WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, over 100 organizations from the United States and all across Africa sent a letter to President Obama calling for civil society to be part of the official agenda of the upcoming U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit.
“The U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit is a crucial platform to highlight your commitment to integrating human rights and good governance concerns into our relations with African countries, much as we do in other regions of the world,” the groups write.
While planning for the summit is in its early stages, it likely will focus on three areas: trade and investment, peace and security, and good governance. But it also should focus on a fourth issue: bolstering support for human rights and civil society in Africa.
A number of troubling laws have been proposed or enacted across that severely restrict the freedom of civil society organizations to operate. In Uganda, for example, the government enacted the Public Order Management Act, which grants broad authority to the government to regulate public meetings and requires official notice for gatherings of more than three people. In Kenya, a law that would severely restrict foreign funding of NGOs was struck down in late 2013, but is likely to be reintroduced this year. From Swaziland to Sudan, there has been an uptick in harassment, intimidation, and arrests of human rights defenders.
President Obama should seize the opportunity to send a direct and unambiguous message to his African counterparts by giving civil society representatives an official role in the Summit itself, on equal footing to the heads of state. Doing so is not without precedent. In the recent African Union–European Union summit, civil society organizations were given as much time to speak as heads of state.
President Obama can help build his legacy in Africa by demonstrating that the United States respects the right of civil society and that he expects similar treatment by other nations.