n South African Journal on Human Rights - Extending the limits or narrowing the scope? Deconstructing the OAU refugee definition thirty years on

Volume 21, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 0258-7203



The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Refugee Convention is recognised as having extended the conventional concept of a refugee beyond the narrower scope of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Yet, while the OAU definition of refugee has been praised for its broader scope, relatively little effort has been made to subject it to a rigorous interpretative analysis. Instead, scholarship has tended to minimise a number of serious interpretive difficulties posed by the definition. The result is an `interpretive consensus' that suggests that three fundamental characteristics differentiate it from the 1951 definition: first, the OAU definition is objective rather than subjective; second, it does not require a specific type of harm or cause of flight; and third, it was primarily designed and intended to be applied to the context of group displacements. On closer examination, this consensus appears untenable and may be harmful to the broader goal of refugee protection. This article reviews existing scholarship on the OAU definition and provides a clause-by-clause analysis of the OAU definition in light of contemporary international refugee law.

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