U.S. Ambassador On The African Union

Host Michel Martin speaks with the U.S. ambassador to the African Union, Michael Battle, about the body's mission and its role in some of the more tenuous situations in Somalia and Darfur.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States brought inspiration to many in this country. So, how did it inspire one woman to lose weight? We'll hear from author Bertice Berry about her year to wellness in just a few minutes.

But first, a newsmaker interview with the U.S. ambassador to the African Union, Michael Battle. He's here in Washington, D.C. this week for the First Annual U.S.-African Union High Level Bilateral Meetings. Ambassador Battle is here with me now in our Washington, D.C. studio to tell us more. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ambassador MICHAEL BATTLE (African Union): It's a pleasure being with you today.

MARTIN: Now, I'm sure many people have heard of the European Union, but I'm not sure that everybody knows about the African Union, which was launched in 2002. So for people who are not so familiar, is the African Union modeled along the same idea as the European Union as a kind of a coherent group to address, you know, regional issues?

Amb. BATTLE: There are analogical similarities between the African Union and the European Union in the sense that the African Union has set up a system of commissions similar as the European Union has. The intent of the African Union is to provide substantive guidance for the 53 nations on the continent that are part of the African Union.

MARTIN: Interesting. Are there any particular issues that define the union's discussions?

Amb. BATTLE: Oh, absolutely. The primary focus of the African Union, unfortunately, and I say unfortunately only because it is not the most positive direction, but it has to deal with peace and security in part because the African continent 20, 30 years ago was embedded in trying to fight off colonial control. And many of the new emerging nations on the continent are experiencing democratic and constitutional control for the first time.

However, what we are trying to do with the African Union and where the African Union sees itself going is moving in the direction of continental integration on economic integration issues, shared values integrative issues, and we are trying to work with the African Union to push the economic integration continent wide beyond just the reach in our economic communities.

MARTIN: So tell me about these bilateral meetings that you were a part of. What was the - why these meetings at this time? What did you talk about? And I also want to mention that over the course of the three-day meetings, the African Union delegation met with people not just from the State Department, also with attorney general Eric Holder, the Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner. Obviously there's a statement of the significance of this group that they met with these officials at such a busy time. But what was the purpose of these meetings and why now?

Amb. BATTLE: The purpose of the meeting was to begin to crystallize in very strategic long-term language how the U.S. government will move forward with this relationship with the African Union.

Now, the reason that it is now has a lot to do with the fact that my staff has been pushing for it. Our mission has been in existence since 2006. And this is the first time that we have formalized how the U.S. government will work with the African Union. So, in that sense, it is overdue. And in another sense, it is a part of the progression of how that relationship with the African Union is going.

MARTIN: Certainly you know that, and you mentioned that it's unfortunate but necessary that there's a lot of attention, some peace and security issues. The U.S. has placed a lot of faith in African Union peacekeeping forces. But a Human Rights Watch report recently criticized AU forces in Somalia for firing into densely populated areas without trying to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

This is not the first time that African Union troops have been criticized for abuses of human rights. And so, then, I want to ask, is the U.S.'s faith in these forces appropriate at this time, given the level of training or whatever the issue is?

Amb. BATTLE: The U.S.' faith and the world's faith in the troops who make up AMISOM, which is the mission in Somalia, is very well placed. What we have to balance is that there are persons who are on the side of those who are opposing the government in Somalia, who have consistently indicated that the African troops who are taking the fight in Somalia have fired on non-military persons. Some of those reports have been exaggerated for political purposes.

Al Shabaab, which is the opposing group in Somalia, has consistently done everything it could to disrupt and destabilize a very fragile government that exists in Somalia, the Transitional Federal Government, the TFG. And so we have spent a lot of money and a lot of time and effort to support the TFG and to support the African Union.

MARTIN: Obviously an issue of great concern in this country is the situation in Darfur.

Amb. BATTLE: Yes.

MARTIN: And elections were held earlier this month. International observers there, including former President Jimmy Carter have said that there was widespread fraud. But what happens now?

Amb. BATTLE: That is the comprehensive peace agreement that has been brokered in Sudan. The elections this year were the first major step. Then in 2011 there's going to be a vote, a referendum to determine whether or not southern Sudan will secede from the greater Sudan. So, the efforts now are to make sure that the comprehensive peace agreement stays intact, leaning to the referendum.

Now, the U.S. government does not have, as they say, a dog in this fight in the sense that we are not trying to encourage a separation, nor are we trying to force Sudan to remain intact. But we do want to respect the fact that the southern Sudanese have the right to vote in 2011.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, could we just hear a little bit more about you? You're not a career diplomat. Prior to taking up your ambassadorship, you were the president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. And I was just wondering how your faith background informs your work now and why did you choose to take this role on?

Amb. BATTLE: Well, alongside of what I had done as a theologian and as an academic leader, in the '90s I was the vice president of the American Committee on Africa. I've always had a very, very Afrocentric orientation in terms of international policy. I was one of the election observers when Nelson Mandela was elected.

So, when the Obama administration asked if I would consider serving as ambassador to the African Union, there was no way that I could have said no. A, I respect where the president is leading this nation. And I respect the direction of the secretary of state as well. So I look at it as a great opportunity to do something creative and very exciting. And I'm very glad to have said yes.

MARTIN: Ambassador Michael Battle, Senior, is the United States' ambassador to the African Union. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Upon concluding three days of high level meetings between the African Union leaders and leaders in the United States government, he was here with us in our D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Amb. BATTLE: Thank you, it's a pleasure.

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