Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
March 14, 2023
Good afternoon. Thank you so much, Frank. I want to particularly thank you for your support when I was here on campus, the support of the board; it was really an honor to be part of that. Thank you so much, Barbara, for welcoming this refugee to Georgetown. I used to call the ISD House the “refugee camp,” and I was one of those. Dean Hellman, thank you so much. And to the Trainor Trust, thank you. Thank you for this extraordinary award. And let me thank the entire Georgetown community – friends and colleagues who are here with us today.
It is really an honor to receive the “Jit” Trainor Award. His example of service is one we all aspire to.
The last recipient of this award, my friend Ambassador Bill Burns, said it well: this award not only honors me, but also our country’s rich tradition of diplomacy and public service.
And in that tradition, I feel the need to take full advantage of this opportunity, and this esteemed assemblage of the foreign policy community, to talk about an issue that has been at the forefront of my mind: the struggle for universal human rights.
After all, there is a direct connection between public service and human rights, between personal sacrifice and preserving fundamental freedoms.
Seventy-five years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt stood in a room with diplomats from more than 50 other countries.
They were preparing to vote on an unprecedented document.
A document so sweeping, so powerful, and so dramatic that it would impact every single person on Earth.
At 3 o’clock in the morning, after two years of intense negotiations, they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
For the first time, world leaders came together and declared for all: human rights are universal.
Everyone is entitled to inalienable freedoms and protections.
But Eleanor made the point that it isn’t enough to put our noble ideals on paper.
They must actually exist in the world, at the level of the individual person.
They must exist, to use her phrase, in the small places close to home.
As she said, and I quote, “Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”
And this is what I mean by the connection between diplomacy and this declaration, between public service and fundamental freedoms.
Those of us in public service – and I know that’s many of you here in this room – are the ones who must make rights real.
We are the ones who must translate our documents into deeds, our ideals into actualities.
In the lead-up to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Roosevelt urged Eleanor to give a speech outlining what this document would mean for the world – especially because not every country was respecting these rights.
She entitled it the “Struggle for Human Rights,” and I believe that struggle is just as apt today as it was then.
Because right now, human rights are under assault, all around the world. Because right now, human rights are under assault in many places that we all hear about.
Given that this is Women’s History Month, the plight of women is particularly at the forefront of my mind.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have barred women and girls from getting an education and effectively banning them from public life. I heard someone use the word “erasing” women in Afghanistan.
Last month, I met an Afghan refugee whose family had settled in Virginia.
And she told me how grateful she was to continue her education in the United States, but how painful it is to know that girls in Afghanistan – including her own relatives, her cousins – are denied that same opportunity.
And I promised her that the United States will continue to push back against these archaic attacks on universal human rights.
In Iran, we have watched the Iranian people – led by courageous women – take to the streets under the banner of “woman, life, and freedom.”
For our part, we heeded the calls of activists and worked to kick Iran out of the Commission on the Status of Women.
Iran’s presence on the commission was a stain, and we removed that stain.
In the aftermath of the protests, I saw a video of young students in Karaj taking off their hijabs and shouting, “If we don’t unite, they will kill us one by one.”
If we don’t unite, they will kill us one by one.
All around the world women and girls are taking this lesson to heart.
Of course, many other groups and peoples are facing undue persecution.
For example, for years, Rohingya or other ethnic minorities have faced human rights abuses in Burma.
Now the military is targeting anyone it sees as opposing or undermining its repressive rule.
Meanwhile, the regimes in Syria and in North Korea continue to commit untold human rights abuses against their own people.
Nicaragua, Venezuela – the list of countries of concern goes on and on.
But I am particularly concerned by a false and pernicious claim we are seeing pushed forward at the UN and on the Human Rights Council.
Some of the planet’s most powerful countries are arguing that human rights are not universal.
That instead, they ought to be applied based on the local context.
It is no coincidence that these same governments are some of the world’s worst abusers of human rights.
China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.
Russian forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine – and Putin’s government currently has more than 500 political prisoners behind bars.
I call out these two countries, among so many human rights abusers, because both are permanent members of the Security Council along with us.
Their influence on the UN system is outsized. And their horrific human rights abuses not only degrade the Council, but also allow other countries to get away with flouting human rights too.
One of the promises of the UN’s 2030 Agenda is to “leave no one behind.”
But if we let the “universal” of “universal human rights slip, then we do just that.
