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