President seeks to strengthen key U.S. regional security partnership

By Carol E. Lee |

Ethiopia—President Barack Obama, in a visit to Ethiopia Monday, sought to balance his goals of strengthening a key U.S. partnership for combating regional security threats, while pressuring the country’s leaders to address democracy and human rights concerns.

The president also waded more deeply into the worsening conflict in South Sudan, threatening new sanctions if the leaders of the country’s warring factions don’t agree to a peace deal by a mid-August deadline.

“If we don’t’ see a breakthrough by August 17 then we’re going to have to consider what other tools we have to apply pressure on the two parties,” Mr. Obama said in a joint news conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Both leaders also vowed to redouble their efforts to combat the threat of the al Qaeda affiliated terror group al-Shabaab in neighboring Somalia and condemned Sunday’s deadly attack on a hotel in the capital Mogadishu that left 13 people dead.

Mr. Obama said he pressed Mr. Desalegn to implement changes to remedy the poor human rights record in Ethiopia. The country has proved a magnet for foreign investment because of soaring economic growth rates, but has attracted the ire of human rights groups for muzzling dissent.

“This was a significant topic of conversation,” Mr. Obama said. “Making sure to open additional space for journalists, for media, for opposition voices will strengthen rather than inhibit the agenda that the prime minister has put forward.”

Mr. Desalegn offered some conciliatory comments, saying Ethiopia is “a fledgling democracy” that is struggling to embrace broader freedoms.

“We have [to] work on our limitations,” he said.

Mr. Obama, who is the first sitting American president to visit Ethiopia, convened a meeting with regional leaders to discuss new options for forcing a resolution to escalating violence in South Sudan.

The meeting included the leaders of Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, the chair of the African Union and the Sudanese foreign minister.

The U.S. is preparing to corral new international and unilateral sanctions targeting arms and individuals perpetuating the conflict if the bloodshed continues.

“It’s something that requires urgent attention from all of us,” Mr. Obama said. “We don’t have a lot of time to wait. The conditions on the ground are getting much, much worse.”

The U.S. was instrumental in helping South Sudan secede from Sudan four years ago after a two-decade civil war. But the new nation descended into a sectarian conflict before it could celebrate its third anniversary.

Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report that the South Sudanese army carried out deliberate attacks against civilians during a recent offensive to recapture oil-rich regions that may amount to war crimes, marking the latest setback for efforts to broker peace in the world’s youngest nation.

Mr. Obama arrived in Ethiopia Sunday after a two-day visit to Kenya.

At both stops, the spread of terrorism in the region was at the top of his agenda.

The president has come under criticism for holding up as a model the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Somalia, given the persistent violence. On Monday he defended his approach as one that is in line with his broader foreign policy doctrine of empowering local forces involved in such fights rather than deploying American ground troops.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to attend a state dinner with Mr. Desalegn Monday evening.

On Tuesday, he will deliver a speech before the African Union.

Source: The Wall Street Journal


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