Briefing On the African Union Summit
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
Ambassador to the African Union
OPERATOR: Welcome and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer session. Today’s conference call is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time. I’d like to turn the conference over to Ms. Cheryl Benton. Ma’am, you may begin.
MS. BENTON: All right. Thank you very much, Laurie, and thank you, everyone for joining us here in Kampala for a briefing by Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of the Africa Bureau, and also by Ambassador Michael Battle, who is the Ambassador to the African Union. He took up his post in September of 2009 and is headquartered in Addis Ababa.
So the protocol for today’s call is that Ambassador Carson will make an opening statement followed by Ambassador Battle, and then we will be able to open the lines for questions – for a question-and-answering session. So without further ado, we have Ambassador Johnnie Carson.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Thank you very much to those of you who are on the line. I have been in Kampala, Uganda for the past four days with Ambassador Michael Battle, our U.S. Ambassador to the African Union, and also with Scott Gration, the President’s Special Representative and Envoy for the Sudan. We were joined here and led here for approximately 36 hours by the Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder, who gave one of the opening speeches at the heads of summit session of the African Union.
This is the half-yearly meeting of the African Union and it was an opportunity for the United States to come to Uganda to participate in the African Union meetings with a very timely and appropriate speech by the Attorney General. As many of you know, two Sundays and two days ago on July 11th, Kampala, the peace of – and tranquility of Kampala was disturbed by two suicide bombers who set off explosives at the end of the World Cup activities here, the World Cup activities that were being shown here – into the news.
So we thought it was extremely important and very appropriate for the Attorney General to come here to make remarks, which he did, expressing the condolence of the United States Government on the unfortunate bombing incident that occurred here, and to also reaffirm our solidarity with the Ugandans and with the AMISOM peace effort that they – AMISOM peacekeeping effort that they lead in Somalia.
But more importantly, our visit here was an opportunity to underscore the importance that we attach to the work of the African Union. We believe that the African Union is establishing both principles and programs that are making Africa and the work of African governments and African organizations increasingly more important globally, but increasingly more important around the continent. We think that the African Union is increasingly more sophisticated and more principled in its direction and leadership. We’re extremely proud to be associated with the work of the African Union.
I think Ambassador Battle will have more comments on that, but let me say one of the most important things that I wanted to do here was to meet with a range of African leaders and also with members of the United Nations and with the international community here who are focused on the issue of Somalia. We think that the situation in Somalia is increasingly fragile and that it needs and deserves greater attention by the international community.
Somalia is a problem that can be looked at on three different levels – a state which has imploded, which is barely functioning, which is suffering from a humanitarian crisis with tens of thousands of internally displaced people. It is also a regional problem, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into Kenya, into Ethiopia, Djibouti, Tanzania, Uganda, and also Yemen. The country most impacted, of course, has been Kenya, which receives between five and six thousand refugees from Somalia each month. It is also a problem of illegal arms moving across the border and illegal contraband. All of these things undermine stability and undermine the economies of Somalia’s regional neighbors.
But increasingly, we have seen that Somalia is an international problem which has caused a great deal of interruption on the high seas as a result of piracy. We also see Somalia increasingly becoming a place for violent extremists to operate from, as witnessed by the Kampala attacks of July 11th. We think that Somalia has been neglected by the international community and we felt that it was important to bring together, as we did a number of leaders and foreign ministers, as well as representatives of the AU, the UN, and the European Union to talk about this issue and to look at how to develop a strategy to help strengthen the Djibouti Peace Process and also the AMISOM peacekeeping force that is on the ground there.
AMBASSADOR BATTLE: I would like first to thank Assistant Secretary Carson for his comments and to also express deep appreciation for the exceptional reception given to us by Ambassador Lanier, who is the bilateral ambassador here in Uganda.
The talks with the African Union have been of great importance to the U.S., as emphasized by the fact that in April of this year, we had the first high-level conversations between 17 members of the African Union Commission staff and leadership in every area of the U.S. Government that took place in Washington, D.C. and we’re very, very proud of that.
