Biden clarifies how he’s defending human rights around the world, and what that could mean for African autocrats amid mutual economic interests

U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday clarified how his administration is defending and protecting human rights around the world, giving some assurances to those who had feared that the withdrawal from Afghanistan this week was the beginning of a U.S. retreat from the world stage.

In a major address from the White House State Dining Room on August 31, President Biden talked mainly about Afghanistan, explaining that a 20-year war that had cost many American lives and over $2 trillion was no longer in the interest of the United States, especially ten years after Osama bin Laden had been killed and Al-Qaeda had been significantly degraded.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington DC Tuesday August 31nbsp
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on ending the war in #Afghanistan in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, August 31.

Mr. Biden’s clarification that the United States did not go to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks to defend human rights there, impose democratic values or rebuild the country left human rights advocates wondering whether the United States would no longer defender human rights in the world.

However, in his speech, President Biden explained that the United States will continue to defend and protect human rights around the world but in a more traditional way, not by sending tens of thousands of troops to foreign lands.

“And let me be clear: We will continue to support the Afghan people through diplomacy, international influence, and humanitarian aid.  We’ll continue to push for regional diplomacy and engagement to prevent violence and instability,” Mr. Biden said. “We’ll continue to speak out for basic rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls, as we speak out for women and girls all around the globe.  And I’ve been clear that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.”

He explained that “the way to do that is not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support.”

President Biden, who was inaugurated on January 20, 2021, has repeatedly asserted that the United States will be used as a global force for good, and that human rights will be at the center of his foreign policy agenda.

In various remarks, the 78-year old leader has vowed to defend democracy from the rise of autocracy, especially from China. Democracy, he has asserted, is in danger and is too important to let it die.

In Ethiopia, the United States has been vocal against atrocities being committed there by the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea and other actors.

Envoys and condemnations from senior U.S. administration officials do not seem to have changed much on the ground.

Last week, the United States said no significant progress has been accomplished in the Ethiopian war since July.

It said the humanitarian, political and security situation in Ethiopia continues to deteriorate with no progress made on the ground in several months, warning that more civilians may die.

Abiy Ahmed 
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali

With the military confrontation escalating further and the Ethiopian government failing to respond positively to calls for negotiations, the lingering instability in the Horn of Africa is affecting millions of people.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerkii is welcomed by Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Addis Ababa International Airport, Ethiopia, Saturday, July 14, 2018. (AP Photo Mulugeta Ayene) 
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerkii is welcomed by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Addis Ababa International Airport, Ethiopia, Saturday, July 14, 2018. (AP Photo Mulugeta Ayene)

Abiy Ahmed is not alone, and on Friday, Amnesty International urged South Sudan to end a ‘new wave of repression against peaceful protests’, asserting that authorities have arrested civil society activists and a politician and closed down a radio station and an academic think-tank, signaling a new wave of repression in response to calls for peaceful protests.

The uptick in arbitrary arrests and other measures come after the People’s Coalition for Civil Action (PCCA), a recently-formed umbrella group of government critics, called for peaceful country-wide protests on August 30 to force the government to step down, citing “failed leadership”.

South Sudan parliament voted in 2018 to keep President Salva Kiir in power for three more years [Reuters] 
South Sudan parliament voted in 2018 to keep President Salva Kiir in power for three more years [Reuters]

“We are witnessing a new wave of repression emerging in South Sudan targeting the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 2021. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 2021. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha

This week, Nigerian activists from the Igbo tribe also protested in front of the White House in Washington D.C., calling on the American leader to intervene in Africa’s most populous nation, citing threat to democracy and grave human rights violations by President Muhammadu Buhari and his administration.

Nigerian Igbo activists protest in front of the White House in Washington DC on August 31, 2021. Photo: Today News Africa, Simon Ateba 
Nigerian Igbo activists protest in front of the White House in Washington DC on August 31, 2021. Photo: Today News Africa, Simon Ateba

On August 20, 2021, Ugandan authorities announced without prior notification that they had halted the activities of 54 civil society groups, including human rights and election monitoring organizations.

The National Bureau for Non-governmental Organizations, a state regulatory body, only started notifying the groups after the announcement. Staff members from some groups told Human Rights Watch that they were notified only hours or even days later.

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, President of Uganda at the Somalia Conference in London on May 7, 2013. 
Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, President of Uganda at the Somalia Conference in London on May 7, 2013.

“The measures taken against these organizations demonstrates once again the Uganda government’s disregard for civil society,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Rather than preventing them from doing their work, the authorities should be seeking ways to quickly resolve any compliance issues they may have and support them in their work.”

Human rights violations in Africa are not limited to Ethiopia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Uganda. They are widespread.

The Biden administration faces dilemma – advancing trade and security ties and defending and protecting human rights, a delicate balance at a time of intense competition from the Chinese who do not seem to care about human rights in Africa, and sometimes even assist governments in abusing their own people for economic gains.

For instance, last July, Nigeria received its first six A-29 Super Tucano planes from the United States to fight insurgents in the northeast of the country. The agreement was reached four years ago, as Nigeria battled rising insecurity, including mass school abductions in Borno state.

The light attack planes from the United States, the first half of an order of 12, arrived in the northern city of Kano on July 22, 2021. The cost was $593 million for the aircraft order, including thousands of bombs, rockets and a servicing agreement.

The U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard welcomes the pilots and aircraft to Massachusetts on the first leg of their trans-Atlantic flight. 
The U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard welcomes the pilots and aircraft to Massachusetts on the first leg of their trans-Atlantic flight.

The United States faces that dilemma virtually everywhere in Africa from Ethiopia, the second most populous country on the continent, to Egypt, where human rights organizations have raised serious concerns about violations there as well.

This complicates the announcement by President Biden on Tuesday that the United States will continue to defend human rights using many tools, including economic assets.

How President Biden will strike the right balance between advancing America’s economic and security interests and punish those who violate human rights remains to be seen.

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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