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Outcasts and vexing guests at Obama's Africa summit

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe speaks at the National Heroes Acre in Harare on June 7, 2014
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe speaks at the National Heroes Acre in Harare on June 7, 2014

US President Barack Obama hosts an unprecedented gathering of African leaders next week with only four nations left off the guest list despite concerns over rights abuses in many countries.

"Military coups are never a good way to get a standing invitation" to such prestigious events, said Tara Sonenshine wryly, a former under secretary for public diplomacy.

"If there is a warrant out for your leader in the ICC you are probably not going to make the A-list," the expert now with the George Washington University told AFP, referring to the International Criminal Court.

Such is the case of Sudanese President Omar Beshir, still in power after his coup 25 years ago, who will be absent as other heads of state and government mingle on the red carpet in Washington.

Zimbabwe's strongman Robert Mugabe, Eritrea and the Central Africa Republic (CAR) have also had the doors to the US corridors of power slammed in their face.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir attends the opening of the Arab League summit in the Qatari capital Doha on March 26, 2013
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir attends the opening of the Arab League summit in the Qatari capital Doha on March 26, 2013

In fact the guest list has been carefully drawn up with two considerations in mind -- any country in bad standing with the African Union was excluded as were countries slapped with US or international sanctions.

Both Khartoum and Harare are still facing US sanctions. Beshir is also wanted by the ICC for war crimes and genocide in the western Darfur region.

And Mugabe remains an international pariah, accused of decades-long human rights abuses.

Eritrea is also under UN sanctions, while CAR is currently led by an interim president in the middle of a civil war.

"The US does not want this summit to be sidetracked by arguments over who is coming and who is not coming," said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni attends the signing ceremony at the State House in Nairobi May 11, 2014
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni attends the signing ceremony at the State House in Nairobi May 11, 2014

"If you look at EU summits in Africa, the recent one was completely overshadowed by arguments over Mugabe's wife. So the US is pretty keen to avoid that."

Despite the US criteria however, there's still plenty of controversy.

Egypt's former military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was a last-minute addition after his country was readmitted to the AU, but a US official confirmed late Thursday that he would not be coming.

Egypt-US ties remain strained after the military ousted elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year and imposed a crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood.

- Dilemma -

Rights groups have also raised warnings about other nations like Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Angola and Rwanda where there are concerns about ongoing conflicts and human rights abuses.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will also be welcomed to US shores, despite global condemnation of his country's tough anti-gay laws which a constitutional court voted Thursday to overturn.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the capital Cairo on July 22, 2014
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the capital Cairo on July 22, 2014

"It is a dilemma and there is no easy way around when you get to decide who comes and who does not come," acknowledged Downie, saying the Obama administration had taken a pragmatic approach which would mean "there are some terrible poorly governed countries whose leaders will be shown the red carpet."

"It is better to have everyone in the room as much as possible because it gives a chance to engage with some of the worst offenders and to try to use that opportunity to encourage them to improve themselves," he argued.

Human rights will be on the agenda for three days of discussions which "will center on how to encourage progress in key areas that Africans define as critical for the future of the continent," according to the White House.

These include expanding trade ties, promoting sustainable development and cooperation on peace and security.

But Human Rights Watch called on Obama and others who meet with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea to raise rights issues.

"Instead of giving him propaganda opportunities, President Obama should press for an end to torture, corruption, and other abuses that are rife in Equatorial Guinea," said the group's Lisa Misol.

Previewing the summit, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said "some nations hold themselves up as global leaders on certain issues while insisting on lower expectations for Africa on other issues."

"But, leaders can't pick and choose among the responsibilities that come with being full players in the community of nations," she warned.

"Leaders must lead -- especially on difficult issues -- and protecting the human rights of all their people -- regardless of religion, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation -- is a government's first duty."

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