THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing with Senior Director Dana Banks. My name is Wes Robertson and I’m the moderator for today’s briefing. Senior Director Banks is the White House lead for U.S. policy towards Africa. She will speak on how the U.S. works with countries in the region to advance democracy, human rights, and prosperity. She will also discuss how the upcoming Summit for Democracy will present a forum for the United States and its allies in the region to develop plans for continued cooperation on combating corruption and improving opportunities for people throughout the region.
And now for the ground rules: This briefing is on the record. We will post a transcript and video of this briefing on our website, which is fpc.state.gov. Please make sure that your Zoom profile has your full name and the media outlet you represent. Senior Director Banks will make an opening statement and then we’ll open it up for questions. Over to you, Senior Director Banks.
MS BANKS: Thank you so much, Wes, and good afternoon or good evening to those of you who are joining us from the continent. Thank you so much for being here, for logging on. I know this – the times had shifted somewhat, so again, I really appreciate your flexibility and your patience and forbearance in all of this, but I did want to make sure that I had the chance to talk to journalists on the continent about the Summit for Democracy.
As President Biden has said, the challenge of our time is to demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of its citizens and by addressing the greatest problems facing the wider world. From the first day in office and every day since, the Biden-Harris administration has taken decisive action to restore and strengthen American democracy. Therefore, the Summit for Democracy reflects President Biden’s deeply held belief that in order to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, democracies must come together, learn together, stand together, and ultimately act together.
The summit’s three principal themes are strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights in our own nations and abroad. The U.S. Government views the summit as an opportunity to engage, to listen, and to speak honestly about the challenges facing democracy within the United States and abroad; to work together with likeminded governments, with civil society, and the private sector on a meaningful – on meaningful new commitments and initiatives; and three, to cooperatively build a foundation for democratic renewal globally.
So what’s on the agenda? On December 9th through the 10th, the Summit for Democracy will convene a broad and diverse group of governmental and nongovernmental leaders for two and a half days of virtual sessions – I’m sorry, two half days of virtual sessions. The virtual forum will bring together 110 governments as well as civil society and private sector leaders. U.S. Cabinet officials, American civil society leaders, and foreign leaders will participate in thematic sessions with governmental and nongovernmental leaders. And this is particularly noteworthy that an international summit will include and center on such a diverse range of actors. They will discuss the challenges and opportunities facing democratic governments and how democracies can deliver for its citizens based on the summit pillars.
So with that overview, Wes, why don’t we open it up for questions?
MODERATOR: All right, now it’s time for Q&A portion. If you have a question, please go to participant field and virtually raise your hand. We will call on you and you can unmute yourself and ask your question. If you have not already done so, please take time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet. You can also submit questions in the chat box.
I know we’ve had a number of submitted questions, so I’ll go ahead and read off the first one. The first question that was submitted is: “When will the Secretary complete the legal review of atrocity designation with regard to Ethiopia?”
MS BANKS: Thanks, Wes. Well, I think I can echo the State Assistant Secretary for Africa Molly Phee in her recent congressional hearing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on December 1st, where she emphasized that our primary focus on Ethiopia has been trying to engage diplomatically in the many ways that are available to us in order to reach an end to the conflict, which would obviously result in an immediate end to the atrocities. But at the moment – excuse me – we are refraining from making any public determination to allow space and time to see if these talks can make progress. However, rest assured than an active and dynamic determination process is ongoing, and we will continue to assess the emerging reports of human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by both of this conflict.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We will now go to our first live question, Pearl Matibe from Swaziland Times. If you’d like to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you, Wes. It’s the Swaziland News, and I really appreciate, Dana Banks, your availability and your willingness to share with us the plans that you have regarding strengthening democracies.
I’d like to begin by asking you, in your view, with this summit, you are bringing this diverse community of pro-democracy stakeholders, but you talk of this term “democratic renewal.” Can you help define for us so we can understand where – understand this concept together? What do you mean by “democratic renewal?” And then maybe I may have some follow-up questions for you.
