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Secretary Cohen Joint News Conference with Minister Mosiuoa Lekota

Presenter: U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
February 15, 2000

Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Joint News Conference with South African Minister of Defense Mosiuoa Lekota in Pretoria, South Africa

Defense Ministry Spokesperson: Ladies and Gentlemen of the media, Minister Lekota will make a short opening remark and thereafter, Secretary William Cohen will also make some opening remarks and then thereafter we will allow you an opportunity to ask questions.

Minister Lekota: Thank you. May I take this opportunity to add my own welcome to members of the media. Secretary Cohen, Excellency the Ambassador, Deputy Minister, Chief of the South African National Defense Force and dear friends, allow me to formally welcome the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Secretary William Cohen, and his delegation to South Africa. This visit allows me to reciprocate the very warm hospitality we received in the United States during my visit last December. It also serves as another building block in the process of strengthening the bonds of friendship and cooperation, not only between our two countries, but in particular, our two armed forces. South Africa, long isolated in the world by the former government's apartheid policies, is slowly building up its relationship with countries which share with us the ideas of freedom and democracy, and we are eager to work with such countries so that we may learn from each other's experiences.

This visit has given Secretary Cohen an opportunity to discuss matters of mutual interest with President Mbeki, former President Mandela, the Standing Committee on Defense in Parliament, and with me and the top echelons of the Department of Defense and Armscor. I should add that, of course, Secretary Cohen will travel to the Eastern Province tomorrow. Our talks today centered on peacekeeping training and future joint combined exchange training exercises or JCET, as they are commonly known. The new regional and continental situation requires that we beef up our peace enforcement, peacekeeping and peacemaking capabilities. We are therefore happy to acknowledge the United States' interest and support in these training exercises. So in about a month's time we shall proceed with further training in South Africa. Future cooperation between our armaments industries was also touched upon.

This meeting provided us also with an opportunity to take a cursory look at the regional security situation, in particular, the issue of the implementation of the Lusaka Peace and Standstill Agreement. And in keeping with the decisions and the debate in the United Nations not long ago, we are keen that the implementation of the peace process in the DRC be addressed with more vigor by all the parties concerned. We have also agreed that efforts should be made to contain the escalation of hostilities in the Angolan conflict. But before taking your questions, I would like to ask my guest, Secretary William Cohen, if he would like to say a few words to you. Thank you.

Secretary Cohen: Mr. Lekota, thank you very much. You said I was to give a very short statement. I have a very long one, but I'll read it rather rapidly. But let me indicate to you how much I appreciate your hospitality and, indeed, Janet and I enjoyed very much hosting you when you were in Washington in December. And we held very productive meetings there. We've had very productive meetings here as well. But we have had absolutely wonderful hospitality that you've extended to us and we're very grateful.

As you pointed out, South Africa and the United States share common goals and compatible goals as well as those common values, I should say. Both of our countries are democracies - we both promote equal opportunity and stress human rights. And both South Africa and the United States want an Africa that is stable, peaceful and prosperous. Our countries believe that international cooperation is the key to bringing peace and stability to Africa. South Africa has played a crucial role in promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nelson Mandela is starting a search for peace in Burundi.

The relationship between South Africa and U.S. militaries is designed to help us work together to meet our shared goals of peace and stability. And today we addressed a number of specific areas where a greater cooperation could help both of our forces.

First, in response to the disastrous floods in the east, I offered to provide U.S. water purification equipment and teams to provide safe drinking water, and the South African authorities, Minister Lekota and others, have agreed this would be very well for us to do this. The demand is there, the need is there and we are in agreement that this should take place. So this is one area of cooperation that we can point to on behalf of our interaction.

Second, we discussed South Africa's goal of transforming its military into a smaller, more modern force. The United States has been in the process of a similar transformation for some time. A U.S. team will be in South Africa next week to discuss some of the lessons that we learned and ways that we might be able to help South Africa make this a very difficult transition.

Third, we offered to send a team of experts to South Africa to help the South Africa Defense Forces address the problem of AIDS. The team is going to focus on health education and training. And finally we discussed the possibility of expanding exercises that our troops conduct together. Minister Lekota has already touched upon them - they are called JCETs. I want to stress how important these exercises are and that both of our militaries benefit from this kind of joint cooperation. For example, South Africa is a world leader in detecting and clearing land mines. Our soldiers have learned techniques from South African soldiers, and we have purchased state of the art de-mining equipment from South Africa. The U.S. Army is also considering a South African polyurethane road wheel that could save money and improve performance for our Bradley Fighting Vehicle program. Minister Lekota and I are both committed to looking for ways to increase that cooperation.

