faces.

So sanctions have obviously had a significant impact on Russia, and you try to use them in order to make a point about the choices that are available. And in the case of Russia, the ruble has gone down 50 percent, there’s been about $151 billion of capital flight, the bonds of Russia are now judged to be junk bonds, and the economic predictions are that Russia will be going into recession this year. So it’s obviously had a profound impact, but not sufficient that President Putin has decided that he isn’t going to pursue his particular strategy. It may change at some point in the future, but those are the things you have to weigh in deciding what alternative policies you may pursue or what alternative choices may be available.

I suspect that President Putin, as the months go on, is going to have to really weigh those things. And we’ve tried to make it clear to him and particularly to the Russian people we’re not doing this to hurt the people of Russia, we’re not doing this to make life difficult for all Russians. We’re doing this to try to affect the choices that their leaders are making in order to uphold the norms of international law. We’re here in a UN facility, and the United Nations is critical to the upholding of international standards of behavior. And the world has worked hard since World War II to try to adhere to a set of global norms of behavior, particularly with respect to respect for territorial integrity.

One of the cries that came out of the World War II experience was we can’t allow nations to make land grabs running over the territorial integrity of external borders, as we saw in the period leading up to and then during World War II. So we’ve really ingrained in international behavior this notion of the value of international borders and of upholding the sovereignty and integrity of nation states. That sovereignty and integrity has been violated over the course of the last months, and that’s the purpose of the sanctions that we put in place.

But our hope is, obviously, that we can get back to a better place of cooperation with Russia. I personally – I think President Putin misinterprets a great deal of what the United States has been doing and has tried to do. We are not involved in multiple color revolutions, as he asserts, nor are we involved in a particularly personal way here. We are trying to uphold the international law with respect to the sovereignty and integrity of another nation. And others have joined us. The fact is that Europe has the same sense of commitment to this. And our hope is that we can persuade President Putin and Russia that we’re prepared to cooperate with them as soon as they are genuinely prepared to uphold the agreements that they signed and to live by these international standards.

We have happily been able to find cooperation continue on other issues. Russia has been helpful in the context of the P5+1 talks. Russia was extremely engaged and essential in our success in getting chemical weapons out of Syria in the arrangement that we reached right here in Geneva. And we were able to work together to do that. Russia is sitting with us even now, as I discussed with you, and talking about ways we might – might, I underscore – be able to try to make some progress with respect to Syria and with respect to Daesh.

So even in the midst of this major disagreement over Ukraine, we are still finding ways to cooperate together, and I hope that if we can work through Ukraine, we will get back to a place where we are finding more to be able to cooperate on and less to disagree on. And I’m not going to get into resets or non-resets, but I think that sometimes events get in the way of the best-laid policies. But both countries have indicated, I think, a maturity with respect to the willingness to try to find ways to cooperate notwithstanding this fundamental disagreement over Ukraine.

MS. PSAKI: Unfortunately, we need to get on the road for our next meeting, so this will conclude this press availability. Thank you, everyone.

At regional conference, Ban spotlights role of United States, its youth in UN’s success

20 February 2015 – The United States and its young people, in particular, are essential to the success of the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said today in his remarks to the UN Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) Members Day gathering at Headquarters.

“I am asking you, particularly young people, to have a global vision. Just forget that you are American citizens. Living in New York or California…This is a very small world. [People elsewhere] are our brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers, so we have to live together,” Mr. Ban told participants at the UN 7th Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference.

The Secretary-General thanked the organization for its advocacy in helping reach young people and promote support for the UN in the US. As it stands now, the US is the largest single donor country to the UN – 20-27 per cent of all the Organization’s financial requirements come from US taxpayers.

In his remarks, Mr. Ban recalled growing up in Korea as a little boy. “Tens of thousands of American young men and women came to Korea to rescue us, as a part of the United Nations collective security. Without the US and without the United Nations, all Koreans or even the Republic of Korea might not have been able to exist…I owe a great deal – I am one of the greatest beneficiaries of the United Nations.”

Now, the UN is building refugee tents, providing food, water sanitation, and make-shift schools. And although this year marks 70 years since the UN’s creation and the end of the Second World War, there is still work to be done to fight racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of intolerance.

Recalling his participation at yesterday’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorism, Mr. Ban emphasized the importance of solidarity among people from countries of different faiths and religions. Fighting violent extremism “is not a war against any religion by any religion or against any civilization or by any civilization. This is a war against a brutal criminality – unspeakable, intolerable brutality – beheadings, kidnapping, killing, raping.”

There are reasons why this kind of extremism happens such as bad governance including failed leadership, corruption, injustice, and inequality. Addressing this is a global challenge and not a single country, however powerful or resourceful, can do it alone. The United Nations also cannot do it alone. Therefore, it’s important to show solidarity and mobilize.

Human dignity and human rights go hand-in-hand in preventing violent extremism, Mr. Ban said. “I think you should feel a responsibility as citizens of the most resourceful, richest country in the world. You should have a global citizenship.”

Mr. Ban said he plans to host a high-level meeting, inviting all the faith leaders around the world to spotlight the importance of tolerance and education. Killing people is a crime, no matter the cause or grievance.

That’s why, on the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the UN has very ambitious goals to make the world sustainable – environmentally, socially, and economically. Member States have already announced 17 very ambitious goals with 169 targets to make these goals achieved by 2030.

“By 2030, our target is that we eradicate poverty…by that time, we will have gender equality. By that time there should be no children who are left behind at school, at least secondary schools,” Mr. Ban said.

There are still 67 million young people, school-age children who are out of primary schools. By 2030, they will have to have access to secondary school. By 2030, the UN will have reduced significantly the mothers who are dying while delivering babies and girls and boys who are dying from preventable diseases such as malaria, polio and so many diseases which are preventable. By 2030, the world will be more environmentally sustainable.

The Secretary-General said he looked forward to December this year, when in Paris the world will plan to sign a historic climate change agreement. But first, in July, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Member States will meet for a conference on development financing.

East Asia and the Pacific: Supporting Humanitarian Aid Programs in the DPRK

It is a pleasure for me to be here today with this distinguished panel to discuss humanitarian assistance programs in North Korea. I want to thank the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS for hosting today’s event.

This is an important issue that deserves careful attention. The United States remains deeply concerned about the well-being of the North Korean people. We seek to alleviate the humanitarian problems in North Korea and also to end the egregious human rights violations occurring in the country.

The United States Cares

The American people have repeatedly demonstrated that we are compassionate and that we care about the well-being of others. In the past the United States has been at the forefront of international humanitarian efforts aid to North Korea.

Between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in aid, both in the form of food and heavy fuel oil, making us one of the leading contributors of assistance to the DPRK. But both the United States and UN agencies have struggled with North Korean authorities over the lack of transparency and freedom to monitor the distribution of food and other humanitarian assistance.

In the fall of 2008, the U.S. resumed a food assistance program for the North Korean People, working with American NGOs and the UN’s World Food Programme. There were difficulties in monitoring aid distribution, and in early 2009, North Korea unilaterally terminated our assistance program. Just two months later, North Korea conducted its second nuclear weapons test.

Difficulties Engaging the DPRK

Because of the difficulty of satisfying our own requirements for monitoring aid to North Korea, as well as budgetary constraints and intense demand for American humanitarian aid in many other parts of the world – Syria, Sudan, Ebola-afflicted areas of Africa among others – it is very difficult for us to provide aid to the DPRK.

