Transcript: Digital Press Briefing with Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations

Moderator: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent, and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion. Today we are very pleased to be joined by the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. This press briefing comes ahead of a UN Security Council meeting tomorrow, Wednesday, May 19th, entitled “Peace and Security in Africa: Addressing Root Causes of Conflict While Promoting Post-Pandemic Recovery.”

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can in the time that we have allotted.

As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield for her opening remarks. Ambassador?

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Good. Thank you so much, Marissa. And let me thank you for having me here today. This is really exciting for me. I feel like I’m at home with you here and with this group, and I’m just thrilled to do this in advance of tomorrow’s Security Council meeting, which, as you mentioned, will focus on preventing conflict and supporting post-pandemic recovery in Africa.

Before I served in my current role as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, I spent most of my career working on the African continent, and I first visited Africa, I’m almost embarrassed to say, over 43 years ago. I fell in love with the continent, with the people, as you know, with the food and with the culture. And Africa is very much in my heart. It was an emotional experience for me 43 years ago, and it continues to be emotional for me today. I knew my ancestors came from this large and beautiful and diverse continent, and so I felt very, very proud at that moment to be on the continent. And I feel very proud to be working on issues related to the continent now.

Since then, my experiences working in Liberia and Kenya and Rwanda and Nigeria and the Gambia, and virtually every other corner of the continent, have deeply shaped who I am. So if there’s one message I’d love for you to deliver back home today, it’s that I miss you.

But that’s not what brings me here to speak to you today. I’m here because there are several global crises, like COVID-19 and climate change, which have demonstrated at once how interconnected we are and how important our partnerships are. As the entire world works to chart a path forward from this past year, the Security Council will be discussing the unique challenges facing countries across the African continent. The discovery period will be long and challenging, and there will be threats to Africa moving forward as we look at its trajectory. But we’re committed to being a partner to Africa as you confront these threats and these challenges, and we believe that the best and the strongest partnerships are built on a foundation of trust and transparency and accountability and areas of mutual opportunity.

From people programs like Peace Corps, started in the 1960s, to YALI in 2010, we continue as a nation to focus on people-to-people relations. The extraordinary success of the Africa diaspora community in the United States contributes to and it enhances those relationships, and programs like the President’s Malaria Initiative, PEPFAR, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, build on those partnerships.

Similarly, the United States has worked with the Africa CDC since it was established in 2016, and over the last year, I’ve reflected frequently on how important that relationship has been throughout the pandemic together with dedicated significant resources to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases on the continent, create an emergency operations center, and train epidemiologists and incident managers. This partnership follows over 20 years of U.S. investment and capacity-building in Africa health security. Whether on polio, HIV/AIDs, child mortality, Ebola, and now COVID-19, we work together to not only save lives of millions but also build the infrastructure for Africans to tackle future health threats. And as a continuation of our commitment to global health, yesterday, just yesterday, President Biden announced that we will be donating 80 million COVID-19 vaccines, which will be equitably distributed through COVAX and other partners by the end of June.

COVAX – COVID-19 is only one example of our partnership. We’re setting aggressive goals to combat climate change, which is a source of conflict and food insecurity across the continent. We’re investing in women and girls because we know it’s an important investment in peace and security. And we’re supporting democracy and democratic values, holding governments accountable, and empowering people economically, educationally, and politically because we know democracy is the most powerful way to prevent all forms of conflict.

I’m going to stop here because I’m eager to take all of your questions. And I just want to conclude by saying the challenges Africa faces are great, but Africa’s promise is far greater. But we’re committed to working together as partners to propel that promise forward.

So thank you very much, and I look forward to hearing your questions.

Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please indicate if you would like to ask a question, and then type in your name, location, and affiliation into the question and answer tab. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing, peace and security in Africa.

Our first question will go to Ms. Elena Lentza of LUSA News Agency out of Portugal. This question came to us via email. The question is, “What is your vision on the instability in Mozambique, and what can be done in regards to the health of refugees and migrants fleeing from violence?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Thank you so much for that question. The United States is very concerned about the situation in Mozambique, and we’re working very closely with the Government of Mozambique, with international organizations, as well as civil society organizations on the ground, to try to find a solution to this situation, helping the government to address the attacks that have taken place. But at the same time, we’re committed to working with the government to do everything possible to protect civilians and prevent future attacks and alleviate suffering.

We’re also engaged on providing humanitarian assistance to those impacted by the crisis in Cabo Delgado, and hopefully will be able to address and come to a satisfactory conclusion to this very soon.

Moderator: Thank you. The next question goes to Ms. Kristi Pelzel of Today News Africa. Ms. Pelzel writes, “The UN Food System Summit is coming up in September. Many countries, especially the U.S., have made pledges to work on food system challenges. But countries like South Sudan, Yemen, and north Nigeria, identified by the WFP as the most food-insecure countries on the planet, won’t benefit from innovation until there’s also conflict resolution or peace. How can the U.S. mission to the UN and the Security Council stop premeditated starvation and the use of food as a weapon of war? And is access to food a basic human right?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Again, thank you for that question. And if you were watching during our month of the presidency of the Security Council back in March, food insecurity was one of our signature events during that session, where we did focus on the impact of manmade disasters on food and security. So this is a very high priority for us. We will be actively engaging in the discussions that will take place later in the year. As you have noted, South Sudan and Yemen particularly have been identified as being very highly food insecure because of insecurity, and we know that the situation in Northern Nigeria is one that we need to focus attention on.

