(The Root) — The Leon H. Sullivan Summit, a biennial conference designed to promote dialogue benefiting Africa, launched Monday in Malabo, Republic of Equatorial Guinea, with headline speakers reacting in their remarks to the criticism by U.S. human rights groups of the selection of the host country.
The event is the ninth of its kind for the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, an organization that, in the memory of its civil rights activist namesake, aims to "empower underprivileged people worldwide by promoting the principles of self-help and social responsibility" and to "create a bridge from Africa to the developed world." Equatorial Guinea's president, H.E. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is the official host of this Summit.
In the months leading up to the event, which takes place in a different African country each time it convenes, the selection of Equatorial Guinea as the location drew criticism from human rights groups. They argued that the country's official corruption and denials of political and human rights, documented in a State Department report, ran counter to the organization's goals. Equatorial Guinea Justice penned a letter in February, while the Human Rights Foundation delivered one early this month.
Human Rights Watch president Thor Halvorssen told the Washington Post, "The Sullivan Foundation is destroying the legacy of its namesake by working hand-in-hand with one of the most repressive, exploitative regimes in Africa's history."
Hope Sullivan Masters, president of the Sullivan Foundation and daughter of Leon H. Sullivan, responded in a statement released in advance of the conference to what she called "misguided rants." Referencing Mbasogo's election to presidency of the African Union, she said, "It would appear that some would still like to be in the position of controlling the people and the resources of Africa. We can call their missions those of human rights or apply whatever label we might choose, to soften the denial of the voice of the African citizenry, but the truth lies in the blatant disrespect of the voice and choice of the African people."
In remarks today, Masters echoed that sentiment and added, "People love to fabricate stories about this man and his leaderships … but when you look around this country, it is clear that President Obiang does not need anyone … The country you have heard about has nothing to do with the country you are sitting in."
That Summit participants should see the country for themselves is one point on which both sides of this debate can agree. Lisa Misol, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Washington Post in advance of the event that the organization was not calling for a boycott of the Summit, but rather encouraging attendees to "look behind the curtain of new construction and see the needless poverty and the harsh repression that people are living under every day."
President Mbasogo's remarks at the Summit today linked criticism of his country's human rights record by the U.S. to "national supremacy," which he labeled "one of the most evil endeavors of all times." It "leads to neo-colonialism, which tends to perpetuate the development of some nations over others," he added.
Separate from the controversy, in remarks that related to the continent as a whole, speakers addressed the Summit's theme, "Africa Rising," and its meaning to delegates from other parts of the world. Sullivan emphasized the continent's rich resources and its "superpower" potential, while Mbasogo highlighted an "alliance of interests between Africa and its Diaspora." John A. Kufuor, former president of Ghana and chairman of the Summit, said in remarks aimed at delegates of African descent from the U.S. and Europe, "You are an important part of the African story, and it is in recognition of this that the African union recognizes you as the sixth region of the continent," adding, "I ask you to look back to your mother continent and bring your enormous talent and expertise."
While the selection of the host country reportedly prompted some high-profile delegates to decline invitations to the event, which has previously been attended by the likes of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell, the Sullivan Foundation counts more than 1,000 delegates this year.
Special guests on the Summit's first day included H.E. Thomas Yayi Boni, the president of the Republic of Benin and chairman of the African Union, H.E. Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone, H.E. Dr. Elhaj Adem Yousif, vice president of Sudan, and H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria.
A change in schedule Monday led to the cancellation of sessions on artistic expressions in the African Diaspora, human security and development and building human capital. It was unclear whether or when they would be rescheduled. Planned discussion topics during the remainder of the four-day Summit, according to the official program, include the role of women in African society, the arts and youth entrepreneurship. In addition, a session on democracy, human rights and citizenship promises to address "additional steps that are needed to bring about full democratic participation, stronger protection of human rights and greater expansion of citizenship across the continent."
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.