North Korea is an authoritarian government ruled by an isolated elite, with a state-controlled media and no freedom of speech or press, no freedom of religion, no transparency in governance, and no rule of law or mechanism for airing grievances. The country remains one of the most restrictive governments on earth. This makes it very difficult for the U.S. government to engage directly with North Korea, even when dealing with the issue of humanitarian aid.

The landmark 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea’s human rights noted the deplorable use of food by the North Korean government as a means of controlling its population. According to the Commission, North Korea’s leaders are guilty of “knowingly causing prolonged starvation” and are responsible for the death by starvation of hundreds of thousands of its own people.

Whenever we undertake an assistance program, regardless of the country in which we operate, by law we are required to monitor aid distribution to ensure that assistance reaches the most vulnerable populations. This is the key element that has made it difficult to continue our assistance to North Korea.

The DPRK has not requested humanitarian aid from the United States since 2011, and we do not have any plans to provide such assistance.

The U.S. Government Supports NGO Efforts

But the need for food, medical, technical, and educational aid is still urgent in North Korea. This is why people and NGOs like the ones that are here today are so important. They are able to engage with North Korea under different circumstances. Whereas North Korea has set up road blocks to government-to-government engagement, it has demonstrated a willingness to work directly with NGOs.

NGOs are able to do things the United States cannot do. This is why we admire and encourage their efforts to provide much needed aid to the people of North Korea. To the extent that we can be helpful, we seek to support NGO efforts.

The United States has long made clear to North Korea that we are open to improved relations if it is willing to take concrete actions to live up to its international obligations and commitments.

We remain gravely concerned about the ongoing systematic and widespread human rights violations in the DPRK and about the well-being of the North Korean people, who bear the brunt of their government’s decision to perpetuate its self-impoverishing policies.

These policies deny the people of the North human and civil rights and the quality of life which they could and should have. Addressing these human rights abuses in North Korea remains an essential component of U.S. policy.

We believe direct people-to-people contact, which occurs through the provision of humanitarian aid, such as that provided by private organizations, can have a positive long term impact on advancing change in the country. As such, we support efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea. And we call on North Korea to honor its international obligations and agreements and to allow the international humanitarian assistance groups and independent monitors unfettered access to all areas of the country to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches its intended recipients.

I want to thank you for you for your efforts with North Korea, and we support your cause.

Ultimately, we will judge North Korea, not by its words, but by its actions—the concrete steps it takes to address the core concerns of the international community, from its nuclear program, to its human rights violations, and its effort for the well-being of the North Korean people.

Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

February 05, 2015

Washington Hilton
Washington, D.C.

9:13 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Well, good morning.  Giving all praise and honor to God.  It is wonderful to be back with you here.  I want to thank our co-chairs, Bob and Roger.  These two don’t always agree in the Senate, but in coming together and uniting us all in prayer, they embody the spirit of our gathering today. 

I also want to thank everybody who helped organize this breakfast.  It’s wonderful to see so many friends and faith leaders and dignitaries.  And Michelle and I are truly honored to be joining you here today.

I want to offer a special welcome to a good friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama — who is a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion, who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.  (Applause.)  I’ve been pleased to welcome him to the White House on many occasions, and we’re grateful that he’s able to join us here today.  (Applause.)  

There aren’t that many occasions that bring His Holiness under the same roof as NASCAR.  (Laughter.)  This may be the first.  (Laughter.)  But God works in mysterious ways.  (Laughter.)   And so I want to thank Darrell for that wonderful presentation.  Darrell knows that when you’re going 200 miles an hour, a little prayer cannot hurt.  (Laughter.)  I suspect that more than once, Darrell has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives — Jesus, take the wheel.  (Laughter.) Although I hope that you kept your hands on the wheel when you were thinking that.  (Laughter.)   

He and I obviously share something in having married up.  And we are so grateful to Stevie for the incredible work that they’ve done together to build a ministry where the fastest drivers can slow down a little bit, and spend some time in prayer and reflection and thanks.  And we certainly want to wish Darrell a happy birthday.  (Applause.)  Happy birthday.

I will note, though, Darrell, when you were reading that list of things folks were saying about you, I was thinking, well, you’re a piker.  I mean, that — (laughter.)  I mean, if you really want a list, come talk to me.  (Laughter.)  Because that ain’t nothing.  (Laughter.)  That’s the best they can do in NASCAR?  (Laughter.)        

Slowing down and pausing for fellowship and prayer — that’s what this breakfast is about.  I think it’s fair to say Washington moves a lot slower than NASCAR.  Certainly my agenda does sometimes.  (Laughter.)  But still, it’s easier to get caught up in the rush of our lives, and in the political back-and-forth that can take over this city.  We get sidetracked with distractions, large and small.  We can’t go 10 minutes without checking our smartphones — and for my staff, that’s every 10 seconds.  And so for 63 years, this prayer tradition has brought us together, giving us the opportunity to come together in humility before the Almighty and to be reminded of what it is that we share as children of God. 

And certainly for me, this is always a chance to reflect on my own faith journey.  Many times as President, I’ve been reminded of a line of prayer that Eleanor Roosevelt was fond of. She said, “Keep us at tasks too hard for us that we may be driven to Thee for strength.”  Keep us at tasks too hard for us that we may be driven to Thee for strength.  I’ve wondered at times if maybe God was answering that prayer a little too literally.  But no matter the challenge, He has been there for all of us.  He’s certainly strengthened me “with the power through his Spirit,” as I’ve sought His guidance not just in my own life but in the life of our nation.
Now, over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of challenges — certainly over the last six years.  But part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil. 

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.  We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism  — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions. 

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. 

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe. 

And, first, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth. 

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.  And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.

There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both. 

But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment.  And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — (applause) — and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.  Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech.  Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.

So humility I think is needed.  And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments.  Between church and between state.  The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world — far more religious than most Western developed countries.  And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state.  Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all.  And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion — so that when you listen to Darrell talk about his faith journey you know it’s real.  You know he’s not saying it because it helps him advance, or because somebody told him to.  It’s from the heart.   

That’s not the case in theocracies that restrict people’s choice of faith.  It’s not the case in authoritarian governments that elevate an individual leader or a political party above the people, or in some cases, above the concept of God Himself.  So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States.

Last year, we joined together to pray for the release of Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, held in North Korea for two years.  And today, we give thanks that Kenneth is finally back where he belongs — home, with his family.  (Applause.)

Last year, we prayed together for Pastor Saeed Abedini, detained in Iran since 2012.  And I was recently in Boise, Idaho, and had the opportunity to meet with Pastor Abedini’s beautiful wife and wonderful children and to convey to them that our country has not forgotten brother Saeed and that we’re doing everything we can to bring him home.  (Applause.)  And then, I received an extraordinary letter from Pastor Abedini.  And in it, he describes his captivity, and expressed his gratitude for my visit with his family, and thanked us all for standing in solidarity with him during his captivity.

And Pastor Abedini wrote, “Nothing is more valuable to the Body of Christ than to see how the Lord is in control, and moves ahead of countries and leadership through united prayer.”  And he closed his letter by describing himself as “prisoner for Christ, who is proud to be part of this great nation of the United States of America that cares for religious freedom around the world.”  (Applause.)

We’re going to keep up this work — for Pastor Abedini and all those around the world who are unjustly held or persecuted because of their faith.   And we’re grateful to our new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein — who has hit the ground running, and is heading to Iraq in a few days to help religious communities there address some of those challenges.  Where’s David?  I know he’s here somewhere.  Thank you, David, for the great work you’re doing.  (Applause.)

