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Secretary Cohen and Minister Lekota Joint Media Availability

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
December 07, 1999 10:45 AM EDT

Joint Media Availability with Minister of Defense Patrick Lekota, Republic of South Africa

Secretary Cohen: Good morning. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to welcome Minister Lekota on his first visit to the Pentagon.

South Africa stands for freedom and justice and the transformation that has taken place in South Africa is an inspiration to the rest of the world.

Changes in the South African military are an important part of that transformation to democracy and opportunity for everybody in South Africa. The military, once an instrument of oppression of the many by the few, is now committed to defending the interests of all South Africans.

We are training with South African officials at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute on affirmative action and the dynamics of an integrated military. We're also training South African officials in civil/military relations including budgeting, the acquisition process and operations.

Increasingly our militaries are training together for peacekeeping missions.

Finally, we have purchased mine detection equipment from South Africa to help the United States meet demining challenges, and our militaries are exploring joint demining operations.

South Africa and the United States are committed to working together to make Africa more stable, because a more stable continent benefits both of our countries. This is what we talked about today and what our militaries will continue to work towards.

Mr. Minister?

Minister Lekota: Members of the press, I first of all must say that I thought it wise to come out as early as now to the U.S. after my appointment to familiarize myself at first hand with the processes that have been pursued between my predecessor and the United States. And secondly, to make sure that those programs that had already been started continue to run. Also to share perspectives on the developments in our region, in particular the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the complex problem of implementing the Lusaka agreement in the DRC.

I am very happy to say that our discussions have gone on very well. That we are very optimistic that these programs that the Secretary has referred to are running very well and are going to continue to run even better in the coming period.

Thank you.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I wonder if I might briefly ask you about Chechnya. We had breakfast with Lord Robertson this morning and he accused the Russians of, as he put it, ham-fistedly dealing with what many would say is a legitimate problem in the north Caucuses.

Do you feel that this warning now to civilians on the deaths of hundreds of civilians, are the Russians violating the Geneva Convention there? And is this approaching ethnic cleansing now?

Secretary Cohen: As I indicated to you last week, we believe that the situation in Chechnya must be resolved diplomatically and not through military means. We have conveyed that to the Russians and we have indicated our support for their effort to certainly combat terrorism. But the manner in which they are carrying out this activity is unacceptable. We believe that they must arrive at a political solution and encourage them to do that. I think the world community is increasingly becoming very vocal and very critical of the type of activity that we have witnessed in the last several weeks.

Q: And the Geneva Convention? Or even ethnic cleansing?

Secretary Cohen: I'm not prepared to make a judgment as to whether it violates the Geneva Convention. I'll leave that up to others. But it certainly is a policy in which they appear to be engaged in indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians and on a rather substantial scale.

Q: Secretary Cohen, I was reading recently the views of a prominent nuclear weapons expert who said that Iraq was still trying to purchase dual use technology that could be used for constructing nuclear weapons and in fact had modified its design for nuclear weapons to something that would be small enough to fit on a SCUD missile. Is this true? And is there any other evidence that Iraq is resuming its quest to be a nuclear power?

Secretary Cohen: I think as you indicated, Iraq is still trying to acquire nuclear materials or nuclear weapons. I wouldn't disagree with that characterization. I think they have in their minds an ability at some future time to be able to develop weapons of mass destruction, which is precisely the reason why we've insisted that inspectors must go back in. There can be no relief from the sanctions until such time as there's full compliance with the UN resolutions. But I can't express any kind of agreement with the individual you referred to.

I don't have the information that would conclude that they have acquired any nuclear weapons or have modified their systems to be able to have something on a smaller nuclear capability. But what I would say is that it's all the more imperative that we have inspectors on the ground to make sure that they are not trying to rebuild it.

Q: Have they been able to acquire elements or components for nuclear weapons?

Secretary Cohen: I don't have any information that I could confirm that story at this point. I think they are determined to rebuild their military, which is one reason why again, we've insisted so strongly that there must be an enforcement of the no-fly zones and there must be an enforcement of the sanctions, and no relief until such time as they fully comply with the existing sanctions for precisely the kind of allegations that are being made today. I can't comment in terms of the intelligence aspect of what they have been doing or trying to do. It is my personal belief that they will seek to redevelop or develop their WMD capability and that's the reason we have to insist upon full compliance.

