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Menendez Opening Remarks at Nominations Committee Hearing on Ambassadors to Ethiopia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Malaysia, Timor-Leste

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening statement at this morning’s committee hearing on the nominations of Geeta Pasi to be Ambassador to Ethiopia, Cynthia Kierscht to be Ambassador to Mauritania, David Reimer to be Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Brian McFeeters to be Ambassador to Malaysia, and C. Kevin Blackstone to be Ambassador to Timor-Leste.

Below are Ranking Member Menendez’s remarks as delivered:


“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


I am pleased very to see such a qualified panel of nominees before us today, with two former ambassadors, as well as experienced State Department personnel with sterling records of service. I want to thank you, and your families, for your service to our country.


Ambassador Pasi, I look forward to hearing your views on Ethiopia, a country in the midst of a historic political transition whose outcome is of great consequence to U.S. interests.


Like many others, I was impressed by the landmark political reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abiy. And while I still maintain hope that Ethiopia can build a stable, prosperous democracy, recent events raise serious concerns.   


Even before the conflict in Tigray, which I have condemned on the Senate floor, the levels of violence in Ethiopia were alarming. Political space has been closing for some time. Journalists and political opposition figures have been jailed, along with thousands of others. Ethiopia has a once in a generation opportunity at democratic transformation, and the U.S. must do what it can to support a course correction.


Unfortunately, our diplomatic efforts thus far have been insufficient. I think we have to renew our efforts. We have to talk about how we are going to approach the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has a series of related countries that are also in the issue. I would love to hear from you a fresh set of ideas about how we can engage with Ethiopia to advance both the interests of the United States and Ethiopians.


Ms. Kierscht, I love your background. It looks like an extension of your persona – the painting.


You have been nominated to serve in a country that is making some notable progress. In 2019, Mauritania’s president stepped down, making him the first Mauritanian leader to adhere to constitutional term limits. Mauritania was recently upgraded from Tier Three to the Tier Two Watch List due to the government’s new anti-trafficking ‘national action plan,’ as well as the conviction of five slaveholders. And, remarkably, there has not been a terrorist attack in the country since 2011, considering that other countries in the sub-region are experiencing a significant increase.  


However, challenges remain. There is still discrimination against the Haratine ethnic group and black Mauritanians. Slavery remains a significant problem, despite government efforts.  And, according to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index, terrorism is falling in some regions, but it is rising in the Sahel. 


I hope that you will provide us today with an overview of what the administration’s strategy will be for combatting terrorism in the Sahel. In addition, I would like to know what steps you will take to improve democratic governance in Mauritania, and to combat slavery. 


I look forward to hearing from you.    


Ambassador Reimer, I am glad that we will be sending such an experienced diplomat to Freetown. Sierra Leone is a country that one can view with cautious optimism. With the help of the U.S. and the international community, Sierra Leone has made real progress since the end of its bitter civil war, including the fair and peaceful election of President Bio in 2018.


But the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has tempered my optimism. Sierra Leone faces increasing economic pressures, which will make it more difficult to combat poverty and corruption, and improve access to healthcare and education. I look forward to hearing how the United States can help President Bio navigate these challenges.


I also look forward to hearing from Mr. McFeeters about how he plans to be lead our Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, at a time when many countries in the region – including Malaysia – are looking to the United States for help against an increasingly aggressive China.


Finally, Mr. Blackstone, I have heard good things about your leadership at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the COVID epidemic. I look forward to hearing from you about Timor-Leste, particularly on the subjects of development challenges, consolidating democratic institutions, and the risks posed by increased Chinese influence.”