January 25, 2022

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Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya On the Upcoming Summit for Democracy

19 min read

Uzra Zeya, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights

Washington, DC

Press Briefing Room

MR PRICE:  Good afternoon.  As I think everyone knows, National Security Advisor Sullivan will be at the White House within the hour to offer some context and some readout on the President’s engagement earlier today with President Putin of the Russian Federation, so I encourage you all to tune into that.

In the meantime, we are especially fortunate and pleased to have with us today our Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Uzra Zeya.  She is here with us today because we are on the precipice of the Summit for Democracy, something we’re very excited about and something Under Secretary Zeya has spent many hours, along with many others, putting together over the course of many weeks and months here.

So with that, I’ll turn it over to the under secretary.  She will have some opening remarks, and then she looks forward to taking your questions.

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thanks so much, Ned.  Good afternoon, everyone.  It’s wonderful to be back at the podium and see some familiar faces.

This week, President Biden will host over 100 world leaders in a virtual Summit for Democracy.  They’ll be joined by hundreds more members of civil society, including journalists, activists, law makers, the private sector, philanthropies to focus the world’s attention on what the President has called “the challenge of our time” – reversing the ongoing global democratic recession.

This is the largest gathering of its kind.  More than half of the UN member states will gather virtually, democracies of all shapes and sizes, established and emerging, bringing together the rich diversity, creativity, and problem-solving that the world needs right now to ensure democracies deliver for their people.

We approach this week with both humility and confidence.  Humility in that we want to listen and learn and don’t shy away from our shortcomings; confidence in our constant striving for a more perfect union and our certainty that, working together, democracies can and will deliver for the world’s citizens, regardless of the raw deal that autocrats and authoritarians try to sell.

Make no mistake, we’re at a moment of democratic reckoning, when the greatest challenges we face cross borders, regions, and domains of expertise.  It’s no secret that democracies around the world are facing increasing challenges from new and novel threats.  Countries in virtually every region of the world have experienced degrees of democratic backsliding.  More than 350 reporters around the world are sitting in jail just for doing their jobs.  The internet is being weaponized to spread misinformation and enable authoritarian leaders’ surveillance of their own people.  And so-called “news deserts” are taking the place of free, independent media.  This all has to change, and this week’s summit is a galvanizing moment for the world to reinvigorate its efforts to ensure that democracies are resilient, inclusive, governed by and for the people, and deliver in ways that make lives better.

Let me preview for you some of what will happen this week and what you’ll hear from the administration on its commitments at home and abroad.

Our first event tomorrow – or “Day Zero” of the summit – is on media freedom and sustainability, bright and early at 6am EDT with Secretary Blinken and co-hosted with the Netherlands.  Appropriately for this group, kicking off with this event recognizes the indispensable role independent media plays in strengthening democracies.  Tomorrow’s program also features events highlighting the crucial role of women and young people’s voices, energy, and ideas in building 21st century democracies that reflect their aspirations.  Finally, starting tomorrow and throughout the summit, you’ll hear often about the double-edged sword technological development presents as both a means to advance democratic renewal but also a tool of autocrats who seek to repress and silence their people.

Day One, Thursday, December 9th, will feature a closed-door event for government leaders and then move to open sessions around various themes such as democracies building back better from COVID and working together to fight 21st century corruption with 21st century tools.

On Day Two, Friday, December 10th, we’ll welcome discussion on protecting human rights both through norms and standards development, but importantly also by supporting and protecting human rights defenders and journalists on the front lines who put their lives at risk every day.  We’ll also hear more about tech and democracy during day two.

Throughout all of this, as we’ve said from the start, civil society voices, including women and young people, play a prominent role.  We welcome them at the panel discussions, as well as their important side events.  In fact, Secretary Blinken and the department’s leadership are participating in dozens of side events at various levels this week.

I kicked off my summit week yesterday with a truly inspiring conversation with civil society leaders from difficult environments, and it brought home to me again why we’re doing a Summit for Democracy.  Because it matters.  American leadership matters.  It matters that over 100 leaders will come together this week and advance solutions, not just identify problems.  And it’s truly an honor for me to be here with you today to show the world one of the pillars of democracy – government engagement with an open and free press.

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

MR PRICE:  Mr. Lee.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  Hi.  And thanks for doing this.

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Hi.