Part of what happens with the U.S. Mission to the African Union is we deal with multilateral issues – issues that affect the continent, issues that transcend national borders and have implications for continental behavior. Things that deal with peace and security occupy most of our time. The continent’s economic integration is also significant. Secretary Carson has stressed a lot of emphasis on Somalia, which happens to be one of the primary focuses of the AU Summit.
There is another focus as well and that has to do with Sudan. And part of what we have been looking at is how to prepare Sudan for the referendum that will take place in July – in January of 2011. And that will make a substantive difference in terms of how Sudan will function, whether it will function as a single unitary nation or whether it will function as two separate nations. And that has occupied a lot of the attention here at the African Union.
I’m also pleased that the United States Government has already begun, since April, two major agreements. One was signed just a couple of days ago at the African Union Summit, and that is an agreement or memorandum of understanding between the Corporate Council on Africa, which deals with private business interaction and investment on the African continent, and the African Union. And in a week or so in Washington, D.C., there will be a multifaceted agreement signed between USAID and the African Union that will delineate how we will function with the African Union not only in peace and security, but also in democracy and electoral assistance, and in some health areas from a multilateral vantage point.
It is important to note that the U.S. Government spends more money on the African continent than any other nation in the world in our exceptional work that we do bilaterally and also in what we do multilaterally. Thank you.
MS. BENTON: All right, terrific. Thank you, Ambassador and Assistant Secretary Carson. Laurie, you can go ahead and open the lines up now if you’d like.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. If you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your phone. If you need to withdraw that request, you press *2. One moment please for that first question.
MS. BENTON: Thank you.
OPERATOR: And once again, to ask your audio question, please press *1 on your phone. We do have some questions coming through. One moment.
MS. BENTON: Thank you.
QUESTION: Andre LeRoux of Media 245 in --
OPERATOR: The first question is from Pieter Dester, Victoria Public Affairs. Sir, your line is open.
QUESTION: Very good. My name is Andre LeRoux of Media 24 in Johannesburg. Mr. Carson, has the temperature changed since the 11th of July in East and Central Africa as a result of the Al-Shabaab bombings in Kampala?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: I’m going to have to ask you to repeat the question if you could. I know you’re from News 24, but I did not hear the question. It was garbled on our end.
QUESTION: I’ll speak slowly. My question is: Has the political and security temperature changed prior – from prior to 11th of July and after that, after the bombings in Kampala?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Absolutely. I think that the bombings in Kampala on July 11th were a wake-up call for the region and also for much of the international community, which focuses on Africa. I think that the regional states now recognize that the threat emanating from Somalia is not only a concern about refugees and illegal arms, but now one of terrorism.
I think also that there are countries in the international community, including the United States, Great Britain, France, European Union, who also recognize an emerging threat. This was the first time that we have actually seen Al-Shabaab set off suicide bombs or carry out activities outside of Somalia. The temperature, the interest, the concern, has risen and the threat has risen as well.
MS. BENTON: Yes, thank you, Pieter.
Operator, do we have another question?
OPERATOR: Yes, this next question is from Andrew Quinn. Your line is open, sir.
QUESTION: Hi. Andrew Quinn from Reuters. I have just a couple of questions. The first one on Somalia for Ambassador Carson. Do you think given what you’ve said about the rising problems there, do you think there’s a need for some sort of international conference on Somalia as we’ve seen with Afghanistan and Yemen, that we need to sort of broaden the number of players here, take it beyond the African continent, bring in some of the western countries for a bigger role there?
And secondly, on the African Union, are we at all disappointed in the discussion that seems to have been taking place in the African Union about enforcing the ICC warrant for Sudan’s President Bashir? How do we read this? Does this mean that they’re not kind of willing to take on some of their international obligations, or what should we make of that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Well, let me respond to the first question about the possible need for an international conference on Somalia. The answer is no. What we need on Somalia is political action and material support and a willingness by those who have made commitments to fulfill those commitments as promised. I think that it is absolutely clear where we should be going on Somalia. A number of international conferences have already been held. I think that it is time for the international community to act on its past promises and commitments and support the IGAD nations of the Djibouti Peace Process and the AMISOM mission that is on the ground.