MS BANKS: Okay. Thank you, Pearl. So I think what is meant by that term, “democratic renewal” – one, I think as events here in the United States have shown in recent years and events on the continent, since we’re addressing our African partners, have shown particularly over the past few months that democracies are fragile. Democracy itself is fragile. So I think – and where we’ve seen sort of a rise in authoritarianism worldwide, and leaders who are more aggressively leaning in to authoritarian tactics, that I think we wanted, and this administration wanted, the President most certainly wanted to have us return to those democratic ideals, that sort of a reset or a shift, a re-shifting, or a level set back to democracy, to democratic ideals – again, because the President strongly believes that democracies, effective democracies, could deliver for their people, can address a multitude of issues, can address instability, poverty, can lift women up, providing more gender equity, can provide economic growth, can ensure that the effects of climate change are not felt disproportionately by those on the lower rungs of society.
So I think this strong belief – and it’s not just rhetoric; it is something that we truly hold dear and that the President surely holds dear – is that a return to democratic principles is key if we want to work together to address climate change, to come out of this pandemic as an international community, and to also make sure that the effects of corruption are not continuing to affect the lives of those, again, who are the most vulnerable in societies across the world.
QUESTION: So Dana, if you don’t mind, if I can ask you a follow-up question. It’s great that you explain this to us; glad to hear that this, as you emphasize, is not just rhetoric. Now, I’ve seen that the summit does have these four pillars – the strengthening democracy, you talk about defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption. I’ve heard you say this a few times already today – protecting respect for human rights is what I also read, according to the website. So with all the countries that you have invited and this diverse community of stakeholders that you’re hoping to be engaging over these two half days, how might you be planning to be sure that no groups of societies on the continent of Africa are being left behind?
And I’ll give you an example. Eswatini is the last absolute monarch, ruled by King Mswati. We talked about improving the life of women and girls, and you also spoke about improving the economy. In Swaziland, which constitutionally it is still called Swaziland, but however – in Swaziland, if you’re talking to the main supreme person in Eswatini, here’s what they might say – and our audiences have been saying this to me – is that for them, if they do not have ownership of their economic growth, if they do not have access to medicines, yes, there may be a pandemic out there, but to them the greater pandemic is the lack of access to these – their own economic growth, their own – their own aspirations. Because right now, the king owns everything, right, in the country.
So how through your summit can you make sure these groups of people are not being left behind? In other words, maybe are you developing plans for next steps? How might we evaluate your activity – great, we’re having the summit – how are we going to evaluate your success, or what might look like success to you post this summit? Thanks, Dana.
MS BANKS: Thank you, Pearl. I take your point, and obviously it was not the intention to invite every country around the world, right. Because we had certain goals in mind with the pillars coming – stemming from the pillars and partners and participants who, one, not only either embody or are working hard to embody those pillars but can – but also fall short perhaps on some of them, where they can be brought along by others in this community of democracies to encourage more change. And even for who are not invited, who are further down the road or further, should I say, behind on their democratic trajectory, to encourage more democratic – a turn towards more democratic ideals.
But concretely, what’s expected is that all participants will make ambitious yet realistic and concrete commitments towards the summit’s objectives that fit within the scope of the participants’ capacity and needs. The pledges will include domestic and international initiatives that counter authoritarianism, combat corruption, and promote – excuse me – respect for human rights.
We too, the United States, will also hold itself accountable to these commitments on a global public stage as all participants are invited to do. And I think as has been sort of laid out previously, that this first summit will be virtually, pandemic regulations or restrictions permitting. The goal is then for in one year’s time – so this is going to be Europe action – in one year’s time will be convene again in whichever format, but to judge sort of the progress that we, including us, have made over the past year on these commitments that have been agreed upon.
But we will continue to engage with summit participants throughout and other governments, whether they’re invited or not, to address democratic backsliding, promote respect for human rights, and tackle corruption, as we do normally as the United States in our bilateral engagements with countries around the world and certainly in Africa.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Dana, and I’m glad you also mentioned the United States is fully committed to making the same. Thank you so much.
MS BANKS: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question will go to Mesfin Bezu from TG Ethiopia. If you want to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Okay. Good afternoon. Can you hear me?
MS BANKS: Good afternoon. Yes, we can hear you fine. We can’t see you, but we can hear you. That’s the most important thing.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. I mean, I’m – that’s okay. Thank you for giving me this chance as – to say that my media company is TG Ethiopian Broadcasting. And I have been following the situation in Ethiopia quite closely, so I understand what the United States – and I always hear what the USA says and from the other side.