Humility; a suspicion of government getting between us and our faiths, or trying to dictate our faiths, or elevate one faith over another.  And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths, and people who are still finding their way towards faith but have a sense of ethics and morality in them — that one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.  The Torah says “Love thy neighbor as yourself.”  In Islam, there is a Hadith that states: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”  The Holy Bible tells us to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Put on love.

Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred.  And this is the loving message of His Holiness, Pope Francis.  And like so many people around the world, I’ve been touched by his call to relieve suffering, and to show justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable; to walk with The Lord and ask “Who am I to judge?”  He challenges us to press on in what he calls our “march of living hope.”  And like millions of Americans, I am very much looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to the United States later this year.  (Applause.)

His Holiness expresses that basic law:  Treat thy neighbor as yourself.  The Dalai Lama — anybody who’s had an opportunity to be with him senses that same spirit.  Kent Brantly expresses that same spirit.  Kent was with Samaritan’s Purse, treating Ebola patients in Liberia, when he contracted the virus himself. And with world-class medical care and a deep reliance on faith — with God’s help, Kent survived.  (Applause.) 

And then by donating his plasma, he helped others survive as well.  And he continues to advocate for a global response in West Africa, reminding us that “our efforts needs to be on loving the people there.”  And I could not have been prouder to welcome Kent and his wonderful wife Amber to the Oval Office.  We are blessed to have him here today — because he reminds us of what it means to really “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Not just words, but deeds. 

Each of us has a role in fulfilling our common, greater purpose — not merely to seek high position, but to plumb greater depths so that we may find the strength to love more fully.  And this is perhaps our greatest challenge — to see our own reflection in each other; to be our brother’s keepers and sister’s keepers, and to keep faith with one another.  As children of God, let’s make that our work, together.

As children of God, let’s work to end injustice — injustice of poverty and hunger.  No one should ever suffer from such want amidst such plenty.  As children of God, let’s work to eliminate the scourge of homelessness, because, as Sister Mary says, “None of us are home until all of us are home.”  None of us are home until all of us are home.

As children of God, let’s stand up for the dignity and value of every woman, and man, and child, because we are all equal in His eyes, and work to send the scourge and the sin of modern-day slavery and human trafficking, and “set the oppressed free.”  (Applause.)

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I pray that we will.  And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.” 

May the Lord bless you and keep you, and may He bless this precious country that we love. 

Thank you all very much.  (Applause.)

