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How human rights issues factor into African economic advancement

August 4, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT
Will the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit offer opportunities for change beyond trade? Judy Woodruff talks to Nicole Lee, former president of policy organization TransAfrica, about the human rights issues that will affect the ability of some countries to grow and become more prosperous.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we just heard, despite their emerging economic power, some countries in Africa still lag behind on human rights issues.

Many who follow developments on the continent are hoping that this week’s summit will be an opportunity to press for change beyond trade.

One of them is Nicole Lee. She’s a human rights attorney and former head of the U.S.-based policy organization TransAfrica. And she is with us now.

Thank you for being here.

NICOLE LEE, Immediate Past President, TransAfrica: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Nicole Lee, when you look at this summit, what do you think could come of it?

NICOLE LEE: Obviously, we know by definition this is really an opportunity for African leaders to get together with U.S. leaders and talk about investment in business.

What has also happened — and I’m not sure that the administration was — really understood that this was going to happen, but civil society from the continent of African also got on those planes, came over and want their voices to be heard as well. They want to be heard on the issue of good jobs.

So does investment mean there’s going to be good jobs? Does investment mean there is also going to be human rights? And so while we have the official meeting, there is also a lot of side meetings going on as well. And in those side meetings, they’re really talking about the preeminence or the need, if you will, for the preeminence of human rights at the table as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, you were telling us today that it’s human rights issues that are going to make or break the ability of these countries to make these kinds of economic advances.

NICOLE LEE: Well, I think so.

Mayor Bloomberg is right when you look at the United States. Many of the things that the people of Africa need are the things that Americans value as well. One of those things is the ability to have your voice heard, to live in a democracy.

The people of Africa want the same thing. And so if we’re going to see real development, real sustainable change that U.S. business leaders, frankly, want to see as well, we’re really going have to make sure human rights are at the forefront. Now, some leaders that are not respecting human rights were not invited to the table, but some were invited to the table who also have some of the similar problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what happens at a — can you literally change the way people do business, the way they think, the way they treat others in their country in their society by having meetings like this one?

NICOLE LEE: Well, I think what is important to understand about countries in Africa is most countries have a very vibrant civil society, people that are interested in human rights and worker rights, LGBT rights, that are working very hard within Africa, within the countries in Africa to make sure that human rights are respected.

What they do need though is to make sure the international community also stands in solidarity with them, it says that, yes, we’re going to do business in Africa, but we’re going to do business and make sure that the people of the continent really benefit.

Africa has the youngest population right now on the planet. Is that young population going to be a population in poverty, or is it going to be a population in the middle class? I believe and many civil society leaders even in the United States believe that it’s going to take all of us to make sure that Africa’s leaders really make sure that human rights are at the forefront of their campaigns, they’re at the forefront of their policy-making, rather than at the back end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how, tangibly, does that happen? Do you look for them statements, commitments to come out of this meeting? Do you look for conversations that go on while these leaders are in Washington?

NICOLE LEE: Well, one of the things that Mayor Bloomberg said that I think is so important is, we are hoping for a lot of proclamations to come out of this meeting.

From President Obama himself, for example, we are really hoping that something is going to be done on HIV and AIDS and health care. We know that that is central, frankly, to the ability for people to actually be able to go out and get good jobs and really take advantage of all of this investment that Mayor Bloomberg is talking about.

But it also has to do with making sure that there is a space for civil society from Africa to really move about and to really make sure that their voices are heard. Oftentimes, it’s civil society in Africa that has the solutions, but no one is listening to them. No one is listening to the business plans that they have. No one is listening to the ideas that they have for really changing the continent.

For example, Power Africa was something that the African civil society had been talking about for such a long time. Power Africa is an initiative now to make sure that there is electricity all around the continent. Well, civil society folks, leaders has been talking about that for years, to make sure, if people are really going to be able to take advantage of the 21st century, they certainly at least need electricity. And so that is something that came right from civil society.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nicole Lee, you mentioned a minute ago some leaders were invited whose countries have been guilty of human rights abuses. I think one people have pointed to is Rwanda. What is the message that sends to others that they’re part of these conversations?

NICOLE LEE: I think it is a tough balance, if you will.

One on hand, I can sympathize, because, in a way, if the U.S. government has a good relationship with the Rwandan government, this would be an opportunity to use that relationship and explain that we will not tolerate human rights abuses.

On the other hand, a country like Zimbabwe, where we do not have really any relationship to that government, it does send a message to invite them that we don’t respect human rights. So it’s a tough balance. I just hope that the administration is using this opportunity with these leaders — Equatorial Guinea would be a good example.

These are leaders that have very, very distressing human rights records — and that we’re using the opportunity, if we do have this sort of relationship that their invitation would suggest, that we’re using this opportunity to have a conversation about human rights as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s one set of meetings. But it is taking place and a lot of us are watching.

NICOLE LEE: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nicole Lee, we thank you.

NICOLE LEE: Thank you.