QUESTION:  I have a question that’s not – well, it’s kind of – it is related to this, but it’s also a little bit different.  Having been present at the creation more – almost two – more than two decades ago now of the Community of Democracies in Warsaw, what has happened to that?  Has it just gone the way of the dodo bird?  Is that no – is the Community of Democracies no longer a thing?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  No, Matt.  The Community of Democracies still exists, and I think it’s a good example of the existing mechanisms that we hope this Summit for Democracy effort will complement.  We are not seeking to create a permanent secretariat or a new organization, per se.  You can consider this week’s December 9th and 10th event a kickoff for what we hope will be a Year of Action through 2022, culminating in – public health conditions permitting – an in-person gathering of the participating leaders with the President to take stock of progress and show that we are delivering in these three core areas of focus for the summit.

QUESTION:  Okay.  But as far as —

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  So the Community continues to exist.

QUESTION:  Okay.

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  The United States takes part in it.  We’re not seeking to supplant that effort.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR PRICE:  Nick.

QUESTION:  Hi, Uzra.  Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg.  Can you talk about some of the concerns that other countries are maybe uneasy with this summit because they’re of a sense that they may be asked to take sides?  Obviously, China and Russia are not invited.  There are some countries, particularly in the Asia Pacific, that feel like they’re a little bit in between a rock and a hard place.  So how does the – how do you address the concern that the administration with this summit is essentially asking countries to make a choice between the U.S. and China or democracies versus autocracies?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Well, to be clear, this summit is not about taking sides.  It’s not meant to be divisive or adversarial.  It really is all about an affirmative agenda with fellow democracies to lead by example, to learn from one another, to demonstrate how and why democracies are working to deliver for their people.

I think it’s important to note that data shows that free and democratic societies have healthier citizens, less violent conflict, and more prosperous communities.  And we, as a government, promote adherence to democratic norms internationally so that people around the world can benefit from democracy, not just the people in the United States or the people of one region or one group.

So it’s really about the affirmative agenda in the three core areas of effort, also progress on supporting free and independent media, anti-corruption, free and fair elections.  It’s a robust agenda but one that I think is going to be judged by concrete, meaningful, and hopefully collective action.

MR PRICE:  Andrea.

QUESTION:  Can I ask you, just because there has been some criticism about the inclusion of the Philippines and Pakistan and others who’ve been criticized by the State Department in its own Human Rights Report?  And separately, was there a deliberate decision not to include any monarchies?  Because some fairly open Arab countries have complained as well that they’re not invited, even though they are much more open than some of the others I’ve just mentioned.

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you.  In terms of the strategy and the approach as far as participants, the United States reached out to a regionally diverse set of democracies who we assessed whose progress and commitments would advance a more just and peaceful world.  Our goal was to be as inclusive as possible within logistical constraints and also to ensure that all relevant views and viewpoints could be represented.

And on this point, I want to note that this is not just a virtual gathering of governments.  It’s multistakeholder.  You’ll see very strong representation of civil society, of the private sector, of – as I mentioned in my remarks – local leaders, law makers from all over the world.

But in the long run, to be clear, we want to engage any and all countries who have a genuine willingness in making commitments, in making progress on the overarching summit goals.  So this is an agenda that is not limited to the countries participating in the summit.  It’s truly part of President Biden’s exhortation to all of us to work to center our democratic values and our human rights and our foreign policy, and that applies to all U.S. embassies all over the world.

QUESTION:  And on the Philippines specifically?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  With respect to the Philippines, this is – I would just underscore to you a couple of points.  The Philippines is a longstanding ally of the United States, and their commitment to democracy is an integral element of our partnership.  It’s a multiparty constitutional republic which conducted largely free and fair midterm elections in May 2019 and, as we all know, is preparing to hold national elections in 2022.  So we’re committed as a government to helping the Philippines strengthen its democratic resilience, and we regularly raise the importance of protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms in our bilateral engagements.  And we see the summit as part of that effort.

MR PRICE:  Simon.

QUESTION:  So we’ve heard a little bit about there’s – this is a virtual summit and then next year there’s an in-person summit, right, and one of the things that we’ve heard from civil society is that it would be good to – you’re getting countries to make commitments and it would be good if there’s at least a threat or a risk of people being disinvited from the summit in a year’s time.  I wonder if you could clarify whether that is something that could happen if a country makes a commitment and then shows no effort in pursuing that.

And sort of related to that, what is the kind of mechanism for holding countries to the commitments that they make?  Are you relying purely on civil society and journalists to do that, or is there some kind of formal mechanism that could be introduced here?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Right.  I think you raised a very important point that will really animate the 2022 Year of Action to follow this summit.  So civil society participation I think is critical in terms of integrating the views of diverse international actors who are at the front line of this issue set, but also, we look to civil society to help hold us – the United States – and other governments accountable to meeting the commitments that will be made public in a very open and transparent fashion on December 9th and 10th.  So there is the process of accountability.