Our shared goals and complementary capabilities make South Africa and the United States natural partners for peace in Africa. And let me say that we welcome your questions at this point.

Q: Mr. Minister, concerning the DRC, how many troops in South Africa are you prepared to contribute to a UN observer force, and what sort of support would you be looking for from the United States?

Minister Lekota: First of all I have tried to make the point quite clear that South Africa cannot unilaterally decide how many of its forces it will deploy there, precisely because we act as one of the partners in the region. Secondly, because our deployment there will be guided by the decisions of the United Nations and the OAU. On the whole, we have made the point quite clear through the mouth of the President that South Africa is committed to make as much contribution as is required of it.

Q: What about U.S. support - what support would you like to see?

Minister Lekota: The process of the peace [inaudible] agreement set out there requires that when it comes to the withdrawal of the belligerent forces which are there, the place they occupy in the interim period must then be substituted by the UN forces. Therefore, we will require the numbers of forces, that in the judgment of the United Nations will be sufficient, to hold the positions which have been held by the belligerents at this time. No specific figures have been determined, but we do know that the United Nations have estimated a figure of approximately 5,000.

Q: Mr. Minister, would South Africa, without help from the United States, be able to deploy a substantial force to the DRC or other distant, troubled places, without financial or airlift kinds of help. Could you handle that without help - or would it simply make it easier with help, financial and other kinds?

Minister Lekota: Well, our approach has always been that it's a situation that requires collective effort. We certainly have not understood that we would be single-handedly required to do that. We may be a reasonably well-endowed nation, but we don't have the strength to carry a mission of that nature all by ourselves. It would be over-ambitious for us to do that.

Q: Secretary Cohen, is the United States prepared to provide, perhaps support troops during peacekeeping missions in the DRC, and if not, why not?

Secretary Cohen: As you know, President Clinton is very committed to the Lusaka process, and he has indicated that he would like very much to see it move from phase two, to which I believe our share in the United Nations is roughly $40 million under phase two; to move onto phase three where there is genuine peace agreement amongst the parties - the belligerents - and at that point he indicated that we were to try to be supportive. At that point, what nature that support might take remains a matter of question. We certainly have tried to be supportive in other peacekeeping missions such as that in East Timor, and I would anticipate should there be a peace agreement and should they reach phase three, that our support would be similar in nature.

Q: Minister, has South Africa changed its position on the ACRI, and could you provide the basis for the South African position, if it has not changed? What are the reasons for the South African position?

Minister Lekota: No, we haven't changed our position on the ACRI. We are taking the position that it is important that South Africa takes along with herself, her partners in the region, and indeed in the continent. Therefore, it is important that we - from our point of view - that we are satisfied that we conduct consultations, so that none of our partners in the region should form the impression that we are taking decisions on their behalf, or that we are running along with programs irrespective what their views are. This is important for collaboration. But certainly we do think that it's a positive initiative, which will benefit the continent.

Q: Follow up question: the South African position on the ACSS? The African Center for Strategic Studies, which is a Department of Defense initiative?

Minister Lekota: We have been participating in that already. We are continuing to participate in it, and we will be participating in the coming exercise - I think it's in Botswana.

Q: Minister Lekota, actually the question is for both of you, but the question of AIDS in the military - I read that the AIDS rate in the South African Defense Force is 14 to 15 percent. Is that correct, and is that affecting your ability to have a combat-ready force. And for Secretary Cohen, perhaps you can just elaborate a little bit more on what the United States is providing in assistance in education in the military?

Minister Lekota: Well, to deal with the first part of the question, may I just say that we haven't, up to this point in time, carried out comprehensive testing. We will be doing this in the coming period. Therefore, I'm not in a position to say the percentage of infection is so much accurate. What I can say is that we are not happy with the levels of infection from what the limited testing we have done has indicated. So we are concerned with the syndrome. I leave to ...

Secretary Cohen: We will be sending a team consisting of some health experts, who will provide information in terms of how the U.S. military has undertaken to educate its forces on the subject of AIDS and its prevention. And we would anticipate this team to arrive fairly soon and to begin sharing that information in terms of our training experience and expertise.

Q: Minister - actually, for both of you ... the Lusaka Accords were completed in August, and an observer force still isn't in there. What's holding it up?

Minister Lekota: Well, we had hoped that once the agreement had been signed, in the first place, we had hoped that at the signing all the parties would sign immediately. As you now know, what actually happened at the signing is that some parties, some belligerents, did not sign then. That delayed us, and therefore, the process of completing the signing went longer than had been anticipated. When finally everybody had signed, we had to initiate the United Nations process to move towards supporting and making commitments. The United Nations was much slower than we had hoped for. And you will recall that by December the President expressed serious concern that the UN was delaying in terms of implementing.