9:37 A.M. EST

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/6/2015

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

January 06, 2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:07 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Glad at least some of you were able to navigate the snowfall this morning and make it to work.  One quick announcement before we get started with questions.  Some of you asked about the President meeting with members of Congress.  I can tell you that the White House has invited the top four leaders from each party and from each chamber of Commerce — each chamber of Congress —
Q    Commerce, too?  (Laughter.) 
MR. EARNEST:  — Congress — to participate in a meeting early next week at the White House.  I believe it’s slated for Tuesday.  So this is the same group of members of Congress the President had lunch with here a couple days after the midterm elections.  So this will be an opportunity for them to talk about a range of issues, most importantly, the legislative agenda for 2015 as well as a couple of foreign policy issues as well. 
So I’m confident we’ll have an opportunity to talk about how that discussion goes after it has taken place. 
With that, Julie, let’s get started with questions.
Q    Thanks, Josh.  To start, can you be any more specific about the President’s priorities for that meeting both in terms of the legislative agenda and what he’s going to be talking about on foreign policy?
MR. EARNEST:  As a general matter, I can tell you that what the President is looking forward to talking about is some of the ideas that he’ll be talking about this week, frankly, as it relates to policies we can put in place that will benefit middle-class families.  The President believes that the best way to grow our economy is by growing the middle class, so some of those policies will be on the agenda for some discussion. 
We’ve already talked previously about some of the areas of common ground that we think are certainly possible to be found in the context of this Congress.  That would include tax reform, opening up overseas markets for American businesses, and even the need to modernize our infrastructure — that these are areas where the President has long talked about the benefits it would have in the American economy to make progress in these areas, and Republicans have indicated an interest in pursuing them as well. So that would be part of it as well.
On the foreign policy front, it’s just an opportunity for the President to update members of Congress based on their own areas of interest.  So there won’t be anything specific that he’ll be bringing to the agenda, but it’s an opportunity for him to update them on a number of foreign policy issues since they last met about a month ago.
Q    Okay.  Obviously you know that Republicans have expressed frustration over the last couple of years about their level of contact with the President.  I’m wondering if the White House has given any thought or come up with any strategy for what the President’s outreach to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner is going to be like now that Republicans control Congress.  Are there going to be monthly meetings, weekly phone calls?  Is there anything that’s going to be sort of structurally in place to keep the President and Republican leaders in contact?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t anticipate that there will be anything structured like that, but I would anticipate that the President will be in regular touch with members of Congress.  And of course, if there are members of Congress that want to — particularly leaders in Congress who want to have a conversation with the President, then they’re welcome to call here as well.
Q    Does he feel like he needs to be in more contact, particularly with McConnell, than he has been in the past?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mitch McConnell obviously has a different job now than he used to have and I think that that probably would necessitate more frequent conversations with the President of the United States.  But, look, the President does recognize that there’s an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together, and the key to doing that is not the frequency of conversations but more the willingness from people on both sides to try to find common ground and not allow disagreements over one issue to become an obstacle to making any sort of agreement on any issue.
So that’s the spirit that the President will bring to that meeting.  I think there are some indications that at least some of the Republicans who attend that meeting will bring that spirit as well, and we look forward to doing what we can to try and foster more of that spirit in the New Year. 
Q    I’d like to ask about some comments that the French President made about the situation between Russia and Ukraine.  He said in an interview that Western nations should stop threatening Russia with new sanctions and that Russia’s position vis-à-vis Ukraine is misunderstood.  Given that the President has put such a premium on coordinating with Europe as it relates to Russia, does he agree with what President Hollande said?
MR. EARNEST:  Julie, I have not seen the interview that President Hollande gave, but let me just say as a general matter, I don’t think that there’s a lot of daylight between the position that President Hollande articulated and what the President here has said.  What the President has said is that as soon as Russia starts living up to the commitments that they made in Minsk to deescalate the situation in Ukraine the President stood ready to work with the international community to roll back some of the sanctions regime that has been put in place so far. 
You’ll recall that there was a piece of legislation that was passed by the United States Congress at the end of last year related to sanctions, and the President made pretty clear even as he signed that legislation that he did not believe that there currently was a need to add additional sanctions.  But it certainly is true that —
Q    He didn’t say that — he said he didn’t feel like he should add them through congressional legislation, but he would want to coordinate with Europe.  So does he feel like right now there is not a need to threaten any additional sanctions against Russia?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what he feels the need to do — and something that I have done on a number of occasions — is make clear to the Russians and to everybody else that the longer that the Russians refuse to abide by the commitments that they’ve already made, the more risk they face from additional sanctions. I don’t know of any impending plan to add to that sanctions regime right now, but certainly the risk only increases as long as Russia continues to essentially ignore the important commitments that they’ve made to try to deescalate the situation in eastern Ukraine; that there are basic things that Russia can do to live up to those commitments, including ending the support, particularly the military support that the Russian military has offered to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and to acknowledge and abide by generally accepted norms about the territorial integrity of independent countries on their border.
Q    Two years ago, Josh, the President was reelected and took over and launched a bit of a charm offensive aimed at wooing members of Congress, and I don’t sense that you’re going to do anything like that this time —
MR. EARNEST:  It worked great, didn’t it?  Is that what you’re suggesting?
Q    Well, no.  Should we see this as the beginning of a charm offensive next Tuesday?
MR. EARNEST:  No.  I think what you should see this as is a clear piece of evidence from this President that he wants to try to find common ground with Republicans to make progress for the American people.  Now that there is Republican leadership of both houses of Congress and a Democrat in charge at the White House we’re going to have to try to compromise and try to find common ground in order to move this country forward.  And the President is determined to do that.  And we’re going to have disagreements over a wide range of issues, but we can’t allow those other disagreements to become an obstacle to trying to find some common ground.
Q    Now, you and the President have been fairly downbeat on the Keystone pipeline.  Republicans are moving ahead with their legislation.  Have you taken a fresh look at this?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, not really.  I mean, the fact is this piece of legislation is not altogether different than legislation that was introduced in the last Congress, and you’ll recall that we put out a statement of administration position indicating that the President would have vetoed had that bill passed the previous Congress.  And I can confirm for you that if this bill passes this Congress the President wouldn’t sign it either.
And that’s because there’s already a well-established process in place to consider whether or not infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country; that in previous administrations when pipeline projects like this were considered they were evaluated by the State Department and other experts in the administration to reach a determination about whether or not that project was in the national interest. 
Now, the thing that is impeding a final conclusion about this pipeline is the fact that the pipeline route has not even been finalized yet, that there continues to be an outstanding question about the route of the pipeline through one part of Nebraska, and that’s related to an ongoing legal matter in Nebraska.  Once that is resolved, that should speed the completion of the evaluation of that project.
Q    Would you consider putting Keystone in some sort of overall legislative package where you give some things, you get some things in return?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I mean, that’s — I haven’t heard any Republicans float that as a possible measure so I think I’d withhold judgment on that.  But I think the President has been pretty clear that he does not think that circumventing a well-established process for evaluating these projects is the right thing for Congress to do.
Q    Last thing — the President just now said he’d like to bring up human rights in Cuba in the Summit of the Americas that is coming up.  How would he do this?  Would he meet directly with President Castro?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any meetings like that to discuss at this point, but there certainly would be an opportunity for the President to speak publicly at that summit, and with so many world leaders from the Western Hemisphere gathered in one place it obviously would be a pretty high-profile venue for the President to step forward and raise his concerns about human rights in Cuba.
I think one of the important things about this policy announcement that we made here at the White House three weeks or so ago is that for so long when we have attended previous Summits of the Americas the focus has been on the U.S. policy toward Cuba, that many other countries in the Western Hemisphere thought that this was counterproductive and would spend a lot of time urging the United States to change our policy toward Cuba.
Now that that policy change has been enacted, we anticipate that there will be greater focus on encouraging the Cuban government to change their policy toward their own people and start respecting basic human rights and releasing political prisoners and doing the kinds of things that reflect the will and ambition of the Cuban people.  And that I think is an important consequence of the kind of policy change that the President made, and I do think that that will be on display at the Summit of the Americas later this year.
