President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Ethiopia when he arrived there last night after a stop in Kenya, his father's homeland. He huddled with the country's leaders today for talks on counterterrorism, human rights, and regional security issues, including the crisis in neighboring South Sudan. Later today, Obama was to convene a meeting of African leaders on the situation in South Sudan. The world's newest nation has been gripped by civil war for months, spurred by a conflict between warring factions in the government, and the meeting with regional leaders is aimed in part at considering an international response if an Aug. 17 deadline passes without a peace deal.
Ethiopia has partnered with the US in the fight against terrorism, but human rights groups and others say Obama's visit to Ethiopia lends an air of international legitimacy to a government that's using national security concerns as a pretext to stifle opposition and curtail basic freedoms. "It undermines a lot of the presidential goals about good governance on the continent," says the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "In many ways, I guess it's a reward. Ethiopia at this time doesn't deserve that." Ben Rhodes, the White House's deputy national security adviser, defended Obama's trip, saying the stop is not a seal of approval and that Obama will not shy away from raising differences of opinion, including human rights.