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An African perspective on humanitarian affairs. The OAU: ten years of cooperation with the ICRC

13-06-2001 Interview




Said Djinnit, Algerian ambassador, OAU Assistant Secretary General.

 Founded in 1963 and today representing almost 800 million Africans, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) is adapting to meet the major challenges that face the continent.  


 Based in Addis Ababa, the OAU includes every African country – 53 in all – with the exception of Morocco, which has suspended its membership. The organization operates as a network, with regional offices in Conakry, Lagos, Niamey and Yaoundé, and also in Brussels, Geneva and New York.  


 Ten years ago the OAU and the ICRC signed a cooperation agreement under which the ICRC can attend OAU meetings as an observer. Since then, the OAU has initiated numerous projects to promote international humanitarian law, with the active support of the ICRC mission to the OAU in Addis Ababa. Shortly to be renamed the African Union, this intergovernmental organization is aiming to extend its responsibilities in the humanitarian area still further. An objective confirmed by Algerian ambassador Said Djinnit, OAU Assistant Secretary General, in an interview on 22 May 2001 at OAU headquarters in Addis Ababa with Jean-François Berger, ICRC Editor of   Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine  .  


 What position do humanitarian concerns occupy within the OAU?  


This area is becoming steadily more important to us. A few years ago, there was little talk of humanitarian law in OAU bodies, but African attitudes are changing and people are becoming more open to this branch of law. The OAU – and especially the Secretary General (Salim Ahmed Salim, Ed. ) – has taken a leading role, increasing the OAU's involvement in promoting and upholding international humanitarian law. Here our cooperation with the ICRC is important, as the ICRC has done a lot to improve our understanding of the significance of humanitarian law, making it easier to include the subject on the OAU agenda. For ten years now, we have been working with the ICRC on the basis of a signe d agreement, and our relationship has grown stronger over that period.

We believe the OAU has an important role to play in the promotion of humanitarian law. We have a dual responsibility: to communicate the humanitarian concerns of the international community to the countries and people of Africa, and to communicate the legitimate concerns and specific realities of the African continent to the international community.

So even though the OAU does not concern itself exclusively with humanitarian matters –we leave that to other agencies – it does have a political role to play in promoting humanitarian law in its capacity as an intermediary between the international community and Africa. We – and especially the Secretary General – feel very strongly that humanitarian affairs are not just the concern of those who work with humanitarian law but are also our concern, as Africans. The humanitarian situation in Africa should be a matter of concern for Africans before it concerns the international community. Africa’s human tragedies are first and foremost our problem. As Africans, we cannot simply say “Africa’s humanitarian problems are the international community’s responsibility!” As Africans, we too must try to find ways of dealing with these human tragedies. That’s why the OAU is getting more and more involved in this area and that’s why it’s important that we build up our cooperation with all humanitarian agencies, especially the ICRC.

 What do you see as top priorities in terms of humanitarian issues?  


First, there is the immense problem of refugees, which in itself is a humanitarian tragedy for the African continent. Sadly, as you know, Africa accounts for a large percentage of the total number of refugees in the world. The OAU, through UNHCR and othe r humanitarian agencies, must find solutions to the African refugee crisis, a crisis caused primarily by intolerance, ethnic conflict, poverty and drought.

 When you say refugees, do you also mean displaced persons?  


Yes, I’m talking about both. There are more displaced persons in Africa than refugees. Here in Africa, we make little or no distinction between a refugee and a displaced person, because both are people in need of help. In effect, displaced persons are refugees within their own countries, and both groups suffer the same effects in humanitarian terms – precarious living conditions and exile.

We’re concerned about observance of international humanitarian law in situations of armed conflict and tension in Africa, and we’re especially concerned about the repeated violations of humanitarian law that occur. Increasingly, the OAU is joining the international and African communities in calling on warring parties to observe humanitarian law.

 You speak of violations of the law and of the suffering that results. Without going into all of them, which violations worry you most?  


First, there is the suffering inflicted on civilians during conflict. Civilians – including many refugees and displaced persons – are becoming increasingly caught up in the vicious circle of violence, and all too often they’re the ones who pay the price. And then there’s the growing number of attacks on humanitarian personnel. If humanitarian workers can’t do their job, there’s no way of protecting the civilian population. The OAU’s response is to take every opportunity to promote and publicize huma nitarian law in Africa, among both the military and civilians. Anyone could one day have to defend humanitarian law, which is why it’s so important that we make its rules well known.

 You talked about increasing African responsibility in the humanitarian response. What instruments and means does the OAU already have, and what is still lacking?  


