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August 13, 2014

African Civil Society Activists Face Reprisals after Leaders Summit

By Jannat Majeed

Last week the White House hosted leaders from 50 African countries at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which featured discussions on strengthening trade, investment, security, and democratic development ties between the United States and Africa.  Civil society activists were originally excluded from the Summit, but after a push by NGOs, the White House added an official Civil Society Forum to the program, and a group of NGOs held a civil society conference to coincide with the Summit.

Despite this show of support from Washington for civil society, activists from multiple participating countries faced retaliation for attending Summit-related events.  Swaziland Prime Minister Barnabus Sibusiso Dlamini threatened two activists—Vincent Ncongwane from the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland and Sipho Gumedze from the Swaziland Lawyers for Human Rights—for attending the NGO civil society conference. “Once they come back and you find out that they are from your constituency, you must strangle them,” Dlamini said.

During the Summit, Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila’s security detail beat a protestor at a demonstration outside the hotel where President Kabila was staying.  A similar incident happened when Gambia President Yahya Jammeh’s security detail attacked Gambian protestors outside another hotel. 

The State Department has rightfully criticized all three incidents and affirmed its commitment to “fundamental freedoms, including freedom of association, and the human rights defenders who fight for these values each day.”  The State Department asked DRC and Gambia to waive immunity for the guards who assaulted protesters so they can face prosecution in the United States, but both countries refused.  Since then, all of the guards have left the country.

The human rights record in each of these countries is cause for concern. Due to concerns over human rights and workers’ rights, the U.S. government previously revoked the African Growth and Opportunity Act status of Swaziland, which allows eligible African countries duty-free access to American markets. Gambian President Jammeh took power in a coup twenty years ago, and since then, the human rights situation has severely deteriorated.  DRC President Kabila ordered violence against dissidents in elections in 2006 and 2012, and according to the United Nations, state agents were implicated in creating one of the worst rape epidemics in the world in DRC.

To support civil society activists and stand against reprisals for attending Summit-related events, U.S. embassies and missions in African countries should protect human rights defenders and make clear to them the sort of help they can expect from the U.S. government.  The 2013 U.S. Guidelines for Supporting Human Rights Defenders, issued by the State Department, should be promoted on embassy websites and translated into local languages to set expectations and allow human rights defenders to better engage with the embassies. 

The U.S. government should also implement the Key Recommendations from Civil Society for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, especially the recommendations on supporting civil society in Africa, and make sure that its guests will not face reprisals for attending events.