August 13, 2014 at 12:58 pm EDT | by Peter Rosenstein
Did Obama do enough at Africa summit?
Washington Blade, State Department, African Leaders Summit

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at the White House on Aug. 5, 2014. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

There was a lot of discussion last week during and after the African Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. over whether President Obama mentioned LGBT rights enough and whether he should have rolled out the red carpet for some of the African leaders at the White House.

In a Washington Blade column, Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is quoted as saying, “Rolling out the literal red carpet for some of Africa’s longest serving dictators that clearly do not respect the fundamental human rights of their citizens will always paint an unfortunate picture of the U.S. and our relationship with the continent. It provides easy ammunition to critics who claim the U.S. is only interested in working with those who lend a hand in the fight against terrorism, like Uganda, or those who sit on vast oil reserves, as in Nigeria.”

It seems to me this may be the view of Smith but is not the view of most of the world. Rather, in the long run, not working with and developing closer relationships with these countries would do harm to our ability to champion civil and human rights for everyone.

We learned long ago we cannot change the world by simply waiving a wand or wishing it so. Even in our own country we have a long way to go before everyone has their full civil and human rights. So should other countries that may be more advanced in these areas than we are say they won’t talk to or invite our president to dinner? This approach makes no sense.

Many years ago there were those who said we shouldn’t be talking to China and it took the unlikely leadership of Richard Nixon to change that. He understood that to disregard one billion people made no sense and if we could have political and economic relations with China we were better able to have some influence on their people and leadership to bring about change. China has come a long way since that time and still has a long way to go. But through ongoing relationships and economic ties, the United States can claim to have helped move things forward for many people in China.

I hope that the stronger political and economic ties the president forged during the African summit will make a difference in many of the African nations that lag so far behind us in providing human and civil rights for their people. Those ties will give us more clout to pressure them on these issues in the future.

The foreign policy of the United States must always include a strong civil and human rights plank and that must be an important part of our dealing with nations around the world. But that doesn’t mean it will be part of every conversation or on every agenda. Those complaining that President Obama or members of his administration didn’t bring up LGBT rights often enough during the summit, or at all in his final statement on the African summit, are wrong to chastise him for that. LGBT rights or for that matter civil and human rights for all people, were not the focus of this summit. As it was, the president had a hard enough time getting any attention to the summit due to the Ebola epidemic; the Israel/Hamas fight; and the ISIS attacks in Iraq.

I have often criticized this administration for being too slow to move on LGBT issues and when they did using them for political purposes. But we have made more progress domestically on LGBT issues than in any previous administration. In addition, this administration has placed a strong focus at USAID to advance LGBT issues around the world and these initiatives often occur out of the spotlight. USAID is working to include LGBT human and civil rights issues in our dealings with foreign governments and their people. That work had the strong support of Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was Secretary of State and support continues under Secretary John Kerry. Their support has translated into initiatives advanced by Claire Lucas, senior adviser for Public-Private Partnerships in the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances (IDEA) and she and USAID staff have received support for their efforts from Rajiv Shah, USAID administrator.

Progress on civil and human rights for all people is always too slow because while we fight for those rights suffering continues. So while these issues may not be on the agenda at every meeting they must continue to be a focus that underlies all that we do.

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