African leaders adopt landmark refugee convention

African leaders on Friday ratified a convention on the protection of the continent’s internally displaced people, refugees and returnees, billed as the first of its kind worldwide.

The convention calls on member states to provide special assistance for displaced people with special needs, including the elderly, and calls for the prevention of forced displacement.

Political upheaval, conflicts and natural disasters have left the continent with between 12-million and 14-million displaced people, according to the African Union.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) lauded the convention as historic, but said it may not have an immediate effect on the plight of the millions of displaced people.

“It is true that the road between ratification and implementation is a long one,” ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger said before the convention was ratified. “One can ask how it is going to really improve the protection and assistance of the internally displaced.

“But if on a continental level, if such an instrument is adopted, it has some value. There is a political and moral engagement on some of the most serious humanitarian issues arising from conflict,” he added.

African Union Commission chairperson Jean Ping said the huge numbers of people who had fled their homes posed a threat to Africa’s stability.

“It’s the continent’s future that is at stake,” he told the summit when it opened on Thursday.

Last year, the 53-member bloc resolved to bolster the protection of refugees and displaced people, but an African diplomat told Agence France-Presse this week some countries may be reluctant to ratify the treaty because it would be “restrictive and have legal consequences”.

However, Kellenberger said the legal provisions are important.

“First, because states are obliged to try people who commit international human rights violations, which is in the convention. It [the treaty] also deals with armed groups ... because we are faced with internal conflicts almost everywhere,” he explained.

AU political affairs commissioner Julia Dolly Joiner called for greater efforts to establish political and economic stability in the continent’s trouble spots.

Much of Africa’s instability has been triggered by political feuds, such as Kenya’s unrest after the disputed 2007 elections, and Somalia’s protracted conflict that erupted after the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre.

Close to a sixth of Somalia’s 10-million people is displaced, while Kenya’s worst post-independence violence forced about 300 000 from their homes.

Insurgencies in Central Africa, northern Uganda and previously in southern Sudan have also displaced millions over the years.

While 46 countries were represented at the summit, only four—Zambia, Zimbabwe, Somalia and the host country, Uganda—sent their head of state or government.—Sapa-AFP

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