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People sit on the ground of the overcrowded migrant reception center on Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, on September 16, 2023. © 2023 Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP Photo

On March 20, Italy will host a Group of Seven (G7) meeting on Africa. At a time when concerted global action to stem widespread abuses afflicting many countries across the continent is urgently needed, the meeting should not be mere shop talk. 

It comes on the heels of a January summit hosted by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, where she laid out plans to bolster economic partnerships and stem migration from the continent. But the plan pays little more than lip service to the rights records of these partners, who include some of the continent’s most abusive rulers, and ignores the humanitarian crises affecting many countries in Africa.

If Italy wants to promote business opportunities in Africa and manage the irregular migration flows that Meloni’s government obsesses over, it needs to press for global action to tackle the very abuses and widespread insecurity that are forcing people to flee their homes. But Italy’s foreign policy in Africa seems to do everything except that.

As G7 diplomats meet in Rome, the Horn of Africa, perceived as a region of special interest to Italy because of its historical connections, is afflicted by devastating conflicts, widespread political repression, and massive hunger, forcing millions of people to flee their countries, some of whom attempt to reach Europe.

In Sudan, during an almost year-long conflict, the two main military forces, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), have killed thousands of civilians, committed widespread sexual violence, mainly against women and girls, destroyed the country’s basic infrastructure, fueled the world’s largest internal displacement crisis, and increased the risk of famine. The G7 should denounce governments that have violated the United Nations Security Council’s arms embargo on Darfur, where one of the two warring parties, the Rapid Support Forces, has committed widespread atrocities. The Security Council’s panel of experts has provided clear evidence that the embargo is being ignored, notably the credible allegations that the United Arab Emirates is arming the RSF. 

The G7 countries should together impose individual targeted sanctions on those responsible for the worst abuses being committed in Sudan’s conflict. The United States had rolled out targeted sanctions against the commanders overseeing the abuses in West Darfur. All G7 countries should urgently follow suit and target high-level commanders involved in grave violations as well as those blocking aid for the 25 million people currently in desperate need of assistance. The European Union and the United Kingdom for example have so far only sanctioned a few entities linked to both sides of the conflict.

As for Ethiopia, G7 states have praised renewed discussions around the cessation of hostilities agreement in the Tigray conflict. But they also need to publicly recognize that this has not brought an end to abuse there. An ethnic cleansing campaign against Tigrayans has continued, as have serious violations by Eritrean forces allied with the government during the two-year-long conflict. With a new conflict in the neighboring Amhara region and well-documented evidence that the federal government forces are summarily executing civilians there, the G7 should speak out and concertedly tackle the blatant accountability vacuum, including by sanctioning individuals overseeing ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray.

In the Sahel region, a key departure and transit point for African migrants and asylum seekers traveling toward North Africa and Europe, the human rights, security, political, and humanitarian situations remain extremely precarious, with armed Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State intensifying attacks on civilians, and government forces engaging in often abusive counterinsurgency operations.

The last several years have been punctuated by mass atrocities by state and non-state actors alike. The lack of accountability for these serious crimes has fueled resentment, frustration, and further violence. Fighting is increasing and spreading south toward the West African states of Benin, Ghana, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire. Since 2021, there have been four military coups in the Sahel, leading to civil and political rights violations that have been largely ignored by the G7 member states.

The G7 should prioritize opportunities for engagement in the Sahel region to strengthen the protection of civilians at risk, help prevent human rights abuses, and promote justice and accountability. They should condition the resumption of any security cooperation with the region’s military forces on the juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger adopting and putting in place genuine human rights safeguards. These should include respect for international human rights and humanitarian law in security and border control operations, appropriate vetting of troops, independent and public human rights monitoring, and the availability of judicial and non-judicial remedies for victims.

Italy, as the meeting host, should get serious about addressing instability and humanely managing migration and displacement in the Sahel. That means weighing in to ensure that the G7 as well as the EU have clear strategies that put human rights and accountability among their top priorities.

If Italy and its G7 partners overlook these abuses on the continent and do not commit to concrete common actions, they risk not only emboldening repressive rulers, but also undermining their own stated objectives by ceding the space to those who prefer to allow instability and atrocities to persist.

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