In July 2015, US President Barack Obama will visit Kenya and Ethiopia, two countries that are critical in US-led security operations in Africa, and where civil society and human rights defenders are struggling against increased efforts to criminalize them and shrink the space in which they operate. While Kenya has begun using anti-terrorism legislation to target civil society organizations, Ethiopia has long repressed civil society and human rights defenders. This is the context in which President Obama’s trip is happening.
President Obama has made support for civil society a key pillar of his foreign poicy and has used visits to foreign countries to hold meetings with civil society actors. Perhaps during no other trip has it been more important that he signal his and US support for this sector than on this trip. Already, weeeks ahead of his trip, the Ethiopian government, wishing to spare itself (and Mr. Obama) of embarrassing headlines, released a number of journalists and bloggers from prison.
In advance of this trip, US, international and African NGOs have sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to meet with human rights defenders and civil society activists in both countries to help strengthen civil society’s pushback against shrinking space for their work.
With just days until President Obama’s trip, African and international civil society is sending a clear message to President Obama, as well as to African heads of state, that civil society, particularly groups working on human rights and good governance, are a vital part of strong societies and a better future.
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We welcome your decision to visit sub-Saharan Africa once again, and we applaud your support for African human rights defenders through your Stand with Civil Society initiative. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit held last year demonstrated your commitment to engage constructively with leaders on a number of key economic, political and security issues. Your upcoming trip to Ethiopia and Kenya offers another timely opportunity to demonstrate America’s commitment to helping to build strong democratic institutions to benefit the continent’s one billion citizens.
Ethiopia and Kenya face grave and worsening human rights challenges, and we trust those issues will be at the forefront of your discussions. The longstanding crackdown on human rights groups and journalists in Ethiopia and the use of so-called “anti-terror” laws to stifle the legitimate work of civil society actors in both Kenya and Ethiopia underscore their overall failure to adhere to democratic principles and international human rights standards.
For example, in April 2014, six Ethiopian bloggers and three journalists associated with the Zone 9 blogging collective were accused of “creating serious risk to the safety or health of the public” and arrested under the country’s vague anti-terrorism law. While we welcome the recent release of five of those arrested, four remain behind bars today. Also, on April 7 of this year, two Kenyan human rights groups, Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) and Haki Africa -- with which many international human rights groups and donors have worked for many years -- were officially listed by the government as “Entities Suspected to be Associated with Al-Shabaab.” As a result, their bank accounts remain frozen, and the NGO Coordination Board has commenced investigations into these two prominent groups, which may well lead to their deregistration. These recent examples illustrate a much broader and worrying trend in the region that affects the ability of civil society to freely operate without governmental intimidation or harassment.
We believe it imperative that you take the opportunity of your visits to meet publicly with pro-democracy and human rights activists, especially those at risk. By doing so, you would be affirming your solidarity with them, while demonstrating the concern we know you share regarding the troublesome developments described above. You would also call attention to the need to protect shrinking civic space in Kenya, Ethiopia, and the broader region, thereby sending a strong message that your administration remains committed to integrating human rights and good governance concerns into its official bilateral relations with all nations. Most importantly, meeting with activists will provide them with the necessary protection as they go about working on behalf of the same human rights issues the United States stands behind.
We would be pleased to work with you and your staff on arranging such a meeting during your upcoming trip, including helping to identify civil society groups and other key issues to address.
Thank you for your time and for your thoughtful consideration of these important issues.
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