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US Should Partner with African Rights Defenders, Not Just Leaders

African Human Rights Leaders Summit Offers Different View from Official Event

On December 13, 2022, US President Joe Biden welcomed 50 delegations from 49 countries across the African continent, plus the African Union, to the US-African Leaders Summit. The Summit aimed to demonstrate US commitment to US-Africa relations, but the official agenda lacked a significant role for African human rights defenders.

So Human Rights Watch and other groups decided to fill this gap.

The day before the official event, Human Rights Watch hosted the African Human Rights Leaders Summit, alongside Amnesty International USA, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), and Humanity United. Rights leaders from across Africa gathered to talk about safeguarding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, as well as how the US is engaging on these issues.

The Honorable Graça Machel, a leading voice on democracy in Africa, a renowned humanitarian, and the event’s keynote speaker, discussed how African rights defenders are bringing a “face and voice to human rights in a context that is very limiting and oppressive.” Human rights leaders from Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe emphasized the power of those who stand up to that oppression and demand greater rights and freedoms. Several said that diaspora communities can also play a powerful role by speaking out to protect and promote human rights in their home countries. Panelists underlined the need for greater support for human rights defenders’ safety and security, which is often in peril. Above all, they spoke about Africa’s greatest resource: its people.

Activists across the three panels urged the US government to do more than just listen and issue public statements. Despite the Biden administration’s strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa released earlier this year, the US government continues to fall short of measurable actions to advance human rights across Africa. The rights advocates urged US policymakers to ask the hard questions of African government leaders about rights violations and to respond accordingly, including by committing to accountability for abuses or imposing targeted sanctions. They also urged the US to leverage its financial assistance to curb growing authoritarian tendencies across the continent.

The message of these frontline defenders is clear: Human rights are under attack in Africa and the US government can do more to stand up to abusive regimes through its foreign policy engagement. The Biden administration should heed their call by partnering with human rights defenders as it does with heads of state. Government leaders come and go, but civil society continues the struggle for basic human rights, democracy, and justice.

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