Q    On that same subject, it’s been suggested that — by some Republicans now that maybe the President should not have these high-level talks with Cuba until all those political prisoners, the 53, are released.  And you took a question yesterday as to the status of those.  So do you have a clearer answer on how many exactly have been released, what the status is?  And is that something you would consider, not having high-level talks until they’re released?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have not made any sort of commitment to have high-level talks at this point.  But I can tell you, as it relates to — with the Cuban political leadership, what I can tell you is that the government of Cuba did make a decision to release a number of political prisoners, and that was announced in a speech that Raul Castro delivered on December 17th. 
It’s always important to get political prisoners released, and so we welcome the step that he announced and want to see the Cuban government actually follow through on that commitment.  They’ve already released some of the prisoners, and we’d like to see this commitment completed in the near future.  I’ll remind you that this is a commitment that the Cuban government made to release political prisoners not just to the United States but also to the Vatican.
The other thing that I will say is we’re not in a position to talk about specific numbers, and the reason for that is simply that we’ve been careful about talking about the number of prisoners and who they are because we don’t want to put an even bigger target on their back as political dissidents.  So we want to make sure that they’re released, and this was a decision that was made by the sovereign Cuban government to do so.  They’re not doing us a favor, but they did make a commitment, like I said, to the United States and to the Vatican to do so.  And we anticipate and would hope that they will follow through on that commitment and do so in the very near future.
Q    Is it something that the administration would consider doing, though, kind of a quid pro quo?  I mean, not doing this unless they release the — or unless they live up to any of their commitments that they’ve made?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, the expectation right now is that they’ve already made this commitment and we expect them to live up to it.  I don’t think we’re going to be looking to do them any additional favors to live up to commitments they’ve already made. That’s something that they should do.
Now, of course, in other settings when we’re dealing with other countries where we have concerns, the idea — the prospect of the leader of a country getting a one-on-one meeting with the President of the United States can in some situations be used as a carrot.  They appreciate the opportunity to sit down with the President in a high-profile setting and have a direct exchange of views with the leader of the free world.  I wouldn’t speculate about whether or not that’s the way that the Castro regime would consider an invitation like this, but it certainly has been viewed that way by other world leaders.
But as it relates to the commitment that the Castro regime has already made to release political prisoners, we anticipate that they — and hope that they will follow through on that commitment.  After all, that is a commitment that they made not just to the United States but to the Vatican.
Q    Are you looking forward to any compromises or working together with this Congress on the issue of Cuba?  I mean, already it looks like there might be great difficulty in getting an ambassador confirmed.
MR. EARNEST:  Well, we would welcome the opportunity to cooperate with Democrats and Republicans on our Cuba policy.  But I guess that will sort of be up to Democrats and Republicans in Congress to decide whether or not they want to cooperate with us.
Q    And then really quickly on Keystone.  You just said that the President would veto this bill, yes?
MR. EARNEST:  I would not anticipate that the President will sign this piece of legislation.  We promised — we indicated that the President would veto similar legislation that was being considered by the previous Congress, and our position on this hasn’t changed.  Again, there’s a well-established process that should not be undermined by legislation.
Q    For a long time, though, you said — as recently as yesterday — that you’re not ready to issue a veto threat.  So what has changed from yesterday to today?  I mean, why are you saying this now?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, the text of this legislation was made public since the last time I discussed this.
Q    Thank you, Josh.  I just want to go back to Julie’s question on Russia, France and Ukraine.  It feels that there is more daylight than you seem to see or not see between the positions.
MR. EARNEST:  Well, you’ve seen the interview; I haven’t seen the entire thing.  But go ahead.
Q    Yes, I understand.  But he talks about his willingness to lift the sanctions as soon as there is some progress in the discussions, in the January 15 discussions.  I just want to see if — it sounds to me that the unity has been shaken within the group of countries that have imposed sanctions.  Do we have the wrong perception that more and more countries, especially in Europe, considering the impact on their economy — Italy and Hungary — that they are less enthusiastic with the idea of maintaining the sanctions than the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST:  I mean, again, you’ve read the interview more closely than I have.  I wasn’t even aware that it had been conducted.  But let me just say as a general matter, I think that the success of the sanctions regime that has been put in place has depended on the unity — or unanimity of opinion among the coalition to put in place the sanctions regime; that the United States putting in place unilateral sanctions against Russia would not have the same kind of impact on the Russian economy that this more integrated set of sanctions would have, simply because the economy of Europe and Russia is more deeply integrated than the economy between the United States — the economies of the United States and Russia.  So the success of this strategy depends on maintaining some unity. 
And we have spent a lot of time over the last few months talking about what impact this sanctions regime has had on the Russian economy and the bite of those sanctions will only worsen as time goes on.  That’s why there’s such a clear incentive for President Putin to change his behavior.  And we hope that he’ll avail himself of that opportunity to live up to the commitments that he has made previously to deescalate the situation in Ukraine.  I haven’t seen any indication — again, I haven’t seen the interview, but I do believe that that continues to be the prevailing view of those who are working closely with the United States in this endeavor.
That doesn’t downplay that there are some sacrifices that are being made by countries in Europe, including France and Hungary and others, who do have an important economic relationship with Russia.  There’s no doubt that they’re making some sacrifices.  In some ways, I think that illustrates how committed those countries are to the strategy that the President has laid out, the fact that they are willing to make a substantial sacrifice to stand up for this critically important international norm of respecting the basic territorial integrity of other countries.
Q    But it sounds like they’re not ready to continue making the sacrifice.  Has the President been making some phone calls or trying to tighten this unity or unanimity?
MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any presidential-level phone calls that have been made in the last few days at least that have been specifically focused on this topic.
Q    I just want — because I’ve read about that, is the White House fine-tuning a new working relationship with Russia?
MR. EARNEST:  I’ve seen those — I saw those reports over the holidays, too.  Obviously, the relationship that we have with Russia is something that we’ve talked a lot about in here, particularly over the last year.  It’s a complicated one because we do have this significant disagreement about the way that Russia has conducted themselves, if you will, in Ukraine.  They have violated a basic international norm.  They’ve violated the territorial integrity of an independent nation that’s on their border.  And that’s something that the United States has strong concerns about.  We obviously see the situation very differently than they as it relates to Ukraine. 
There are, however, other important national security issues where the United States and Russia have found some more common ground.  For example, Russia has been an important participant in the P5-plus-1 talks with Iran.  That has been beneficial to that broader process.
We talked last year about the role that Russia had to play in destroying the declared chemical weapons stockpile of the Assad regime.  That was an important step because it reduced or essentially eliminated the proliferation risk from that declared chemical weapons stockpile, that we could essentially destroy those chemical weapons and ensure that terrorists would not be able to get their hands on them and use them in other places.  So that’s where the United States and Russia worked closely together for the benefit of not just the Russian people and the American people, but people all around the world.
There has also been close and ongoing Russian-America cooperation as it relates to the space program.  Right now there are Americans and Russians that are orbiting inside the International Space Station together.  So that reflects I think, again, an ability to cooperate on very complicated issues in a way that benefits both countries substantially. 
And we’re going to continue to make sure that we are making clear the concerns that we have with some aspects of Russia’s behavior while also trying to work with them constructively to advance our national security interests and to make the world a little safer, like we did when we destroyed the declared chemical weapons stockpile of the Assad regime.
Q    Would you call it a new relationship?
MR. EARNEST:  No, I wouldn’t.  I would say that it’s — I guess as I’ve said a couple times now, I would describe it as complicated.
Q    Could you just clarify the veto threat about Keystone? You will veto the House version of this legislation that — as you understand it, correct?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s my understanding that the House and Senate bill are identical.
Q    Okay.
MR. EARNEST:  Is that not right?
Q    Well, that’s what I wanted to —
MR. EARNEST:  I was — I’m under the impression that it is, that they are the same.
Q    So you’re issuing a veto threat to Keystone legislation coming out of Congress?  Is that — okay.  And then I have a question about the President’s travels this week, just if you could describe kind of what he’s doing in these states, what he wants to accomplish.  But also specifically about the visit to Tennessee, is he going to make a proposal that would make community college virtually tuition-free?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me just speak more generally about this week.  The President is looking forward to the opportunity to traveling over the course of the next three days to talk about the American economy.  We have seen the American economy build up some more momentum, particularly in the second half of last year, and that’s due to a wide range of forces.
Some of that is due to very difficult policy decisions that this President made early in 2009 in the earliest days of his presidency.  He had to make some pretty politically unpopular decisions to rescue the American economy.  And the result has been not just that we staved off a second Great Depression but we’ve actually laid the groundwork for a stronger recovery that’s actually the envy of the entire world. 
And one of the things that the President will talk about tomorrow is to highlight one of those politically unpopular decisions at the time that has really paid off in spades for the American people and for American workers, and that was the decision that the President made to rescue the American auto industry.  The American auto industry is as strong as ever.  That’s thanks mostly to the very hard work and skill of the more than one million Americans that work in the American auto industry, but it would not have been possible without this administration stepping in and making the kinds of important decisions that have saved that industry, laid the groundwork for them to come back stronger than ever, but also revitalize the manufacturing industry inside the United States.
So the President is very pleased with the way that that came out, and that will certainly be something the President will be highlighting tomorrow.  He’ll also spend a little time talking about how important continued investments in the manufacturing sector, particularly when it comes to advanced manufacturing, are for our economy and for our workforce.
When the President travels to Phoenix, he will spend a little time talking about how the policies that this administration has put in place have benefitted American homeowners, middle-class homeowners.  This has been a sector of the economy that has not recovered as quickly as the manufacturing sector, but we’ve seen important gains in the second half of last year and the President wants to build on those gains and see if there is more that we can do to try to help responsible middle-class homeowners who, again, are trying to do the right thing.  So we’ll have more to say there on Thursday. 
Then on Friday, the President does look forward to the opportunity to visit a community college in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he’ll talk about a range of ideas that he has for making sure that we have the kind of workforce that we need in this country to continue to remain the strongest, most vibrant economy in the world, but also do it in a way that’s good for middle-class families and making sure that American workers have the skills they need to find the middle-class jobs of the future.
So I don’t have a lot of details I’m prepared to reveal at this point about some of the ideas the President will discuss.
Q    So nothing about — because Tennessee is about to do that, is about to have a project that would make community college virtually tuition-free.  He’s not going to talk about that?
MR. EARNEST:  Tennessee is a place where they have been focused on making sure that they have a workforce that’s very well equipped to compete for good-paying jobs.  And I guess I would point out that Tennessee has a Republican governor, they’re represented in the United States Senate by two Republican senators, so investing in the American workforce and making sure that we have a skilled workforce and making sure that middle-class families get the training and education that they need to compete for middle-class jobs, that shouldn’t be a partisan issue.  And the President will have a lot more to say, and I anticipate that he’ll speak more eloquently about this than I was just able to.
Q    Just on the auto bailout, you would concede that President Bush set it in motion and the President expanded it?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would concede that what President Bush did was he made what was also a very politically difficult decision to forestall their death.  He gave them some key infusions of cash that prevented them from going under before President Obama took office.  Yes, that is certainly true.
However, there were very important and difficult policy decisions that this administration made to essentially send a couple of those companies into bankruptcy and to help them make the kinds of tough decisions that are required and are paying off in spades.
Q    — entry-level wages, et cetera.
MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  So certainly, President Bush, if you will, prevented them from suffering a terrible death, but it’s under President Obama that these companies have experienced a new and vibrant life.
Q    Talking about other legislative matters — not Keystone but that do have some bipartisan support and may come to the President’s desk.  There’s an effort in the House and Senate to, under the Affordable Care Act, replace a 40-hour work week as opposed to a 30-hour work week to avoid the mandate for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.  What is the administration’s position on that fine-tuning of that aspect of the Affordable Care Act?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, my understanding — I actually think this is something that Republicans have talked about before and something that we’ve been pretty critical of in the past. 
It is the view of this administration that this would actually — that this proposed change would actually do a lot of harm not just to the Affordable Care Act but also to a substantial number of workers across the country.  Ironically, at least a couple of conservative thinkers happen to agree that we’re right — that Mr. Levin, who writes for the National Review, has said that this seems likely to be worse than doing nothing — this Republican proposal.  Now, the irony here is that this is somebody who I assume is not exactly an enthusiastic advocate of the Affordable Care Act, but yet he is suggesting that the proposed Republican change is even worse than the Affordable Care Act.  I assume there’s no worse criticism that could be leveled by one Republican toward another than to say that something is worse than the Affordable Care Act, but yet that is the criticism that has been lodged at this Republican proposal.
Q    What does the administration believe is the policy error of this approach?  What would it make worse?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, the issue is essentially that we would be putting even more workers in a situation where we could see some employers cutting back on their hours to try to avoid the requirement of providing them quality health insurance.  That’s what many responsible business owners and the majority of responsible business owners across the country already do, but there are some who are looking for loopholes where they can try to avoid taking that responsibility, and we certainly don’t believe that we should make that easier.  That’s not good for the Affordable Care Act; it’s not good for these workers.  That’s a position that’s long been articulated by this White House and it’s also a position that’s articulated by a number of leading conservative thinkers.
Q    And is it the administration’s point of view that this really isn’t a problem, that there is that sort of anecdotal sense that it’s a problem that employers are officially keeping hours down but, in fact, that’s not what’s happening?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think it’s something that I think is hard to quantify and hard to generalize about.  I certainly wouldn’t quibble with the individual experience that somebody cites, but I think it’s sometimes hard to make — see inside the mind of an employer and to determine why they’re making different staffing decisions.  What’s clear is that the temptation that some employers might have would only be sweetened significantly if this Republican change were to be put into place.
Q    Let me ask about the protests that are going on in Lafayette Square.  I don’t know if you can hear them, but there’s a decent-size crowd wanting to bring attention to the deaths of 43 students in Mexico, and the perception that many have — and there’s an investigative trail that suggests either government complicity or government indifference to the investigation itself.  Richard Trumka, the President of the AFL-CIO, sent the President a letter today describing this crime as part of the systematic violence, corruption, and dissolution of the rule of law in all of Mexico, indicating that the AFL-CIO believes there is a human rights crisis in Mexico in addition to a labor rights crisis.  This is a friend to the administration.  It’s pretty stinging criticism.  What is the President and the administration’s take on the state of criminal justice and human rights and labor rights in Mexico, and to what degree is that factoring into the conversations today?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Major, I can tell you that as a — we have previously expressed our concern about this horrific crime that was committed in terms of the disappearance and apparent killing of 43 students in Mexico.  That is something that we have expressed some concern about.  I know that this is something — that this matter generally is something that the President discussed with President Peña Nieto during their meeting today.  They’re still meeting so I assume it could come up again.
The thing that’s important, though, is that we want to see the President of Mexico, President Peña Nieto, live up to our view — and a view that I think that both countries share — about the importance of the rule of law, and that peace and justice are ultimately necessary to fully achieve inclusive economic growth.  So there’s a clear incentive for both sides to live up to those kinds of values.
Q    This is a very live topic in Mexico as to whether or not this investigation itself is even credible, has met any basic standards of credibility or transparency.  What does the administration think about that?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, the investigation is still ongoing and there have been some — there have been concerns that have been raised; we’ve noted them.  There also have been some arrests that have been made, and President Peña Nieto has previously expressed what he believes is the priority that should be placed on human rights and on the rule of law.  And the President stands with him as he tries to put in place the important reforms that are necessary to try to address the situation.  But it’s clear that the work on this continues.
Q    Would you agree that the human rights situation is deteriorating, as Richard Trumka says and many human rights activists allege?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know that I would be willing to make that judgment from here.  I think what I would say is that President Obama and President Peña Nieto share a point of view about the importance of the rule of law, and they share a point of view that peace and justice are ultimately necessary for inclusive economic growth.  And so there is a clear incentive for governments around the world, including in Mexico, to pursue policies in that vein, and it is clear that there is more that needs to be done in Mexico to ensure that those values are being upheld.
Q    Josh, I wanted to go back to the Phoenix agenda.  You didn’t mention the President going to the VA hospital there.  Is he not going to visit the VA hospital in Phoenix that was the source of so much controversy and possible death?
MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t seen the President’s full schedule yet but I don’t believe at this point that that’s something he’s planning to do.
Q    Why not?  I mean, this is the first time he’s had a chance to be in Phoenix.  He talked from that podium and many other podiums about how important it is to send a signal to America’s veterans that he is taking care of them.