AMBASSADOR BATTLE: With regard to your comment about the African Union’s position on Bashir, it is not a new position – the African Union has articulated some hesitancy with the ICC for some time. In spite of that hesitancy, it does not then remove the U.S.’s position that when things that are done that have – are considered to be atrocious, we still hold all leaders, whether they’re African or non-African leaders, to a very high standard. So the African Union’s difference on opinion from the U.S. position does not deter the U.S. from its solid commitment that fair play should take place in all places of the world and people who do atrocious things should be held accountable.
But the position articulated by Jean Ping is not a new position on behalf of the African Union.
MS. BENTON: Great, thank you. Operator.
OPERATOR: This next question is from Sarah Childress of the Wall Street Journal. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, I just wanted to ask in the conversations that you had at the summit with African Union or AMISOM officials, I wonder if you could talk about whether you discussed concerns that have emerged about civilian casualties caused by AMISOM fighting in Mogadishu. And can you talk about what came of those conversations? Is there kind of any other additional support, training, or assistance the U.S. might provide to help the AU minimize these casualties or any other action the U.S. might consider taking?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: There was discussion about the issue of civilian casualties who were – who have been, unfortunately, caught up in the conflict there. I think that the UN – the new UN Special Representative for Somalia, Ambassador Mahiga, spoke to this point on several occasions and there was a discussion. No one – no one views this as something which is desirable or acceptable. No one looks at this as intentional or a matter of AMISOM policy. Everyone agrees that everything should be done to reduce the prospects and possibilities of civilian casualties. Everyone recognizes that these sorts of things sometimes happen in conflict.
I think there was indeed discussion about how to provide the AMISOM troops with better artillery and counter-battery measures in order to reduce any prospects and possibility. We all know that there can be civilian – unfortunate civilian casualties in conflict – again, no one thinks that this is intentional, desirable, or a matter of policy.
MS. BENTON: Thank you, Assistant Secretary.
Operator, I think we’re ready for our next question.
OPERATOR: And there is another question from Victoria Public Affairs. Your line is open.
QUESTION: (Inaudible)? Mr. Carson, (inaudible)? And secondly, what role do you see Africa playing in stabilizing – I mean, (inaudible)?
MS. BENTON: Sir, you were pretty garbled. Would you mind repeating your question and go a little bit more slowly? And that would be helpful to us here.
QUESTION: My name is (inaudible). I’m from the Business Day newspaper in Johannesburg. Mr. Carson, did you get the opportunity to meet with President Jacob Zuma and secondly, what role do you see South Africa playing in bringing about peace and stability in the Somali region?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: The answer is yes, I met very, very briefly with President Zuma in the presence of Attorney General Eric Holder. It was not a substantive conversation, just a friendly exchange. I did have an opportunity to step aside and speak with the South African Foreign Minister Mashabane. She participated in the small conference of states and organizations that talked about Somalia, as did several other senior South African diplomats.
It is for the South Africans to say what their role in Somalia would be or should be. I think that South Africa has a very distinguished record of support in supporting African peace initiatives around the continent, including playing key roles in settling the conflict in Burundi, both with the use of diplomatic leverage as well as South African police and peacekeepers. They have also played a positive role in helping to restore democracy and a level of stability to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Any role that South Africa chooses to play in Somalia will be greatly appreciated. It is for the South African Government to say and determine what that role will be. South Africa is one of the three or four most important countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It has great political influence. And as I’ve said before, any role that it chooses to play will be a positive one. It is up to the South Africans to determine what that role will be and to say it for themselves.
MS. BENTON: Thank you, Assistant Secretary. Operator?
OPERATOR: I’d like to give one more reminder to ask your questions, please press *1. There is another question in the queue and this is from Dana Hughes of ABC News. Your line is open, Dana.
QUESTION: Hi. This is Dana Hughes from ABC News in Nairobi. And I was wondering, in the discussions with the African Union about civilian casualties, are there concerns with the AU deciding to strengthen the mandate and allow the troops to be more proactive in, I guess, what they’re saying is defending themselves?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: I think that we had a very good discussion about the issue of civilian casualties. It is not a matter of policy, not a matter of intention. I think that some of the tactics employed by Al-Shabaab are responsible for some of the civilian casualties that have been reported in the press. Al-Shabaab moves in and out of market areas, in and out of civilian residential areas with the clear intent of using those markets and those residential units where civilians reside as a place where they can launch their mortars and fire their weapons.