But on the U.S. side, most of the time, I heard that the United States, especially from the State Department, keeps saying that the U.S. is gravely concerned about worrying signs of military escalation in Ethiopia and urge the parties to move to negotiation. So here, if you remember, when the Ethiopian military entered Tigray region, the United States urged the Ethiopian Government to leave Tigray, and the Ethiopian military did.
Then right now, the war is not in Tigray region. The TPLF take the war outside Ethiopia, outside Tigray region. Now the war is in our region, and if you heard, the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa also urging its citizen to leave Ethiopia because the state – the U.S. embassy said that the TPLF is trotting to Addis.
So when the U.S. pushing for those parties to sit down to negotiation? Here, the fact is TPLF is the one to – refusing to sit down to – into negotiation. So what do you say, Ms. Banks? Or do you say that the Ethiopian Government says yeah, no, just don’t fight, just let the TPLF come to Addis? So what do you say on this matter? It is the TPLF that refuses to sit down to negotiation.
MS BANKS: I’m sorry, Mesfin. I’m trying to – so I can answer it effectively, what precisely – I heard a couple of questions in there and I think I can speak in general, but I want to ask, what precisely is your question? Are you asking —
QUESTION: Okay, let me just – let me recite my question.
MS BANKS: Yeah, could you please?
QUESTION: You, the U.S. Government, urging both parties to sit down to negotiate, to stop this conflict. But this time, it is the TPLF that refuse. Then as the U.S. department stated, the TPLF is moving towards – to Addis Ababa. So it’s always that the United States is pressuring on Ethiopia instead of TPLF.
So my question to you, Ms. Banks: Why do – why don’t you pressure the TPLF, who refuses to sit down for negotiation, instead of the Ethiopian Government?
MS BANKS: Okay. I got your question, and I think it might be based on a premise that’s not entirely accurate, so I’m going to address that, and then I heard your previous question about the U.S. embassy. And just to be clear, I think you might want to go back and take a look at what the embassy has been communicating in terms of its citizens, of American citizens in Ethiopia, and it’s just due to the security situation. We have encouraged Americans who want to leave, who don’t feel safe and who are able to leave, to do so as quickly as possible. And that has been the sum and that has been the – sort of the consistent message that we have sent out or that the embassy in Addis Ababa has sent out.
To your other question about both sides, you sort of answered the question when you asked it. We – you said that we have been asking both sides to come to – both the TPLF and the Ethiopian Government – to come to negotiations, and we have. That message has not changed. We continue to encourage both sides to come to negotiations to find a political solution to the situation, to put an end to the humanitarian and human rights crises that are taking place, to allow for greater humanitarian access for those who are in need, and to put weapons down and to come and to have negotiations.
We are in strong support of the region as the region has taken the lead on this with the AU envoy for the Horn, former Nigerian President Obasanjo, and his efforts in helping to resolve the conflict. That is our position. That has been our position. Our Special Envoy for the Horn Jeff Feltman has engaged with the prime minister on multiple occasions, and we also have been engaging with designated representatives from TPLF as well to get them to agree – for both sides to agree.
But right now it doesn’t seem like either side is willing to come to sit down to find a political solution, so we do continue to remain concerned about the growing crisis and its impacts not just for Ethiopia, but for the broader Horn of Africa.
QUESTION: But I understand, Ms. Banks, what you said. As I said, I’ve been following the situation very – quite closely, but you didn’t answer my question.
MS BANKS: I’m sure not as closely I have been. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I know, but TPLF is the one who refused. So if TPLF is – if TPLF refuses and marches towards Addis Ababa, what – do you want the Ethiopian Government take action? They just let them sit or take – leave Addis Ababa? It is TPLF who refuses, so what – how – what is your thoughts regarding TPLF refusal?
MS BANKS: I think I’ve answered your question. We can go back and forth all day, because I think your premise is coming from a misunderstanding of what our position is. We’ve been asking, we’ve been advocating for both sides to come together for proximity talks for a political solution, not a military one. And right now, at this point, it doesn’t seem like either side is willing to do that.
QUESTION: Okay. We —
MODERATOR: We’re going to go ahead and move on to the next question.