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, the thing that I can tell you is that when the President appointed an Acting Secretary of the VA, Sloan Gibson, to that responsibility in the aftermath of some of these revelations, Mr. Gibson’s first visit as the Acting Secretary of the VA was to that Phoenix facility.  I can tell you that once the President put in place — nominated a permanent Secretary of the VA, Mr. McDonald, to that job, that his first trip as VA Secretary was down to Phoenix.  And there have been some important personnel changes that have been made at that facility there.  There have been substantial operational reforms in place that are ensuring that the needs of the veterans in Phoenix are being better met by the medical facility there.
So we’re pleased with the pace of reforms that have been put in place.  It is clear that there is more that needs to be done not just in Phoenix but at medical facilities all across the country.  We’ve made a covenant with our veterans, and this President is determined to make sure that we uphold it.
Q    On Keystone, I guess I want to drill down a little bit on what Mara was saying before.  When you answered Mara I think you were saying — specifically referred to the House bill.  I just want to make sure — this veto threat, is the door open to supporting — I mean, I know you can’t comment on every possibility, every variation, but is it only a veto threat on the House version, or pretty much the President is saying, you put something on my desk on Keystone I’m vetoing it?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about that.  The first thing is I am under the impression that both the House version and the Senate version are the same.  So essentially the veto threat would apply to both. 
The second thing is there’s an important principle at stake here, and I think that’s what I would try to articulate in answering your question, which is there is a well-established process for evaluating projects — transportation infrastructure projects like this that go across international borders, and that these kinds of projects in the past and even in previous administrations have been evaluated by the State Department and other relevant government agencies to determine whether or not the completion of these infrastructure projects is in the clear best interest of the United States.  We believe that is the right way for determining the future of the Keystone pipeline.
Now, the thing that has inhibited the evaluation of that project is the fact that the root of that pipeline hasn’t been completed, that there still is a disagreement in Nebraska about what the proper route through that state should be.  So it would be premature to try to evaluate the project before something as basic as the route of the pipeline has been established.
Q    I understand the state aspect.  But on the State Department piece of this and cross-border — as you know, the State Department has been studying this two, three years.  I understand it’s a serious issue, it needs careful study.  How many years are you going to study the project before you say yay or nay?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’re going to make sure that we know what the route of the pipeline is before we render judgment about whether or not it should be completed.
Q    You have an idea of the pipeline.  I understand the exact — maps have been drawn.  I mean, this has been, again, studied two, three, four years. 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, and that’s because the route of the pipeline has changed a number of times because of legal proceedings in Nebraska. 
So, look, Ed, this has been something that has been simmering for a little while here, and the administration has done a lot of work on this.  I think that is how you can tell that whatever decision is eventually reached by the administration will be one that reflects the kind of careful reflection and investigation that’s been conducted already. 
But again, we’re not going to render judgment on the pipeline project until the pipeline project has been — until a final project has been put forward.
Q    More big picture.  You were talking yesterday at the podium about cooperation and trying to work with Republicans and this meeting next Tuesday.  Not concerned at all about — day one of the new Congress, you’ve been sitting on this veto threat — well, we don’t know yet.  Day one, we’ll veto this bill.  Doesn’t that send an odd signal for cooperation?
MR. EARNEST:  I guess, Ed, to pick up on your metaphor about pipelines, I guess that spirit of good feelings flows both ways, between Congress and Capitol Hill.  Congressional Republicans are well aware of the position of this administration, which is that we believe clearly that this administrative process is the one that should determine this — the viability of this project.  And that is a long-held view.  It is a view that we clearly expressed in the previous Congress.  And so I guess, based on the construction of your question, maybe it raises questions about the willingness of Republicans to actually cooperate with this administration when you consider that the very first bill that’s introduced in the United States Senate is one that Republicans know the President opposes.
Q    He can sign it or veto it, and he’s saying veto, though.
MR. EARNEST:  Yes, that’s true.
Q    Okay.  On health care, just the last thing you were talking to Major about — on another aspect of health care.  Long story in The New York Times saying that large segments of the faculty at Harvard University, where the President went to Harvard Law School, of course — is sort of up in arms about the fact that the professors are going to have to bear a larger share of their own health care costs under the President’s new law.  These are some of the same professors who were advisors to the President’s first campaign in 2008, advocated the Affordable Care Act, and they basically said this is a great deal for America.  But now when they have to pay more, they’re up in arms about it. Isn’t that a little bit hypocritical that some of the President’s supporters at Harvard are saying, this is a great deal for America, but when I’ve got to pay more it’s terrible, it’s awful.
MR. EARNEST:  I can only imagine the question you’d be asking me if The New York Times reported that the faculty at Harvard was getting a great deal.
Q    Well, this is the fact, though — and Harvard also put out a statement, by the way, saying, the trend — they’re doing this because the trend of rising health care costs, including some driven by health care reform itself — yesterday when we talked about this you said — and there are stats backing up that health care costs are coming down in some respects, but Harvard is citing that the law itself is raising health care costs.  Isn’t that the opposite of what the White House says?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t seen exactly what Harvard has said, but I do think as a general matter, the results that we’ve seen so far — they’re early, but the early results speak to the enormous benefits that the Affordable Care Act has paid to middle-class families across the country, to small business owners, to the government’s bottom line, and to the success that we’ve had in lowering health care cost, or at least slowing the growth of health care costs for people all across the country. 
Q    Is the President disappointed that professors at his alma mater just don’t see those benefits?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, let’s be clear.  There are some important benefits that they do see under the Affordable Care Act, that there are a number of patient protections that will apply to everybody.  So everybody who is on the Harvard faculty can get a free annual checkup from their doctor.  And again, that’s thanks to the Affordable Care Act.  Nobody at Harvard who has a preexisting condition can ever be discriminated against again because of that preexisting condition.  And every Harvard professor that has an old child can keep that child on their quality Harvard insurance up to age 26.  And those are the kinds of patient protections that don’t just benefit those at the bottom of the income scale, they actually benefit everybody, including the esteemed academics at Harvard University.
Q    Steve asked you earlier about whether the President was going to engage in a new charm offensive with Republicans in Congress, and you said no.  Why not?  It’s a new world now.  They’re now in charge.  A little charm may be called for.
MR. EARNEST:  Well, there’s been talk about a bourbon summit.  I don’t know if you can charm people over bourbon, but maybe we’ll try.  (Laughter.)  I think the point —
Q    What is the status on that bourbon summit?  That was November 5th I think we talked about that.
MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I don’t know if that’s been scheduled, but I’m confident that the President and the new Majority Leader will follow through on that promise.
What I’ll say about it is this:  We’re focused a little less on sort of the charm and more on the substance.  There should be an opportunity for us to try to find common ground.  And it’s not the frequency of telephone calls or the pleasantries that are exchanged at the beginning, but actually the willingness from people in both parties to try to come together around common ground.
And look, we’re going to disagree — whether it’s the Keystone pipeline or the Affordable Care Act, many of those differences have been well chronicled and those aren’t going to change.  I’m not trying to paper over them, but there should be an opportunity for us to try to find some common ground.
And we’ve had this discussion a little bit before — in some cases, it will involve — Cheryl and I talked about this a little bit yesterday — in some cases, that will involve compromise; we’ll have to give a little, people on the other side will have to give a little.  But there may be just some places where we can say, hey, we both agree that we can invest in infrastructure.  Let’s pursue that idea.  That’s something that we — we don’t have to compromise around that.  That’s something we both agree on.
Now, we may have to compromise on things like the pay-fors or the priorities.  But that is something where Republicans can advance their priorities and Democrats can advance their priorities because these are priorities that they believe should exist for the whole country.  So that doesn’t require any charm. That just requires a willingness on both sides to try to meet in the middle, to try to find some common ground and compromise and move the country forward.
Q    So why — right out of the gate here, the new Congress coming in, the President’s leaving town, going and talking about his plan when it comes to mortgages, touting the auto bailout, doing some education.  None of those are on the top issues that you’ve talked about where there is common ground with Republicans.  Why aren’t you out there talking tax reform, trade, infrastructure right out of the box?  Seems like you’re starting from a point of confrontation, not necessarily cooperation?  You mentioned the veto threat, obviously.
MR. EARNEST:  Yes, well, I think there will be an opportunity for us to talk about some of those issues, as well.  I don’t know if it will be in the context of this trip, but certainly we may have an opportunity to do that.
The last time the President — I guess it wasn’t the last time the President traveled to Detroit, but on one of his previous visits, the President traveled to Detroit to talk about the Korea free-trade agreement that was completed under this President.  And we took the then South Korean President along, and I remember that he donned a Detroit Tigers baseball cap.  So I think that’s a pretty good illustration of the President’s commitment to those issues.
But, look, there will be an opportunity for us to talk about a bunch of things that Republicans agree — that Democrats and Republicans can agree on.  And I’m confident that that will come up in the President’s remarks that he delivers over the course of this week.  And I’m confident — I’m even more confident it will come up in the meeting the President intends to have with Democratic and Republican leaders here at the White House next week. 
