By Alex Bell
SW Radio Africa
23 April 2014
Zimbabwean civil society organisations have backed calls for the inclusion of such groups at the upcoming US-Africa Leaders summit in Washington, with pressure building on Barack Obama to honour his commitments to supporting human rights and democracy across Africa.
Obama is hosting the two-day meeting in early August, and it is expected that more than 40 African leaders will gather for discussions with US policy makers and high-level government officials. The summit will reportedly focus on US trade and investment in Africa, and highlight America’s commitment to the overall security of the continent.
Invites are only being extended to those nations in ‘good standing’ with the US, or who are not currently suspended by the African Union (AU). This means Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who remains targeted under the US government’s restrictive measures, has not been invited.
It is yet to be seen if this will change, given that Mugabe was nominated to a senior AU position that could see the 90 year old assume the chairmanship of the continental body next year. It was this nomination that saw the European Union (EU) bypass its own laws to invite him to the EU-Africa summit in Belgium earlier this month. The invite was extended despite him being targeted with European restrictions.
Mugabe ultimately boycotted that meeting because the EU failed to extend an invitation to his wife Grace, who also remains targeted with restrictive measures.
The Mugabe situation has since been described as a potential “diplomatic migraine” for the US, although ZANU PF has dismissed the snub as a non-event.
The US has insisted it wants to see more diplomatic reforms in Zimbabwe before it removes the measures from Mugabe and his inner circle, although last week the Obama administration did revise some of the measures, removing 11 names and adding four new ones.
Zimbabwean civic groups have now added their names to a list of signatories to a letter delivered to Obama last week, which calls on him to invite civil society to participate in the US-Africa meeting.
The letter submitted by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center), together with Amnesty International, Open Society Foundations, and Freedom House, called on Obama to honour his public commitments to support civic groups and individuals on the frontlines of advancing human rights and democratic change in Africa. The letter received the full endorsement of more than 100 signatories from around the world.
Jeffrey Smith, Advocacy Officer at the RFK Center, said the aim is to have an all-encompassing meeting that “won’t necessarily just be heads of state talking in diplomatic terms, but rather to address key human rights issues that underpin conflicts across Africa.” He said that while there have been vocal commitments made towards the advancement of human rights and democracy in Africa, there has been more “rhetoric than action” from the US government.
“It is very evident that human rights concerns have not been prioritised by this administration. If you look across Africa, there have been increasing attacks on human rights defenders and civil society, a spate of repressive laws and a copy-and-paste mentality of NGO laws that restrict the independence of civil society groups,” Smith explained.
He said that the role for Zimbabwean civil society at the meeting, regardless of Mugabe’s presence, was important. He said it is unlikely the US will change its mind and invite Mugabe.
“In terms of support from African civil society, we’ve had over 100 signatures, including many from Zimbabwe. They can give voice to the fact that crises, humanitarian crises, human rights crises, peace and security crises, do no erupt overnight. They are usually the result of years of repression, the denial of basic human rights and the targeting of those who dare to raise critical voices. And this has been seen again and again in Zimbabwe,” Smith said.