MS BANKS: I can go – thank you. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Excuse me. So if we can ask the next person, Elena Lentza from Lusa, if you’d like to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
MS BANKS: Yes.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you so much for taking my question, for giving this briefing. I have two questions and I’ll start with one. Could you explain how directed is this summit to African continent? Because there are partners from around the world from every continent, but is it especially directed to African nation? And I forgot to present myself. I’m from the Portuguese news agency and I do Portuguese speaking countries.
MS BANKS: Thank you, Elena. No, actually the summit is not directed toward African countries. In fact, if you look at the list of participants to – invited participants to the summit, African countries, in terms of worldwide and regions, I think there are 14 participants from Africa and —
MS BANKS: Sorry, seventeen. Seventeen participants from Africa out of 110. So I can’t do the math that quickly, but I’m sure if you do, you’ll see that it’s not directed toward Africa. Although we did – when were in discussions and drawing up and proposing and putting together the list of participants, we wanted to make sure that we had a good representative mix of African partners who were invited to the summit who can give us that range that I talked about earlier, whereas those who are solidly in the democratic camp in terms of displaying those democratic principles and pillars for the summit, but also those who are definitely on the right trajectory but may need a little more encouragement and help. And I think that was the guiding mantra for many other participants from other regions as well.
I hope that answered your question.
QUESTION: That is excellent. So I have a second question about the invitation list. Can we take that some – that the non-invitation of some countries is a criticism to their democracies? So in specific example, Mozambique, the country, has received some help from the United States and they are partners in some dimensions, but I didn’t see that Mozambique was invited. And could you explain that?
MS BANKS: Sure. So as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that countries should take a non-invitation as any sort of slight. As I said, we will continue to work with both countries who are participants and those who were not invited throughout this year of action to help build out some of those – the ideals and the action plans not only for the countries that were invited, but for the countries who are now encouraged by what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard at the summit and who – and whose leaders have decided to take more democratic-leaning stances and positions in their – both domestically and internationally for the benefit of their citizens.
So again, the goal of the invitation list was to ensure the summit reflected a slate of democracies that is diverse by region, socioeconomic status, and by experience. We are embracing a big tent with clear-eyed recognition that no democracy is perfect, certainly not even our own. And so our goal is to be as inclusive as possible but also within logistical constraints. So as I said before, we will continue to engage with summit participants and other governments, whether they were invited or not, to address democratic backsliding, promote respect for human rights, and address and countering corruption both domestically and abroad.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right, our next question will go to Garry Iwele from Bakolo States Media. Go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you for having my question. Thank you, Ms. Banks, for your leadership. My name is Garry Iwele for Bakolo States Media LLC. I just submit a question by email. I don’t know if you got it, but I can come back on it. My question was about the DRC. The DRC has the biggest forest after the Amazonian, rich in strategic minerals and can contribute to prevent global climate change, also play a big role for electric car industry.
Unfortunately, the DRC for decades has been subject to all kind of armed conflict. What is the new strategy of the Biden administration to ensure that DRC becomes politically stable and play a big role as a major actor of development in Africa and the world?
And also, I want to come back on the summit. Yes, the idea of having a dialogue with Africa is a good one. We appreciate it. But how this time we will make sure this one is not – just not a summit? We’ve been seeing all kind of summits – China-Africa summit, France-Africa summit, Russia-African summit – but on the ground the situation is still the same: strong people in power changing constitution, running for the third or fourth term, and election not transparent, and all of that. What is the message, strong message, you’re going to send to the African leadership to say – show that the Biden administration this time is serious, we’re not just doing summit for summit, but we really want a change on the ground? Thank you.
MS BANKS: Thank you for that question, Garry. I’ll take your second question first.
Look, I can’t speak to other countries and their summits with Africa. This is particularly not a summit focused on Africa, as I mentioned earlier. But what we – what the Biden-Harris administration is intending to do – excuse me – with the Summit for Democracy’s – and concrete actions I think I’ve outlined earlier in terms of the commitments that we’re expecting governments and our own to make, and to follow up within a year of action and then with a follow-on summit in one year’s time.
