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Meet America’s China-Cozying, Rights-Abusing Ally in the Horn of Africa

The United States is ignoring Djibouti's human rights abuses and a growing ties with China to fly drones in Africa.

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Diplomacy often means metaphorically holding one’s nose while dealing with unsavory characters who happen to run strategically important countries. We can only assume Secretary of State John Kerry was thinking of the latter while doing the former during a meeting Wednesday with Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, a man who stands accused of committing a broad array of human rights violations but whose nation houses hundreds of American drones and other aircraft.

In a May 5 letter obtained by FP, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) urged Kerry to call out Guelleh for years of abusing his own people. A 2013 State Department report chronicled 26 pages worth of abuses by Guelleh’s government, a man serving a third term in office after ignoring the Djiboutian constitutional provision that only allows two. The letter also called on Kerry to warn Guelleh to cool growing financial and defense ties between Djibouti and China, including a quiet security and defense agreement signed last year. Beijing has also invested hundreds of million of dollars into port facilities along the Djiboutian coast.

“It should worry him and the president that China is trying to expand its sphere of influence in Djibouti. China is willing to do business and make investments that must be viewed cautiously and with a good degree of pessimism,” Hunter said in an emailed statement to FP.

Diplomacy often means metaphorically holding one’s nose while dealing with unsavory characters who happen to run strategically important countries. We can only assume Secretary of State John Kerry was thinking of the latter while doing the former during a meeting Wednesday with Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, a man who stands accused of committing a broad array of human rights violations but whose nation houses hundreds of American drones and other aircraft.

In a May 5 letter obtained by FP, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) urged Kerry to call out Guelleh for years of abusing his own people. A 2013 State Department report chronicled 26 pages worth of abuses by Guelleh’s government, a man serving a third term in office after ignoring the Djiboutian constitutional provision that only allows two. The letter also called on Kerry to warn Guelleh to cool growing financial and defense ties between Djibouti and China, including a quiet security and defense agreement signed last year. Beijing has also invested hundreds of million of dollars into port facilities along the Djiboutian coast.

“It should worry him and the president that China is trying to expand its sphere of influence in Djibouti. China is willing to do business and make investments that must be viewed cautiously and with a good degree of pessimism,” Hunter said in an emailed statement to FP.

He and other lawmakers pay close attention to Djibouti, which is critical for U.S. military operations in two regions — East Africa and Yemen — because of the presence of Camp Lemonnier, the only major American military base in Africa and one where drones and other aircraft are stationed.

The human rights abuses committed by Guelleh’s regime are not new, said Bobby Herman, vice president for international programs at Freedom House. “It continues, the repression across the board,” he said. Freedom House rates the country “not free” in its most recent Freedom in the World Survey.

The violations chronicled by the State Department and non-government organizations include arbitrary arrests; use of excessive force; denial of fair and public trials; restrictions on political gatherings; genital mutilation; government corruption; and human trafficking, among others.

“The most serious human rights problem was the government’s abridgement of the right of citizens to change or significantly influence their government. The government did so by harassing, abusing, and detaining government critics; denying the population access to independent sources of information; and restricting freedom of speech and assembly,” the State report concluded.

Herman said he wasn’t surprised that Kerry failed to mention human rights in his prepared remarks, as the U.S. is more focused on keeping Djibouti as a host for its fleet of terror-targeting aircraft. But he took Kerry to task nonetheless: “There’s not even a single reference to anything like democracy and human rights,” Herman said.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what Washington is getting from looking the other way.

A recent Washington Post report revealed that cooperation on terrorism is being undermined by chronic problems at the Djiboutian civilian-staffed air traffic control tower at the Ambouli airport used by American planes located right next to Camp Lemonnier, including controllers who are combative with American pilots, are unresponsive to U.S. communications, won’t allow some American planes to land before circling the base, and routinely sleep on the job, among other actions unthinkable in a traditional control tower. Six drones have crashed, and one U-28 spy plane went down after being refused permission to land.

The Pentagon says it has taken steps to improve air safety at the base, such as sharing best practices with Djiboutian controllers and adding a new, military-controlled radar to the base. Kerry did not mention air safety issues as a public appearance with Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf Wednesday, but did praise cooperation “on the basis of both mutual respect, but also mutual interest.”

Photo Credit: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

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