But there are also other areas in the world where food insecurity is leading to conflict and conflict is leading to food insecurity. So I can say without any hesitation that we will be working on this issue and trying to address the issue, and trying to find solutions to assisting people to address their food insecurity requirements in the future.

Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go live to John Allen of AllAfrica.com. Mr. Allen, you may unmute yourself. John Allen, AllAfrica.com.

Okay. I see that Mr. – there we go.

Question: Thank you very much. Thank you, Ambassador. I’m wondering if you can elaborate a little. You mentioned your initiatives on women and girls in relation to peace-building on the continent, and I’m wondering if you can elaborate on that and on the various foci of U.S. policy

on Africa. How do various strands of your policy contribute towards peace-building in other parts of the continent? Thank you.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: John, thank you so much for that question. The role of women and girls, and particularly of women in peace-building, is extraordinarily important. This is something that the State Department and the U.S. Government more broadly has focused tremendous attention on, not just in Africa but in Afghanistan and other places in the world. We’ve seen in recent conflicts that women and children are extraordinarily impacted by conflict. They are victims of sexual violence and sex used as a weapon of war, and we absolutely have to, as we look at how to address conflict, focus on women and girls and the role that women play in peacekeeping.

I think I can say without any doubt that women play an extraordinarily important role. Having worked in Liberia and seen the role that women played initially in bringing Liberia to peace, but also in the role that President Sirleaf being the first woman to lead a country, elected to a president in Africa. So these will be important for us.

In terms of the administration’s focus on Africa, I think it is – it goes without saying that Africa is an important priority for the administration. We are working in areas to try to address conflict. We’re using our diplomatic muscle in places like Ethiopia. We have engaged with a number of African leaders, and will continue to engage with African leaders to address broader issues related to peacekeeping and terrorism on the continent of Africa. But more importantly, we’re building partnerships. We’re building and rebuilding relationships, and rebuilding those relationships better after many of those relationships were neglected during the previous four years.

We truly value our partnership with the African nations and with the people of Africa, and we believe that Africa has an important role to play globally, and we intend to look for opportunities to enhance that.

Moderator: Thank you. The next question, we will go to Ethiopia, a question from Tsedale Lemma of the Addis Standard out of Ethiopia. She writes, “Ethiopia is undergoing a tragic episode of manmade political violence, including a devastating civil war in Tigray that has now left more than 5 million people facing a potential famine in the coming months. As actively engages as the Biden administration seems to have been initially, its first five months in office did not bring anything concrete by way of leveraging its diplomacy to stop Ethiopia’s descent into complete chaos. Is it time for Ethiopians to give up expecting anything from the Biden administration?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Thank you. And that is an extraordinarily important question and I hope that that is not where Ethiopians are going. The Biden administration has been engaged with Ethiopia from day one. You can go back and look at the kinds of statements that were even made prior to the administration taking over on January 20th. President Biden sent his own emissary to Ethiopia; Senator Coons went out to meet with and try to engage with the government on this situation. Jeff Feltman has just completed a visit to Ethiopia, and I have been actively engaged on this issue here in New York, insisting that it be put on the agenda of the Security Council and successfully getting a statement out of the Security Council. I will continue to engage on those issues here in New York, but our administration has also made clear its engagement on this.

We have raised our grave concerns over the reports of human rights violations, the abuses, the atrocities that have taken place in Tigray, and we condemn them in the strongest terms, and you have seen all of those messages come out. And we will continue to address this. We’ve called on the Eritrean Government to remove its forces from Tigray. Jeff Feltman went to Eritrea as well and engaged with the president there. And we, again, have repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian Government at the highest levels.

So in the past five months, we have been proactively engaged on this issue and I would hope that the Ethiopian Government and the Ethiopian people are conscious of what we are doing, and continue to work with us to try to find a solution to this situation.

Moderator: Staying along those same lines of Ethiopia, Brook Abdu from The Reporter newspaper writes in our Q&A, “Is the Tigray crisis on the agenda for tomorrow’s UNSC meeting? What do you think of the Horn of Africa security dynamics as a whole?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: It’s not on the agenda for the Security Council meeting tomorrow, but at any point we can have this issue on the agenda, either having it come to us through the UN or having it added to the agenda by one of the members, but we are engaged and continue to engage with member states, with the African – the A3+1 members of the Security Council, with the P5, as well as with other member states of the UN on this issue.