Fortunately, we have some advantages on our side. And the greatest one is simply: they are wrong.
“All human beings,” reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
This profound statement is not an opinion. It’s a fact.
Our human rights are inalienable and indivisible. They are interdependent and interrelated. And they are universal.
They do not change from country to country.
Dictators abuse human rights. We know all too well how states violate them.
But no one – no one – no one country can take them away.
So we stand with human rights defenders, defend them ourselves, and we speak out wherever and whenever human rights are being violated or abused.
And by the way, that includes here in the United States. We are not above criticism.
I was born in the segregated South, as you heard. And I have known, and I have experienced the ugly face of institutional racism.
I know all too well that the United States is imperfect when it comes to human rights.
But the difference is that we are a democracy.
We strive for equality, for transparency. When we make mistakes, we have a system for correction and for improvement.
And I’ve seen that system work in my lifetime.
And that’s why, in 2021, President Biden issued a formal, standing invitation to all UN experts who report and advise on thematic human rights issues. We don’t have anything to hide.
Since then, we have welcomed the Special Rapporteur on Minority Rights* and the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the United States.
We issued these invitations because transparency and openness are not threats to our sovereignty.
Rather, our ability to accept critical feedback, and to address enduring injustices and inequities, make us a stronger country.
It’s the best of our system. And it gives us a model to hold up to the rest of the world.
And that’s why we rejoined the Human Rights Council – because even though it’s chock full of some of the world’s worst abusers, we can counter them and advance human rights with a seat at the table.
It’s why we’re the only country in the world that has made a voluntary contribution to support the vital work of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent in countering anti-Black discrimination.
It’s why we invest more than any other country on Earth in helping out our fellow UN Member States to provide health care and food security for their populations.
It’s why we are the largest humanitarian donor in the world.
It’s why we call out human rights abuses wherever we see them – at home and abroad – with our adversaries as well as our allies.
That is what universality demands.
In her speech, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “in each generation and in each country, there must be a continuation of the struggle.”
She argued that human rights were, “a field in which to stand still is to retreat.”
To the students in this room, that’s what I want you to take away from this discussion today: in each generation, the struggle continues.
Soon, it will be your turn.
And standing still is not an option.
Instead, as potential public servants, allow me to enlist you in this struggle.
We must subject ourselves, our friends, our foes, and everyone in between to scrutiny.
And where we see abuses, and violations, we must push, prod, and fight for justice.
Let us do everything in our power to make our universal rights real, for everyone, all around the world.
And let us ensure they are alive and well, even in the small places close to home.
Thank you very much. [Applause.]
AMBASSADOR ANNE ANDERSON: Thank you so much, Barbara. Ambassador, it’s a real privilege for me to be conducting this conversation. And I want to start with saying how moved I was by that very inspiring address that you gave. It has a resonance, I think, for everyone in the room.
And Barbara just mentioned that it was actually over 20 years ago that I chaired the Human Rights Council – it was then called the Commission – and there was the same pushback then against the universality of human rights, and it’s so depressing that that pushback has grown even stronger in the intervening years. But it was wonderful to hear that resonant, strong argument that you made, and assertion, and quoting Eleanor Roosevelt.
And it would be very tempting for me to spend the 20 minutes just probing more deeply, but actually what I’d like to do is to maybe adjust the prism a bit and suggest we talk about some of the other issues that are very high on your agenda in New York.
And I want to start with Ukraine, because obviously the horrific war there is at the forefront of all our minds. But I want to talk about it in the UN context and in the – against the kind of backdrop of the workings of UN institutions. And I want to start with the Security Council because, I mean, I’m not suggesting that the Security Council has been redundant; it’s obviously been a platform to talk about Ukraine. It has facilitated a discussion of the General Assembly. But the bottom line, I think, for most people is that – because, of course, of the Russian veto – that it hasn’t been possible for the Security Council to take meaningful action. And I think this has really added to a fairly prevalent cynicism and frustration that you hear about the United Nations and the paralysis at the top.
So I’d just be really interested: are you encountering those expressions of frustration, and how are you dealing with them?
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think I hear frustration from those who are not sitting on the Council, but for those who are sitting on the Council, we are resolute in our unified isolation of Russia, and we’ve been able to do it in the context of the Security Council.
