Secretary of State John Kerry vowed Tuesday to defend democratic values and human rights as he met civil society groups ahead of a major US-Africa summit.
On the eve of a summit attended by several leaders with checkered records, Kerry told activists gathered in Washington that the United States hoped to help Africa build strong institutions rather than to bolster individual leaders.
"Strong civil society and respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights -- these are not just American values, they are universal values. They are universal aspirations and anyone who reads history and knows history understands that," Kerry said.
"Diversity is always a better predictor of success than uniformity. Because strong institutions are always more effective, more durable and more predictable than strong men or women," he said.
Citing the example of South Africa's late anti-apartheid champion Nelson Mandela, Kerry said that most Africans supported limiting their leaders to two terms in office.
"We will urge leaders not to alter national constitutions for personal or political gain," Kerry said.
He did not single out individual leaders but he had met earlier in the day with Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila.
The United States has been urging Kabila to respect a constitutional limit and step down when the long-troubled country holds its next elections in 2016.
Kerry said the United States would champion the rights of civil society groups facing outside restrictions and also "support press freedom, including for journalists charged with terrorism or imprisoned on arbitrary grounds."
Last month Ethiopia, charged seven bloggers and three journalists arrested in April with terrorism.
The United States has criticized the charges but still invited to the summit Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose government closely cooperates with Washington on security.
Kerry also vowed that the United States would support Africa's embattled gay rights activists "who are working for the day when tolerance and understanding really do conquer hate."