Building coalitions against US human rights abuses is hard

Protestors at UCT. Photo by Janneke van Rooyen. Licenced under CC-Attribution.

Eduard Grebe

2 July 2013

On Sunday I helped organise and participated in a small protest against human rights abuses and inadequate action on climate change by the Obama administration during his visit to the University of Cape Town.

As a Research Fellow at the University, I felt it was necessary to show that not all members of the university community feel honoured to be visited by the US president, or that his choice of UCT for the speech “brings kudos to our university” as stated by an official spokesperson. We tried to make a number of significant points with our protest.

First, the Obama administration, and the President in particular, is responsible for large numbers of civilian deaths through drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere (including over 800 civilian adults and at least 176 children killed since 2004, according to the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism). It is unconscionable that President Obama sanctions drone strikes that he knows will kill many more civilians than people who pose a threat to the United States. This is a human rights abuse and those who have called these strikes “war crimes” cannot be dismissed entirely. The drone strikes amount to Obama acting as judge, jury and executioner in secret, with no fair legal process.

Similarly, he has failed to close the illegal detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, in which people are detained without trial and treated in ways declared “cruel, inhuman and degrading” by a United Nations rapporteur. Surely President Obama, who pledged to close the centre, is accountable for this failure to stop infringing international law.

Second, we have heard strong words on climate change from President Obama, but inadequate action to tackle what arguably constitutes the greatest threat to our collective future. While it is clear that the Republican-controlled Congress ties his hands in terms of setting firm targets for carbon emission reductions or ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, there are appropriate actions to help prevent catastrophic climate change that he has failed to take. For example, the president has not taken steps to block or limit gas fracking 1, offshore oil drilling, coal mining in the Appalachians or declared that he will reject the presidential permit required for the Keystone XL pipeline. And the Obama administration has not shown leadership in negotiating a new legally-binding global treaty with adequate carbon emission reduction commitments to prevent irreversible climate change. The President has the opportunity to make good on his recent speech on the climate with serious measures to limit carbon emissions (see here, here and here). I remain hopeful that he will.

We further raised the problem of the Obama Administration’s failure to put significant pressure on the Israeli government to end its human rights abuses of Palestinians. To this can be added the Administration’s continued cajouling of dubious regimes like Saudia Arabia and Bahrain; the massive and unjustified surveillance of Americans and non-Americans who communicate with US residents; the persecution of whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden; attempting to block generic production of the life-saving cancer drug imatinib in India and a range of other issues.

The greatest disappointment we felt during our protest was not that we would have no chance of being seen by President Obama or that the event appears to have been orchestrated in such a way as to prevent significant criticism during the speech itself. It was that UCT provided so small an area for protesters to gather that we were forced to protest in close proximity to extremists who carried posters depicting swastikas and stars of David with clear anti-semitic overtones. We were also forced to mingle with protesters who shouted childish and unacceptable slogans directed against the President like “wanted dead or alive” and “Obama is a zombie”. This detracted significantly from the legitimacy of our own protest and prompted some of our supporters to avoid protesting with us at all. We were also disappointed that very few UCT students and staff joined our protest.

The unfortunate situation we found ourselves in, in which we may inadvertently have been photographed near anti-semitic posters, as well as discussions we had with the “Nobama coalition”, after which we decided not to support one another’s protests, demonstrate the difficulty of building civil society coalitions to oppose American abuses and many other issues. Even within our own ranks it was very difficult to agree on language that we could all support. Civil society organisations and activists can do better. We should work harder to develop reasonable positions that the ordinary public can understand and behind which large numbers of people can unite.

Only if we are reasonable can we present a united front against human rights abuses and climate inaction.

Grebe is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.


  1. While burning gas has some advantages over coal, hydraulic fracturing contributes to CO2 emissions by making available previously sequestered hydrocarbons. In addition, there are serious concerns over direct environmental impacts, including the contamination of ground water and the release of harmful chemicals used in the process.