There will be ample opportunity for us to talk about those things.  And again, we’ll do that because the President senses an opportunity to make some progress in priorities that the President has identified.  And there is some overlap between the priorities that the President has identified and the priorities that Republicans say that they believe in.  So we look forward to trying to stake out that common ground and move forward.
Q    And can I just get you to react to something that happened while you were standing up there but you probably knew it was going on?
Q    The House was in the process of electing a Speaker of the House.
MR. EARNEST:  That’s what I hear.
Q    It looks like over two dozen Republicans failed to support John Boehner for Speaker, many of those not supporting him because they think that he has not been confrontational enough in dealing with the President.  I wonder if you have any reaction.
MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  Well, it’s my understanding that it would require substantially more than two dozen defections to prevent —
Q    Not substantially more.  It’s pretty close.  (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not an expert on these things.  But it sounds to me that you may have buried the lead here.  I’m not a journalist the way that you are, but it sounds like he’s been reelected as Speaker of the House.  And if that’s the case, then he certainly deserves and has the congratulations of everybody here at the White House.  That’s a substantial achievement.
The President’s differences with Speaker Boehner on a wide range of issues that we’ve been talking about today are not new. I know that the Speaker does not share the President’s view when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, that they disagree over the Keystone pipeline.  I know that that’s something that Speaker Boehner — that legislation is something that Speaker Boehner supports.  But there is no doubt that there are going to be strong differences of opinion between the President and the Speaker, as there have been over the course of the last four years.  What the President is determined to do, however, is to move past those disagreements and try to find some areas of common ground.  And we’re hopeful that Speaker Boehner will be willing to do the same.
Q    Somewhat related to the meeting today with the President of Mexico — would the U.S. be open to allowing exports of crude oil to Mexico as the U.S. now does with Canada?  And did this come up in the meeting between President Nieto and President Obama?
MR. EARNEST:  My understanding, Mike, is that there has actually been no change in our policy on crude oil exports.  There was this decision that was announced by the administration during the holidays to provide additional clarity about how it will implement longstanding rules related to crude exports.  But our policy as it relates to crude oil exports have not changed.
Q    — be open to giving Mexico the same permission you give to Canada on that?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I was just going to say that as it relates to the specific policy that we have with Mexico, I’d have to take the question to see whether or not there is any sort of policy change being contemplated there.
Q    And did this come up in the meetings, do you know?
MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of.  But if we can get you a more detailed readout, we’ll let you know.
Q    And one other thing.  People familiar say that the President will, later today, announce that Allan Landon, the former CEO of the Bank of Hawaii, is going to be nominated to the Federal Reserve Board.  One, is this correct?  And two, since the only thing I know about Mr. Landon is that he is the former CEO of Bank of Hawaii, where Obama was born —
MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  (Laughter.) 
Q    — and is a law lecturer at the University of Hawaii, does the President know him personally or is he acquainted with him?  Just since he’s from his native state, obvious question.
MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s a clever question, too.  I’ll say that I don’t have any personal announcements to make from here.  But —
Q    Is he personally acquainted with Mr. Landon regardless of what might be —
MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know whether or not the President has a relationship with the gentleman that you’ve mentioned, but we’ll see if we can get you some more information about that.
Q    Josh, free-trade agreements with places like Colombia have been held up over issues of human rights.  Is it time for the U.S. to reconsider aid to Mexico conditioned to or based on human rights?
MR. EARNEST:  I have not heard anybody discuss that from our side principally because many of those concerns that were registered with those governments had to do with the view of the administration that the leaders of those countries were insufficiently committed to the rule of law and to respect for basic human rights.
And while we certainly believe that there is more work that needs to be done in Mexico — and this terrible crime that was committed against these 43 Mexican students I think is indicative of that — we do, however, believe that there is some — that there is a view that’s shared between President Obama and President Peña Nieto about the importance of the rule of law and respect for basic human rights.  So I have not heard anybody discuss using that as an option.
Q    What assistance, or what more assistance perhaps, is the U.S. specifically providing right now in the effort to try to track down the perpetrators behind these 43 —
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that this is something that the President — that they did discuss in the meeting, that they discussed this issue.  And the United States has supported the efforts of the federal government in Mexico to conduct this investigation and to learn more about what exactly happened.  I’m not aware if any new offers were made or any specific requests were made in the context of the meeting.  But if so, we’ll try to get you that information.
Q    Gay marriage is beginning in Florida at midnight, effective today.  Thirty-six states in the country and the District of Colombia now allow for same-sex marriage.  Is it time that we get rid of this sort of patchwork situation right now and move forward with a law of the land on gay marriage?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me start by saying that the President certainly — the President’s views on this are well known and the President is certainly pleased to see that Florida is taking a step in the direction of freedom and liberty and allowing these marriages to take place.
But the President has also said that he does not at this point enthusiastically support a national law.  But at this point, as you said, Florida is, what, the 36th or 37th state to take this step, and that’s — the 36th state.  And that’s an indication that we’re moving in the right direction.  And the President is certainly pleased about that.
Q    The Department of Homeland Security — obviously, the next funding battle of sorts will be whether or not — the funding they receive effective February 27th right now.  Are there contingency plans or anything being done by this administration protectively in case that funding does not go through?
MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of, but you should check with the Department of Homeland Security and they can provide you with — they may be able to provide you at least some more information about what sort of contingencies they’re working on.
I know that we have seen expressions from Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate indicating that they don’t want to get to a place where we’re shutting down the Department of Homeland Security.
Q    How big a deal would that be, though?  How significant is that sort of threshold?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not steeped in all of the budgetary details to give you a very precise estimate of the impact.  I know that during the last government shutdown that we experienced a little over a year ago that many Department of Homeland Security employees were considered essential government employees, which meant that they came to work anyway even though they weren’t getting paychecks right away.  So I don’t know what any tangible impact would be beyond basically withholding paychecks from a large number of individuals who show up at work every day trying to keep America safer.  So I don’t think that’s really an outcome that all that many people support.  So we continue to be optimistic that by working together, we’ll be able to head off that eventuality.
Q    Thanks, Josh.  The language you used on the Keystone issue — you said that the President would not sign it.  If I remember civics correctly, that’s different from a veto.  Are we correct in reporting this as a veto threat?
Q    And second, is the threat to veto an objection to the project itself?  Or is it an objection to Congress getting involved in the State Department process?
MR. EARNEST:  That’s a good question.  I tried to answer that, but let me see if I can clarify that.  I’ll just put a finer point on it.  The concern that we have right now is principally on the idea that this piece of legislation would undermine what has traditionally been and is a well-established administrative process to determine whether or not this project is in the national interest.  And that review process is underway.
You heard in the news conference that the President did at the end of the year, the President did make clear that he was a little skeptical of the claims that were made by some of the most enthusiastic advocates of the pipeline’s construction, about the impact it would have on energy prices or on job creation.  But the fact is a complete evaluation of that project can’t be completed until this legal dispute about the route of the pipeline has been settled and we know what the final route of the pipeline actually looks like.
So I guess what I would say is I’m going to withhold, and the administration would withhold, broader judgment on the project itself, although you could note our skepticism about some of the claims made by the most enthusiastic advocates of the pipeline and note that our principal objection right now to this legislation moving forward is that it undermines a well-established process that has succeeded so many times in the past, including in previous administrations, to ensure that we are carefully and properly evaluating whether or not a particular infrastructure project is actually in the interest of the United States of America.
Q    Wait, can you clarify that?  You say you’re skeptical of the claims of the advocates?  Are you skeptical of some of the claims of the opponents?  Because there have been some pretty extreme claims on both sides.
MR. EARNEST:  I think in the past, the President has expressed some skepticism about those, too.
Q    The President — I just want to put a finer point on the 30-hour, 40-hour work week. 
Q    I know that you’ve explained why you guys oppose it, but would you veto that legislation as well?
MR. EARNEST:  We would, yes.
Q    Okay.  I wanted to ask also, then, about the Regulatory Accountability Act, which is another piece of legislation you guys have previously said you’d recommend that the President veto.  It’s the one that requires cost-benefit analysis of all regulations.  That’s kind of the third of these Republican bills that they plan to bring up early at Congress.  Would you guys veto that legislation?
MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t actually been updated on that piece of legislation and how carefully it tracks with the previous offerings on this, so I’d withhold judgment on that for n