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UN West Africa office calls for more regional respect for constitutional authority

UN West Africa office calls for more regional respect for constitutional authority

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah
With West Africa holding the African record for unconstitutional government tenure, including coups, a top United Nations envoy today called on the region's leaders to understand that power entails responsibilities to protect, care for and be accountable to their people.

Sovereignty and responsibility are becoming the two faces of the same coin, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the Secretary-General's Special Representative and head of the UN Office in West Africa (UNOWA), said at the opening of a two-day roundtable on "Sovereignty and Transition in West Africa," in Dakar, Senegal.

The conference is sponsored by UNOWA and Wilton Park, a leading centre and organizer of policy discussions in the United Kingdom, and is looking at such issues as the underlying factors preventing peaceful transitions of power, preventive diplomacy and the role of the international community and its assistance to the region.

Mr. Ould-Abdallah used the recent example in Togo of President Gnassingbe Eyadema's son briefly taking power, with military help, on his father's death, but stepping aside under international pressure.

In the absence of unconditional sovereignty, Mr. Ould-Abdallah asked, "what meaning does one give today to the concept of non-intervention in a situation like that of Togo where the crisis risks inflicting incomparable suffering on the Togolese people and having the serious consequences for the all of the neighbouring countries?"

The Togolese Government, however, did not fully observe the constitution, under which the Speaker of Parliament was to become interim President on the death of the President and to organize presidential elections within 60 days. Abass Bonfoh was installed as Interim President instead of Speaker Ouattara Natchaba.

Mr. Ould-Abdallah wondered, too, how to help the suffering population of Sudan while guarding against intruding on the internal affairs of that east African country.

He said the recent report of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change recalled that the head of government of each country was obliged to protect its population, but said that that responsibility had to be assumed by the international community whenever Governments could not or would not guarantee such protection.

Around the world over the last few years, "considerations of ethical order are gradually superseding political and economic imperatives and interests" because of the international failure to avert terrible recent tragedies, he said.

Among the questions the conference might answer was how to encourage certain Heads of State to avoid manipulating national constitutions and elections so as to hold on to power for life, Mr. Ould-Abdallah said.

He wondered whether guaranteeing pensions to former leaders, giving them "constructive impunity" within their countries, or making them senators for life would lead to good governance and strengthened sovereignty.

He also posed the question of what should be done when a democratically elected Government ignored its own constitution, violated human life and dignity and imperilled peace and security, not only in its country but in a whole region.