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Rights groups pressure AU on conflicts, justice

world Updated: Jan 31, 2009 15:20 IST
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Rights groups and civil organisations are playing a growing role in African Union summits, as they pressure the body to tackle conflicts and promote accountability for the continent's leaders.

Watchdogs issued a string of warnings as AU heads of state readied for the start of the bloc's 12th annual summit on Sunday to discuss infrastructure development amid fresh conflicts and other crises across the continent.

"What the African citizens desperately need the AU to do is facilitate and provide real, lasting peace on the ground through concerted effort in liaising with states, organised civil society and regional institutions," said Desire Assogbavi, a policy analyst with the British charity Oxfam.

Long-drawn-out conflicts such as in Somalia, Sudan's Darfur region and Democrative Republic of Congo and protracted political crises such as the one that has crippled Zimbabwe for almost a year have stunted Africa's development.

"The security situation in the continent has got worse over the last six months with new or renewed conflicts raging in the DRC and Somalia," Assogbavi said.

Civil society organisations not only want stepped up efforts to solve such turmoil but demand that those responsible for Africa's endless crises be made accountable.

On Wednesday, five African and international human rights groups urged the continental body to pressure Senegal to prosecute former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, whose regime is accused of torturing thousands of civilians.

Habre was toppled from power in 1990 and eventually fled to Senegal after an eight-year rule.

In July 2006, the AU asked Senegal to prosecute Habre, who is still living in Senegal, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But since that request "Senegal has taken no action and the AU has given it no support," said the joint statement by Chadian human rights bodies, the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO), Human Rights Watch, and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

"We expect the African Union to respect its commitment to see that this prosecution moves forward," said Dobian Assingar of the FIDH. "The AU's credibility is on the line. Both Senegal and the AU have just stalled and stalled."

"The African Union and Senegal risk being seen as accomplices in Hissene Habre's efforts to escape punishment," said Jacqueline Moudeina, the victims' Chadian lawyer.

But a senior AU official said the concerns were evidence of the bloc's rising relevance.

"This is a sign of AU's rising power and influence, but it also suggest a growing call for the democratisation of our organisation, which means it should be closer to the people's needs," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The AU's efforts to pacify the troubled continent have been hobbled by recurrent financial shortfalls, lack of equipment and political will as well as dependence on foreign funding.

Its first foray into peacekeeping in Sudan's Darfur region ended up being handed over to the United Nations to form a hybrid force, while its peace mission in Somalia has yet to even reach half of its planned size of 8,000 men.