Editorial: Where is human rights in the Africa summit?

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By Editorial Board August 2 at 6:28 PM

THE UNITED STATES’ unfocused lens on a rising Africa may sharpen a little beginning Monday. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which gathers nearly 50 African leaders in the capital, will feature important discussions on security and development. But the key emphasis will be on investment in Africa; the White House is convening chief executives and African heads of state to hammer out promising deals. “The fact is that we have reached an inflection point for the new Africa,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared to young African leaders last week.

Africa is indeed home to the seven of the 10 fastest growing economies of the past decade. But it’s also home to at least 16 countries with a broken or deteriorating human rights record. Three of those countries — Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe — were not invited to the summit because they were not in good standing with the United States.

But in a push for inclusiveness, the Obama administration invited at least 13 other strongmen. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, the longest-serving non-monarch in the world, will likely be in attendance. He’s allegedly jailed and tortured political opponents, including an Italian businessman named Roberto Berardi who was to testify in the United States about corruption by Mr. Obiang’s son. Mr. Berardi has been “severely beaten and flogged by guards, [and] held for lengthy periods in solitary confinement,” Human Rights Watch reported.

Another likely attendee, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, had his anti-gay law struck down on Friday but still enforces his public order law, which is used to shutter media organizations and detain politicians. Mr. Museveni’s police reportedly killed at least 49 people with impunity in two separate protest crackdowns in recent years.

The inclusion of these leaders would have been understandable — and perhaps productive — if human rights were centrally placed on the agenda. No African leader would refuse an invitation to the White House even with a summit prominently featuring human rights. Yet the topic is wholly sidelined through all three days of conferences. There’s no doubt a purposeful, diplomatic choice was made to deny human rights its own session, while topics like wildlife trafficking receive their own.

The idea, as national security adviser Susan E. Rice says, is that “in each of the sessions, there will be some very straight talk and give-and-take.” The White House argues that human rights will weave itself into discussions, especially in the Civil Society Forum and the leaders’ session on governance. But like all uncomfortable topics, human rights will likely be pushed to the back-burner while more agreeable issues like “civic innovation” and managing “transnational threats” take precedence.

The result is a tangential, pro forma chat on human rights that does little to pressure African leaders to change. It’s a wasted opportunity to advance a core U.S. national interest of breaking some African countries out of a cycle of repression. This isn’t finger-pointing; it’s addressing one of Africa’s challenges to sustained growth.

As President Obama said to the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009, “Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable and more successful.” An administration that began with such a hopeful message has now abandoned it in its most consequential engagement with the continent.

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