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The OAU on the humanitarian path
by Jean-François Berger





Ambassador Djinnit (right) and ICRC representative Dominique Buff during one of their regular dialogues.

Representing more than 800 million Africans, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) is striving to adapt to the enormous challenges that have rocked Africa to the core. Now in transition to the African Union, this intergovernmental organization is seeking to broaden its responsibilities, especially in the humanitarian arena.

"Before, whenever there was a crisis, African leaders' first reaction was to look to New York or Brussels. Today, they turn to the OAU for a solution," says Sam Ibok, director of the political department. "Before" refers to the period prior to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. "Since the end of the cold war, Africa has lost its strategic importance. It is now up to us to act within an African framework." That framework is the OAU.

Since it was founded in May 1963 by the newly independent African states, the OAU has trodden an arduous path, focusing on the liberation and unity of the continent. In this difficult quest, it has sometimes ridden roughshod over the sovereignty of member states. At the same time, the gap between the aspirations of African citizens and the OAU has widened, partly because of the latter's authoritarian approach. Yet, despite its shortcomings, the OAU remains an important feature of the African landscape.

Based in Addis Ababa, the OAU comprises all African states with the exception of Morocco which suspended its membership. Divided among five departments, more than 500 officials work under the leadership of the secretary general, Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania. Its regular budget is US$ 30 million, plus US$ 15 million for peacekeeping operations financed by the West. The OAU has a network of regional offices in Conakry, Lagos, Niamey and Yaoundé, with additional offices in Brussels, Geneva and New York.

An African perspective
Ambassador Said Djinnit, assistant secretary general of the OAU, talks to Red Cross, Red Crescent

What place does the humanitarian dimension occupy within the OAU?
One of growing importance. The OAU plays a leadership role in the promotion and protection of humanitarian law. The OAU has a dual responsibility in this field: to convey to countries and African populations the humanitarian concerns of the international community; and to transmit back to this same international community the legitimate concerns and specific realities of the African continent.

In concrete terms, what are these concerns?
We think that the humanitarian situation in Africa should be the concern of Africans, before it is that of the international community! The tragedies unfolding are first and foremost our own problem... The plight of displaced people and refugees on our continent is a major priority. That is why we need to strengthen our cooperation with all humanitarian agencies, starting with the ICRC and UNHCR.

What means do you have at your disposal to deal with these matters?
The OAU has no desire to carry out its own humanitarian activities in the field. What matters is to strengthen our early warning capacity in order to foresee potential humanitarian disasters and to put the moral and political authority of the OAU at the service of a humanitarian response. The magnitude of the problems affecting Africa is overwhelming, not least AIDS. It is enough to push anyone to despair... The tasks are Herculean. But you have to start somewhere. The important thing is to have a vision and to build on the positive. Then things happen...







Long-term vision

Since the end of the cold war, the OAU has become more involved in the prevention of conflicts, creating in 1993 its own Mechanism for the Prevention, Management and Resolution of Conflicts, which acts not unlike a "mini-African Security Council". This multilateral body enables the OAU to actively negotiate peace and mediate conflicts. It also enables the deployment of peacekeeping missions of limited scope and duration preceding deployment of United Nations (UN) troops. In particular, the OAU has strengthened its early warning capacity, its relations with the UN and its components responsible for peacekeeping operations. This is to avoid situations like Somalia in 1991 and Rwanda in 1994 where interventions had little result. The OAU now has a greater political role to play in Africa's humanitarian affairs.

OAU's relations with the Movement are a good illustration of this trend. Almost ten years ago, the OAU and the ICRC signed a cooperation agreement and, in 1996, an agreement was signed with the Federation, granting both components observer status.

But what does the Movement hope to gain, tangibly, from this close relationship? According to Dominique Buff, head of the ICRC's permanent mission to the OAU in Addis Ababa, "We need to keep humanitarian law at the forefront of people's minds." This is a long-term endeavour, a reminder of existing law at every opportunity. For example, the thorny issue of child soldiers. "At the Panafrican Forum organized by the OAU and UNICEF in June 2001 in Cairo, we supported efforts to restrict the participation in armed conflicts of children under 18 and the creation of an African Charter for the Rights and Well-being of the Child. The main objective, of course, was to halt the use of children under 15 in armed conflicts, which is a serious violation of humanitarian law," adds Buff.

For Christophe Harnisch, head of the ICRC's Africa operations, "The OAU is a platform by which we can foster contacts at the highest level and ensure diplomatic support for our humanitarian operations." This cooperation has led to regular joint seminars for African diplomats on current issues, such as the evolution of conflicts, the repression of violations of humanitarian law or the role of non-state actors.

Towards the African Union

At their last summit meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, OAU members endorsed a plan to transform it into the African Union next year, which should grant broader powers to the organization, including a common parliament and a single currency. During this session held on 10 July, Amara Essy, former foreign affairs minister of Côte d'Ivoire, was elected as the new secretary general.

At war with AIDS

The OAU is expanding its "humanitarian dimension". Countless commitments and resolutions adopted during its summits and conferences attest to this trend, placing greater pressure on governments. The OAU intends to create its own structure for the coordination of humanitarian affairs because challenges are piling up.

The most glaring is AIDS, which the OAU has termed a "global threat". This pandemic is affecting the whole economy across the continent. "In countries where teachers are dying, how do you educate people about AIDS?" says Marcel Diouf, head of the OAU's education, science and culture division.

As Richard May, head of the Federation's delegation in Ethiopia points out, "HIV/AIDS is a development issue and the impressive network of African National Societies is committed to advocate, to find preventive solutions and to expand care services for those already infected."


One of the top objectives shared by OAU and the Red Cross and Red Crescent is to make drugs accessible to Africans living with HIV/AIDS. In 2000, of the recorded 5.3 million new cases of HIV/AIDS globally, 3.8 million were in Africa. The growing burden of external debt shared by many at-risk countries not only hampers initiatives to fight this pandemic but it also contributes to greater political instability. As the Algerian ambassador Smail Chergui points out, "Debt is a terrible scourge. It lies at the heart of the explosion of conflicts. The ICRC is well placed to know this." The OAU will increase its support of African non-governmental organizations and National Societies. It will also continue to rely on the expertise of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the ICRC in humanitarian law and refugee law.

The magnitude of the humanitarian problems and Africa's chronic economic troubles should not overshadow the importance of the OAU's mobilization efforts to date. But the hardest task lies ahead. There are financial constraints and an absence of democracy in many states. While the central role of states is unravelling, the future African Union will have to broaden its scope to ensure it is representative of all African societies in the hope of having a larger impact on the challenges at its door. The mission is difficult and dangerous, but not impossible.

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent.

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