The Possibilities And Pitfalls Of The U.S.-Nigeria Team Search

The Obama administration has pledged to support the Nigerian government in its effort to recover more than 250 schoolgirls kidnapped by the group Boko Haram. Sarah Sewall of the U.S. State Department just returned from high level meetings in Nigeria and speaks about the trip.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There are questions not just about Nigeria's military capability but also about that government's commitment to bringing the girls home. Earlier today, I spoke with Sarah Sewell. She's the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights. She's just returned from Nigeria, where she met with senior government officials. They discussed efforts to find the kidnapped girls and, longer-term, how to combat violent extremism. I asked her to describe the tone of those meetings.

SARAH SEWELL: They are certainly concerned and that they recognize by virtue of the outpouring of anguish and demands on the part of Nigerian citizens that this is an extraordinarily important and emotional issue. And they wish to be responsive. And they are certainly pleased with the fact that the United States, like many other nations, has offered to be supportive. This is a tragic, immediate crisis and then it is also a symptom of a longer-term challenge that they face with Boko Haram.

BLOCK: You said you thought the Nigerians recognize this is an extremely important issue. The Nigerian government did at first deny that the kidnappings of these girls had even happened. Later, they claimed the military had rescued the girls and they had to backtrack on that. They refused international help in the search for nearly a month after the girls were kidnapped. Are you really convinced that the Nigerian government is a committed partner in this?

SEWELL: I don't think there's any question that there was a great deal of uncertainty in the initial stages of this crisis. And the important thing is that the Nigerians now have recognized the need to take action. The intelligence challenge, the location is really where we are right now in terms of helping them take the first step.

BLOCK: Human rights groups say that the Nigerian military itself has carried out atrocities. They talk about killings, torture, the abuse and disappearance of detainees. And I want to ask you about U.S. law, which prohibits giving training and assistance to units of foreign military that commit gross violations of human rights. Why shouldn't that law apply here in Nigeria?

SEWELL: Oh, it completely applies here in Nigeria, and it's very much the context in which any form of security cooperation takes place. You know, the Leahy law is a mainstay of American foreign policy. It is designed to prevent the provision of assistance to human-rights-violating security entities. And the State Department and the U.S. government takes it very seriously. It has, in many respects, defined with whom we cannot work in the Nigerian security context.

BLOCK: Does that mean that the human rights groups who have talked about these abuses are referring only to certain bad apples and that you are able to separate those out?

SEWELL: There's a very extensive process of adjudicating unit histories and determining where units have been engaged in gross human rights violations and distinguishing those from units that have not.

BLOCK: Did you meet with any of the families of the kidnapped girls when you were there?

SEWELL: I met with a number of both activists and concerned members from the community. I had spoken previously with the principal of the school. So, I was very grateful to have the honor and opportunity to convey America's support, under the circumstances, for the people of Nigeria.

BLOCK: What struck you most about what you heard from the people in these areas that have been the subject of Boko Haram attacks?

SEWELL: They don't understand why the group is so brutal and wants to move them backwards. And they are very eager to have more support from their government in securing their neighborhoods and their families and their futures.

BLOCK: Do they feel forgotten by the government up until now?

SEWELL: Mostly they spoke about the violence and the fear and the terror and the difficulty of living their lives under such a - how to put it - such an unpredictable and nihilistic organization.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Sarah Sewell. She's the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights. Thanks for being with us.

SEWELL: My pleasure, Melissa.

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