UK’s Africa Policy Should be Guided by Rights

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United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson (front row, center) poses for a photo with African state leaders and international officials at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London, January 20, 2020. 
© 2020 Ben Stansall/Press Association via AP Images

Sub-Saharan Africa offers a test of the United Kingdom government’s ambition to be a force for good in the world. A new report by the UK House of Lords international relations committee on policy towards the continent offers an opportunity to reflect on how that ambition could be realised.

The UK has a difficult and often problematic history in Africa, including colonialism and slavery. The report says the UK needs to “recognise, be open about, and address the challenges that this history brings to its relationships” and address that historical legacy. Doing this will only enhance the UK’s credibility and influence.

The House of Lords review, to which Human Rights Watch submitted evidence, comes at an important moment for UK-Africa relations. After Brexit, the UK needs to build new trading relationships and alliances. It has commercial, security, and migration interests. The success of those endeavors depends also on promoting respect for human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions, including through partnership with the African Union and Commonwealth.

The report offers useful recommendations, noting that peace and security depend on addressing underlying causes, including human rights abuse. Abusive insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel and Nigeria provide salient examples. That in turn depends on whether those who commit abuses are held to account, and the committee rightly stresses the importance of the International Criminal Court.

On aid and development policy, the report recommends “support for accountability, human rights, the rule of law, and anti-corruption as a package that helps build the necessary conditions for democracy to function,” and a review of UK military assistance.

There are gaps. The report glosses over Rwanda’s dire human rights record and crackdown on dissent as Kigali prepares to host Commonwealth leaders. The discussion of Boko Haram abuses should be accompanied by mention of abuses by Nigerian security forces.

Conversely, it rightly calls for the UK to do more to protect the rights of people in Cameroon’s regions and to maintain a focus on the rights of women and girls in its work on peace and security.

The report calls on the UK to “afford significant importance to human rights in its relationships in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Doing so more consistently would be in the UK’s own interest and could make a real difference to the lives of many.