July 28, 2014
Surely one of the most important lessons learned from the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa is that tradeoffs at the expense of human rights and the rule of law are untenable and they do not necessarily yield greater security and stability. Sustainable support to Africa – and to African people – demands that the administration be explicit in its messaging and its policy implementation when it comes to promoting and protecting human rights.
As he stood before Ghana’s parliament in 2009, President Barack Obama set out some guiding principles to underscore his interests in Africa. “[G]overnments” he said, “that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.” Similarly, a core pillar of the 2012 US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa set forth that the United States would “amplify and support voices calling for respect for human rights, rule of law, accountability and transitional justice mechanisms, and independent media.” These words were important; they resonated strongly among African people and an increasingly vibrant civil society. They raised expectations.

But a closer look at the administration’s policy toward Africa shows a disappointing reluctance to integrate human rights within a larger foreign policy framework. Notably, while President Obama has unveiled specific initiatives to strengthen US development work on the continent and connect it to core national security objectives, he has not done the same for human rights and the rule of law.

Without a larger vision that makes respect for human rights a central pillar of US foreign policy, alongside more traditional national security objectives, the administration’s public condemnation of abuses and calls for alleged human rights violators to be held to account lack broader impact. The US also sends mixed messages when its aid allocations appear to disregard human rights concerns, as has been the case for security assistance packages to Chad, Kenya, and South Sudan and development aid to Rwanda and Ethiopia.

When the US has made human rights a priority in its African diplomacy, it has had a positive impact on wider policy goals and has been well received by many Africans. Take, for example, the administration’s call for the Democratic Republic of Congo to implement Bosco Ntaganda’s ICC arrest warrant and then its role helping transfer him to The Hague when he surrendered at the US embassy in neighboring Rwanda or the State Department’s decision to provide financial support to the Senegalese court that will try former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré. These specific actions show that when the US leverages its influence, it is able to both promote accountability and bolster the rule of law.

There are other key instances in which the US has injected human rights into its Africa policy, including efforts to limit threats to civilians by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), support for a UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, and a commitment to maintain strong targeted sanctions on key Zimbabwe officials amid a crackdown on activists that impedes the work of independent actors and weakens government effectiveness.

In other cases, however, the US commitment to human rights and the rule of law remains understated, giving the impression that governments have a free pass to continue their “business as usual” without consequence. At least a dozen authoritarian governments across the continent are threatening independent media and nongovernmental organizations, including the LGBT community, both through individual attacks and legislation that limits their ability to function. The trend appears to be worsening and the US has had no coordinated and clear response – condemning some publicly, some privately, and some not at all. Often the response is slow and fails to articulate the consequences African leaders could face by pursuing such a path.

Ethiopia has been at the forefront of this trend. Over the past decade, the government has systematically closed political avenues for peaceful protest, jailing or forcing opposition leaders, activists, and independent journalists to flee the country simply for exercising their right to speak openly and to criticize their government. The passage of the Charities and Societies Proclamation in 2009, along with other oppressive laws, have compelled the country’s most effective human rights groups to close down, substantially scale-down operations, or remove human rights activities from their mandates.

The US administration has occasionally made public statements criticizing the Ethiopian government’s repression, most recently after 10 bloggers and journalists were charged with crimes under the country’s anti-terrorism law in July, but these statements don’t reflect a larger policy that could help get the current law repealed or substantially amended. Meanwhile, the US has developed a strong security partnership with Ethiopia in which human rights concerns do not appear to be part of the equation. These divergent signals send the message that the US is simply paying lip service to human rights.

In Rwanda, there are almost no independent voices speaking out. Journalists who criticize the government have been killed, threatened, prosecuted, imprisoned or forced into exile. The Rwandan government’s hostility toward human rights organizations, as well as intimidation of human rights defenders, has greatly weakened independent civil society. When the anti-corruption activist Gustave Makonene was murdered in July 2013, there was almost complete silence, both inside and outside Rwanda. Some diplomats raised the case privately with Rwandan officials, but there have been no strong public calls for justice at the international level.

In Uganda, meanwhile, the debate around presidential succession, accountability of public resources, governance, and other politically sensitive topics is increasingly constrained. The adoption of an anti-homosexuality law in February 2014 criminalizes the promotion of homosexuality and has far-reaching implications beyond the increase in punishment for same-sex conduct. A person could be imprisoned simply for expressing a peaceful opinion while a human rights organization could potentially face charges for advocating non-discrimination. The US response after President Yoweri Museveni signed the draconian bill shows an overdue willingness to respond to Uganda’s deteriorating human rights situation – but much more still needs to be done.

In addition to the severe restrictions on civil and political space in Africa, there are numerous cases of systematic abuse by security forces that receive little or no response from the US. South Sudan, Kenya, and Nigeria – three countries that benefit from strong bilateral partnerships with the United States – are good examples, although they are not the only ones.

In the South Sudanese towns of Malakal and Bentiu, both government forces and rebels have committed abuses during the fighting that began in December. They have directly targeted civilians, carried out extrajudicial executions, often based on ethnicity, and extensively looted and destroyed civilian property, including desperately needed aid facilities. During the earliest days of the conflict, members of the South Sudanese security forces – which the United States, until recently, supported for many years –carried out widespread killings and mass arrests.

In Kenya, one of the largest recipients of US security assistance on the continent, numerous counter-terrorism operations against Somalis and Kenyans of Somali origin have included excessive force, house raids, extortion, and sexual abuse. The Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, a US-supported unit, has been implicated in enforced disappearances, killings and other abuses. And in Nigeria, where the Islamist armed group Boko Haram has killed more than 2000 people over the last six months, the heavy hand of the Nigerian security forces has contributed to the abuses as they have targeted suspected Boko Haram supporters by burning their homes, mistreating people in custody, and detaining them in inhumane conditions.

In each country, government forces have faced no accountability for their actions, which means the underlying concerns that led to the violence remain unaddressed. All too often, US officials fail to publicly condemn these serious allegations of abuse or insist that the national authorities investigate them. On the rare occasions when security assistance is conditioned, it is usually because Congress has required it.

Given the increased funding for security assistance in Africa – whether through Obama’s Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund or other various accounts – a commitment by the administration to embrace and engage robustly on these fundamental principles would demonstrate US resolve to promote respect for the rights of all Africans. It would also contribute to the broader national security goal of supporting professional, accountable, and effective military partners across the continent.

Surely one of the most important lessons learned from the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa is that tradeoffs at the expense of human rights and the rule of law are untenable and they do not necessarily yield greater security and stability. Sustainable support to Africa – and to African people – demands that the administration be explicit in its messaging and its policy implementation when it comes to promoting and protecting human rights. These principles should not take a back seat to trade, investment, and security concerns. Instead, human rights should be fully integrated as a core element of US foreign policy. Doing so will not only encourage – but also in some instances require – responsible and transparent governance by African governments. Ultimately, it will also help the US build better, stronger, and more effective partners.

Sarah Margon is the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch