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  • In this on-the-record teleconference briefing, Uzra Zeya, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights discusses and answers questions about the Summit for Democracy


MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Welcome everyone, and thank you for joining this on-the-record Foreign Press Center teleconference on the Summit for Democracy – what happened, and what’s next.  We are very pleased to host Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya.  She will start with opening remarks, and then we will open for questions. 

And with that, over to you, Under Secretary. 

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you, Doris, and good afternoon, everyone.  It’s great to be with you today.  We’ve just come off a successful and invigorating three days of the Summit for Democracy, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to tell you about it and take your questions. 

I’m not going to go through the entire agenda or repeat what I said from the State Department podium on Tuesday, but I want to hit the highlights, discuss concrete commitments that were made – including by the United States – and talk about what happens next. 

As Secretary Blinken said at the first session yesterday, this is the start of something, not the end of something, and we’re excited to get moving.  Secretary Blinken and Netherlands Foreign Minister Knapen kicked off the summit day zero, December 8th, with the Media Freedom Roundtable with two Nobel Laureates and fellow journalists, Maria Reza and Dmitry Muratov.  The Secretary also hosted a lively session with four youth leaders that set the energetic tone for the entire summit. 

Later that day, Secretary Blinken, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Landsbergis, and I were honored to chair a deeply moving discussion with families of political prisoners and a former political prisoner himself.   

On Thursday, we saw more than a hundred governments join President Biden in recommitting to strengthening our democracies with many leaders from countries where your audiences reside.  It was inspiring to witness such a diverse and dynamic representation all on one screen, and to palpably feel the energy and enthusiasm each brought to working together to strengthen democracies across the world. 

Across the summit, the United States was proud to co-lead sessions on building back better from COVID-19 with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, as well as on prevent corruption with Moldovan President Maia Sandu, Botswanan President Masisi, and Slovak President Čaputová.   

We were thrilled to also welcome prime ministers and presidents from Sweden, Dominican Republic, Malawi, Zambia, Estonia, Denmark, and Latvia to co-lead various other panels’ discussions throughout the two days.   

So you might ask:  What did this summit deliver?  

First, President Biden announced the United States intends to provide up to $424.4 million to expand U.S. Government efforts to defend, sustain, and grow democratic resilience at home and abroad.  Second, the United States will lead the way in shoring up free and independent media by making up to a $30 million contribution to the International Fund for Public Interest Media. 

On Monday, the White House unveiled the first ever U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, which calls on the federal government to crack down on corruption at home and abroad.  To support the U.S. strategy, yesterday Secretary Blinken announced the State Department will establish a coordinator for global anti-corruption who will work across our government to put the strategy into action. 

Third, to support the activists and reformers on the front lines, the United States will provide up to $33.5 million to launch a new political leadership initiative for women and girls. 

Finally, we’re very happy to provide up to $5 million to the Global LGBTQI+ Inclusive Democracy and Empowerment Fund.   

These are just some of the international commitments the United States made this week.  You can read more on the White House website about these as well as the domestic commitments made this week. 

We also saw important co-leadership and heard crucial commitments made by our partners this week.  Cabo Verde spoke eloquently about its commitment to equality for all people, including women and LGBTQI+ persons.  Estonia announced its plans to continue support to Lifeline, a fund to support embattled activists.  And Luxembourg announced its sustained commitment.  Cyprus announced its candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council.  Malta introduced its national action plan to fight corruption.  The European Commission is introducing a new Media Freedom Act to protect and promote independent media.  And Liberia announced that it will seek to amend the Liberia Anti-Corruption Act and establish a dedicated criminal court to prosecute financial crimes, as well as make all legislative votes public so constituents can hold their lawmakers accountable. 

These are just a few examples.  We expect to share more details on partner commitments early next year.   

So let me turn to what happens next.  Next week starts the Year of Action, an opportunity to put this week’s words into action.  2022 will be an intensive year of work to hold ourselves and our partners accountable.  Now, we don’t do this alone.  We will work in partnership with summit stakeholders from government, civil society, the private sector, and the philanthropic community to advance commitments made this week, but that’s not all.  We welcome governments and civil society that didn’t participate this year but are committed to advancing the summit’s goals to also join us.  It will take all of us to strengthen our democracies and move in a positive direction across the summit’s goals by the time we gather in person one year from now for Summit for Democracy number two. 