Of course there are other commitments for the United Nations. There's the issues of the Balkans; there was the issues of East Timor and so on. But we still feel that the United Nations could have moved faster on this question than has been the situation up to now. The President went further, of course, at the time also to express concern that the United States, as a significant member of the United Nations, was not raising her voices sharply enough. But as we have seen subsequent of that, the process that was led by - the Holbrooke process of the United Nations focused firmly and on nothing else but on Africa including the DRC.

Now, at this point in time, we are quite satisfied that the United States is taking this issue as a critical priority question. I just want to say, whilst on this question, that we in South Africa are seriously disturbed. Although we are the main sponsors of the peace process in the DRC, we have been accused by one of the belligerents there, as bipartisan.

And I do just want to say to all of you today that we support only the process of democratization there. We supported President Kabila at the time of the transition from President Mobutu, because we did not want to see the country fall apart without any recognizable authority. Our understanding was that an election would be called; that the people of the DRC would decide who would govern the country. As it happened, our hope was not satisfied, leading to the split of the forces that we had supported. As it is, we carried the responsibility to speak to all the fighting parties of the Congolese people. We must make sure that they go to national dialogue.

Therefore, when I was approached on behalf of the defense ministry of President Kabila to proceed with the commitments we had made to train and prepare Congolese - new forces to protect the democracy - I refused. Precisely, because I've said supporting one party would make us be vulnerable to accusations that we are bipartisan, supporting one party against the other. Similarly, when Professor Wamba dia Wamba, came here with Professor Ilunga to meet with the government, he raised the issue of the South African National Defense Force, supporting and giving facilities for the training of his forces. On the similar basis, I refused. I said to him, the only time we'll proceed is when those three belligerent forces - Congolese, the RCDMLC, Wamba dia Wamba and Kabila - only when we are approached by them, sitting as the national dialogue of that country, and presenting to us people to be trained who are drawn from all their formations, only then, would we deal with this.

Now, to accuse us of being partisan, in that situation, is false in the extreme. It seeks only really to undermine our morale and our determination to support the democratization process. And it seeks to discredit one country that is putting its limited resources at the disposal of that peace process.

Secretary Cohen: Let me just add a footnote here. The Security Council must pass a resolution before you can move to phase two. My understanding is that they are likely to act next week on passing a resolution that would allow phase two to go forward.

Q: And the US would give its full weight to [inaudible]

Secretary Cohen: Yes.

Q: Could you just clarify the role - it seems to me that the role your [inaudible] said you did not foresee the United States sending any peacekeeping troops on the ground.

Secretary Cohen: Right.

Q: It seems like today you're indicating that the U.S. might deploy or contribute a small number of troops on the ground along the model of what they've done in East Timor where there were some small number of U.S. troops.

Secretary Cohen: No combat troops or peacekeeping troops - we talked about support activities, and that would be the nature of the contribution of the United States might make at that point. Again, it's very speculative, because there is no agreement and until such time as there is an agreement to move to phase three, it would remain in the realm of speculation. But we would consider support activities, but not combat troops or peacekeepers as such.

Q: Minister Lekota, could you tell us what sort of future cooperation you would like to see between South Africa and U.S. defense on issues?

Minister Lekota: Well, the Secretary here referred to some of the issues. In any event, the private sector businesses cannot be dictated to by a government as to what areas or in what way they should collaborate. But for instance, at the time of the package deal that we are dealing with, there was a debarment that existed at that time, which we thought was not in the interest of our own industries and the U.S. We are hoping therefore that there could be opening up for possibilities of exchanging freely between these industries.

Q: Secretary Cohen, a follow-up on that ... What are the impediments remaining between the resumption of normal defense industrial participation between South Africa and the U.S.?

Secretary Cohen: I'm not sure there are obstacles that remain. We are moving forward with discussions at the industrial level. There have to be some agreements that need to be negotiated between the industries, but we don't see any real obstacles to further cooperation.

Q: Secretary Cohen, just an explanation of why America won't send any troops into the DRC.

Secretary Cohen: Well, we've indicated in the past that we have been very active in our peacekeeping missions and are quite committed in a major way throughout Europe and elsewhere. And I've indicated in East Timor, we were called upon to provide assistance that came in the form basically of logistical assistance communications and other types of support activities. And so the United States, I think, has been quite committed in its peacekeeping efforts. But we also have to recognize there are some limitations, and we will try to be supportive, but will have to come in the form of support activities - again, logistics, communications, intelligence, other types of matters - in order to deal with our own forces effectively. We are stretched very thin at this particular time.

Defense Ministry Spokesperson: Well, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

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