But I think even more importantly than the fact that we isolate them in the Council, we expose them in the Council – because everybody is listening to what is being said there, so they are being exposed – but we’ve also given more strength to the General Assembly, and to take our resolutions – instead of bringing them to the Council and allowing Russia to use their veto power, we’re taking them to the General Assembly. And as you’ve seen over the course of the past year, we have consistently gotten more than 141 countries to condemn Russia’s actions and to show support for Ukraine.
I think Russia is feeling the isolation every single day. They’re feeling the desperation. And we’re seeing in their actions their desperation. They’re bringing really unbelievable people before the Council to speak. One of our Councilmembers said that the Russians have – when they bring clowns into the Council, they turn the Council into a circus. But we’re not going to let them get away with that, because we do bring strong voices into the Council.
And they have to sit and listen to those voices, including the voice of Ukraine.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: I’ll come back, if I may, in a moment to the Security Council and reform and the needed reform, because I think it’s a really important issue. But you mentioned the General Assembly and the voting there. I’m sure we’ve all been following that and it’s consistently sent a strong message.
But I’d just like to pause on it for a moment because the last vote that was held there, which was the first anniversary of the invasion, yes, there were, I think, 141 countries voting in favor of the resolution of support of Ukraine; seven renegades voting against – Russia and six others. There were 32 abstentions, and then 13 countries that I would describe as the cowards who didn’t participate in the vote. But I just – acknowledging that it was a very strong message, I have to say that I was a bit – more than a bit – I was disappointed by some of the countries who abstained: China, India. Disappointing, but maybe not surprising. But a country like South Africa that would abstain, I mean, what’s South Africa doing by not being in the right company?
And I was just, as I say, acknowledging again that it was really a powerful statement of support. I’d love you to take us behind the scenes a bit. I mean, did they U.S. and you personally have to engage in heavy lifting, significant lobbying to help bring about that result? And did you feel any surprise or disappointment about some of the abstentions?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It did require heavy lifting, but not so heavy because countries really understand that what is happening in Ukraine is an attack on the UN Charter. It’s an attack on everything that we believe in. And it’s an attack on our values. They know that Russia is committing war crimes and human rights abuses.
So I wouldn’t say it was a heavy lift, but there were countries that were under tremendous pressure – they were under tremendous pressure from Russia; many of them were under pressure from China as well, who did abstain, by the way. And so we did have to work with those countries to sometimes help get them across the line.
Yes, I’m disappointed in some of the countries that abstained, and I’ll have to have them explain to you what the impetus was for their making those unfortunate decisions, but still only seven countries voted with Russia, including Russia itself. There were some countries who were absent because they didn’t pay their dues, so they weren’t necessarily derelict. One country actually called me at the head-of-state level to say, “We have one person in our mission, and that person happens to be in Addis at the AU summit and I don’t have anyone to sit at the table to vote.”
So we did reach out to everyone. We – it was a – it really was a unified effort on the part of all of the likeminded countries engaging in these calls. It was Washington engaging at capitals, so it wasn’t just us in New York. It really took – it took a village to deliver on those votes. And I am still very, very proud of the 141 votes that we got, and we will continue to press on countries to see Russia for what Russia is: an international bully, a human rights violator, a war crimes committer, and a country that should be roundly condemned.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: Right, and thank you for elucidating in particular – I shouldn’t maybe have called all 13 of them cowards, only some. [Laughter.] But it’s always interesting to hear about the effort that goes on to create these, as you say, very good outcomes.
But I do want to go back to the Security Council, and you talked about Russia sending in the clowns and all of that, but nevertheless, the important work that the Security Council has done on Ukraine. But, I mean, there is the more fundamental issue of Security Council reform. I mean, Ukraine may be Exhibit A in our minds most recently, but I think we’ve all recognized for a long time that basic reform is needed, that the whole setup is anachronistic, reflecting the balance of power in the 1940s rather than the 2020s. But, of course, change is complex and challenging and indeed, many people would say that one of the, if not the biggest obstacle to change is the entrenched privilege of the P5. As you might put it colloquially, it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas because given the power they have, why are they going to give up on any of it?
But I am aware that there has been some evolution in the U.S. position on Security Council reform and I just wonder, how radical is the U.S. prepared to be in the interests of achieving effective reform of the Council?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I wouldn’t use the word “radical”, but –
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: I was hoping you would. [Laughter.]
