Addis Ababa, 1969: The Convention on the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa

On September 10, 1969, thirty-five representatives of the then relatively young Organisation of African Unity (OAU) met at Africa Hall in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. There, they adopted a both contemporarily highly contested and subsequently sparsely noticed document.

The text suggested a system of burden and responsibility sharing, in which the Signatories called for solidarity and cooperation between the member states. The Convention on the Specific Aspects of Refugee problems in Africa sought to de-politicize the concept of asylum, and ardently declared it a peaceful, purely humanitarian act.

Most importantly, however, the delegations broadened the previously established 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention’s narrow conception of a refugee. This UN-agreement had linked refugee status to an individual’s ability to prove a personal, subjective “fear of persecution.” The OAU Convention instead included “external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order” as legitimate causes for flight. This sanctioned objective group status refugee determination, which was more swift and costsensitive than the expensive and time-consuming individual eligibility process of the 1951 forerunner.

Although legal studies have analysed it extensively, the OAU Convention remains historiographically trapped in a twofold research void. Firstly, while the study of international treatment of refugees has recently expanded, the 1950s and 1960s remain largely unchartered territory. This poses a problem: Until the 1950s, the international community addressed the refugee issue as a singular, transitory, and exceptional emergency case, mainly limited to Europe – not a continuous world problem. Such an institutionalized global refugee policy only emerged gradually between 1950 and 1970.

In this process, the UN’s 1967 New York Protocol presented the normative culmination point – a follow up arrangement that legally terminated the geographical (Europe) and periodic (1951) restrictions of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Previously, legal assistance had been solely limited to pre-1951 refugees in Europe. The update turned international refugee protection into a worldwide endeavour. While some accounts have begun to touch on this process, there is no historical synthesis of this development.

In this scholarly vacuum, we find the second research gap: In historical refugee studies, countries of the Global South have only received marginal attention. This is largely because the most often quoted works of Peter Gatrell and Gil Loescher largely focus on the UNHCR, and ignore refugee operations of the Global South, such as the OAU or the Asian-African legal consultative organization. Accordingly, there is little knowledge of the motives, concepts and conduct of African countries in the process of universalizing refugee aid.

While the OAU Convention certainly brought an end to a decade-long continent’s search for a regional legal refugee framework, its meaning is misunderstood if only looking at its legal particulars. Put simply, its genesis matters. The convention’s historical meaning is not the newly established norms of its 15 articles, but the discussions it accelerated within the Western-oriented refugee system.

In April 1961, the US State Department knew: “It seems clear that such a shift is imminent, if not already in motion”, Charles Owsley concluded for the State Department. The shift he was referring to had been in motion for quite some time. The Undersecretary elaborated: “Progress has been made in reducing the refugee problem in Europe […] Nevertheless, recent events make it clear the refugees now manifest themselves globally and will continue to be an international problem.”

Refugee expert Elfan Rees admitted that in retrospect this shift was something of an epiphany. And indeed, one can precisely detect a change in the general perception of the refugee problem around 1960, which was accordingly followed by an adaptation and transformation of the conceptual structure and actual implementation of international refugee assistance. Following the terminology of the sources, contemporaries felt that by 1960, a solution had emerged for the “old” refugee and displaced persons problem, considered a backlog and legacy of the Second World War. Their conviction was that the international community should thus focus on finding solutions to “new” refugee problems. It was then that contemporaries began to perceive disparate refugee crises as recurrent manifestations of a structural and perpetual problem. In that his-torical moment a world problem was conceptualized: the trope of a global refugee crisis.

Recurring refugee crises on the African Continent were an important driver of this shift in perception. The process of decolonization further accelerated the development of a global system of refugee relief. Decolonization not only transformed political maps, but also fun-damentally altered the majorities within the UN community. Accordingly, Western States could no longer simply ignore refugee crises in the Global South. This became apparent in 1957, when Algerian civilians fleeing from the French military campaigns began seeking shelter in Tunisia and Morocco. Consequently, the international community faced a difficult task: Assisting the recently independent states of Tunisia and Morocco, while not embar-rassing France by accusing them of persecuting fleeing refugees.

