The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will be held next week, more than eight years after the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was held in Washington, D.C., in August 2014 under the Obama administration. During the Trump administration, no such summit was organized. The Biden administration aims to revive this forum from Dec. 13 to 15 with an expanded list of “shared values,” including peace, security, good governance, democracy, human rights, and civil society.
This summit comes at a time when several wars in Africa—including one of the world’s deadliest in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the protracted conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo—have culminated in preventable mass atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Between the 1990s to 2000s, about two-thirds of African countries transited to free or partially free democracies. In 2013, close to 69 percent of Africans still supported democratic governance, and over 75 percent of the African population rejected military, one-party, or one-person rule. After having shown significant generational progression in the past three decades, hard-earned gains of democratic dispensation and constitutionalism have come under attack on the African continent, trampled by several military coups and embattled autocrats with limitless authoritarian terms of office.
Nonetheless, leaders accused of atrocity crimes and despots who have flouted constitutional restraints are still invited to Washington, D.C. For the autocrats accused of war crimes, there is no greater diplomatic prize than a fancy photo opportunity at the U.S.-Africa summit and the White House.
The sustainability of the U.S.-Africa partnership eventually depends on whether the summit puts the rights, aspirations, and dignity of the people of Africa—particularly the youth—at the center of deliberations. For young generations in Africa, values such as democratic accountability are integral to national security interests, inseparable from human security, and crucial for economic progress.
Despots and war criminals are enemies of the aspiration of the people and, thus, cannot be allies of such partnership for democracy and accountability.
In light of all the ongoing wars and atrocities, and the rise of authoritarianism, the Biden administration should rescind its invitation to autocrats accused of war crimes and press for accountability—both legal and political—as the core agenda of the summit.
The invitation of autocrats to the U.S.-Africa summit signals the rehabilitation and reintegration of even those accused of atrocity crimes into the international community. It conveys the wrong message that the U.S. tolerates the use of intentional mass starvation, widespread rape and sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, and mass atrocities against certain ethnic groups. The new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa states that democracy, human rights, justice, and accountability will be front and center in the United States’ partnership with Africa. It reads: “The United States will work with African governments, civil society, and publics to increase transparency and accountability, including by supporting investigative journalism, combating digital authoritarianism, and enshrining laws, reforms, and practices that promote shared democratic norms.” It states more emphatically: “We are more likely to advance US objectives if the region's civil society, including journalists and activists, as well as multilateral bodies and democratic institutions, stand up for shared democratic values, such as transparency, accountability, diversity, equality and equity, women's rights, and inclusion.”
Accountability, both political and legal, plays a crucial role in protecting human rights and the legitimacy of attaining, exercising, and maintaining power and, thus, stability and prosperity. It also helps to justify who, when, why, and for what purpose power is exercised. It keeps politics of identity under constitutional checks and balances while resources are distributed in a manner that enhances tolerance in society. If not immediately reinforced, making democracy and accountability secondary to stability poses a threat to democratic ideals, supporting authoritarian narratives currently on the rise in Africa.
A critical part of creating this accountability entails the Biden administration making every effort to use the summit to prop up international inquiries aiming at ensuring accountability for grave human rights violations, such as the report released by the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). Established by the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council, the ICHREE was mandated to “conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into allegations of violations and abuses” of international human rights and international humanitarian law in Ethiopia.”
Similar U.N. international independent inquiries have established facts that served as judicial and unassailable historical records of grave crimes that withstood the test of time and inhibited revisionist tendencies. They offered the victims an opportunity to voice their loss and suffering and helped to create the conditions necessary for those responsible to be held accountable legally and politically and for reconciliation.
In its recent report, the ICHREE concluded that atrocity crimes have been committed in Tigray. The ICHREE concludes that the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara governments and forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. It confirms that widespread rape, sexual slavery, and sexual violence are being used as methods of warfare. The siege consists of a wide range of measures designed to systematically deprive the population of Tigray of not only food and water but also health care, shelter, sanitation, and education. Crucial humanitarian aid has been prevented from reaching Tigray, with starvation intentionally used as the primary weapon of war. These actions are aimed at maximizing suffering and causing serious mental or physical injuries. The ICHREE states that “widespread acts of rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls” have been committed with the “intent to destroy the Tigrayan ethnicity.” Drone attacks (imported from Iran, China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates) by the Ethiopian National Defense Force against civilians in the Dedebit IDP camp on Jan. 7 are characterized in the report as war crimes. The ICHREE has found that these war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide were committed by the government of Ethiopia and “allied regional state governments” (Amhara and Afar) forces, as well as the Eritrean state.