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: – but we are serious. We are serious about Security Council reform. We think it’s time. We think the Council does not reflect the realities of the world today.
More than half of the countries who are members of the Security Council, members of the UN now were not even members of the UN when the UN was set up, when the Security Council was created. We think Africa should have a seat on the Security Council.
So what I have been doing since September, I – as you may know, I gave a speech in September in San Francisco to lay out our thinking on where we would go on Security Council reform and I was really pleased when the President amplified that at the High-Level Week in the General Assembly. And since that time, I’ve been on what I have called a listening tour in which I have been meeting with all of the major groupings as well as individual countries to hear what their thoughts are on Security Council reform.
I think there is absolute unanimity on the need for Security Council reform. There’s no dispute on that. How that will come about, there’s a lot of different views on that. And who should be the members are still questions that are being raised. We have committed to using – we’re not going to give up our veto, but we’re committed to using it sparingly, which we have always done. And certainly, Russia and China have not used their veto sparingly. We supported a resolution – in fact, co-sponsored, among many, a resolution headed by Liechtenstein calling for the P5, whenever they use their veto power, to come into the General Assembly to explain and justify the reason they used the veto power.
And we’re looking forward to continuing to engage over the course of the next few weeks and then come up with some recommendations on where we would like to see Security Council reform go. It’s not going to be our decision, let me be clear. It’s not going to be a decision that will kick Russia off the Security Council, because the way the charter was drafted, to kick a country off the Security Council, they have to actually vote for it themselves. And so clearly, Russia is not going to vote itself off of the Security Council.
So the reality that we are dealing with is that Russia is going to be on the Security Council, but we can look at how we operate. We can look at how we deal with resolutions. We can look at some of the small print. For example, there is – I think it’s 27(c)(3) that requires countries who are engaged in a conflict not to vote on resolutions that apply to them. So some of those things are being discussed right now. But again, I think the – most of the countries see that we’re serious and we actually pulled away from Russia and China, who did not support any reform whatsoever until they heard that we were looking at reform. And I’ve heard from – that Lavrov has traveled to Africa and indicated that he supports African membership on the Council.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: Right. It’s really encouraging to hear that because unless and until some leadership comes from within the P5, it’s going to be all talk and no movement. So I think, really, it would be one of the most transformative and long-term consequential things that could be achieved during your tenure if there could be real momentum and some kind of even incremental outcome in that.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: Let me turn to China. Obviously, we all know it’s been defined as the key strategic issue for the United States, and I think we all know the policy mix: cooperate where you can; compete, even confront where you must. And we see the out-workings of this kind of escalating tension all the time, and China brokering the agreement in the Middle East last week and the nuclear submarine talks between the AUKUS group yesterday.
But I really wanted to talk about it in the UN context, because I finished my stint as perm rep 10 years ago and at that time, I mean, China obviously had the power that comes with being a P5 member, having the veto. And China would kind of snap into action anytime it felt its immediate and fundamental issue – interests were threatened. But in a lot of areas and for a lot of the time, China was actually very low-key.
Now, my understanding and my sense is that has really changed over the last 10 years, and I think it was Tony Blinken who recently referred to aggressive multilateralism, and there’s a sense that China is flexing its muscles right across the UN system. Are you encountering that? And if so, how are – how is the U.S. responding to that?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first, when you leave space unfilled, someone will come and fill the space. And we saw that happen during the previous administration, that there were a lot of gaps and a lot of space that we didn’t hold on to. And China whipped into action and started moving into empty spaces and they did start to flex their muscles.
And I will say that one of the most shocking things that I saw when I arrived was how close – I wasn’t prepared, I will admit, for how close a relationship China and Russia had. Despite the fact that there are differences and there are competing interests, they signed a blood pact that they were going to be tight and support each other’s interest. And that’s required us to up our game, and we have. We have upped our game. We have asserted our leadership. And we have continued to assert our values as China has attempted to really reshape the international order in their own image, meeting their own national interests. And it requires a tremendous amount of effort on our part.
I mean, when I arrived in New York, I had 30 percent less staff than I should have had. The positions were there. They were not filled. We have not been paying our dues. So that gives China a lot more power than they might have had otherwise. We’re a billion dollars in arrears that we absolutely have to pay. China uses every opportunity, every opportunity that they can find to dig at us because of our arrears.
