KAMPALA, Oct 23 – African leaders on Friday adopted a convention – billed as the first of its kind worldwide – on the protection of the 17 million people on the continent who have fled their homes.
The convention, which is legally binding, requires member states to provide special assistance for displaced people with special needs, including the elderly, and calls for the prevention of forced displacement.
"There were a few amendments to the project, notably after the discussion on armed groups, their definition and their role, But the documents were adopted," an AU spokeswoman said, referring to the convention and to a second, non-binding, document.
The convention must be ratified by 15 African states to enter into force.
"From the start, international humanitarian law focused on the refugee issue but not so much on the question of displaced. So with this convention it’s a case of enriching international law in so far as displaced people in Africa far outnumber refugees," AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told AFP.
Political upheaval, conflicts and natural disasters have left the continent with between 12 and 14 million displaced people, according to the AU.
Including refugees and returnees, the number of Africans who have fled their homes stands at around 17 million.
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 told AFP before the convention was adopted. "One can ask how it is going to really improve the protection and assistance of the internally displaced."
"But if on a continental level 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.
The AU commission chairman Jean Ping told the summit the huge numbers of people who had fled their homes posed a threat to Africa’s stability.
Last year, the 53-member bloc resolved to bolster the protection of refugees and displaced people, but an African diplomat told AFP 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 some 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.