President Joe Biden has pledged to “revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” This month, he will host a virtual Summit for Democracy as a demonstration of that commitment.
But it is still unclear how democracy and human rights will fare in the trade-off of foreign policy priorities.
This administration’s policy toward Africa will provide a good test case of how Biden’s team will navigate these choices, and that policy should start to take shape soon. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his first official trip to Africa, and the White House recently hired a new lead adviser to revamp its US-Africa strategy.
Leading with democracy and human rights in Africa will require a real shift in priorities, though it wouldn’t be difficult. A simple “do no harm” principle would go a long way. Rather than requiring more action to promote democracy and human rights, it would merely demand that the US end assistance that undermines them.
As a US diplomat in Africa, I frequently saw these values lose the foreign policy tug-of-war when they conflicted with security priorities like counterterrorism. Security sector assistance -- training and equipping foreign militaries -- offers a clear demonstration. It is touted as a low-cost way to address US national security interests by improving security across the continent, but it often does more harm than good.
Uganda provides a stark example. For over 15 years, it has been a major recipient of US security sector assistance, supporting Uganda’s efforts to fight first the Lord’s Resistance Army, an extremist group in northern Uganda, and later al-Shabaab in Somalia.
America has continued this support despite widespread use of Ugandan security forces to abuse civilians, including violent oppression of opposition during elections in January. The US expressed deep concern but has done little beyond strongly worded statements to press for change.
Uganda’s military has failed to deliver security and stability as well. Al-Shabaab remains undefeated in Somalia, and Uganda continues to face terrorist attacks within its borders. Coordinated suicide attacks struck the capital, Kampala, as recently as Tuesday.
It isn’t just Uganda. Security forces trained and supported by the US government have been used as tools of domestic political suppression and abuse in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria as well.
US interest in continuing security assistance even trumps our commitment to ending the use of child soldiers. Under the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act, the US is prohibited from providing certain security assistance to countries that use them, but waivers are routinely issued. In 2020, nine of the 14 designated countries received them.
I saw this in 2014 as the US government failed for months to call out South Sudan’s visible use of child soldiers. I couldn’t understand what was driving our need to continue our assistance despite obvious bad acts by the forces we were supporting. The decision seemed driven by a general desire to keep options open rather than a specific US interest.
US-trained forces have also been implicated in military takeovers. This year alone has seen military coups in Guinea, Mali and Chad, all by troops that received American military training and assistance. The September coup in Guinea was conducted by forces who were in the middle of their US military training.
Rather than a contest between values and security, it becomes one of long-term problem-solving versus short-term problem management, and this trade-off has not served American interests or Africa well. US military efforts have failed to stem terrorism across the continent while empowering increasingly undemocratic and abusive regimes.
Prioritizing security might promise quick wins in the near term, such as preventing a government’s collapse or propping up stability. But that support won’t provide durable solutions in the face of bad governance. To the contrary, supplying and supporting abusive security forces often directly undermines democracy and governance priorities.
Supporting democracy and human rights is essential to address underlying causes of conflict and instability, but it is a long-term investment, with short-term gains often hard to see. A new administration doesn’t have the time to invest in generational change, and there are no shortcuts to achieving good governance.
But we can improve our track record on democracy and human rights in Africa while still accepting the limits of what US foreign policy can do. Ensuring that nothing the United States does actively undermines human rights or democracy would be a huge step, but it would necessarily call for curbing our enthusiastic security sector support and prioritizing human rights and democracy in our national security policies more broadly.
That alone would be a significant change in our approach, and now would be the time to do it.
We should know soon if this administration will continue our deference to short-term security priorities at any cost or if the Biden administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights is more than just words.Elizabeth Shackelford
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.(Tribune Content Agency)
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