Moreover, the ICHREE concludes that Tigrayan forces have also committed war crimes “with the exception of sexual slavery and starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, regardless of the scale of violations.” In the same manner, Tigrayan forces “have also committed acts of rape and sexual violence, albeit on a smaller scale.” The ICHREE accuses the Tigrayan forces of killing civilians, raping, looting, and destroying civilian infrastructure and property in Kobo and Chenna in late August and early September 2021. However, the violations committed by Tigrayan forces against civilians in Amhara and Afar pale in comparison to the magnitude, nature, and policy objectives of the egregious mass atrocities committed against Tigrayans, mainly within Tigray, by the combined Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces with the help of Emirate and Turkish drones.
In addition to state responsibility for violations of international law, the principle of individual criminal responsibility asserts that perpetrators should be held accountable for international crimes (war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide). Criminal responsibility also refers to those who attempt, assist, facilitate, aid, abet, plan, or instigate the commission of atrocity crimes. This includes higher officials who, as a matter of responsibility, should have prevented these crimes. The ICHREE calls for further investigation into individual criminal responsibility of “alleged perpetrators of violations and abuses,” stating that there is a confidential list of names and ranks of these individuals that need to be investigated further. Such detailed further investigations will help international justice systems understand the chain of command, control, and communications of the accused parties and attribute the violations individually.
The ICHREE also drew attention to the reality that the atrocities in the report are not exhaustive, noting more “incidents and themes that merit further investigation” such as the large-scale killings in Tigray, including in the ancient city of Axum and Maryam Dengelat, Mai Kadra, Bora Slawa, Mahbere Dego, and Kola Tembien in 2021. In the same vein, the ICHREE proposed further investigation into the large-scale killings in Oromia that occurred from June through August 2022. Furthermore, the arbitrarily detained thousands of Tigrayans across the country and the situation of Eritrean refugees require further investigation, according to the ICHREE.
All of this should be read with the acknowledgement that the ICHREE has faced considerable political opposition, as well as financial and time constraints, and states in its report that these “challenges … prevented it from thoroughly fulfilling its mandate.” All African members of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Russia, and China opposed the establishment of the ICHREE in December 2021 and, later on, opposed the extension of its mandate.
The ICHREE was, and still is, denied access to the sites of atrocities in Ethiopia and neighboring Sudan. It has also been unable to do remote interviews, owing to a “continued telecommunications blackout,” according to its report. Added to this, the ICHREE has had only two full-time human rights investigators probing a genocidal war of attrition that led to the death of more than a half million people and affected a population of 120 million. Ethiopia and its allies in the U.N. General Assembly’s budget committee tried unsuccessfully to deny the ICHREE funding, even though they did succeed in limiting funds to hire the necessary experts.
The opposition to the ICHREE’s establishment, financing, and operation came not only from the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments implicated in the atrocities committed in Tigray but also from global powers such as Russia and China, and most of the African countries whose leaders are attending the summit.
The ICHREE in its latest report calls on the Council, in addition to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council, to place the situation in Ethiopia on their agendas and take action aimed at restoring peace, stability, and security in the region, thereby preventing further violations and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law. In an earlier statement, the ICHREE urged “the Council to keep the situation in Ethiopia and the Horn high on its agenda.”
Even though the ICHREE’s mandate has been extended for a year, this was achieved with a narrow margin of votes. It still needs to get the necessary budgetary allocation from the U.N. General Assembly to appoint a full complement of technical staff members. Furthermore, to ensure access to the sites of atrocities and relevant documents, the ICHREE needs diplomatic backing from countries with leverage such as the U.S., the European Union, and its members.
The Security Council has the mandate and capability to ensure unhindered access to sites of interest and obtain cooperation both from parties to the conflict and from U.N. entities. The U.N. Security Council has failed to take any meaningful deliberation and concrete measures on the war in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia. The paralysis in the U.N. Security Council in the Tigray war can be attributed to heightened great power competition between the U.S.-led West and Russia and China. Russia, China, and the three elected African states on the Security Council (A3) supported the regimes in Addis Ababa and Asmara. The U.S. and other democratic states have prioritized stability over accountability.
