The OIC: Difficulties, Reform And A Way Forward

May 10, 2013 -  The Journal of Turkish Weekly

Selçuk Çolakoğlu

As an international organization, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is second only to the United Nations (UN) in terms of geographical extent and number of member states. Whether the OIC is an effective international organization, however, is debatable. Founded in 1969, its mission is to deal with the problems of Muslim states and societies. The process and current situation of the OIC was addressed in Istanbul via an international conference on 28 April 2013 named “Taking Stock of the Post-2005 Reform Process at the OIC: Achievements, Challenges and Future Prospects” with the participation of OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu and the director-general of IRCICA (Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture), Halit Eren.

A sui generis inter-governmental organization

It is difficult to classify the organization OIC in terms of the literature of international organizations. In terms of geography, it's more of a global organization than a regional organization because it has member states on four continents with a combined population of 1.4 billion people.  Thematically, it deals with such various issues like conflict resolution, contributing to state-building processes, humanitarian aid, development problems, economic cooperation, cultural and educational cooperation, safeguarding human rights, and combating Islamophobia. Geographically and thematically the OIC resembles a smaller version of the UN.

On the other hand, the OIC’s main mission and its conditions of membership have been constantly debated since its founding. The OIC’s 1972 charter states that “every Muslim state” can become a member of OIC, but just what constitutes a Muslim state is unclear. Moreover, despite the apparent ease of becoming a member, the charter did not determine further requirements for member states.

Furthermore, the term “Muslim state” is debatable in the literature of modern international systems and human rights. This ambiguity raises questions as to whether the organization should apply Islamic law, or deal solely with the political, economic, and social issues of its member states. There is also a rift between member states that grant Islam official status wanting to give official sanction to Islamic Law in both the OIC and all over the world, and member states with secular regimes that demand acting in compliance with the framework of global humanitarian values.

Nevertheless, the geographical dispersion of member states makes establishing common values and targets difficult. There are big differences between agendas of Brunei in Southeast Asia, Benin in West Africa, Albania in Eastern Europe and Surinam in South America. Though both are in the state-building process, Somalia and Afghanistan sharing the same political and economic vision would be unimaginable; likewise for G-20 members Indonesia and Turkey. Even Arab countries have diverse regimes and perspectives. For example, while Saudi Arabia is an Islamic Kingdom, Tunisia has a secular state-structure. Also, most of the 57 members of the OIC are developing or underdeveloped countries. Their economic problems cause problems in other fields like education, health, and nutrition.  Human rights abuses and low human development indices plague others. Furthermore, there are disputes between OIC member states, including border demarcation and use of trans-boundary water resources.

The post-2005 reform process

The OIC spent its first 30 years both working on projects and struggling with structural problems. With the induction of Turkish Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu to the secretary-generalship in 2004, reforms were initiated concerning the organization's structure and overall efficacy.

In the 2005 Mecca Summit, the “Ten-Year Programme of Action” (TYPOA) was adopted to strengthen the OIC. This program's highest priority was to revamp the OIC’s charter. The new charter was admitted after negotiations between member states at the 2008 Dakar Summit. In the new charter the requirements of membership are clearly determined: Any UN member state with a Muslim majority population that pledges to comply with the charter can be a member of the OIC, pending the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers' approval. Also, the new charter eases the conditions for observers: members of the UN and other organizations can become observers through a consensus decision  by the Council of Foreign Ministers.

The new charter's agenda prioritizes issues like human rights, women's rights, and the rule of law, good governance, and combating Islamophobia. For that purpose, the OIC's Independent Permanent Commission of Human Rights was founded to ensure human rights protections in international rules and standards. Moreover, the OIC's Executive Committee was established to consolidate authority within the organization. But the most radical change happened at the 2011 Astana Summit, when the organization's name was changed from the Organization of Islamic Conference to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The shift was meant to symbolize the new structure of the OIC as a well established institution rather than a loose conference.

Owing to these reforms, the OIC’s effectiveness and scope of activities have increased during İhsanoğlu's term. The OIC has begun attracting the attention of nonmember international organizations and states. Russia, for instance, became an observer in 2005 and the United States appointed a special envoy to the OIC in 2010. The OIC has also succeeded in developing relations based on mutual understanding regarding the rule of law, basic human rights, and peaceful conflict resolution-- especially with non-Muslim states.

The future vision of the OIC

Despite the all reforms in the OIC, it still suffers from structural problems. First of all, its 57 member states hailing from four different continents must make decisions by consensus. This rule prolongs the process of decision-making and makes timely responses to events difficult.

In addition, both the OIC’s number of employees and budget is not enough for a globally-active organization. Because of most of its members states are poor, only a few provide the majority of the OIC's budget. . This limited budget is the reason that the organization is understaffed. Thus, for the organization's future, supplementing its economic and personal resources is equally as important as acting under a common vision.

Another problem of the OIC is its failures in dispute-resolution among member states. In the Syria crisis, disagreements among its members have brought the OIC to an impasse. The OIC's weak role on major issues and inability to resolve internal disputes has caused a trust gap among member states and with nonmember states alike. Powerful members must find ways to cooperate, even if they are not directly involved in the problem. For example, in the Syria crisis, OIC members playing significant roles in peacekeeping missions like Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria can take leadership responsibility.