Getting US-Africa Relations Back on Track With a Focus on Human Rights
In his first foreign policy speech, President Joe Biden made clear that human rights will be central to U.S. efforts to rejoin the community of nations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s March 10 appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee outlined important areas of focus for U.S. engagement with the world. But beyond a few country-specific references to Ethiopia, Mozambique, and a handful of others, the administration has yet to articulate a broader policy toward Africa.
Those plans should provide for robust engagement on Africa alongside regional partners. Concrete policy changes would go a long way toward restoring relations with civil society organizations and grassroots movements across the continent, and make clear that the United States supports the African people, not just African governments.
In Ethiopia, the Biden administration is beginning to try to address the conflict in the Tigray region that began in November, when the government began military operations against the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The United States should continue to call for an international, independent, and impartial investigation as a first step to addressing war crimes and possible crimes against humanity committed during the conflict. Close collaboration with the African Union, the United Nations, and international humanitarian agencies could exert the needed pressure on the Ethiopian government to ensure unhindered access for urgent humanitarian assistance.
Other conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa further highlight the need for renewed engagement on human rights in countries where the United States previously fostered strong development, humanitarian, and military ties. Examples include the fragile transition in South Sudan after eight years of internal conflict, the crisis in Cameroon over violent clashes between separatist groups and government forces, the armed Islamic insurgency in northern Mozambique, and the deteriorating situation in Uganda, among others.
South Sudan’s government recently approved the establishment of a hybrid criminal court in partnership with the AU and others to address impunity for abuses and achieve redress for harm committed since a civil war there began in 2013, two years after the country declared independence. The Biden administration should ensure the South Sudanese government and the AU take urgent steps to establish the court, as this would signal a step toward justice for the victims and, ultimately, toward breaking South Sudan’s cycle of impunity.
In Cameroon, the violent crisis in the anglophone regions is compounded by the Boko Haram insurgency in the country’s Far North, a threat that also spills across borders. U.S. engagement with the continent, including in the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, and more recently in northern Mozambique, has long been dominated by counterterrorism, largely with security assistance. For example, the recently announced U.S. Special Operations Forces training program for the Mozambican military to “prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism” must include strict follow-through to ensure that U.S. pledges to prioritize “the respect for human rights, protection of civilians, and engagement with civil society in all security assistance” are carried out.
The State Department should condition more of its security assistance across the continent (not to mention globally) on accountability for rights abuses, adherence to the rule of law, freedom of expression and association, political pluralism, and the ability of civil society organizations to operate freely and independently. The Biden administration also now has the benefit of the nascent Global Fragility Act, adopted by Congress in 2019. It lays out ways the U.S. government can partner with communities and governments in fragile states to address the drivers of conflict, such as human rights abuses, social and economic exclusion, corruption, and impunity. The effort is led by the State Department, in conjunction with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Defense Department, and other government agencies.
In Uganda, democratic backsliding should long ago have triggered a review of U.S. support. In power since 1986, Yoweri Museveni won yet another term in January, in elections characterized by widespread violence and human rights abuses. Violations included killings and enforced disappearances by security forces, arrests and beatings of opposition supporters and journalists, disruption of opposition rallies, and shutdown of the internet. This is a country that could benefit from the above-referenced conditions on security assistance.
In addition, U.S. military engagement in Cameroon, the Sahel region, and other countries where American forces contribute support to peace operations and counterterrorism efforts should include rights-respecting strategies, public denouncements of serious human rights violations, and calls for prompt, independent, and impartial investigations into alleged abuses. These include abuses by government security forces such as widespread destruction of property, extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and sexual violence.
The United States, alongside the African Union and regional blocs like the Economic Community of West African States and the Economic Community of Central African States, should be looking for ways to boost support for human rights in counterterrorism assistance. It should ensure enforcement of cooperation agreements on counterterrorism operations that include specific clauses setting out human rights standards — such as the Leahy Law, which prohibits military assistance to rights-abusing military units.
U.S. bilateral and regional engagements would be most effective if led by special envoys in key areas. Blinken has announced the appointment of an envoy for the Horn of Africa, an important step toward ensuring appropriate attention to the region. But he should also name envoys for the Great Lakes Region, where persistent instability and entrenched repression have undermined human rights and the rule of law, and the Sahel, where armed Islamist groups and state security forces alike have committed atrocities against civilian populations.
As Biden has already recognized, the AU should be a focal point for U.S. engagement. The United States should support an overarching human rights agenda within the AU’s Peace and Security architecture by investing in conflict prevention and management and rights-focused responses to emerging crises. It should also pursue constructive engagement with African members of the U.N. Security Council.
When engaging with the AU, the U.S. government would do well to recognize the growing political influence of the diaspora, which the AU has long considered its sixth region. The United States will need to engage with the diaspora with humility, recognizing that it is only beginning to grapple with the legacy of slavery. Thus it is essential to maintain robust support for the mandate of the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent for needed international scrutiny on systemic racism and police violence. In addition, the U.S. could benefit from promoting strong partnerships between U.S. agencies and local human rights organizations, as well as among U.S.-based, Africa-focused human rights groups.
Overall, U.S. policy toward Africa would be most effective for both ends of that spectrum if it is premised on engaging African regional bodies and the African people themselves. For the Biden administration to fulfill its commitment to craft a foreign policy centered on human rights and democracy, it needs to ensure that solutions it offers for African challenges are Africa-led, inclusive, multilateral, and multifaceted.