The Year of Action will feature focused dialogues among summit stakeholders to, for example, deepen and expand commitments announced at the 2021 summit, build and strengthen support for reform and plan collaboratively for the in-person leaders summit.  While our plans are still being finalized, we expect dialogues to be organized around anti-corruption, rights respecting technology, election integrity, rule of law, expanding civic space, media viability, workers’ rights, supporting democratic reformers or information integrity, to name a few.  Throughout these engagements, we’ll connect to existing platforms, events, and activities so we can maximize our global collective efforts efficiently and effectively. 

While the State Department and USAID will be engaged in a robust Year of Action with our international partners, the year will also include work the United States will undertake at home. Our domestic commitments focus on core democratic principles, such as protecting free and fair elections; lifting the veil of secrecy around illicit financial flows and corruption; respecting the human rights of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, or sexual orientation; protecting the independence of the media; and ensuring that ethics and the rule of law are restored to government. 

Ultimately, the end result of the Year of Action should be action, action that we take at home and abroad to strengthen our own democracy and those around the world.  This moment demands collaboration, creativity, and humility, but also confidence – confidence in our constant striving for a more perfect union here in the United States and our certainty that democracies can and will deliver for the world’s citizens regardless of the raw deal autocrats and authoritarians try to sell. 

Thank you.  And with that, I’m happy to take your questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Under Secretary.  We will go ahead with the question-and-answer session.  Operator, if you could go ahead and give the details for the question-and-answer session.   

OPERATOR:  Certainly.  If you’d like to join the question queue, you may press 1 and then 0 using your telephone keypad, and you should hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in the queue.  Again, that’s 1 followed by 0, please.  

MODERATOR:  And operator, our first question, let’s take our first question from Carmen Rodriguez. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Carmen Rodriguez with La Prensa Garcia from El Salvador, your line is open.   

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you for this conference.  From La Prensa Gráfica from El Salvador – I would like if you can give us a little more detail about what will happen to the officials who appears in the sanctions of the Department of Treasury – Treasury Department, and the officials indicated as corruption actors.   

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you for your question.  The sanctions that were announced earlier this week reflect the United States commitments to fighting corruption all around the world, including in Central America.  So these sanctions were announced on the basis of credible information that all of the designated current and former officials have been involved in corruption while serving in their official capacities.  This is part of the effort to elevate the fight against corruption, which was one of the three principal pillars of the Summit for Democracy, but it’s also part of an effort by President Biden to elevate anticorruption as a core national security priority.  We see corruption as truly a cancer that has the potential to erode the integrity of democracies, but also rob countries of their prosperity and ultimately adversely affect their citizens’ future.  So these sanctions announcements are entirely consistent with an overarching effort to elevate anticorruption and integrate it in our democracy renewal efforts. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Operator, our next question will go to Ekaterina Kotrikadze. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  That line from TV Rain is now open.   

QUESTION:  Yes, hi, can you hear me?  Hi.   

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Yes, I can.  Thank you. 

QUESTION:  Thank you very much for this opportunity, first of all.  And I represent the only independent television station in Russia, which is declared maybe as you know a foreign agent in my country.  And you have mentioned Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, a very famous Russian newspaper.   

My question is that six months ago Presidents Biden and Putin have met in Geneva, and after that nothing has changed in Russia.  I would say it has actually changed to worse.  The situation is getting worse and worse.  You know that Aleksey Navalny, the opposition leader, is in jail. The oldest and most recognizable human rights organization Memorial is almost shut down in Russia.  There are a lot of problems considering human rights violations in my country. 

So do you have any plan, I would say, any idea of what’s going to be done by the civilized society, by Summit of Democracy or whatever else to help Russian civil society to develop and to get some freedom, I would say?  Thank you for this opportunity again. 

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you for this question and for raising a critically important question on human rights.  So I want to be clear:  We regularly raise human rights with Russian officials, including at the leader level.  As President Biden told President Putin in Geneva, we’ll continue to speak out and call out what we see as violations of human rights and fundamental democratic freedoms.  This is part of our DNA as Americans.  This is who we are. 

