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Biden opens democracy summit with 'landmark' initiative to defend human rights

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Biden opens democracy summit with 'landmark' initiative to defend human rights
President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the virtual Summit for Democracy, in the South Court Auditorium, at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 9 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden opened the long-awaited, U.S. organized Summit for Democracy at the White House on Thursday -- a virtual event that will include more than 100 countries and is intended to promote democratic actions and ideals worldwide.

The two-day summit will include leaders and civil experts from about 110 countries, and is intended to promote democracy, oppose authoritarianism and respect human rights in all nations of the world.

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In his opening remarks, Biden announced the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which the White House called a "landmark set of policy and foreign assistance initiatives" that build upon the U.S. government's "ongoing work to bolster democracy and defend human rights" around the world.

Biden said the government will provide about $424 million to the program to focus on five "areas of work crucial to the functioning of transparent, accountable governance."

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The five areas of focus are supporting free and independent media, fighting corruption, bolstering democratic reformers, advancing technology for democracy and defending free and fair elections and political processes.

Biden's initiative also creates two "rapid response programs" to support the summit's objectives.

Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday used her appearance at the summit to call for Congress to pass voting rights legislation.

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"In our democracy and every democracy, a representative government is foundational, and the right to vote is fundamental," Harris said. "And so, ensuring that every eligible American can access that right is a top priority for our administration, and an effort I am proud to lead. We know that the right to vote cannot be taken for granted. At every turn it must be safeguarded and strengthened."

Harris called on Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, as the Justice Department has sought to combat restrictive voting laws passed in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.

"Today, as the world watches, the president and I reiterate our call for swift passage of these bills," she said."We know our work at home will make us stronger for the world. We also know that the strength of our democracy is tied to the strength of democracies worldwide."

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Thursday's opening session of the summit also included remarks from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winners Maria Ressa, who's CEO of the Philippines online publication Rappler, and Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Russian publication Novaya Gazeta.

Biden encouraged attendees to take action to reverse a "recession" of democracy that's occurred worldwide in recent years.

Biden also hosted a private Leaders Plenary Session later Thursday.

One of the countries that will not participate in the summit is China, which slammed Biden's administration for inviting Taiwan. Beijing considers Taiwan to be one under its control and has long rejected overtures that treat it as an independent nation. Russia, which will also not participate, similarly criticized the summit.

Biden met virtually this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which he cautioned Moscow against militarily interceding in eastern Ukraine, which for years has been at the center of a pro-Russia separatist movement.

Biden threatened further economic sanctions against Russia if Putin sends troops into Ukraine.

Later Thursday, Biden will speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss the Russian military build-up near the Donbas region. He will also call leaders of the "Bucharest Nine" group, which makes up the eastern flank of NATO allies to brief them on his call with Putin.

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This week in Washington

Brian Deese, Director of the National Economic Council, speaks during a news conference in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo

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