African leaders agreed yesterday to a Libyan-driven push to transform the African Union (AU) and in theory greatly extend its powers.
The change was materialized by morphing the AU’s executive body, the commission, into an “African Authority.”
The draft document adopted at 4am yesterday at the AU summit of heads of state in Sirte, Libya, showed that the new authority would simplify the AU’s structure and boost its power over defense, diplomatic and international trade matters.
The document was viewed as a milestone for the buildup to what Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has long envisioned as a federal government overseeing a “United States of Africa.”
“The final text reflects everybody’s position,” said Benin’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marie Ehouzou, the only head of state or country delegate to address journalists as the weary-eyed and tightlipped officials trickled out of the conference room after over 15 hours of near-uninterrupted talks.
The Authority would have to resolve doubts voiced by many African leaders about unifying Africa under one government, including concerns about national sovereignty, division of resources and power.
Most African leaders voice support for more unity, but some of the continent’s wealthier nations, led by Nigeria and South Africa, had appeared to be resisting the move. African diplomats say there are worries the new structure could become overbearing, especially if it is led by Qaddafi, who has a long history of intervening throughout Africa.
Ehouzou conceded the final declaration had “provoked quite a few sharp discussions, but I believe the states eventually managed to reach common ground nonetheless.” The draft shows the new Authority will “coordinate the implementation of a common defense policy” as well as the “common position of AU member states during international negotiations.” The Authority is also to hold “the strategic command of an African force in waiting.”
“I believe [African] states are ready to drop a little bit of their sovereignty in favor of the authority,” Ehouzou said.
In practice, however, the wording of the Authority’s new role remained very vague. Ehouzou also confirmed that the changes would have to be first written into the AU’s Constitution before being ratified by the parliament of each of the AU’s 53 member states. The declaration showed that finances related to the change were also to be studied at a later, unspecified date.
Separately, Ehouzou confirmed that the AU’s foreign ministers had adopted a draft decision against the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, but said the heads of states had not had the time to address this and the draft was still not final.
“There can still be a new discussion on this,” Ehouzou said.
Diplomats said the foreign ministers had already changed the original draft decision on Thursday to focus it solely on the case of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is under an arrest warrant by the ICC for crimes against humanity and war crimes in the western Sudan region of Darfur.
African officials said the surprise new draft was circulated by Libya, which is hosting the 13th AU summit of heads of state in Sirte, east of the capital, Tripoli.
The draft says the AU “deeply regrets” that the UN ignored its previous demand for the ICC in The Hague to postpone its arrest warrant against al-Bashir.
In consequence, the draft provides that AU countries “shall not cooperate” with the ICC “for the arrest and surrender” of African indicted personalities. But officials say this wording was later changed by the ministers behind closed doors to specifically mention Sudan’s al-Bashir, rather than all African personalities.
Still, if adopted by heads of states, the common ruling could be a powerful blow to prosecuting African officials for war crimes.
Several African leaders appeared to strongly resist the draft decision.
“Certainly that’s not the position that we take,” Ghana’s Foreign Minister Muhammad Mumuni told reporters.
“For us in Ghana there is absolutely no equivocation at all about our acceptance and respect for the jurisdiction, the integrity and high honor of dignity of the ICC,” he said.
But, Mumuni added, Ghana supports the AU’s call to postpone the “ill-timed” ICC warrant against al-Bashir, which he said imperiled peace efforts in Sudan and could create “a huge power vacuum.”
Ghana is among 30 African countries that are party to the international court. Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said the draft decision “basically orders them to flout their legal obligations.”
The draft appeared to contradict assurances by the AU’s executive chairman, Jean Ping, that the AU would not reach hard decisions against the ICC.
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