At the same time, we are welcoming others to shine a light on us as well and to work with us to shine a light on the very concerning human rights developments on Russia.  We are deeply concerned about the sharp crackdown on political freedoms that we’ve witnessed and which you described.  The harassment, arrest, and use of the legal system to stifle freedom of speech is deeply troubling and concerning. 

In addition, Russia’s attempts to curtail freedom of speech on the internet, including efforts that target U.S. technology firms, are equally troubling and dangerous.  So we continue to raise our concerns at the highest levels. 

We also reiterate that we consider Mr. Navalny’s imprisonment on fabricated charges to be politically motivated and a gross injustice.   

I think all of these very troubling indicators are important context for a number of the affirmative measures that the administration has taken at the summit, specifically with respect to supporting free and independent media, helping courageous journalists defend themselves against spurious lawsuits and other coercive actions designed to stop them from doing their work. 

Another important dimension is the aspect of the agenda we call tech for democracy – working with technology providers to ensure that technology helps support and sustain democracy and isn’t used as a tool by autocrats to repress or silence their citizens. 

So these are very deep concerns that we share, and they are ones that we continue to discuss, engage, and coordinate on with our partners.  And I think one positive example on that was earlier this year the steps that the United States took in coordination with our EU partners in response to Russia’s egregious attack on Aleksey Navalny with a chemical agent.  So this coordination will continue, and I think the summit provides an important context for that. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Operator, our next question goes Ben Marks with NHK. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Mr. Marks, hold on a moment.  Your line is open now. 

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Thank you, Under Secretary Zeya.  Could you just quickly confirm for me, out of the over 100 participants invited, how many actually attended?  And I’d also like to get a reaction from you on this op-ed that came out I think last week from the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the U.S., where they said the U.S. deciding who could participate in this summit and which countries are democratic countries or not are a product of a cold war mentality and that it created new dividing lines.  Thank you. 

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Sure.  To answer your question, as I noted at the outset, over a hundred governments registered for the summit and a hundred have submitted national statements.  And this is kind of a new and different process where the transparency level is very high.  All of the video statements are being posted online.  They’ve been broadcast throughout the summit.  But the entire record of the summit, with the exception of just the closed leaders session on the first morning on Thursday, it’s all public record for everyone to listen and hopefully learn from and engage on.  And this is part of the accountability process that we – that I mentioned at the outset. 

Can you remind me your – the rest of your question? 

OPERATOR:  One moment, please. 

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  You referred to an op-ed.  I’m not sure I am familiar with which op-ed you were referring to. 

OPERATOR:  Mr. Marks, your line is reopened. 

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you.  I think it was in the National Interest, the ambassador from China and Russia to the U.S., they did a joint op-ed where they accused the United States of creating new dividing lines by deciding who could be invited to this democracy summit and who wasn’t invited.   

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you, thank you.  I’m happy to respond there. 

First of all, this summit was not directed against any one country or countries.  This is about an affirmative agenda around the three pillars – defending democracy and countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and advancing human rights at home and abroad.   

On the question of who is a democracy, let me be clear.  The United States is not the arbiter of who is and who isn’t a democracy.  That is a question of legitimacy that ultimately lies with each country’s citizens.  So in terms of the participant list for the summit, our aim was to be inclusive and to be representative, so we had a broad geographic representation from every country – I mean, I’m sorry, from every region.  I misspoke.  Every region in the world.  We had democracies large and small, well-established and emerging.  And a country’s non-inclusion in the summit is not intended to be a mark of disapproval.  Quite the contrary, this is a global agenda for the United States.  I would remind that President Biden from the outset has called upon all of us as diplomats to center our democratic values and human rights in our foreign policy.  So the topics I’ve mentioned, these are issues on which every U.S. embassy worldwide engages, and we’re open to working with any and all countries who want to work constructively on this agenda.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question goes to Rafael Jacindo. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  That line is open.  Please, go ahead.   

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for this briefing, and I would like to ask you for your evaluation about the commitments made from Brazil and the other countries, and also ask if you are going to publish a summary of the commitments made besides the contents of the videos.  Thank you. 