We’re still the largest funder of the UN. We still are the largest humanitarian donor. We still have a lot of clout. But we have to exert that clout, to exert that power; to give our voice the power that we need, we have to be more consistent in how we deal with the United Nations, how we pay our dues, how we give resources to USUN, to have people who are working all night to go through the UN documents to make sure there’s not language in these documents that we find objectionable, such as taking out “universal” from human rights.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: Sure, yeah. So upping your game, as we know –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, yeah.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: – under your leadership is happening, but a continuing challenge.
Let me – I really wouldn’t want to – I better keep an eye on the time or I’ll be in trouble with Barbara. It’s so interesting. I wish we had two hours instead of 20 minutes. But we do need to talk about Africa. And obviously, we heard and we know from your life experience and your CV that absolute fundamental commitment you have to Africa. And I’m not suggesting for a moment that Africa is being neglected. We know the huge effort the UN makes across the board there. We know your personal commitment, including your visits when you’ve been perm rep. First Lady Jill Biden was there just a couple of weeks ago.
But – and I do have a sort of a little bit of a “nevertheless” here because my sense from some engagement – it’s limited, so you’ll correct me – but my sense from some engagement with African countries is that they are feeling what I might call a relative de-prioritization when they contrast their situation with what’s happening in Ukraine and the Western commitment to give as much as is needed for as long as it takes.
And they see their own dire situation, and indeed, some of the conflict there that’s already exacerbated by climate change and so on, in some cases being made worse by the food shortages resulting from Ukraine. And there is that kind of uneasy feeling, and I don’t want to exaggerate this, but perhaps an uneasy feeling that when it comes right down to it, European lives matter and white lives matter more than African lives matter. And I just wondered, again, are you sensing any of this? And if so, what do you say to any such expression?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I sense it. It’s also part of the Russian propaganda narrative as well – as they engage with people in Africa. And what I have said to my African colleagues is there has never – the U.S. has never ever turned its back on Africa. Even during the previous administration when some countries were referred to in a derogatory way, our support in Africa has been wide-ranging.
When I look at during the Bush administration, the kinds of initiatives that still exist today – from the Malaria Initiative, PEPFAR, Millennium Challenge Corporation – all of these initiatives where we have focused attention on Africa never ever stopped.
And when they say to us white lives matter more than African lives matter, I have to remind them that what is happening in Ukraine is on Europe’s border. So Europeans are fighting for their own lives, because if Ukraine falls, who knows who will come next? And this is not about just fighting for European lives; it’s fighting for the values of the UN Charter that says a bully can’t attack its neighbor and attack their sovereignty and compromise a country’s independence.
So it’s about them as well, and it’s really, in my view, simplistic to say this is a white-and-black situation, because it’s not. And as I have said to my African friends, if this was an attack on an African country, the way this attack happened on Ukraine, we would be there for them. And we’ve not decreased any of our support. I mean, every single time I’ve gone we’re making huge contributions to the approaching famine in Somalia. It was because of nearly a billion dollars that we provided, that we actually averted a famine last year, and we’re giving more funding this year, and I did call for additional support to address those issues.
We were the largest donor of vaccines to Africa. We were slow off the mark, like everybody was slow off the mark, but when we took off, we took off aggressively to ensure that we got vaccines delivered to the continent and we got them put in arms. And we’re working with countries to address what we all saw: the lack of capacity to develop the vaccines on the continent of Africa.
So I dispute the comments that we have left Africa. We need to do more. President Biden committed to that during the African Leaders Summit. It was not just my trip to Africa. Janet Yellen was on the continent; the First Lady; Secretary Blinken is there right now; there are other visitors that are in planning over the course of the next few weeks and months to really ramp up our engagement with the continent and address this counternarrative that somehow we have forgotten about the continent.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: Right. And I’m sure that reassurance coming from you must be particularly meaningful, simply because of the – it’s not a newfound commitment to Africa. Like we said, it’s been lifelong. But still, I wish fewer African countries had understood and fewer had abstained on the Ukraine vote.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: In any event, I’m going to come to my final question. That was a terrific article that you and Bill Burns co-authored in Foreign Affairs two years ago about – I think it was “The Transformation of Diplomacy.”
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: And the subtitle was even more arresting: “How to Save the State Department.” And what you laid out there was very sobering because, of course, everything got worse through the malevolence of the Trump administration vis-à-vis the State Department, but you were making the point that this came after decades of drift and paralysis and neglect.
