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Tiptoeing Around Africa’s Human Rights Abusers

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Tiptoeing Around Africa’s Human Rights Abusers

Posted by Laura Heaton on June 21, 2010

Tiptoeing Around Africa’s Human Rights Abusers

This post originally appeared on’s Human Rights blog.

The Obama administration rolled out an impressive full afternoon event last week at the State Department, headlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which was very clearly designed to win over an audience of 300+ Africa specialists.

If the sampling of people I spoke to there were representative of the larger group, and I believe they were, there’s a sense of disappointment about President Obama’s limited engagement with the continent. Some pundits, like the New Yorker’s George Packer, point out, “Obama never placed democracy and human rights at the center of his foreign policy.” But President Obama’s well-regarded speech in Ghana last year certainly raised these expectations.

However, the briefing didn’t alleviate these concerns about the Obama administration’s follow-through, at least not on the conflict mitigation/prevention front.

Among my colleagues at the Enough Project and our partner organizations working on some of the most egregious human rights abuses, there is a particular frustration about the Obama administration’s hesitancy to criticize or use pressure to influence some of the continent’s most repressive leaders. Certainly after the policies of the Bush administration, the trend toward humility and respectful engagement is refreshing. But where’s the red line? So far, the Obama administration has been shockingly tolerant of backsliding on human rights issues and disrespect for democratic values, seemingly favoring policies that maintain the status quo rather than push for bold reforms.

Take the volatile Horn of Africa, for instance. The United States has good relations with most governments in the region, which is a useful diplomatic tool. But as Somalia expert Professor Ken Menkhaus aptly pointed out at a House subcommittee hearing recently, many of these governments are despised by their own people. The United States risks undermining the renewed good graces that the Obama administration ushered in if the U.S. government doesn’t using its leverage to push these “partners” to reign in corruption, address impunity rampant among security forces, allow press to report freely without fear of retribution. (I could list specific countries for each of these abuses, but this paragraph would get awfully long.)

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Photo: Billboard honoring President Obama in Ghana (AP)