Africa's Forgotten Refugee Convention

tags: human rights, refugees, African history, postcolonial studies, Organization of African Unity

 Marcia C. Schenck is a professor of global history at Potsdam University.

Every year many of the about 200,000 refugees from dozens of countries across the continent in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya turn out to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20. But when asked, few of them remember that this day marks June 20, 1974, the entering into force of an African answer to an international refugee convention. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), founded in 1963 as an aspirational pan-African project, started discussions about formulating an African refugee convention just one year after its inception. The OAU’s Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa finally came into being in 1969 and was ratified in 1974. However, as Marina Sharpe and others have shown, the convention struggled to significantly ameliorate the situation of African refugees across the continent as implementation challenges amounted. To understand the coming into being of the 1969 convention, we need to examine the global historic context, and the regionally specific confluence of decolonization struggles and ideas about pan-African solidarity.

After World War II, refugees became codified in international law. As a response to large scale population movements, the world’s first legally binding refugee convention came into being, the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees (referred to as the Geneva Convention). African heads of state saw the Geneva Convention, with its emphasis on individual, political, and civil rights, as the product of a European tradition. They were motivated to draw up an agreement that would render international refugee legislation applicable to the African context and reflect African circumstances and values around refugee protection. Central to this were notions of African solidarity, pan-Africanist support for decolonization refugees and advances in responsibility sharing, temporary protection, and voluntary repatriation. This, however, proved to be more challenging than originally envisioned. The drafting process lasted from 1964 to 1969 and involved various working groups consisting of ambassadors and legal experts and resulted in presentations of five drafts at different conferences across Africa. After much discussion and false starts, one of the first and few legally binding documents the OAU ever produced emerged. The document is said to have paved the way for group-rights to claim refugee status, to have first codified the principle of voluntary repatriation, introduced the prohibition of refoulment (expulsion of refugees), and to have framed asylum as a peaceful, non-political act. At a Seminar for National Correspondents and Meeting of the Consultative Committee in 1970, the OAU’s own Bureau for the Placement and Education of African Refugees celebrated the convention as “a very progressive document, which can efficiently help towards a permanent solution to the Refugee problem in Africa” and further demanded that “all those dealing with the refugee problem in Africa … should make of it their bible.” This, however, was not to be as ratification and implementation were slow and enforcement inconsistent. The OAU lacked the political power and a body that effectively oversaw the broad adoption of the 1969 convention into national laws. This gap regarding the supervision of the 1969 convention remains to this day.

To understand the 1969 convention’s origin three things are important. First of all, before the 1967 protocol to the Geneva Convention was ratified, African refugees were excluded from international refugee law, which limited its application to European World War II refugees. After the 1967 protocol, one of the initial reasons for beginning the drafting process disappeared and it now became a question of how to supplement the Geneva convention rather than to draft the first convention applicable to African refugees. The UNHCR, protective of the Geneva convention, became involved in the later drafts, so the African convention did not emerge in isolation but close cooperation with an international organization that saw itself as the custodian of the Geneva Convention and its protocol.

Secondly, refugee numbers within Africa were not only on the rise, but because many displaced people hailed from decolonization struggles, supporting them was a crucial political project for the OAU. In 1964, there were about 400,000 refugees; by 1972 the number had risen to about 1 million. Anti-colonial solidarity emerged as an important organizing principle in both the creation of the OAU and the 1969 convention. Refugees-as-freedom-fighters were worthy of protection, but so was the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of the newly independent states. These negotiations revealed the tensions between securitization and sovereignty and pan-African solidarity.

Read entire article at Africa is a Country

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