Q: Would you clarify, Mr. Secretary, when UNSCOM was last in, they really felt that the nuclear program, as I understand it, was pretty much moribund whereas the chemical and biological might have been continuing. Are you telling us something different today, that the nuclear program may be...

Secretary Cohen: I'm saying we don't know. The fact is until you have inspectors on the ground to certify that they have not tried to reconstitute it, no one can tell you one way or the other. So because of the absence of having this kind of intelligence you're left in the realm of speculation or someone writing an article saying he or she is convinced that they have acquired such technology, we are not in a position to confirm that. That's what I'm suggesting. It's all the more reason why we have to satisfy ourselves and the world community that they have in fact complied with UN Security Council resolutions. Until we have inspectors back on the ground, we're left in the realm of speculation and of individual reports coming through that we are not able to verify.

Q: Are you concerned, sir, that weapons grade materials, enriched uranium or plutonium, may be more available on the open market today than perhaps ten years ago, and that Iraq is working to get a hold of some of these materials?

Secretary Cohen: I think everyone is concerned about the availability of potential nuclear materials arriving in the hands or being acquired by rogue states such as Iraq. And that certainly has intensified over the past ten years. I think it's fair to say that.

Q: Sir, in reference to the court martial in Fort Campbell, is anything being done to protect the safety and the privacy of soldiers suspected of being gay, or is anything being done to strengthen the don't ask/don't tell policy?

Secretary Cohen: Well, the court case is still underway as we speak, but we are determined to enforce the policy of non-discrimination and non-harassment and a zero tolerance policy toward any gay members. We still insist upon the don't ask/don't tell policy, but we want to have that effectively implemented.

Q: Is it not being effectively implemented now?

Secretary Cohen: There have been some cases where it hasn't, obviously. We want to make sure that everybody is fully aware of the policy and from the commanders down they enforce it.

Q: President (inaudible) of South Africa recently urged the U.S. to remain involved in the DRC peace process. I'd like to ask both leaders if you are completely happy with the position of each on that issue, the peacekeeping issue in the DRC.

Minister Lekota: We are certainly heavily involved, clearly, because we are in the region ourselves. We do think that the United Nations ought to, is in a position to increase its participation in the process because we don't consider that we would be in a position to successfully implement the agreement without effective support from the United Nations.

Q: But you're happy with the U.S. commitment?

Minister Lekota: The U.S. is one of the members of the United Nations, and I'm talking about the United Nations because it is in that capacity that other parts of the world are involved in the process.

The question is really whether the United Nations can put in more resources or not, and we think that the United Nations ought to put more resources behind in that process. It's a region of nations which have not of their own immense resources.

Secretary Cohen: We think, of course, there has to be a peace before there can be an effective peacekeeping mission and we are calling upon the parties to achieve that.

I would agree with Minister Lekota that more has to be done and more leadership has to be exercised certainly by the United Nations.

Q: There were recent reports that Kabila has acquired SCUD missiles from Iran. Does that fit with the information that you have, and is there a potential for an escalation in the conflict as a result of that?

Minister Lekota: We don't have information to that effect, whatever the speculation may be. The countries of our region principally Lamibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, which are very closely allied to Kabila, are signators to the agreement, and as far as we are concerned, other than limited participation in the recent tensions certainly on the part of Zimbabwe, there is no indication that they are not faithfully seeking to abide by the conditions of the agreement.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you just comment on the comments made by North Korean officials that the President's half-brother, that they're seeking to have better relations with the United States. Is this a positive development, or is this sort of the same old line that you're getting from Pyongyang?

Secretary Cohen: We're seeking to have better relations with North Korea. We are seeking it in the context of making sure that we act in concert with the government of South Korea and with Japan, and to the extent that we can have this trilateral approach to bringing about security in the region, that is all beneficial. But we want to have better relations with the North Koreans as well. To the extent that they have public sentiments and statements to that effect and follow it up with meaningful, concrete actions, then all of us will benefit from their becoming part, being more fully integrated to say the least, into the international community.

This is going to take some time in a step-by-step process, and we will witness to see whether their words are in fact going to be matched by subsequent deeds.

Press: Thank you.

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