Obama presses Ethiopia and Kenya on human rights during visits

Presidents Barack Obama and Uhuru Kenyatta wave to delegates at the Opening Plenary at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, in Nairobi, Kenya on July 25, 2015 [U.S. Embassy Nairobi Photo]

President Obama wasted little time while in Ethiopia and Kenya to publicly discuss human rights concerns in the east African nations. Today, Obama used his co-news conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to encourage the country to stop its practice of crackdowns on the media and free speech.

“When all voices are being heard, when people know they are being included in the political process, that makes a country more successful,” he said.

Obama arrived in Ethiopia via Kenya late Sunday. Before departing, he delivered a speech in Nairobi where he touched on issues including women’s rights and corruption. He told the audience that the country is “at a crossroads” where decisions made can propel the country forward or see progress falter.

“Treating women as second-class citizens … those are bad traditions, they need to change, they are holding you back,” said Obama. “Corruption is not unique to Kenya, but the fact is too often corruption is tolerated because that’s how things have always been done. Just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right.”

As a surprise to some, Obama has yet to skirt many of the human rights issues troubling Kenya and Ethiopia. There were concerns in Kenya that he would bring up gay rights, especially after the landmark Supreme Court ruling last month. An open letter from 700 evangelical pastors in Kenya asked Obama not to discuss gay rights while in Kenya. Prior to Obama’s arrival, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed the possibility that the issue would come up.

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He was wrong.

“[A] law-abiding citizen who is going about their business, and working at a job and obeying the traffic signs and not harming anybody, the idea they will be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong, full stop,” said Obama during a joint news conference with Kenyatta.

Obama was not entirely direct, but got his message across. Kenyatta responded in kind by saying that there are many issues where Kenya and the United States agree and some where they disagree. Gay rights is one that “is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans” according to Kenyatta.

Desalegn was similarly put on the spot today by Obama on the topic of press freedom. Bloggers and journalists critical of Ethiopia’s rulers can end up jailed with charges of incitement and terrorism – the accusations often leveled by autocratic rulers attempting to tamp down dissent. The country released five journalists in early July. Yet, 12 journalists remain in prison, said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The decision to release some of the journalists was likely in the hopes of appeasing the United States before Obama’s visit.

But that was not sufficient. Obama said in his public remarks that he brought up the issue of media and political freedom in Ethiopia. He also defended his decision to travel to Ethiopia in the first place, stating that it is necessary to engage with countries that do not share similar views on rights, such as China. The comments by Obama put Desalegn on the defensive. He reiterated the need for journalists not to work with terrorist groups.

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“Our commitment to democracy is real – not skin deep,” he said.

So said the prime minister elected with 100 percent of the vote. It is a result that President Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice finds quite humorous.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.