Moderator: Thank you. The next question goes to Voice of America. Anita Powell writes, “As you know, half of the Arab League is composed of African countries, and that organization has been extremely vocal in their criticism of recent Israeli actions. Does this factor into conversations at the UN with African member states? And what are your concerns about the current fighting between Israel and Hamas? Do you worry that this could strain or sour U.S.-Africa relations going forward?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Again, as you know, there are three African states on the Security Council. So yes, we are engaging with Africans on this issue, both at the Security Council and across the board. We have taken intense diplomatic efforts to try to find a solution to this situation from the most senior levels of the United States. As you’ve seen in the press, President Biden has engaged several times with President* Netanyahu; Secretary Blinken has engaged with government officials; and I have engaged with the government as well as other parties here in New York to push for a solution. And again, that includes members from Africa.

I don’t think, as your question – you asked if this would impact our relationships with African governments. We have a whole menu of issues that we address across the continent of Africa. This is one among many issues. We agree on some and on other issues we don’t agree. But ultimately, our relationship is a strong relationship and I look forward to engaging with Africans across the board not just on African issues, on issues elsewhere in the world.

Moderator: Thank you. We’re going to go to a question live from Pearl Matibe. Pearl, you may unmute yourself to ask your question. And please state your outlet.

Question: Hello, Ambassador, and thank you so much for your availability. I’m with Power FM, Johannesburg. I’m out here in Washington, D.C. today. Good morning.

My question to you is I’m going to follow up regarding what you’ve shared with us on Mozambique. I’m also interested in the same response, if you could allude to Chad as well. So one question that applies to both, but if you could give specific examples for both.

In follow-up to what you’ve briefed us on Mozambique and your approach in addressing conflict there, could you clearly define for me how do you define what the root causes of conflict in Cabo Delgado Province are and maybe provide some specific examples and how we might see how you, the United States, operationalize this, your – what you’re saying you could arrive at a solution? How would we demonstrably see how it operationalizes? And through what local Mozambican or Chadian institutional capacity might you operationalize that solution? Thank you.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Pearl, that’s a tough question, but I’ll attempt it. So certainly in the case of both Mozambique and Chad, when we look at root causes, a lot of it boils down to being engaged with communities outside of the central government, making sure that the central government reaches to those communities so that those communities don’t feel isolated from the central government, but also making sure that we are watchful of the kinds of things that are happening in those far-flung communities in terms of possible terrorist activities or others trying to undermine the government.

So, for our part, we want to work with governments to help them build capacity, to build capacity to address the development needs of their communities but also build capacity to deal with the security challenges that they may face. And we’re doing both in Chad as well as in Mozambique. We’re working with the government, but not just with the government; we’re working with civil society organizations, we’re working with – through the United Nations and through our own representation in those countries to try to bring some of that capacity directly to the people. And I think that’s one of our strengths as a country, that we do a great deal of our work directly with communities and with people, and we will be looking to do that in both Chad and Mozambique.

Moderator: Okay, a question from Nigeria from Mr. Oyetunji Abioye from Punch newspaper. His question in the Q&A is, “The United States has been concerned over alleged human rights abuses by Nigerian military and security agencies battling armed conflict groups like Boko Haram and bandits and deadly herdsmen in Nigeria. As part of your moves to mitigate conflict and enhance peace in Nigeria, how do you plan to get the United Nations to rein on Nigerian – on the Nigerian Government to reform the military and address issues of human rights abuses?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Again, thank you for that question. And it is an issue that we continue to work with the Nigerian Government on. We have called the government out when we have seen violations being committed, but we also, at the same time, try to provide assistance and train and equip law enforcement and other professionals to address some of these issues and to address shortcomings that they may have. So we’re looking at programs that focus on building capacity for the security services that focus on providing support to the people.

I was reminded today that when I was asked early in my tenure what keeps me awake at night, and on that day that I was asked that question, Nigerian children had been kidnapped from a school. And again, that is something that continues to happen in Nigeria. It’s something that we all have to work to address. We have to hold people accountable and really have them punished for those kinds of acts. Schools should be places where children can go to school and learn and be happy and thrive. And so as part of our work with Nigerian security services, it’s also to help them be more effective and efficient in providing that kind of support and security for all Nigerians, but particularly for young children and young girls who are trying to get educated.

Moderator: Thank you. That is all the time that we have today. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, do you have any final words?

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield: Well, thank you very, very much. I have so enjoyed this and I apologize that we’ve run out of time. The time went by so extraordinarily quickly. But if I can leave this group with one thought, it’s that we are truly, truly committed to partnering with the continent of Africa, every single country, and partnering with the people of Africa to bring hope and prosperity to the people of Africa. It’s a work in progress. It requires all of us. The United States can’t do it alone. We have to do it in consultation and support of the African people, and we do it for the African people.

I would say that it worries me as I look at Africa’s relationship with China, for example, that that is a relationship that sometimes rests on coerciveness, indebtedness, and not in partnership. And I want our message to be completely the opposite of that and our relationships to reflect that our partnership with Africa is one in which we focus on the needs of the people, we focus on our values, and we focus on opportunities to build capacity across the continent of Africa.

So thank you very much.

Moderator: That concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, for speaking to us today, and thank all of you journalists for participating. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AfricaMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you.