THE BLOG

Human Rights Must Be on the Agenda

In 2012, the Obama administration issued a US strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa with a stated objective to promote and protect "human rights, civil society and independent media" as an integral part in strengthening democratic institutions on the African continent. Then, last year, President Obama himself renewed that commitment during his second visit to Africa. In a speech in Cape Town, South Africa, he stressed the importance of civil society in the fight to achieve universal human rights. He reminded us, "It wasn't just the giants of history who brought about this change. Think of the many millions of acts of conscience that were part of that effort."

Unfortunately, rhetoric does not seem to match reality.

This week, the United States is hosting the US-Africa Leaders Summit in an effort to strengthen ties between the US and Africa. The theme of the summit, "Investing in the Next Generation," highlights the importance of young people in strengthening development, democratic institutions and trade and investment in Africa. The summit is undermined, however, by the exclusion of the voices of civil society that President Obama hopes to empower. As it stands, participation of civil society groups in the summit is relegated to a half-day program with minimal participation by African political leaders. Furthermore, civil society groups will not participate in the Aug. 6 sessions where the issues most salient to our work -- human rights, good governance and security -- will be discussed.

The promotion and protection of human rights and civil society should be a key focus in every aspect of this summit, not a sideline event. A robust civil society is essential to hold governments accountable and contribute to inclusive and transparent policy making. Governments that honor their commitments to universal human rights do so with a vast network of well-organized civil society groups operating within their borders. We at Amnesty International continuously receive reports of harassment and threats made to human rights defenders and civil society members throughout the African continent.

Given the president's stated interest in empowering civil society groups in Africa, especially at a time when so many of the continent's countries experience human rights violations, the summit seems like a true lost opportunity. Morocco, Central African Republic and Uganda are three countries struggling with serious human rights violations emblematic of concerns that must be raised. As civil society representatives cannot meet with the gathered leaders, it is up to President Obama to raise the issues.

In Morocco, women's rights activists were successful in pushing Parliament to abolish a law that allowed rapists to avoid prosecution by marrying victims if they are younger than 18. Changing this legislation was a necessary step in protecting women from sexual violence -- however, there is still much to do. Achieving equality for women under the law also will require amending existing legislation that actively discriminates against women and girls in Morocco and the Western Sahara, as well as changing underlying practices that negatively impact women's rights. For example, marital rape is not formally recognized as a crime, and it is illegal for women's shelters to give refuge to married survivors of domestic abuse. During the summit, President Obama should raise concerns about women's human rights issues not only in Morocco, but on the entire continent.

In Central African Republic, under former President Michel Djotodia and his armed group, Séléka, the country plunged deeper and deeper into crisis. Djotodia's regime was characterized by widespread killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, recruitment of child soldiers and gender-based violence. Despite his resignation in January, transitional authorities have not investigated him or other members of Séléka for their role in the human rights atrocities committed under his rule. Neighboring African nations, such as Benin, have given safe haven to Djotodia and other commanders implicated in committing war crimes. It is critical President Obama raises issues of accountability and impunity during the summit, not only urging Benin to aid the Central African Republic's transitional authorities in redressing the abuses committed under Djotodia's regime, but urging all attending heads of state to advance international justice.

Lastly, in Uganda, arrests and harassment of human rights defenders, civil society organizations and political opposition have increased since the enactment of the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Act in February. The draconian law imposed strict penalties against people engaging in same-sex sexual activity as well as organizations who provide support to members of the LGBT community. Last week, the Ugandan Constitutional Court invalidated the anti-LGBT bill. As it stands, it's unclear whether Ugandan lawmakers will try to reintroduce the bill or whether the Ugandan government will appeal the decision in its Supreme Court. As the US has provided billions of dollars worth of security assistance to countries on the African continent in recent years, the summit is an important opportunity for the President Obama to address human rights violations against LGBT individuals.

These countries represent only some of human rights issues on the continent of concern to Amnesty International. As the White House chose to not include civil society voices to engage with the full plenary of invited heads of state at the summit in an open public dialogue, it is incumbent on President Obama to ensure these issues are adequately addressed.

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