Moderator: Thank you and good evening from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing. Today we are very honored to be joined by Uzra Zeya, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. We will begin today’s call with opening remarks by Under Secretary Zeya, and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Under Secretary Zeya for her opening remarks. Please, go ahead.
Under Secretary Zeya: Thank you, Justin. And thank you for this opportunity to speak with you all during my time in Belgium, which will be followed by a trip to Lithuania. I travel to Europe this week to meet with officials and members of civil society to discuss a range of issues, none more important than the need to advance democratic renewal globally. A key part of this agenda is the Summit for Democracy, which President Biden will host a little over three weeks from now on December 9 and 10. I’d like to share with you all the goals of the summit and answers questions that you may have.
Let me start with some context. Civil society groups have documented 15 consecutive years of global decline in democracy. This, of course, presents huge challenges to global stability and prosperity that can only be solved collectively, with likeminded democracies coming together to reverse this decline. So what does a democracy recession mean in practice?
One: Autocratic rules have obstructed elections that would have expressed the will of the people, undermined the independence of legislatures and judiciaries, and violated the human rights and fundamental freedoms of their populations. Two: Corrupt actors have unduly restricted access to information. This used public funding and eroded public confidence that democratic governance can bring a better future. And finally, even well-established democracies like the United States face challenges such as political polarization, the spread of disinformation, discrimination, and racial injustice. And yet we know that societies which respect and defend human rights, uphold the rule of law, and support inclusive, accountable governance for all their citizens are best equipped to produce durable solutions to even the most difficult problems.
With all that in mind, President Biden will host the Summit of Democracy to bring together government partners, civil society, and the private sector to work in common cause to support democratic renewal around the world. Through this process we aim to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront challenges to democracy, and address threats to our common values at home and abroad.
So as a first step, the President will welcome world leaders and other stakeholders to a virtual summit on December 9 and 10. This forum will allow leaders to discuss current challenges to democracy, identify opportunities for democratic renewal, and announce meaningful commitments, reforms, and initiatives. Following the summit there will be a period of consultation, coordination, action, and delivery of results.
Finally, after this Year of Action, the President will welcome world leaders, civil society, and other stakeholders to an in-person summit in approximately one year’s time, public health conditions permitting. We’re inviting summit participants to make and fulfill concrete commitments that align with each of the summit’s three pillars: one, defending against authoritarianism; two, fighting corruption; and three, advancing respect for human rights domestically and internationally.
No democracy is perfect, including our own in the United States. The U.S. Government views the summit as an opportunity to listen, learn, speak, and act together about the challenges facing democracy at home and abroad. What sets us apart from authoritarian nations is that we deal with our struggles transparently. We don’t ignore our shortcomings or try to sweep them under the rug. The United States seeks to lead with our values and by the power of our example.
And because of the transparency of our system, citizens in other countries see that Americans can freely speak and peaceably protest, that we can criticize our political leaders without retribution, that members of our free press can work without fear or interference, and that we strive to care for the most marginalized among us. We, our European partners, and many others around the world have a strong story to tell about the resilience of democracy.
As Secretary Blinken has said, responsible nations must not shrink from scrutiny of their human rights record. Rather, they should acknowledge it with the intent to improve. At the upcoming summit, the U.S. Government will announce our own commitments to advance democratic renewal. These commitments will be in areas such as bolstering free and independent media, fighting corruption, defending free and fair elections, advancing the civic and political leadership of women, girls, and marginalized community members, and harnessing technology for democratic renewal. We will hold ourselves accountable to these commitments on a global public stage.
Over the course of the 2022 Year of Action, participants, including the United States, are expected to implement the commitments that they make. We’ll seek opportunities to take stock of our progress over the course of 2022, including for civil society monitoring. Activists, advocates, and other members of civil society are essential to transparent, equitable, and responsive governance. Partnering with civil society is critical to achieve summit goals as we turn to local leaders and experts to help ensure that government pledges positively impact citizens.
Whether it’s the investigative journalist or the anti-corruption activist, civil society plays a key watchdog and advocacy role in our democracies. It’s essential to promoting government accountability, including when it comes to implementing summit commitments. By tapping into the strength of the private sector, countries can also partner on innovative and impactful initiatives to advance the core themes of the summit.
