Invitations are out to the African heads of state inviting them to Washington for the Biden Administration’s Africa Leaders Summit, Dec. 13-15. On the list are at least three leaders who have been accused of crimes against humanity and grave human rights abuses, including Prime Minister Abyi Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan. Hosting these leaders at the White House will further legitimize these regimes, sending a clear message that the U.S. government values security considerations over human rights. That message – alongside the Biden administration’s failure to prioritize human rights in its new strategy of engagement with African countries – risks undermining efforts to advocate for democratic governance and people-centered diplomacy.
Notwithstanding claims that human rights are at the centerpiece of its foreign policy, the Biden administration continues to provide military and financial assistance to rights-abusing regimes across the continent. For instance, the United States sends millions in security assistance to support Uganda’s participation in regional stability operations, despite Ugandan security forces’ involvement in enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, and torture of government critics, political opposition, and protesters. In South Sudan, United States officials condemn violence against citizens, but withdrew funding for the hybrid court for justice. In Ethiopia, despite the establishment of a sanctions regime and available coercive tools, the United States refuses to hold warring parties accountable for horrible abuses in a conflict that has now lasted nearly two years. The atrocities continue, regardless of the recent cessation of hostilities’ agreement. At the upcoming summit, President Biden will meet Egypt’s leader for the third time this year alone, despite few improvements in the human rights situation there.
The Africa Strategy hearing on Nov. 17 and the summit in mid-December offer an opportunity to explain how the United States will address ongoing abuses perpetrated by African leaders who have benefitted from U.S. security assistance. Reorienting the new Africa strategy through a human rights lens would go a long way toward creating the free, fair, open, and stable partnerships the Biden administration seeks to build in Africa.
Prioritizing human rights isn’t just a sound moral policy – it’s also a strategic imperative.
Below, we outline how the Biden administration can do that across the Africa strategy’s four stated objectives:
“Foster Openness and Open Societies”
This first objective introduces U.S. efforts to increase transparency and accountability among African governments and civil society, as well as to emphasize the rule of law and justice in the region.
Rule of law and freedom of expression are indeed under attack across Africa. In South Sudan, state and military officials responsible for summary executions enjoy impunity and the National Security Service is at the helm of abuses, effectively silencing dissent and criticism. In Rwanda, judicial authorities are prosecuting and detaining opposition members, journalists, and critics, on baseless or abusive charges, while its government also supports the M23 (March 23 Movement) next door in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Mali, the transitional government has also harassed and arrested journalists and other commentators and failed to protect citizens from violence either from terrorists or its hired Russian mercenaries. In Ethiopia, regional and federal forces have enjoyed widespread impunity despite imposing an effective siege on the Tigray region, and carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Tigrayan population in Western Tigray.
The United States should substantially increase democracy, human rights and governance (DRG) funding. For fiscal year 2021, the United States gave $7.65 billion in DRG assistance to Africa. This included only $11.5 million for human rights and $9.2 million for independent media for the entire continent. Overall, US funding levels to Africa have remained roughly the same since 2008, hovering at $8 billion for all assistance needs including for example humanitarian, health, development and DRG across the entire sub-Saharan region, despite the rise of authoritarianism, onslaught of dangerous speech through social media and multiple epidemic outbreaks over the last two decades.
Diplomatically, the United States can urge the African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the East African Community (EAC) and other African Union economic regional blocs to enforce their own membership criteria for states who aren’t upholding their citizens’ rights. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights guidelines on freedom of association and assembly should be infused in U.S. diplomatic messaging and considered as criteria for development and security assistance.
This objective also highlights the need to champion social movements confronting the scourge of racism and racial discrimination. The United States should therefore adequately fund advocacy efforts by African civil society organizations and reparation movements to establish comprehensive and effective remedies for racial discrimination, and structural abuses that stem from the legacies of slavery and colonialism.
“Deliver Democratic and Security Dividends”
According to this objective, the United States will seek to promote democratic governance through close collaboration with civil society and address Africa’s ongoing security challenges through partnerships and capacity building. The United States will pursue incentivizing and punitive tactics to respond to the “recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers,” and prioritize counterterrorism efforts. As a result, U.S. security assistance continues to flow to countries like Nigeria and Cameroon (per a document obtained by Human Rights Watch), where abusive counterterrorism and security measures are destroying civilian lives.
While the strategy acknowledges the interconnectedness of security and democracy, it fails to accept the fact that impunity for human rights abuses breeds more instability and perpetuates a cycle of violence. It also does not reset the current U.S. policy on Sudan which is failing to hold repressive leaders accountable for abusing civilians and obstructing what could be one of the foremost democratic transitions in Africa of our time. The United States should double down on supporting the pro-democracy civilian actors, while curbing the ability of violent actors to hold power. Possible tools are Global Magnitsky sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt actors, travel sanctions on the same actors who are obstructing the democratic transition, and bilateral trade incentives and investment packages.
At a minimum, the United States should uniformly apply human rights and democratic progress criteria or benchmarks for each partner nation requesting military assistance and training, including for counterterrorism. The benchmarks should be informed by consistent engagement with national and regional civil society groups.
“Advance Pandemic Recovery and Economic Opportunity”
This objective aims to increase pandemic preparedness and response, support vaccine manufacturing, and build capacity to respond to future health threats. It emphasizes the U.S. role in promoting economic recovery through strong multilateral partnerships and initiatives.
The pandemic exacerbated and exposed economic disparities and discrimination. The United States should mandate human rights impact assessments in all of its post-pandemic programming and support projects. The United States should invest in social protections, rather than austerity measures meant to spur economic recovery, and deal with current global inflation and food shortages that are harmful to human rights. The United States should also immediately adopt a waiver on intellectual property protections on vaccines, treatments, and testing that has stalled for more than a year at the World Trade Organization, and press Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech to share their vaccine know-how to enable local manufacturing of vaccines.
“Support Conservation, Climate Adaptation, and a Just Energy Transition”
This objective commits the United States to partnering with African governments and civil society to protect natural ecosystems, minimize the negative impacts of climate change, and support countries in just energy transitions.
Government failures to take rapid and ambitious action on climate change are dramatically undermining human rights, including the rights to life, livelihood, health, food, and water. The commitment to partner with African governments and civil society to help in the process of adaptation to acute climate impacts is welcome, particularly if it prioritizes disadvantaged and marginalized communities. Restrictions on civil society space in authoritarian regimes, as seen in Egypt, have severely curtailed environmental groups’ ability to carry out independent work that is essential to protecting the natural environment and advancing ambitious climate policies. The United States should support and promote positive examples of governments and civil society prioritizing human rights and environmental concerns, while promoting transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination in programming and policy goals. For example, by supporting the Zambian government’s response to civil society demands to clean up toxic waste from an old copper mine.
Meeting this objective will require clear human rights guardrails or benchmarks by which to measure human rights protections and implications. Gains in conservation and climate adaptation must not come at the expense or disregard of human rights (for example, when conservation programming has at times driven negatively affected local communities such as the abuses being documented now against the Maasai in Tanzania). The United States can mitigate this risk by adding a human rights framework and guidelines to this strategy pillar.
To ensure that U.S. policy on Africa gives human rights proper attention, the president should appoint a special envoy to promote the U.S.-Africa partnerships on democracy and human rights. This senior official could directly consult with civilian leaders and activists on their priorities, as well as determine what forms of support and partnerships are helpful versus harmful.
By taking these steps above, the Biden administration would send a strong signal—through its strategy, as well as actions—that human rights are indeed at the center of its foreign policy on Africa.