IDSA COMMENT

OIC Astana Session: Emphasising Change and Action

July 14, 2011

The 38th session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Foreign Ministers held at Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 28-30, 2011 was a landmark meeting for several reasons. The meeting made an attempt to renovate the image and functioning of the organisation and to give it more credibility. The name of the organisation was changed from ‘Organisation of Islamic Conference’ to ‘Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’. The embleme was also redesigned to give the OIC a face lift.

Explaining the name change, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister and the Chairman of the session, Yerzhan Kazykhanov, said that, “We should strengthen our cooperation, both internal and external, in all fields. Our internal cooperation means consolidating Islamic integrity and solidarity while external cooperation would aim to solidify the Ummah’s position in the world.” For his part, the OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu stated that, “The key word is cooperation. We need to focus on avenues of cooperation among OIC countries and the world bodies at large.” The new name indicates the growing belief among leaders of Muslim countries about the necessity of ‘cooperation’ in changing times for the organisation to acquire greater credibility. It also suggests that the leaders want to engage in mutual cooperation and thus convert their words into visible action. This in turn reflects their dissatisfaction at the current functioning of the organisation and their desire to bring about a change.

Since its establishment in 1969, the OIC has been meeting regularly and passing resolutions on issues relevant to the Muslim world. The seriousness of these talks and resolutions has been questioned by critics since these meetings used to deliberately avoid the internal political, economic and social issues haunting the Muslim world. Given the lack of cooperation among Muslim countries, many key issues remained unaddressed for long.

The Astana meeting has made an attempt to shift from the self-congratulatory to the self-introspection mode. This was highlighted by Secretary General Ihsanoglu who stated that the Muslim world is going through a “defining moment in its history” and emphasised the “dire need to speed up the process of concretizing the peoples’ aspiration to good governance, the rule of law, human rights, broader political participation and dedicated national dialogue.”

Another important change in the OIC’s mindset was visible when the Secretary General announced the formation of a human rights watchdog named the Independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights (IPCHR). The IPCHR is to be set up in the OIC’s Secretariat in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to monitor human rights violations in OIC countries. The commission would comprise of 18 members drawn from 18 different countries of Arab, Asian and African member states and would cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Though promotion and protection of human rights have been enshrined in the OIC Charter and in the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, none of the member states have been indicted for gross violations of human rights. The formation of a body like the IPCHR is an attempt by the leaders of these countries to put their own houses in order.

Reform of the organisation was probably propelled by the recent popular protests in the Arab street, which questioned the legitimacy and ability of current rulers. The protests have raised questions about transparency and accountability in the political systems as well as other issues such as social equality and human rights -- issues that have not been addressed seriously by the rulers. Keeping this in mind, the OIC Astana Declaration appealed for “constructive dialogue” and “protection of the civilians.” The Declaration also called for “promoting peace, cooperation, rule of law, human rights, fundamental freedoms, good governance, democracy and accountability.” Raising these sensitive issues at this critical juncture reflects a welcome change in the OIC’s approach, which is also likely to enhance its acceptance and standing in the world community.

Despite the changes in the organisation, the OIC’s attitude towards India remains unchanged. In his speech, the Secretary General expressed concern over the situation in Kashmir. The OIC reiterated its stand that Jammu and Kashmir was an “occupied” state. A meeting of the Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir was held on the sidelines of the OIC meeting on June 28. The meeting was chaired by the Secretary General who “reaffirmed full support of the OIC for the people of Jammu and Kashmir in their struggle for their legitimate right to self-determination.” Expressing solidarity, the resolution said that the OIC supported the people of Jammu and Kashmir “in their aspiration to a peaceful, secure and prosperous life.”

There is nothing new in the OIC’s stand on Kashmir. For its part, the Government of India has rejected the OIC resolution stating that “Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India and the OIC has no locus standi in matters concerning internal affairs of India.” India probably understands the lack of teeth in OIC resolutions and feels that it should not over-react beyond issuing an official statement expressing its displeasure.

The resolution and statements by the Secretary General and other delegates of the OIC reflect their desire to renovate the organisation. The meeting had endeavoured to break the stereotyped weak and non-functioning image of the organisation and intended to infuse the required freshness into the system. But the larger question of implementation still looms large for the OIC. Considering the geographical vastness of the Islamic world spread across continents and the clashes of interests among the member countries, particularly the big and influential ones, it would still remain a challenge for the OIC to speak in one voice and to take concrete action. Besides, the OIC does not have the capability to interfere militarily in conflict zones like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan etc. -- issues on which it has expressed its concerns. While new conflict zones are emerging and problems are increasing, the mechanism for their redressal remains limited in the OIC’s hands. Though the Astana meeting reflected a change in the OIC’s approach and understanding of the issues and problems of the Islamic world, lack of concrete action would lead to a further loss of credibility for the organisation.