The first international refugee relief operation on the African Continent and the developing Third World: The joint UNHCR-LICROSS assistance in Tunisia and Morocco for Algerian Refugees. Mennonite Church USA Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

The UNHCR-Red-Cross cooperation for the 250.000 Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco from 1957 to 1962 became the first international refugee aid operation on the African continent. And it set out to become an important precedent. The reconfiguration of colonial borders, violent decolonisation campaigns and prolonged civil wars turned the African continent into the 1960s hotspot of refugee crisis and relief. In 1969, the number of African refugees reached one million for the first time. To this day, the continent has not seen a smaller number. Western countries and international organisations observed these developments closely. In 1965, both the British Foreign Office and the US State Department sent representatives on field trips to investigate the African Refugee Problem.

Both excursions came after the OAU announced it would prepare its own Refugee Convention. There had been certain difficulties in applying the 1951 Refugee Convention on the African continent. Its 1951 dateline made it virtually impossible to define African evacuees as prima facie refugees qualifying for international protection. Thus, one of the first issues the Organisation concerned itself with were refugees. In February 1964, its Council of Ministers called a special refugee commission and established a Bureau for the Placement, Education and Training of Refugees. Five months later, the Council asked member states to present draft conventions by the end of the year. Unsurprisingly, the versions offered were essentially duplicates of the 1951 predecessor – aside from extinguishing its 1951 dateline.

This accelerated matters within the UN community. In several exchanges the High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadruddin Aga Khan, assured the OAU’s executive that a protocol deleting the dateline and thereby universalizing refugee protection was near completion. That was particularly important since in 1965, 27 of the 56 total signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention were African states. Thus, Khan feared duplication through the African document. And saw his organisation’s universal claim under attack. Accordingly, in 1965, international law experts met in Bellagio, Italy, to discuss the specifics of this follow up convention. Two years later the New York Protocol was ratified. It was thus the OAU’s announcement of its own refugee treaty that – among other reasons – served as a catalyst for the updating for the UN’s legal refugee framework.

The High Commissioner mostly renowned for UNHCR’s departure into Africa: Sadruddin Aga Khan (1966-1977). Erling Mandelmann / photo©, via Wikimedia Commons

Two anecdotes emphasize that this universalization of refugee protection and later aid was no smooth, consensual process. First, when the UNHCR set out to expand its Executive Committee at the beginning of the 1960s, representatives of both the US and the UK tried to veto the admission of African States. Both argued that the body should be reserved for affluent countries funding the organisation. Second, in 1961, Ahmed Balagija, representative of the American-Arab NGO Jamiat al Islam, criticizing the “West” for only considering Europeans as potential refugees and thus aid receivers, had his microphone muted by the French representative in Committee.

The two events demonstrate how within the twofold process of globalizing international refugee aid, the recognition of refugees as an ongoing problem of world affairs came first. That refugees also were a global phenomenon, not only occurring in Europe but also in Asia and Africa was the second and far more contested epiphany. This very short archaeology of the conceptual genesis of this world problem has shown that it was during the moment of recognizing the refugee problem’s permanency that the OAU pushed towards the universalization of international refugee aid and protection.

Sometimes, the final result is not the most important. Sometimes, the process that led to that result and the unintended consequences are far more significant. In the context of the OAU convention, merely analysing its content and subsequent usage of the OAU Convention consequently fails to illuminate the historical meaning at its core. More important was the effect of the convention itself on a hitherto only slowly initiated process. It catalysed discussions about updating the international refugee framework and is part of what drove UNHCR into Africa. This instigated the intellectual perception of a global problem and became the basis for the establishment of a global policy.

Historically, this extension of international refugee protection and relief fell into a time of fewer refugees. This process was reversed, or at least impeded, when refugees grew in numbers. From the 1970s onward, the African states ended their open-door-policy and the same holds true for Europe in the 1990s. Today, this is even more vivid as borders close to keep out refugees from the Global South. The norms established between 1950 and 1970 have been under attack ever since.

Further Reading

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Jakob Schönhagen works on a PhD-project supervised by Professor Ulrich Herbert at Freiburg University on the emergence of a worldwide refugee policy between 1950-1970. Jakob was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2018.