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you.  Well, Brazil is the second largest democracy in the hemisphere and the fourth largest in the world, so we think Brazil can share unique perspectives on the challenges of making democracy deliver in the Western Hemisphere and in the global south.  We are continuing to encourage the Brazilian Government to promote the social inclusion of all of its rich and diverse cultures, including Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, and other diaspora groups through sustainable development, environmental protection, and expansion of the rule of law.  And Brazil was among the governments who came forward with a national statement that will be – I think it is probably already up; if not, will be up momentarily.  So this is a – I think a unique opportunity to really take in and compare and observe and assess what the participating countries, including Brazil, are putting forward. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We are running short on time, so I think we have time for a couple of more questions.  Our next question goes to Pearl Matibe with The Swaziland Times. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  That line is open.  Please, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Yes, good afternoon, Under Secretary Zeya.  I’d like to ask you this question because Eswatini is still an absolute monarch in Southern Africa, and since the decree in 1973, no political parties or opposition parties are allowed by law.  In fact, the law does not even allow for the formation, registration, or participation of political parties in elections.  So what I’m wondering is, with the Summit for Democracy, what does that mean for the millions in Swaziland who are facing this absolute type of environment? 

And they’re not the only ones in the region in Southern Africa who have not had the opportunity to vote in an election or have that participation that they would like.  There are, in fact, for example in Zimbabwe, millions – more than five million Zimbabwean diaspora who have for more than 40 years not been able to have the opportunity to vote.  There is no diaspora vote in Zimbabwe. 

So all these things that you have been talking about regarding the Summit for Democracy, I understand the goals and the actions that you hope to be taking over the next year.  What’s not clear is how will you operationalize; how will we see the evidence to – and beneficiaries.  And for your own Bureau of Democracy and Human Rights, are you planning anything where, for example, us as independent journalists can also hold you to account so that we could see what outcomes – I know perhaps there’s no – any kind of outcome document that any of these governments will have written out, so there’s no way to hold any of these governments that participated this year to account.  So how might we figure out how success is progressing over the next year?   

So I’d like to hear a little bit more about how do you intend to operationalize, and please do address the issue regarding Eswatini and the diaspora vote, for example, in Zimbabwe.  I would appreciate your comments on that.  Thanks. 

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you for raising some very important questions, and I will offer some observations.  First of all, this agenda is not limited to the governments that participated in the Summit for Democracy, and certainly, for all the people all over the world living in closed societies where they do not enjoy rights to hold their government accountable or have free and fair elections or open political systems that allow for a contest of ideas and transitions – peaceful transitions in power. 

So another point I would add is our current acting assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor is the former U.S. ambassador to Eswatini.  So the situation there, particularly with respect to human rights, is quite well known and we have senior leadership in our State Department who has worked directly on this issue.  I think it is a whole-of-government effort for the United States, working – particularly the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development working in tandem, but also with other organizations like the DFC, the U.S. Department of Commerce, our U.S. Trade Representative, because ultimately we believe that countries cannot fully achieve prosperity, security, stability for their citizens if they are denying them their fundamental rights and human dignity. 

So the other case you mentioned, Zimbabwe – this is another challenge with respect to the human rights situation, and that is a focal point of U.S. engagement.  We also have our former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe who is now our assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs.  So I think we have many senior leaders in our State Department who bring to their jobs great knowledge and experience working in closed societies. 

And we believe that civil society and giving civil society – that includes diaspora actors.  In some cases it’s only possible to work outside the country to advocate for peaceful change, and if the situation is indeed so closed, as – such as what we witness occurring right now in Belarus with an exiled democracy movement and so many hundreds of people who have been imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their beliefs.  So working in closed societies and the challenge that that presents, that was one of the themes of some of the sessions we had at the just-concluded summit.  I would encourage you to take a look.   

As I mentioned in my remarks, the commitments being put forward by participating governments, those will be posted publicly next month in early 2022.  And this will be an important part of the Year of Action that I described: having engagement with civil society, with journalists like you, and having an open and transparent process that allows individuals and actors or organizations that haven’t had the opportunity to take part in summit consultations or events up to now to be a part of it.  And working virtually, working with the challenges the pandemic presents, I believe we do have a robust agenda, and we have international interest and commitment to move this forward. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Under Secretary.  It looks like we are out of time, so I want to thank Under Secretary Zeya for taking the time to brief us today, and I will turn it over to the operator for some final closing information.  Thank you. 

U.S. Department of State

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