In August 2014, US President Barack Obama will host the first US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC. President Obama has often talked about the need for strong institutions over strong individuals and has championed the work of civil society. In line with this, the U.S. Department of State is convening an event that will provide an opportunity for civil society to offer input on the importance of safeguarding civic space to spur social entrepreneurship, civic innovation, and development. While this effort should be commended, it does not go far enough to ensure that African civil society has a seat at the table as equal partners at the Leaders Summit. For the Summit to be a true success, civil society must be included in the official meetings taking place on August 6, where critical topics will be discussed between U.S. Government and African Leaders.
In order to advocate for official civil society participation, representatives from a range of African civil society groups met in June in Washington, DC to draft a series of recommendations for the United States, African heads of state, and civil society based on three thematic areas: The Rule of Law, Transparency and Corruption, and Discrimination Against Marginalized Groups.
The main message delivered to policymakers and organizers of the Summit was that African civil society representatives must be included in an official capacity at the bilateral government discussions at the Summit and have a seat at the table as an equal participants.
With just weeks until the Summit, 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, must be included in the official proceedings on August 6.
According to the White House press release:
"President Obama will host the U.S. - Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, August 5 and Wednesday, August 6, 2014. This historic summit, the first of its kind, will bring leaders from across the African continent to the nation's capital and further strengthen ties with one of the world's most dynamic and fastest-growing regions. The theme of the Summit is investing in the next generation. Building on the progress made since President Obama's trip to Africa last summer, the Summit will advance the focus on trade and investment in Africa, and highlight America's commitment to Africa's security, its democratic development, and elevate the ideas of young people."
Yet, civil society is not included in the bilateral government discussions at the Summit. In his 2013 speech at the UN General Assembly, President Obama asked "Who are we to believe that today’s challenges cannot be overcome, when we have seen what changes the human spirit can bring? Who in this hall can argue that the future belongs to those who seek to repress that spirit, rather than those who seek to liberate it?"
It is African civil society that is at the forefront to confront repression and liberate the people of the continent. African civil society must be included.
In June 2014, representatives of African civil society met in Washington, DC to draft a series of recommendations to the US government, African heads of state and African civil society as part of a vision for making real progress.
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We believe that the US-Africa Leaders Summit, which will take place in Washington, DC from August 4–6, is an unprecedented opportunity to fulfill your administration’s commitment to the promotion of good governance and the respect for human rights. We understand that priority at the summit will be given to strengthening trade and investment, as well as to efforts to increase security and combat extremism. Just as important, the summit offers the chance for you to stand with those individuals who advance the cause of human rights across Africa, often at great personal sacrifice.
Many African and international organizations have expressed concern that the summit will neglect the foundational issues of governance and human rights that so often prevent ordinary Africans from living with dignity. Ignoring these issues often leads to the proliferation of extremist groups, social instability, corruption, and chronic underdevelopment. A crucial component to combating these ongoing concerns and to achieving broad-based human development is to ensure the participation and involvement of all stakeholders, including both government officials and civil society.
In order for leaders from both the United States and Africa to better address development and promote peace and security, we respectfully call on you to ensure that African civil society is afforded the opportunity to officially participate in the summit proceedings. In doing so, you will send a strong and unequivocal message to the world that the United States considers these independent voices to be a vital partner for development. We firmly believe that civil society actors and human rights defenders are equal stakeholders in Africa’s future, and thus, should be treated as such.
We thank you very much for your thoughtful consideration of our concerns and our request for official civil society participation in the US-Africa Leaders Summit. We wish you the best of luck for what we hope is the first of many more productive gatherings between the U.S. and African heads of state.
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