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Ranking Member Risch Opening Statement at Nominations Hearing for Representative to WHO and Ambassadors to Niger, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave the following opening remarks at a full committee nomination hearing for Vivek Hallegere Murthy, nominee to be representative of the United States on the executive board of the World Health Organization, Kathleen A. FitzGibbon, nominee to be ambassador to Niger, Eric W. Kneedler, nominee to be ambassador to Rwanda, Pamela M. Tremont, nominee to be ambassador to Zimbabwe, and Richard Mills, nominee to be ambassador to Nigeria.

Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

“I’ll begin with the nomination of Dr. Murthy to be U.S. representative to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The WHO is a flawed organization, and I say that from experience. I dealt with the WHO as COVID started. The pandemic was difficult, as we all know, and I simply wasn’t getting out of WHO what I wanted. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed critical weaknesses in the organization’s structure and leadership – it failed to act quickly in response to the COVD-19 outbreak and it yielded to the Chinese pressure in stalling the investigation.

“I remember I was shocked when I talked to the head of the WHO and asked them how they went about this at the beginning. They went to China but they were stuck in a hotel for two weeks before the Chinese would allow them out to look at what was going on. The WHO has failed to hold China accountable for its lack of transparency. These failures contributed to the deaths of millions of people around the world. It put politics ahead of human health.  

“The WHO has also been plagued by allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, including in response to the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These unconscionable acts cannot be swept under the rug. The WHO employees responsible for these crimes must be fired, banned from future service in the UN system, and held personally and criminally liable.

“There are apparently discussions going on between the White House and WHO regarding an agreement on any future pandemics. I’m disappointed the White House hasn’t included me – I don’t know if it’s included the Democrat members – in these discussions. It’s incredibly important that Congress be read in on this. We certainly should be asked to approve any agreement that the U.S. will be entered into because it is a treaty.

“I introduced a resolution this week that would ensure the Senate gets an appropriate opportunity to consider any such agreement. 

“The administration should also refrain from increasing U.S. contributions to the WHO without targeted, verifiable reforms that ensure the WHO is properly tasked and fully accountable.

If confirmed, you will be responsible to hold the line on these principles.

“On to the nomination of U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe – I am appalled by the continued abuses of power, excessive corruption, and horrific human rights record by the country’s leadership. These not only inhibit the U.S.-Zimbabwe relationship, but also deprive the region of benefitting from a prosperous Zimbabwe.

“With elections expected this summer, we already see the Zimbabwean regime taking the country down a dark and familiar path of electoral violence, repression, and impunity.

“Our ambassador must hold firm in support for the people of Zimbabwe, while committing to uphold U.S. values on human rights and democracy in engaging the Zimbabwean government. I look forward to hearing how Ms. Tremont plans to do this.

“On the nomination of U.S. ambassador to Rwanda – this is always an important job on the continent, but even more so now that the U.S. has critical priorities where Rwanda can either be a constructive partner or an unhelpful constraint.

“Important issues include the regional conflict in Eastern Congo and the re-engagement of M23 and other rebel groups; the Rwandan government’s detention of U.S. permanent resident and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Paul Rusesabagina; and Rwanda’s role in helping to stabilize northern Mozambique and the Central African Republic.

“I am keen to hear from Mr. Kneedler about how he will confront these challenges while shaping a U.S. policy in Rwanda that requires greater clarity and direction.

“Moving on to the nomination of U.S. ambassador to Niger – Ms. FitzGibbon’s most recent experience as deputy chief of mission in Nigeria is probably the best preparation one could get for this role.

“Both countries battle significant insurgent threats, are essential U.S. security partners, and face severe challenges to democracy, which can be overcome with commitment and support.

“The situation in the Sahel has deteriorated dramatically in the last few years, particularly with the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, and the entry of the Russian-backed Wagner Group into Mali.

“I look forward to hearing how Ms. Fitzgibbon will support the U.S.-Niger security relationship while being a visible proponent for developing resilient, democratic institutions in Niger.

“Finally, the nomination of U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. This country is undergoing a rapid transformation. We must commit to working with Nigeria to capitalize on opportunities to build its economy and democracy while confronting significant challenges like insecurity.

“Elections in Nigeria always serve as a vital test for Nigeria’s democracy and have a lasting impact on the region. While the result of last Saturday’s presidential election was announced today, it is clear that many of the technical and institutional challenges that have previously plagued Nigerian elections continued into this process. It is critical that Nigeria find a path forward that serves the will of the Nigerian people.

“Mr. Mills, if confirmed, will need to lead U.S. efforts in Nigeria to support the development of strong democratic institutions, including political parties.

“Lastly, the human rights record of Nigeria’s military gives us pause about how we provide the country with much-needed security assistance. Nigeria’s partnership with the U.S. must include lasting solutions to seemingly unending human rights abuses. I look forward to hearing how Mr. Mills plans to approach these issues.

“This is a panel made up of very qualified people to take on these issues, and I’m keen to hear from them how they’re going to do that. We don’t often see a panel with as many collective challenges as all of you have, but we hope you’re up to the task. Thank you for taking this on.

“With that, I’ll turn it back to Mr. Chairman.”  

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on