So it’s a pleasure sharing this background on the summit with you. I hope this flagship presidential initiative illustrates to you that the Biden-Harris administration is committed to putting democracy and human rights at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. We believe that to tackle the world’s challenges, democracies must act together.
Thank you again for your time, and I welcome your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question comes to us from Danila Galperovich with Voice of America. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you very much indeed. I have two questions. One is about Russia. The attack of Russian prosecutors on memorial human rights center and international organization is maybe most serious attack on human rights activists in Russia for years. What is the reaction of Department of State to this knowing the prominence of memorial site again?
The second question about Belarus. Crisis on EU-Belarus border, it has all human rights – very serious human rights components. Shall we expect new sanctions against Lukashenka regime from the United States as European Union is about to introduce new ones? Thank you very much.
Under Secretary Zeya: Thank you very much for asking those important questions. First, with respect to Russia, we are deeply concerned by the ongoing campaign and pressure to close space for free and independent media to operate, and I think the memorial case that you mentioned is yet another painful example of this trend. This is why, as I mentioned, at the Summit for Democracy we will be putting a very strong emphasis on collective measures and actions to support free and independent media throughout the world.
Second, I appreciate your raising the very concerning situation with respect to Belarus and the Lukashenka regime’s cynical exploitation of vulnerable migrants, and its continued brutal repression of the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people. We believe, echoing the comments of Secretary Blinken earlier this week, that the actions of the Lukashenka regime threaten security, sow division, and aim to distract from not only the suppression occurring inside Belarus, but Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine.
We, alongside the Polish Government, have strongly condemned the instrumentalization of vulnerable migrants, and we are calling on the Lukashenka Government to address the root causes of sanctions imposed by the West, and these are the denial of human rights and fundamental freedoms for the Belarusian people.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Deger Akal with Deutsche Welle. Please, go ahead.
Question: Under Secretary, from your remarks I, of course, understand the reason. But could you elaborate – as far as we know, Erdogan – President Erdogan, President of Turkey and NATO member, and Turkey is also a candidate country to the EU – could you elaborate why he will not attend to the summit? Was he invited and he didn’t accept the conditions, or wasn’t he invited at all?
And could you also elaborate on the situation in Turkey? Just a few weeks ago, there was a major crisis between U.S. and other nine countries regarding a simple call – the Osman Kavala call – who is still in prison. Could you elaborate how you view the developments in Turkey and if it makes it difficult to talk about these issues with Erdogan?
Under Secretary Zeya: Thank you very much for that question. I am not in the position to comment on specific invitees to the summit, but I am happy to share with you the strategy and the logic behind our approach.
The United States is inviting a regionally diverse set of well-established and emerging democracies whose progress and commitments, we believe, will advance a more just and peaceful world. So our goal in this effort is to be as inclusive as possible within logistical constraints. And we’re also working to ensure that as many relevant voices and viewpoints can feed into the summit process as we can.
We are going to continue engaging with summit participants and other governments around the world to address democratic backsliding, promote respect for human rights, and defend against corruption both at home and abroad, whether that work occurs within or outside the summit framework. So we are also going to seek to engage any and all countries that show a genuine commitment to support the summit’s goals. And those were the three overarching goals that I outlined in my opening comments.
With respect to the human rights situation in Turkey, we remain concerned about closing civic space, and particularly freedom of expression and the arrest and detention of a number of journalists. These are concerns that we raised privately, but we also are very transparent in sharing publicly in the Annual U.S. Human Rights Report on Turkey, to which I would refer you for further details. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Katalin Halmai with Népszava in Hungary. Please, go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you very much for this opportunity. There are serious concerns about the situation of the rule of law and democracy in two EU member-states, Poland and Hungary. If the press reports are correct, Poland has been invited to the summit but Hungary not. Can you share with us the reasoning behind these two decisions? Thank you very much.
Under Secretary Zeya: Thank you for your question. As I mentioned earlier, I am not in a position to comment on governmental invitees and confirm the specific invitation list, but I can add on this question that we’re inviting countries that we assess set a high bar for themselves and for others and that demonstrate will and progress on renewing democratic values, policies, and institutions. So this, along with the earlier principles that I outlined, are what is guiding us in our approach, and we certainly look forward to engaging summit participants but engaging the world at large on these issues throughout 2022 and beyond.