Of course, there is also a complicated African dynamic within the U.N. Security Council to consider. Representing Africa in the Security Council and employing the slogan “African solutions to African problems,” the three rotating African members of the Council (the A3—in this case, Kenya, Gabon, Ghana, Niger, and Tunisia, across different terms) obstructed the efforts of Ireland, Albania, France, Norway, the U.K., and the U.S. to bring Ethiopia to an open and formal meeting of the council. “African solutions to African problems” was meant to encapsulate the hard lesson learned by Africa after the international community failed to stop the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. As a result, the Organization of African Unity, established on the non-interference creed, was replaced by the AU with its interventionist and integrationist mandates. Since the early 2000s, the interventionist AU has increasingly been blunted after its less-successful peace support operations in Sudan, Darfur, and Mali. Rife with problems, including funding, the mission in Somalia still remains useful but ineffective, and the African Standby Force is yet to be deployed.
Now, for the non-African members of the U.N. Security Council, the “African solutions to African problems” motto has become the exact opposite of what it was intended to mean: the abdication of the U.N. Charter obligation for the international community to act when intervention is needed in Africa. For the A3, the “African solutions to African problems” motto has become newspeak for the principle of non-interference, this time in African affairs, almost barring non-African mandated bodies from playing their global duties.
On Oct. 21, Russia and China for the first time blocked the A3’s proposal that the U.N. Security Council issue a statement on the war on Tigray. With the exception of countries such as Ireland, the U.S., and Norway, other members including the A3 have failed to acknowledge the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray, let alone call for their withdrawal, and blocked substantive deliberations and action on the war on Tigray. Russia went so far as to defend Ethiopia’s alliance with Eritrea in waging war on Tigray.
The confluence of these human-made and natural crises aggravates the long-standing fragility of African states. The competition between great powers, with the U.S. and its Western allies on the one hand and Russia and China on the other, extends to various parts of the African continent. Furthermore, the Ukraine war is also increasingly affecting the geopolitical importance of Africa in the global game of great powers and regional players, particularly in the Sahel region, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden. Russia has increased its military, diplomatic, and other engagements with several African governments, including Eritrea, Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic. Ethiopia and Russia are currently holding joint ministerial commission meetings on various issues. At the same time, the U.S. and its allies in the West are fortifying their relations with many other governments, including authoritarian regimes accused of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, such as those taking place in Tigray, Ethiopia.
At a bilateral level, China’s dealings in Africa mirror the character of the partnering African government. Chinese companies acclimatize quickly to the system of the partner state. If faced with a corrupt system, they deal accordingly in a corrupt manner. Indicative of the weak legislative, regulatory, and enforcement systems of African countries and their corrupt officials, Chinese and other companies exploit this weakness to their advantage. Lacking transparency and accountability in the government, the legislative, regulatory, and enforcement mechanisms fail to adequately supervise external investments, including from China and Russia, effectively. Such weaknesses in African states allow the Chinese tendency to do business irrespective of concerns related to sustainability, corruption, human rights, and the national interests of African countries. These practices reinforce China’s role in undermining democratization and strong state formation in Africa. In this regard, Africans take the lion’s share of responsibility for these weaknesses. However, China shares the blame too, albeit with varying degrees and scales, for these weaknesses. Russia openly supports mercenaries involved in coups, and mobilizes state and non-state actors that are hellbent on putting themselves in power including by committing atrocities and using massive misinformation campaigns. The responsibility for implementing adequate legislative and regulatory policies and building effective African enforcement mechanisms for partnership rests with the Africans, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of doing so. But the U.S. and its interest in Africa would also benefit from countering state capture in Africa by China and Russia.
China’s and Russia’s deflationary role in democracy and accountability of Africa thus extends to the diplomatic arena. Using their veto privileges in the Security Council, both China and Russia undermine initiatives aimed at protecting human rights and impede inquiries for accountability.
In his remarks to the 77th Session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, President Biden made a surprising pronouncement that “the United States supports increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent representatives of the Council. This includes permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa [and] Latin America and the Caribbean.” Potentially with far-reaching positive consequences, if realized, such vital reform would democratize the Security Council toward a global body truly representative of the global population. A concrete measure toward the realization of such a major transformation in the U.N. power structure would be for the U.S. to forge an alliance with democracies in Africa. A coalition of this kind could also exert pressure on China and Russia to ensure the Security Council consistently acts to bring justice to the staggering number of victims of the recent atrocities in Africa.
The U.S.-Africa summit needs to ensure recommitment of both the U.S. and Africa to rule-based multilateral diplomacy and partnership that fosters resilient constitutional democracy and accountability. The U.S. should work with other veto-power-wielding democracies and the AU and its 55 member states to do what is necessary to stop ongoing atrocities in violation of shared norms in international law.
The Biden administration should send a loud and clear message: Despots and war criminals have no place in the U.S.-Africa summit, and the summit should not be used to embolden autocrats who should have their days in courts of law or be marched off to the International Criminal Court.