So obviously, we know things have greatly improved over the last couple of years, but how do you reverse decades-long damage in a couple of years? So I suppose that’s my final question: Is the State Department anywhere close to being saved?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You cannot address decades of neglect in a couple of years. But you can address it by a strong commitment, which we have at this point. We see the commitment that the Secretary and management in the State Department has made to dealing with issues of diversity and inclusion, dealing with recruiting and bringing in new staff, looking at promotions, looking at how we support our staff. Because we can recruit people, but we’re still sieving them because they don’t – they didn’t feel they were getting the support that they needed.
And all of those are being looked at at the moment, and new policies are being put in place so that all of the young people in this room can see the State Department as a career that you want to be part of. I came into the Foreign Service in 1982 with the goal that if I stayed 20 years, I would be – I would have achieved a goal. I had no clue 40 years later I would still be sitting in the State Department.
But it’s been an extraordinarily rewarding career for me. I feel every day that I make a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s a difference in your lives here in the room, or it’s a difference in the lives of refugees that I’m encountering in my travel, or it’s a difference in the lives of my contacts, diplomatic contacts, with various countries. And you know every day that what you’re doing is going to make – it’s going to make a huge difference, that you’re contributing to the future.
And I know that we have to do a better job, which is why we talked about reinventing the State Department, so that your generation can feel the same commitment, the same confidence in public service as we felt coming into the Foreign Service 40 years ago. Bill and I actually came into the Foreign Service together, so we’ve spent these 40 years watching the system together. And we know that we had different paths. And one of the things we looked at is we questioned why he and I had different paths, and what changes can be made so that people who look like me and who look like him have the same path moving forward.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: Well, thank you so much, Ambassador, and that’s, I think, why we’re so thrilled to give you this award today, because we do know that you are, every day, making a real difference in the lives of real people in many parts of the world.
So with that, I think I’m going to turn it back to our moderator. And thank you so much, Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It was really wonderful talking with you.
AMBASSADOR ANDERSON: Thank you. [Applause.]
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Now we’d like to take questions from the audience, particularly the students, who are our primary audience here today. So if you could just kind of wave your program so I can see it with the glare of lights. Yes, ma’am, first one up. Oh, wait. Wait for the microphone to get to you. And identify yourself, please.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Charlie Kelly. I am currently a second-year Asian studies student and a proud class of 2018 as well for the SFS. My question is about sort of – it’s been 50 years since UN Resolution 2158 – or 2578. I really tried to get that right. [Laughter.]
AMBASSADOR BODINE: That’s okay.
QUESTION: Sort of switched recognition between China and Taiwan at the UN. And I just am curious, is there any space for Taiwan at the UN and its sub-organizations? And can the UN do anything if there is any sort of Taiwan Straits crisis or conflict?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s an issue that I am engaged on every single day, and that is to work to allow Taiwan to get – to be allowed to participate in any UN activity, any UN meeting, that does not require them to have the title of Member State. And it’s an uphill battle every single day. I think as people are watching the situation now in the Taiwan Straits, they are worried. But our policy, the U.S. policy, has been consistent. We support a “one China” policy, but we are absolutely clear that we will always support – be there to give Taiwan support to defend itself if there are attacks on Taiwan.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Next? The gentleman in the green, and then I do see the other two, and I do see you over here. You are right smack in the lights, but I do see you.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Jack Silverman, and I’m a sophomore in the SFS. And I wanted to ask: How can the United States enhance collaboration and unity among the world’s democracies that often aren’t always in lockstep? And I’m specifically referencing some democracies in Latin America and in Africa, who we haven’t really been able to muster the same unity and support that we have in Western Europe.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think we will be sending a head of delegation – [laughter] – to Zambia. So we’re bringing countries together. We hosted a summit of democracies here in Washington the first year of the administration. We’ve taken it out regionally, and then we’ll bring it back in again. And we think it is truly important that those countries that are democracies, that they get the support from larger and longer democracies, and I think we’re going to see more of that in the future.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: And I said I saw one there, one – the woman there and the woman there. And then I’ll pick up the next round.