But specifically, as President Biden has stated in the past, specifically on the International Day of Democracy, no democracy is perfect, and no democracy is every final. Every gain made, every barrier broken, is the result of determined, unceasing work. Comparatively to other countries in the world, we are a young democracy still, too. And on the continent there are even younger still democracies. And I think what the most recent events both in our country and around the world have shown that it does take that unceasing work to shore up democracies. Democracies are fragile, and democracy takes constant work and commitment.
So in issuing the invitations to the summit, we took into account the openness of countries to collaborate and contribute to the summit’s goals. So I think the follow-up that can be done so that it’s not just another summit largely depends on the work that the participants are willing to do in the year of action following the summit.
To your first question specifically on the DRC, I think I can say that, look, the way that we are looking at the DRC currently and in those key sectors that you mentioned, those key priorities –when you talk about the Congo Basin, the rainforest, you talk about security and instability in the DRC, you talk about mining – and underpinning all of these is the upcoming democratic elections in 2023 that we hope will be peaceful elections.
And so for a country like DRC, who has been invited to the summit, we want to work even harder with the DRC to counter violence and crises, promote economic development, strengthen the public health sector, and advance democracy and respect for human rights through the U.S.-DRC Privileged Partnership for Peace and Prosperity and preservation of the environment, which our Ambassador Hammer there is leading on this sort of partnership. We continue to work with President Tshisekedi’s government and civil society partners towards real economic and security forum and accountability to deliver results for the Congolese people.
But I really think it’s important, again, the onus is not on us as the conveners. The onus is on the participants of the summit, just as it is on the Congolese people and the leadership of Congo to make sure that these areas are addressed and that solid, concrete steps are taken. We continue to encourage President Tshisekedi to continue to advance reforms to tackle corruption, to strengthen democratic institutions, to open up the mining sector to broader competition, to bring more economic development, to save the rainforest and to not let it fall victim to the effects of climate change. And therefore, it is also up to the Congolese people and Congolese civil society to hold him accountable to that. That is democracy in action.
QUESTION: If you mind me just add a little bit on it, what do you think the African diaspora can play as a role in all of this?
MS BANKS: Oh, the diaspora plays a crucial role and in all of these pillars, because thanks to social media or because of it, the diaspora is instantly connected to their home or to their countries of origin around the world but also in Africa for sure. And diaspora politics also makes its way into our own domestic policy politics through our members of Congress, which eventually, of course, that pressure filters to our State Department or over here to the White House, to be sure. So the diaspora can help to encourage and continue to push for their countries of origin to display, to stay committed, to these democratic ideals, and for the countries who are invited – for DRC, for example – to remain committed to the commitments that they will make at summit.
MS BANKS: Thank you.
MODERATOR: So the next question will be one that was submitted previously, and I’ll go ahead and read that. This is from Abjong Mbapndah from Pan African Visions. He asks: “How does the Biden administration intend to balance its democratic ideals and engagement with Africa in light of other competing actors in the continent, like the Chinese and the Russians, who are not so fixated on democratic values?”
MS BANKS: Good question. And I think we have – this might be our last question, because we’re almost at time. But – and I think this is a good way actually – a good note to end on.
So I think this past year with the pandemic, now going into two years, has shown us how interconnected our world is and how our fates are really bound up together. And that is why President Biden has committed to rebuilding our partnerships around the world. We must all work together to advance our shared vision of a better future.
We know that Africa is at a pivotal moment in its trajectory, and the next decade will determine which path the continent takes. But President Biden believes that Africa’s many dynamic and fast-growing economies and populations can and should mean a bright future for the continent, one featuring inclusive growth, sustainable development, enhanced security, democratic progress, and the rule of law. And the United States stands ready to partner with African nations, as well as vibrant and civil society members and youth leaders, to achieve this future.
And how are we different from other actors – outside actors who are engaging on the continent? Look, I can’t speak to their engagement. What I can say is that the United States wishes to engage from a place of values, of principles, democratic values and principles that have been the bedrock of our country since its founding, and also views and treats other nations with mutual respect. We know that’s what our African partners not only look for but deserve. So that is how we, this administration, plans to and has been engaging with the continent.
MODERATOR: Thank you. That’s all we have time for today, so this concludes our briefing. I want to give a special thanks to our briefer for sharing her time with us today and to those of you who participated. Thank you and good day.
MS BANKS: Thanks, everyone.