So far, we’ve relied primarily on the OAU’s moral authority in our efforts to promote respect for humanitarian law. As an organization, the OAU has no means of taking action on the ground; as I said, we’re not a humanitarian agency. Others have a mandate in this area, and the means to carry it out. Our responsibility lies at the political level. But even to act at the political level you need some form of instrument. As an historical aside, and to show you how much the OAU has changed: for some years we had a Refugees and Displaced Persons Division. A few years ago, we extended its remit to include humanitarian affairs, so one of the three divisions of the Political Affairs Department now deals with humanitarian matters, which is something new for the OAU. As we still lack expertise in this area, we’ve been working with partners like the ICRC to build up the humanitarian law capacity of our General Secretariat – not with the aim of replacing the humanitarian agencies on the ground, but to help us understand and support their work. In particular, we want to improve the way we fulfil our responsibilities by playing a leading role with regard to humanitarian law in Africa.

 Is your Humanitarian Affairs Division developing?  


Very much so. We’ve been in touch with UNH CR and the ICRC for assistance in developing the activities of the Division in regard to refugee law and humanitarian law. Another major challenge is that of preventing natural disasters and responding to them when they do occur. We wish to play a role in this area, and are thinking of setting up early-warning and response mechanisms for natural disasters with the aid of the United Nations and the relevant humanitarian agencies. Sadly, there are few African countries with the resources necessary for coping with natural disasters, and there is currently no continent-wide mechanism for mutual assistance, solidarity and the exchange of experience among African countries on such topics as earthquakes and forest fires.

 The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have a specific mandate and experience in this area. Are you already in touch with them on this?  


We are indeed in contact with the Federation, and with OCHA, the UN coordinating body.

 In view of the scale of humanitarian needs in Africa, and given the degree of cultural, political and economic diversity among OAU members, I imagine it will take some time to achieve the objectives you mention?  


Many projects are under way in Africa, and we don’t yet have the means of achieving all our aims. There are difficulties, and there are problems with coordination and harmonization. The task is huge, and clearly we’re talking about a long-term perspective. But you have to start somewhere. The important thing is to have a vision on a problem, and that includes the humanitarian domain. One of the questions is the long-term role Africa should play in humanitarian affairs. We have to take it a step at a time, but the important thing is to make a start. The first phase was for the OAU to help us see the importance of becoming more closely involved in humanitarian matters. We’ve now reached the stage where the OAU is trying to play a more significant role in this area. But it’s a long road.

 Are you optimistic about enhancing Africa’s crisis response capacity and getting Africa to take on more responsibility in this area?  


Yes, to be honest, I am. I can see things starting to move. There are plenty of Afro-pessimists, but I have taken the conscious decision to be an Afro-optimist! The problem is, one doesn’t see significant change from day to day. Yet when I look back at what’s happened over the last ten years, I do see progress. There is an increasing awareness of humanitarian issues among the general public. Things have changed among our leaders too; a few years ago, you would have had trouble finding any reference to humanitarian law in OAU resolutions. Today, things are different. Take the document published following the Lomé meeting – the summit of the Central Organ of the OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution, a kind of OAU Security Council – and look at the resolutions on all the questions discussed there, be it the Great Lakes, the Mano River (Guinea, Ed. ) or Sierra Leone … you’ll see concern for humanitarian matters reflected in every resolution, which would never have happened ten years ago. We also see the military becoming more aware of the need to observe humanitarian law, and that’s progress!

 You mention increasing awareness among leaders, and you’ve also talked about the civilian population and the military. Are this increasing awareness and this progress mobilizing African NGOs?  


Growing numbers of African NGOs are emerging in the humanitarian field. Here in Addis Ababa alone, there are numerous NGOs, such as AHA (Africa Humanitarian Action), which is working throughout Africa, and InterAfrica Group, which is particularly active in the promotion of international humanitarian law. This is a good indicator of the extent and importance of humanitarian issues in Africa today. If you look back over the last ten years, the progress is clear, but if you just look at what happens from day to day, the change is less obvious.

 You say that Africans are becoming increasingly concerned about humanitarian law. What is the OAU doing about the scourge of AIDS?  


Our continent is lagging behind others on this, especially Asia. We’ve taken a little longer to appreciate the seriousness of the matter and above all the global threat that AIDS represents. But over the last two years we’ve seen a reasonable level of awareness emerge among the people and leaders of Africa. The issue of AIDS is being discussed at every level, including that of heads of State for the past few years. We held a special OAU summit on AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases last month in Abuja (Nigeria, Ed. ). I believe that the increasing efforts being made to get things done demonstrate that there will be no retreat in the battle against AIDS.

 With regard to AIDS, the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies play a major role in preventive action and health education. This network also helps get things moving at grass-roots level.  


Certainly. That’s why I said we’d achieved a reasonable level of action.

 What is the OAU’s position on drug prices?  


Clearly, Africa cannot afford expensive medicines. We therefore call for medicines to be made available, and cheaply, given the widespread poverty on our continent.

 You are at the heart of this struggle. What are your predictions regarding drugs prices? Do you think that progress is being made and that prices will fall?  