QUESTION: Hello, Ambassador. It is such an honor to be here with you today. Thank you so much. You mentioned the surprisingly close relationship that you saw between Russia and China. And my question is: In the United Nations, does the U.S. have similarly unconditionally close alliances with any countries? And if we do not, what can we do to ensure that we can increase the number of those types of alliances with other countries so that we’re not necessarily having to battle China and Russia on our own? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re never isolated. I can be clear on that. We are never isolated. We work closely with our P3 colleagues, the UK and France. Europe and the U.S. have never been more unified over Ukraine. In fact, Putin’s miscalculation was that he was going to divide Europe on Ukraine, and he failed miserably on that. NATO has never been stronger.
So we do have strong alliances, strong friendships across the UN system. And we bring those alliances and those friendships to the fore when we need them.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Okay. And as I said, I think the woman there, I think. There’s one downside of this format is that I’m staring into the most remarkable lights.
QUESTION: Hello, Ambassador. Thank you so much for being here with us. I’m a first-year in the MSFS program. My name is Kira, and my focus is on climate policy in diplomacy. And I know that you care a great deal about migration issues and refugee crises around the world, and my question is: As it currently stands, there’s no international legal definition of a climate refugee, and thus they have no rights in, like, international, like, legal standard. And I’m curious if that is a discussion that is being had in the UN right now because from my understanding, it is way behind where it should be in the conversation, considering how big of a refugee crisis this will be in the coming years. And so I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on that.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It is a discussion that is taking place at the United Nations. Sometimes we fight an uphill battle, so several countries – Niger, for example – brought before the Security Council, when they were an elected member, a discussion about conflict and climate. Because a lot of times when you see people move, they’re moving also – it’s connected to climate but it’s also connected to conflict.
And unfortunately, their resolution was not supported by, of course, Russia and China, but there have been efforts to move that agenda forward. And how we address people who move because of climate, I think it’s also an issue that we are working to figure out how we bring into our discussions related to refugees, because the Geneva Conventions are very clear about refugees.
But I don’t think – as people are moving, many of them don’t necessarily move across borders. They become IDPs in their countries, and they are supported through programs that support IDPs – our humanitarian programs, for example; what we were able to do in Somalia to address the famine and address people who were forced to move from their homes because of famine. So it is an ongoing issue, it’s an ongoing problem, but it’s not something that we’re ignoring.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Okay. There was the woman back here who is – yes. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. I’m Maggie. I’m a senior currently in the college. Thank you so much for coming and speaking. I had some questions just recently related to the UN resolution that you mentioned that 140 countries signed up on, and one of those was Singapore, but there were some articles that I had read recently that talked about how there’s actually discovery of – that Singaporean companies were remixing Russian oil in the Singapore Strait, among several other countries, although – and it was especially surprising because they’ve taken independent measures to sanction Russia.
So I was wondering, given the sort of, like, disappointing outcome, whether you had any thoughts about the use of UN – or, like, the use of methods within the UN to possibly, like, signal and the difference between that and, like, having efficient mechanisms of actually preventing Russia from exporting oil and from gaining, and also whether the UN should as a result partner more with organizations – perhaps, like, domestically the U.S. Treasury – outside commercial organizations, or even, like, statutorily established organizations like the ICC that have more enforcement mechanisms.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We – here are a number of countries that we know are still importing cheap oil from Russia, and there are even – there’s still oil being exported into European countries, and we’ve been working with a number of countries to help them find ways or other alternatives to using Russian oil. We are prepared, if we need to at some point, to impose sanctions on some countries, but we think the best alternative here is to help them find alternative oil resources.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Okay, I’m going to take three questions. Oh, dear. What are you doing? We just can stay here till about 10 o’clock answering questions.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m good. I’m good. I do that every night in New York. [Laughter.]
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Yeah, that’s true. [Laughter.] I hate this part of the job. I’m going to take the one way back there and the one way in the back and that one right – this lady right here. Sorry. So there you go.
QUESTION: Hello, Ambassador. Thank you so much for being here. My name is Jack, and my question is: How does soft power diplomacy continue to function as an effective tool when, as you mentioned, China and Russia are making entire regions unstable and volatile? For example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine endangers organizations like the Peace Corps in not just Ukraine but all of Eastern Europe as well.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We still have to use our soft power, and we still use that soft power. I mean, we – Peace Corps – I love the fact that you mentioned Peace Corps, because for me Peace Corps is one of the most important presences that we have overseas in terms of American – America showing its values and its soft power, but we also don’t want to put people’s lives in danger.
