President Obama hit many right notes during his trip to Kenya last week -- he spoke about the need for civil society inclusion in countering terrorism, about the United States's own mistakes in not treating people equally under the law, and about how government's security forces can fuel the terrorism they are supposed to be fighting if they don't respect human rights.
We will look suspiciously on laws that say certain peaceful groups can't operate just because they might be critical of the government, for example. I mean, our bias as a country and in our foreign policy is to say that if a group is peacefully organizing and advocating for issues, that they should be able to do so without excessive government interference.
He said, adding "I don't [want] counterterrorism to be used as an excuse then to crush legitimate dissent."
Suffocating civil society and human rights activism undermines the fight against extremism, and Obama was right to highlight these issues. Unfortunately, the U.S. government's actions don't always match its rhetoric. Last month the United States lifted the ban on selling arms to Bahrain's military it had imposed in 2011, signaling support for a government that its crushing its civil society and jailing its peaceful opposition leaders. President Obama's strong words in Nairobi about civil society haven't been matched during similar trips to Riyadh, despite the Saudi Arabian government's violent repression of human rights. This double standard does immense damage to the U.S. government's credibility in the world, stifling its international capacity to lead on human rights.
In the coming days, Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Egypt for the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, scheduled for August 2. Just over 3,000 miles north of Nairobi, Cairo's government has also been attacking dissidents.
In fact, the Egyptian government has for some time been doing exactly what President Obama said his government disapproves of during remarks in Kenya -- using counterterrorism laws to crush legitimate dissent, closing down peaceful NGOs critical of the authorities, and forcing excessive government interference onto civil society.
It would be an important step forward if Kerry would say in Cairo what Obama said in Kenya.
That's not likely to happen -- time after time we've seen senior Obama Administration officials lose their voices when they ought to be sticking up for freedoms of expression and other basic rights.
A bipartisan group of prominent U.S. Senators has urged Kerry to raise civil society concerns during the trip. In a letter signed by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Chris Coons (D-DE), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Bob Casey (D-PA), they told Kerry:
A key element of U.S. foreign policy has always been and must continue to be support for human rights, political reform, and civil society. In the U.S.-Egypt relationship, we are concerned that these core principles seem to be no longer a priority. Policies pursued by the Egyptian authorities are fueling instability.
These policies include the detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners -- including American citizens -- without due process of law, restrictions on basic freedoms of assembly and mounting official pressure against the legitimate activities of independent human rights organizations.
Security services continue to crackdown on protests with excessive force while the Egyptian judiciary has handed down mass death sentences, often in absentia and without regard for fair trial standards... we insist that discussion of human rights, political reform, and civil society freedoms are a central element of the [dialogue] agenda.
What's right for civil society in one part of Africa is right for civil society in another, as it is across the middle east and the rest of the world. The Obama Administration should insist on the same behavior from its military allies from Nairobi to Manama to Riyadh to Cairo and beyond if it really wants them to promote civil society and help beat violent extremism.