(CNSNews.com) – The United States does not seek to “dictate Africa’s choices” but does look to African nations to defend international norms and principles that are at stake with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Pretoria on Monday.
He made the comments in a policy speech, at a time when some governments – including his South African hosts – have bristled over U.S. legislation which they interpret as an attempt to punish African countries that do not side with the West over Russia.
“Too often African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress rather than the authors of their own. Time and again they have been told to pick a side in great power contests that feel far removed from daily struggles of their people,” Blinken said at the University of Pretoria, after being introduced by his South African counterpart, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor.
“The United States will not dictate Africa’s choices. Neither should anyone else. The right to make these choices belongs to Africans, and Africans alone.”
“At the same time, the United States and the world will look to African nations to defend the rules of the international system that they’ve done so much to shape,” Blinken continued.
“These include the right of every country to have its independence, its sovereignty, is territorial integrity respected, a principle at stake now in Ukraine.”
Blinken said the U.S. believes all nations should stand up for the right of a country not to have its borders redrawn by force.
“For if we allow that principle to be violated anywhere, we weaken it everywhere.”
Many African countries have been deeply affected by the global food crisis, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, a major grain exporter.
But whether they share the West’s stance on who’s to blame for the situation is less clear-cut. When the U.N. General Assembly last March passed in a 141-5 vote a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, 17 of the 35 countries that abstained were African nations – including South Africa.
(Twenty-seven African countries supported the resolution and eight did not vote. The sole “no” vote in Africa came from Eritrea.)
Blinken’s visit to three African countries comes shortly after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to four countries on the continent, to shore up support. Lavrov sought to draw a distinction between Russia’s policies and those of Africa’s former colonizing powers in the West.
In South Africa, Blinken has been pressed about legislation passed by the House this year that aims – in the words of its author, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) – to “counter the malign influence and activities of the Russian Federation and its proxies in Africa.”
The text describes Russia’s “malign influence and activities” as those “that undermine United States objectives and interests.”
Last week, Pandor offered pointed criticism of the legislation, describing it as an “unprecedented” measure that is “intended to punish countries in Africa that have not toed the line on the Russia-Ukraine war.”
The Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act passed the House in April in a 415-9 vote, and now faces Senate consideration.
At a joint press briefing with Blinken on Monday, Pandor expressed the hope the Senate would reject the “offensive” bill.
“When we believe in freedom, as I’m saying, it’s freedom for everybody, you can’t say because Africa is doing this, you will then be punished by the United States,” she said.
Pandor argued that South Africa’s position on Ukraine was one of abhorring war and supporting a search for peace.
She also suggested that the U.S. employs double standards, by supporting freedom for Ukraine but not for the Palestinians.
“We should be equally concerned at what is happening to the people of Palestine as we are with what is happening to the people of Ukraine,” she said. “We’ve not seen an even-handed approach in the utilization of the prescripts of international law.”
In a television interview in Johannesburg earlier in the day, Blinken was asked about the House legislation, and said, “I can only speak for our administration and for the president. Our focus is not on saying to friends, partners: you have to choose.”
In contrast to those diplomatic words, when the Meeks bill was first marked up by the committee he chairs, ranking member and co-sponsor of the legislation Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) spoke of the need to “make every state choose between doing business with the free world or with a war criminal” – the latter a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Its supporters view the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act as a pro-Africa measure that calls for advancing good governance, strengthening of democratic institutions, and protecting Africans from the mercenaries of Russia’s Wagner Group, accused of atrocities and abuses in several countries.
In his speech in Pretoria, Blinken referred to “the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group,” and said it “exploits instability to pillage resources and commit abuses with impunity, as we’ve seen in Mali and the Central African Republic.”
Blinken said African countries face serious security concerns but the answer doesn’t lie in deploying Russian or any other mercenaries, rather in building more effective and accountable security forces.
Moscow officially denies any link to the private military contractors.
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