Human rights activists Wednesday urged the US government to be more consistent in its approach toward repressive regimes, warning that muddled responses sent the wrong message to democracy campaigners.
America's over-arching focus on security concerns and the fight against terrorism is obscuring the need to hold governments accountable for rights abuses, activists said at the start of a two-day seminar organized by the Washington-based group Human Rights First.
One delegate, Nadine Wahab, said US policy after the coup in Egypt, including a partial freeze in military aid which has halted delivery of large weapons systems but does not bar other arms, was part of the problem.
"When funding... continues to go to the weapons that attack and create human rights violations, like tear gas and bullets, but you hold the F-16s, the message that's going to these governments and going to human rights defenders is that human rights is not important," said Wahab, an expert with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Wahab also challenged the US administration's policy of not cutting off all military aid to Egypt -- a decision based on the need to ensure the army can fight militants in the Sinai peninsula and help maintain regional stability -- after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected president, in July.
"One of the things that the United States really needs to do is look at its counter-terrorism narrative, look at how security is thought of within a domestic policy and an international policy and see whether security and stability is human rights? Or whether security and stability is guns and more weapons?" said Wahab.
UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, Maina Kiai, agreed saying the United States needed to treat all governments the same way.
"It's very difficult to understand why the US government treats Ethiopia when it attacks human rights defenders differently from how the US treats Zimbabwe. Or how the US treats Egypt as opposed to Bahrain," he said.
"Once you start seeing these differences they start sending a message across the world that actually the US wants to pick and choose where it wants to defend human rights."
Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of US aid in Africa, yet in 2009 it passed a law on non-government organizations which activists slammed as a bid by the government -- in power for 21 years -- to wipe out any civil society.
The legislation has largely passed without comment and US Secretary of State John Kerry made a high-profile visit to the country in May to attend an African Union summit.
The "US supporting a despotic government like the Ethiopian government is essentially creating destabilization in the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia," warned Yalemzewd Bekele Mulat, an Ethiopian lawyer and activist.