I think there’s also the prospect of civil society helping us identify potentially new commitments.  With a number of the commitments that the United States is going to put on the table and other partners, we really look to engage civil society not only at this week’s events but in the Year of Action to follow on how we can make them more meaningful, more effective in making progress towards the three overarching goals.

QUESTION:  But can they be disinvited?  If they’re here now, are they definitely going to be here next year?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  I mean, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about 2022, but certainly the interval period between these two events, the virtual and hopefully the in-person, really gives us, I think, a rare opportunity to translate into action commitments that are going to be put on the table.  So this is not a one-off event, but it’s really an ongoing engagement process that we hope will culminate in an in-person summit with new platforms and coalitions working together meaningfully on these core issues.

MR PRICE:  There’s time for a couple more.  Francesco.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Just to follow up on Simon’s question, what are we expecting to have on Friday at the end of the summit?  Is it a roadmap, a plan of actions with detailed commitments by every country that will be followed on during the year?  What is it?  How will you judge what every country will do over the next year?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Certainly we look to all of you, the media, but also civil society to judge and assess what’s put forward.  You will have multiple governments, including the United States, putting forth concrete commitments for progress in these areas.  And again, just to recap on the United States side, what you’ll see is a focus on bolstering free and independent media; fighting corruption; defending free and fair elections; strengthening civic capacity, including the political leadership of women, girls, and marginalized groups; and harnessing technology for democratic renewal.  These will be both in terms of policy prescriptions as well as new assistance platforms that generate more resources to champions in need in these areas.

I think you’re going to see from a number of other governments taking part other meaningful commitments in these areas, and possibly new ones.  So the concept is to be open and transparent in putting these out in the public domain and to really use the Year of Action to hone them and to elicit what we hope will be more collaboration, more mutually reinforcing action towards these common goals.

QUESTION:  And was what every country was ready to put on the table one of the factors for them to being invited or not?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  I think the approach that we took was an open and inclusive engagement approach, where we shared what we’re planning to do and basically welcomed and invited participating governments to come to the table specifically this Thursday and Friday with – ready to share their ideas, their programs, and projects in these areas.

So I’d sum up by saying stay tuned, but I think you will find there is going to be a robust set of commitments and common actions that are – that we hope will make this the galvanizing opportunity that I noted at the outset.

MR PRICE:  Please.

QUESTION:  How do you explain that the three countries in the Northern Triangle in Central America have not been invited – I am talking about Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – even (inaudible) like a key region in the immigration efforts by the Biden administration?  Is the U.S. losing confidence in the push for democracy in these countries?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Well, I think with respect to the Northern Triangle countries, as you know, the administration has made substantial and very important commitments with respect to supporting governance, supporting democratic progress, fighting corruption, and advancing the rule of law.  I think we would have hoped to see a number of these countries join the summit.  We welcome progress in some of these key areas that might make that possible, but our focus this week is really working with the governments who have shown their readiness to come forward and make commitments in these areas.  And then I think, as I mentioned at the outset, we’re really ready to work with any and all governments who want to make commitments or join in efforts that we’ll be putting on the table very soon.

QUESTION:  So you’re saying that they didn’t make enough progress in the last months?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Well, I mean, I think with respect to some of these countries, there are a number of concerns with respect to the direction of rule of law and governance and anti-corruption efforts.  So we certainly encourage more.  We have vibrant relations with all of these countries that you mentioned.  But in the end, the invitation to join us at the summit, it’s not a mark of approval, nor is non-invitation from the summit a sign of disapproval from the United States.  We’re ready to engage any and all governments who are prepared to work with us on this agenda, and it’s going to be a very open and transparent gathering that most of you will be able to observe and comment on, and we will follow up later in the year and through the coming year to try to make these commitments part of a collective, meaningful effort.

MR PRICE:  Time for one brief, final question.

QUESTION:  Thank you from South Korea.  During the summit, is the U.S. planning to talk about Beijing Olympics and diplomatic boycott with other allies, such as South Korea or Japan?

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  With respect to the Olympics, I believe my colleague the spokesman made our position quite clear.  So the summit is not directed against any country, nor is it focused on any one country.  Our position, I think, is quite transparent.  We’ve shared it with partners around the world, and now with the public at large, and I think it speaks for itself.

MR PRICE:  Thank you very much, Under Secretary Zeya.  Appreciate your time.

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you.  Thanks, everyone.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

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