Moderator: Great, thanks for that. Our next question comes to us from Alex Raufoglu with Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan. Please, go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you so very much for taking my question, Under Secretary. On that line, has the invitees list been finalized, the one that we have seen publicly, or is there still time for countries such as Azerbaijan to get into the list?
Listening to you, I guess that this is not about coming together just to talk. This is going to be about coming together to pledge and to act, and the administration is adamant about putting democracy on America’s front foot. With that said, looking at the invitees list, the question is: Why prioritizing some longest-lasting authoritarian regimes, such as the ones in Southeastern Asia, of all possible partners for special attention? And how is the White House trying to use the summit to accomplish its overall democracy agenda? Thanks so much again.
Under Secretary Zeya: Thank you. Again, on the question of participation, I’ll say that the United States is inviting a regionally diverse set of well-established and emerging democracies, large and small, whose progress and commitments we think will add to our overall and I believe our shared aspiration for democratic renewal around the world, further anchoring a more just and peaceful world.
On the question of engaging governments, I would also underscore that our democracy and human rights agenda is not limited simply to this very large undertaking of the Summit for Democracy. We are committed to advancing these values in established fora such as the OSCE, certainly in other regional contexts, the Organization for American States, the Human Rights Council, of course, which we look forward to rejoining, and we’re very heartened by the overwhelming international support for our candidacy. So I think there are many opportunities for us across the multilateral sphere for us to partner with governments across the world in a diverse range of regions to advance this agenda forward in a meaningful way.
Moderator: Great, thank you for that response. Our next question goes to Oskar Gorzynski of the Polish Press Agency. Please, go ahead.
Question: Hello, thank you for doing this. I wanted to follow up on the question that Katalin asked about Hungary and Poland because – and maybe not directly about the invitations, but both countries were criticized by the EU but also by the U.S. for some of the – some similar problems with rule of law. So I was wondering if you could speak to – do you see any big differences between those countries in terms of those issues?
And also if I may, can you elaborate on the purpose of your visit to Lithuania, and is it connected to the border crisis?
Under Secretary Zeya: Thank you. Again, on the question of invitations, I’ll just add, as a general rule, the invitations are not public in order to provide a space for countries and governments to determine their level of participation. So again, we’re not going to confirm or deny specific invitations or look to make comparisons from countries. But we will continue to emphasize the summit aims to be inclusive of a regionally and socially economic diverse slate of well-established and emerging democracies. Again, we’re taking an inclusive approach with the clear-eyed recognition that no democracy is perfect.
In terms of my visit to Lithuania, this is in the context of our outreach on the Summit for Democracy as well as, I think, the extensive support that Lithuania is offering to a Europe whole, free, and at peace with its substantial efforts to offer refuge and safe haven to peaceful civil society activists from Belarus and other nations as well as journalists. And we are grateful for our partnership with Lithuania on human rights and democracy writ large, and they’re hosting a Future of Democracy Forum that I will be attending as a guest speaker.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that response. We have time for one final question. Now we’ll go to Simon Djordjevic with Voice of America. Please, go ahead.
Question: Hello, I understand that you told us you cannot go into internal deliberations, but I was wondering about the change of decision to invite Serbia and Kosovo to the summit. First it was reported they would not be invited. And should this be interpreted as some sort of policy success that the invitation came? If you can just tell us a little something specific about these two countries, thank you.
Under Secretary Zeya: I think with respect to all of the governments who will be taking part in the summit process, our extension of invitations is going to reflect our desire to come together, learn together, and act together with these governments and the partner countries as we recommit to democratic ideals. And we will also be looking to the commitments that governments put forward and collectively look to hold ourselves accountable through the Year of Action and a series of events and gatherings that you all will see in the coming year.
Moderator: Thank you very much. That was indeed all the time we have for today for questions. I’d like to hand it back to Under Secretary Zeya to see if she has any closing remarks for the group.
Under Secretary Zeya: I want to thank you all for taking part and joining us late in the evening. And the work that you do as journalists, reporting on tough issues and shining light on repression of human rights over – all over the world, is much appreciated. This is going to be a focal point for the summit, and I think you’re going to see meaningful collective action coming forward to protect and advance the role of free and independent media in upholding democracy. Thank you.
Moderator: I’d like to thank Under Secretary Zeya for joining us today and thank all the reporters on the line for your participation and for your questions.