But we have other ways of showing our soft power as well. We show it when we’re sitting in New York, and we kick Iran off of the Commission on the Status of Women. We show our soft power in our ability to kick Russia off of the Human Rights Council, and people look to see those actions. They want to hear our voices. They want to hear our calls for unity against Russia.
So while we can’t have maybe people on the ground, but we’re using our soft power elsewhere. We use it when we send humanitarian assistance to the world. Going into Ukraine, my visit – and, I mean, the President’s visit was amazing, but my visit to Ukraine was an amazing experience for me, but the message it sent to the Ukrainian people was that we’ve not forgotten them. We’re not ignoring them. We’re willing to take risk to come to Ukraine to support people who are in need.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Okay, and there was one in the back. Thank you. And then there’s you up front.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Ambassador. My name is Ben and I’m a second-year student majoring in African studies. In 2019, you gave a speech where you said that Chinese lending could be part of a win-win-win situation for Africa, the U.S., and China. However, in an interview last month, you criticized China’s lending in Africa as a debt trap, accusing China of, quote, “coming in and re-indebting African countries.” However, in your 2019 speech, you noted that, quote, “those who criticize China’s lending must also acknowledge that in many cases, the West is not showing up and offering viable alternatives,” unquote.
How do you respond to this criticism of U.S. – of the U.S. stance on China in Africa, which says that (a) there’re often not viable alternative infrastructure financing alternatives for African countries, and that (b) blaming China for Africa’s debt problem obscures the fact that a much larger portion of Africa’s debt is held by private Western commercial lenders that typically charge higher interest?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, Africans – [laughter,] – their infrastructure needs are extraordinary when you look at ports and airports and roads, and what we need to be doing in terms of working with Africans is giving them the capacity to not allow themselves to be put in a debt trap to get the resources that they need. And so my arguments today in criticizing China is there was never a thought in my mind that the debt that they were putting Africans in, is something that should be allowed, but what we should be doing is working with Africans so they’re not in a debt trap. So yeah, they get a loan or an offer for infrastructure from China, but it should not be done to their disadvantage.
And that’s what is happening. We’re looking at countries like Ghana, Zambia right now, even in Sri Lanka, where China has put these countries into really an unsustainable economic situation. And so we need to help those countries find alternatives so that they’re not put in that situation. And we can’t tell them – and they will tell us, you can’t tell us that we can’t get roads and we can’t get bridges and we can’t get airports, but help us find a way to get those things without the disadvantages of being really put under the yoke of Chinese debt.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: Okay. And the young woman up front. And you have the last question, so –
QUESTION: Madam Ambassador, congratulations on your award and thank you for being here with us today. I’m Angela Chin. I’m a 2021 Charles B. Rangel fellow and in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program. I’m also completing –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good, congratulations.
QUESTION: Oh, thank you. I’m also completing the African studies certificate program. And there is a pervasive narrative in the Foreign Service that if, as a young professional, you start your career in Africa, that you might be pigeonholed and it will stunt your growth. I can look around at other of my colleagues here that have heard this advice. They’re nodding along. Clearly, your career is not an example of that, but how can we counteract this narrative and ensure that Africa is something – is a place that’s seen as important to U.S. foreign policy and ensure that we prioritize it within our own careers?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you so much for asking me that question. I never felt pigeonholed in Africa. I studied Africa, so why wouldn’t I not go to Africa in the Foreign Service? The pigeonhole argument was probably a generation before me, when we look at African Americans who – many of whom came into the Foreign Service in the ’60s and maybe in the early ’70s where they can only get an assignment in Africa, but you can also make the choice. And I would have found it odd that, having studied in Africa and done research in Liberia, that I would be sent to China. Whereas no one raises that question if you are studying Chinese, Asian politics that you go to China. But you shouldn’t be forced to go because you’re an Asian American or you shouldn’t be forced to go to Africa if you are an African American.
And I don’t think that’s happening in the Foreign Service anymore at all. It is needs of the service. You’ll bid; you’ll probably get sent somewhere you don’t want to get sent. [Laughter.] My first assignment, I desperately wanted to go to Burkina Faso and I was sent to Jamaica, and it was not – for me it was not being pigeonholed, it was actually following my passion.
AMBASSADOR BODINE: I would love to be able to stay here much longer, but we do have to wrap this up. I would invite Joel and Frank to come up here. We’re going to actually present you with the “Jit” Trainor Award.
* Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues