What role should the U.S. take in Africa?
April 2, 1998
in this forum:
Why would African nations consider "help" from the United States or anyone else? In what ways can America demonstrate its commitment to human rights in Africa? Will President Clinton's trip to Africa produce any results? Is the policy of "trade not aid" the right focus of this trip? Will economic ties foster democratic development in Africa? Denise McFall of Atlanta, GA, asks: In what ways can America demonstrate its commitment to human rights in Africa?
Professor Willard Johnson responds:
The most important ways that the U.S. Government could support human rights in Africa is to cease to support dictators and military rulers. We ought vigorously and consistently implement the approach to Nigeria recently announced by Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice, that none of the military leaders would be acceptable as candidates in coming elections. A return to civilian authority should not be subverted in any African state.
We should put on hold, or in some cases outright eliminate, financial assistance to regimes that have seriously flawed records of honoring basic human rights, like the states of Nigeria, Sudan, and Kenya. We should also press the new military rulers of Niger and The Gambia to permit genuine elections, and to step down.
Other countries that quite possibly would also merit sanctions include Ethiopia, where journalists and a number of political figures have been jailed or harassed, and Mauritania where not enough has been done to really end the practice of slavery, although it is formally outlawed. Other states have serious problems in the society, like Algeria, where brutal terrorism is being perpetrated by religious/political groups and the government is responding harshly (perhaps necessarily.) Libya has a record of support for terrorists and rebels in other countries.
Perhaps the most effective sanctions the external world really could effectively place on brutal and inhumane leadership would be to cut them off from all the forms of access they now readily have to the comforts, business, and especially banking and investment opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere in the developed world. These activities are usually carried out with money stolen from the people at large, directly by taking it from public coffers, or indirectly, by demanding commissions and kickbacks on contracts and investments in their countries. If the "secret Swiss bank accounts" and their counterparts in many other places were no longer secret and protected, a lot of the present incentive to suppress, brutalize and rob African people and treasuries would be eliminated. This would seem even more reasonable given the fact that often these financial networks and facilities are used by the drug traders. Why is there so little pressure to change the international banking system in this regard?
Mr. Francis Deng responds:
I believe America can demonstrate its commitment to human rights in Africa in several ways, both multilaterally and bilaterally. By multilaterally, I mean positive support for the human rights agenda in all the relevant international human rights bodies. Bilaterally would mean doing so in its relations with African regional and sub-regional organizations and with individual governments. An aspect of this is conditionality, which means providing incentives for compliance and dis-incentives for violations. Also relevant to bilateral promotion would be support for national and continent-wide human rights organizations.
Although U.S. support for human rights should build on the International Bill of Human Rights and other relevant instruments, it is important to recognize that African cultures, like all other world cultures, have their own way of promoting human dignity, the overriding value that underpins human rights principles. The importance of this is two-fold. First, it deprives human rights violators of cultural justification. Second, it makes cultural diversity a source of cross-cultural enrichment to the concept and content of universal human rights.
And so, while reactionary cultural relativism that denies the universality principle is negative, cross-cultural perspectives on human rights are positive and potentially enriching.