I don’t know. Obviously, I hope things will go the right way. We must keep on applying pressure. It’s becoming apparent that this is not just an issue in poor countries; people in developed countries are also lending their support, because it’s a question of ethics and morals, one that goes to the very core of humanity. I believe that if we win the battle over AIDS drugs, we will be well placed to win the battle over other types of medicine in the future. Today, whole communities in Africa are threatened with extinction; if we look at long-term projections, entire countries could disappear because of AIDS. All of us –Africans and the people of the developed world – must throw all our weight into the struggle to make these medicines available to AIDS victims. This is a cause worth defending, because it’s a fundamental problem. In effect, it’s a question of humanity versus business interests … I just hope humanity will win out against the love of money and the god of pro fit.

 Moving on to peace-keeping; how do you coordinate OAU activities, especially peace-keeping activities, in the various parts of Africa, where regional bodies play such an important role?  


The 1993 Cairo Declaration of Heads of State and Government led to the setting-up of an OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution; we’re the first continent-wide organization to set up such a mechanism. At the time, there was considerable discussion as to whether the OAU should become involved in peace-keeping operations and the conclusion was that the OAU should deploy peace-keeping missions of limited scope and duration – observation missions. It was also agreed that response to crises of high intensity that exceeded the mandate and resources of the OAU would be left to the UN Security Council, which has basic responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. In other words, situations that required a peace-keeping force would remain the remit of the UN, with the OAU, as an African organization, simply playing a supporting role in specific situations for a limited period and with a restricted remit. It was within such a framework that we first deployed a group of observers – in Rwanda, in 1994, where we sent around 100 people. That group was subsequently absorbed into the UN mission, which sadly failed, as we all know. We went on to deploy small groups of observers in Burundi, the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in connection with the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict. The OAU brokered the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea; the initial idea had been to send in OAU observers, but when the scale of the deployment needed became clear, it was decided this should be done by the UN under the auspices of the OAU, as we lacked the resources to do it ourselves.

 Where in Africa is the OAU currently engaged in peace-keeping activities, whether through observers or by other means?  


We have observers in Ethiopia and Eritrea. We also have a presence in the Comoros, where we helped the Comorians reach an agreement under OAU auspices, and are currently playing a role in the disarmament process. We’re also working in Burundi – although the military observers have had to leave the country – as we’re co-guarantors of the Arusha Peace Agreement. That agreement was negotiated under the auspices of President Mandela, the successor to President Nyerere, who had been appointed at the request of the OAU. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo we have two roles: we’re co-guarantors of the Lusaka Agreement, and we nominated the neutral chairman of the Joint Military Commission (JMC), which plays an important part in implementation of the Agreement. The OAU is helping facilitate inter-Congolese political dialogue, and we’re also involved in the Mano River issue, although we have not deployed any personnel so far. We’re working closely on that question with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

 So there’s a lot to do?  


We’re doing our best!

 These are ambitious, long-term projects. How do you motivate OAU staff to make the level of commitment needed?  


In every situation there is potential and there are problems. At every level, we need leaders who can dr aw out the favourable elements of a situation, build on the positive aspects, and lead by example, by commitment. There will always be those who suffer, and there will always be a need for a leader, for without a leader there can be no direction. So we need people who will push, and that implies perseverance and keeping one’s eye on the goal. If you know where you’re going, others will follow. Few of the battles we’ve fought in Africa were foregone conclusions. When we started talking about human rights, many were suspicious. Today, the OAU talks openly about human rights issues and we demand dignity for Africans with increasing vigour, whatever our deficiencies. We believe in a future and in change for Africa. We’re not going to give up and watch the continent slide into chaos. We believe that Africa has opportunities and advantages. If we achieve a convergence of good will at the level of continent, region and nation, and if we have the support of the international community, we believe progress is possible. We at the OAU General Secretariat are among those who believe we should harness every positive force to get this continent moving in the right direction!

 You’re aware of the disastrous image Africa has in the West, for example?  


The papers don’t show what’s being built up day by day. There are tragedies every day, and the papers report and repeat them. It’s well known that it's the trains that crash which make the news, not those that arrive on time. If you only hear about disasters, you obviously tend to generalize. I’m from Algeria, and when terrorism in my country was at its worst I expected to be greeted by explosions every time I landed at the airport. But when I arrived, I realized people were getting on with their lives. Of course there’s terrorism, but there’s also life. While some are eng aged in bombing and destruction, others are busy building up. But no-one talks about those who build, because that doesn’t interest newspaper editors or the public. And, sadly, we hear little about what’s being built up day by day.

 Are you saying that Western perceptions of Africa are over-pessimistic?  


Yes I am. But I don’t blame people in the West for their misconceptions; it’s inherent to the media to talk primarily about what’s going wrong, and indeed the European media only talk about what’s going wrong in Africa. One big difference is that people in France know about the good things that happen in their own country, for instance in Bordeaux, but not about the good things that happen in Africa. So inevitably they get a distorted, negative image of our continent. But if disasters account for 10% of what happens, the other 90% must be all the hard work that goes into improving the situation. And nobody sees or talks about that!

 Said Djinnit was talking to Jean-François Berger.  


 No. 3 of Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine (due out at the end of September 2001) will include an article on the OAU’s approach to humanitarian issues. Visit us on  .