Tuesday, 4 December 2007

EU-Africa Summit: Get Beyond Bob

From my Reuters AlertNet blog on 4 December 2007.

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Here's a challenge to all European journalists intending to write about this weekend's EU-Africa Summit: deal with real issues that may have an effect on people's lives, not invented ones that politicians use to aggrandise themselves. In short, skip the flap about Robert Mugabe's attendance, and go directly to substance.

Some may say this is hard to do. No doubt editors back home are baying for Bob, so they can cover what they assume people are interested in -- mostly because the competition is working under the same assumptions. Of course, in doing so the media gatekeepers have to consciously ignore their duty to inform the public as well as the opportunity they possess to set the agenda.

There are at least a dozen much more critical issues this EU-Africa Summit raises. I chaired a press conference today, with a number of expert speakers discussing the upcoming international meeting for about an hour, and throughout their speeches the subject of Mugabe's attendance never came up once. There was just too much else to talk about.

My own organisation, the International Crisis Group, highlighted the deteriorating situation in Darfur, now exacerbated by Khartoum blocking deployment of the hybrid AU/UN force, and examined the situation in Chad, where one of the larger rebel groups just declared war on the EU force about to be sent there.

Human Rights Watch then talked about the action plan that will emerge from the Summit, with serious questions over whether reality will ever match intentions. In a statement today, the organisation said, "The summit action plan prioritizes 'enhancing the capacity of Africa and the EU to respond timely and adequately to security threats'. Human Rights Watch said that the wars in Darfur and Somalia would put this priority to the test." How can you pledge to boost future security in general when the current insecurity of millions of civilians in these regions is so obvious? They likewise asked whether the plan would lead to the actual implementation of anti-corruption measures or be just paper promises.

Oxfam then took its turn, focusing among other things on EU-Africa trade talks. The EU wants to settle new free trade deals with 74 of its former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific by the end of this year, but these new Economic Partnership Agreements could actually do more harm than good in terms of development in the world's poorest countries. The EU is forcing the Africans to sign or suffer (tariffs), regardless of the consequences. Hardly the spirit of cooperation.

Finally, two special guest speakers took the floor. Arnold Tsunga -- Vice President of the International Federation for Human Rights, Chairman of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, and executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights -- gave an overview of the extreme hardship his country is facing, with life expectancy now one of the lowest in the world and inflation probably over 16,000 per cent. Salih Osman, a lawyer with the Sudan Organisation Against Torture, member of the Sudanese Parliament, and now winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Human Rights -- drew an authoritative picture of the misery in Darfur, with a presentation that Reuters has already summarised.

And again, throughout the hour-long press briefing, not one speaker, not even the harsh critic of Mugabe from Zimbabwe, discussed the matter of the leader's attendance at the Summit. In fact, not until a journalist asked about it in the question period did anyone even mention it. All the expert speakers agreed with Arnold Tsunga when he replied that this was a diversion from the real issues the EU and Africa needed to address, particularly about Zimbabwe, but also right across Africa.

If you're a journalist, consider following his lead when you write your story. This is the first EU-Africa Summit in seven years. Don't waste your rare column inches and air time on a non-story about pointless political posturing.

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