The AMISOM troops are aware of this. They are exercising precautions not to indiscriminately fire into markets and civilian areas, particularly residential areas. There is a recognition on the part of AMISOM that it needs to improve the accuracy of its counter batteries, which can be done with improved technology, and that they also need to improve the level of their intelligence collection so that they are able to act preemptively to prevent attacks or to be able to interdict those individuals who are attacking them after they have removed themselves from more populated civilian areas.
There is absolutely no question that AMISOM recognizes the dangers inherent in firing into civilian areas. It not only creates casualties, but it turns the population against them. This is, again, not a matter of policy, not a matter of intent, and AMISOM is doing everything that it possibly can to reduce civilian casualties and to be careful and – in the way that it operates on the ground.
AMBASSADOR BATTLE: One of the reasons that AMISOM has sought to move more aggressively is to make sure that it has the capacity to push Al-Shabaab further and further away from the center of the city. As Secretary Carson has indicated, one of the reasons that there have been instances of civilian casualties had to do with and continues to have to do with the tactics that are employed by Al-Shabaab in very close quartered, close proximity fighting. And by AMISOM being able to increase its numbers and to push Al-Shabaab further and further away from highly populated centers, that also will reduce, along with the technological counterbalances, the number of civilian casualties. The discussions about civilian casualties not only was a focus here, but has been a focus back at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa as well. There is a very, very high level of consciousness about trying to make sure that collateral damage is significantly reduced. And part of the acceleration of a number of forces will be to achieve the kind of margin and distance between the fighting forces that we will reduce significantly those collateral damages.
MS. BENTON: Okay, Operator, I think we have time for another question. And if you have one in the queue, we’re ready.
OPERATOR: At this moment, there are no further questions in the queue.
MS. BENTON: Okay. Well, first of all, I’d like to thank Assistant Secretary Carson and Ambassador Battle and thank for the press for joining us, also to just mention the Washington Press Office and the Washington D.C. Public Affairs front office for helping to coordinate this call. And thank you very much for your assistance.
OPERATOR: Ms. Benton, there did wind up being one final question from the Victoria Public Affairs. Did you want to take the time.
MS. BENTON: Sure. I’m sure that the gentlemen are happy to do that.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much, and your line is open.
QUESTION: David Smith of the Guardian newspaper from the UK. What is your assessment now of the threat posed by Al-Shabaab to the wider region? And how closely or not do you think it is connected with al-Qaida?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: The bombings in Kampala on July 11th demonstrate a growing capacity by Al-Shabaab to employ suicide bombers not only in the Mogadishu area, but some – several hundred miles away around the region. If Al-Shabaab can strike Kampala, it also is a threat to all of Somalia’s regional neighbors, from Djibouti and Ethiopia and Kenya, all the way down to Tanzania. This is the first time that we have seen Shabaab use suicide tactics outside of the south central area of the country. This constitutes a threat, and I think the regional states are genuinely concerned about the capacity of Shabaab to do this, its ability to move in the region to do it and its willingness. I think it is also a wake-up call for the international community as well.
I think we all have to take this threat seriously, knowing full well that there are also in the Mogadishu area and in southern Somalia individuals who have been associated and affiliated with al-Qaida and who have also demonstrated both the will and the capacity to strike, as they did in August of 1998 against the American Embassy in both Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, and in November of 2002 when al-Qaida elements blew up the Israel-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa and shot MANPADS at an Israeli aircraft.
This is – the capacity of Shabaab to engage in the region is one that the African states see as a growing concern, and it is one of the reasons why they are determined to do as much as they can to help the TFG to strengthen its capacity to govern in order to stabilize the south. It is important that the TFG be strengthened, for if it is not, Shabaab will continue to emerge as a significant political threat not only in the south, but also throughout the region.
MS. BENTON: Okay, Operator, I do believe this concludes our conference call. And once again, thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you for joining today’s conference and you may disconnect.
# # #