Last week, 50 African leaders met in Washington with an agenda focused on trade, investment and building prosperity. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit also had an emphasis on issues of security and counterterrorism. Yet improved governance and human rights — which deeply impact the success of society and economy — were secondary (or even peripheral) objectives of the summit.
The fractures between African and American leadership and civil society groups focused on governance and human rights were revealed from day one. One of the more memorable exchanges occurred at a public event between civil society leaders and President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana and President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania. A member of Kenyan civil society pointed out that barriers for forming businesses may be decreasing, but barriers for nongovernmental organizations and institutions are increasing, with long waiting times for registration and increasing and often prohibitive fees. (The attending leaders of civil society cheered.) These presidents had no response, other than to suggest that civil society sometimes oversteps its bounds and gets into issues that it shouldn't.
To be sure, both the United States and the African leaders attending the summit had a mutual interest to focus the narrative on the economic opportunities that exist in a rich and diverse continent that has seen significant growth in GNP in a number of key countries. Trying to establish a reinvigorated "American model" of investment and mutual economic benefit, in contrast to the often mercantilist approach of extracting resources and importing workers, is valuable for both the U.S. and its African partners. And there was certainly a need to focus on the reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which expires at the end of next year.
The administration did include human rights in a commitment to holistic counterterrorism approaches, in a new security sector initiative, in its emphasis on women and girls, and presumably in the proposal to develop a plan of action on governance. Committing to increasing African peacekeeping capacity could also have welcome spillover to human rights. Yet issues of limiting civil society were not addressed by the leaders, "human rights" does not appear in President Obama's chairman's summary of the summit and, despite repeated requests, strong messages on humanitarian access, accountability and other human rights issues were not delivered to President Salva Kiir of South Sudan (at least not publicly).
Where the administration strayed, others did try to step up. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and other members of the Senate and the House actually raised some of these issues. Their meetings with Kiir, for example, appeared to be one of the few efforts designed to raise human rights and impunity and push them publicly with a leader who otherwise seems to have used his time in Washington to strengthen his hand in peace negotiations with the rebels he is confronting in his country.
In his speech at West Point earlier this year, the president made a poignant statement on the need to have U.S. leadership in areas beyond those related to security:
American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be — a place where the aspirations of individual human beings really [matter]; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in a direction of justice.
We can only hope that in the implementation of the summit and its commitments, this vision applies to Africa and its people, who yearn for the human rights and justice that the president so strongly endorsed.
Abramowitz is vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United, an operating foundation that works on building peace and advancing human freedom. He formerly worked on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and at the Department of State for 20 years.