From Non-Interference to Non-Indifference: The African Union and the Responsibility to Protect


Published: 6 Sep 2017

(Kampala – 6 September 2017) International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) today published a new report on the African Union and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), exploring how this principle has taken root within the continental union, in the form of non-indifference.

The internationally agreed principle of R2P provides that states are primarily responsible for protecting their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing and should assist each other to that end, but also entails that, if a state fails to do so, the international community will respond, if necessary through coercive action.

R2P has gradually been introduced on the African continent. The Organisation of African Union (OAU) had no legal power to get involved in internal conflicts and was largely inactive on this front. Its successor, the African Union (AU), has been granted the right to intervene in a member state in respect of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, following a decision by the assembly of heads and state, or when members request intervention to restore peace and security. Those provisions in the AU Constitutive Act have together been termed “non-indifference” and may be viewed as the African analogue of R2P.

This new paper provides background on the principle of R2P and on the relevant legal and institutional frameworks of the OAU and the AU. The AU’s right to intervene, coupled with a new prominence to human rights, led to the creation of an elaborate institutional framework to implement the AU’s role on peace and security, most importantly the AU Peace and Security Council.

The paper also analyses different cases of intervention under the OAU and the AU. The OAU was largely ineffective in most situations, due to the challenging legal framework, coupled with persistent financial difficulties, most painfully demonstrated in the context of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Burundi was the first real test case for the AU, where regional leaders assisted in brokering the Arusha Agreement (2000), and the AU sent a peacekeeping mission in 2003. However, the AU has to date failed to resolve a new crisis, which erupted in April 2015.

Other cases discussed in the report are Darfur (Sudan) and Somalia, two areas where the AU has deployed a peacekeeping mission. Results were achieved in the Comoros and after Kenya’s disputed elections in 2007, but the AU was less relevant in 2011 during the crises in Ivory Coast and Libya, where it was overshadowed by other regional and international actors. Most recently, it supported strong regional action by the Economic Community of West-African states (ECOWAS) in Gambia when long-time autocrat Jammeh refused to step down after losing elections.

The paper then analyses the challenges for the AU in implementing R2P in the form of non-indifference. First, the conceptual relation between the concepts of R2P and non-indifference is described, followed by the absence of clear triggers for AU action and the lack of clarity about decision-making. Finally, the difficult access to sufficient financial resources and political will among heads of state are identified as key challenges for the AU’s role in preventing and addressing atrocities.

Based on these conclusions, IRRI recommends to the AU to increase efforts, individually and collectively, to protect populations against international crimes, by more pro-active conflict prevention efforts, effective intervention in crises and the adoption of sanctions, if necessary. The AU should clarify its relationship to the UN, commit financial resources and come up with a framework for decision-making. This requires qualitative assistance by the African Commission and should receive adequate support from donors.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Responsibility to Protect
Regions: Great Lakes Region, North and Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, Western Africa
Type: Library, Paper