The following is the transcript of a speech given by Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch senior director for Africa advocacy, at the Gambia National Stakeholders Conference on Justice and Human Rights, May 23-25, 2017.

Introduction

Thank you to the Gambian government and Justice Minister Tambadou for inviting Human Rights Watch to contribute to this important conversation.

Over the last 20 years, I have made many visits to Gambia. I was last in Banjul in October 2016 at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, where Human Rights Watch participated in a panel to discuss threats to freedom of speech ahead of December’s presidential election.

It’s a real pleasure to be here today to see how Gambia has changed since then, and to have the chance to discuss with you how to ensure that Gambia capitalizes on its hard-won freedoms.

When I was asked to speak on this topic, I was reminded of a tweet from a Gambian journalist the day after former president Jammeh had left for exile: The sun is smiling on #Gambia. Not because #Jammeh has gone. Or, #Barrow is coming. But because #GambiaHasDecided that #NeverAgain.

This tweet captures exactly what is meant when we discuss guarantees of non-recurrence – thinking through the reforms necessary to ensure that, whomever governs Gambia, be it today, in 5 years, or 50 years, the human rights violations of the Jammeh era are not repeated.

I want to focus my remarks today on four key areas pivotal to ensuring lasting respect for the rule of law and human rights: ensuring the neutrality of the security sector; ending impunity; strengthening the independence of the judiciary; and reforming the legal framework.

1. Ensuring the neutrality of the security sector

Ensuring the police, intelligence services and the armed forces can carry out their mandate in a neutral and professional manner should be a key priority for the new government. Jammeh’s government used Gambian security institutions to arrest, intimidate and coerce his real or perceived opponents, turning the police, intelligence services and elements of the army into instruments for his own political and even personal goals.

Gambia’s new government, although it has only been in office for a short time, has begun the process of transforming the police and security services into institutions that Gambians trust to protect and respect them. The new government has released dozens of political prisoners, and ended the powers of arrest and detention of the feared National Intelligence Agency, now known as the State Intelligence Services.

The government, with support from its international partners, should now implement a longer-term security sector reform program, including by passing legislation setting out in detail the role of the police and intelligence services in domestic law enforcement. The government should also establish a mechanism for vetting the security forces to investigate and sanction individuals most responsible for grave human rights violations in the past.   

The government should also establish independent civilian institutions capable of providing effective oversight of government institutions. We commend the Ministry of Justice for its commitment to the creation of a national human rights institution, and urge it to be given the financial and functional independence it needs to be effective, in line with the Principles relating to the Status of National Human Rights Institutions (known as The Paris Principles). The Gambian National Assembly also has an essential role to play in holding the executive to account, and its members would benefit from training on international human rights standards relating to law enforcement.

2. An end to impunity

During our research into Jammeh-era abuses, we could find no example of members of the police, intelligence services or military who were convicted or held to account for torture, killings or other serious violations. The government’s failure to investigate and prosecute abuses enabled future violations.

This March, we wrote to Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou to welcome the important steps the Gambian government had taken to end this state of impunity including reversing Gambia’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and committing to investigate the fate of individuals who were forcibly disappeared during the Jammeh era. We also commended President Barrow and his government’s stated intent to establish a truth, reconciliation and reparations commission to investigate crimes committed during Jammeh’s rule. A truth commission offers the potential for families to learn the fate of their loved ones, as well as the opportunity to begin a national dialogue on reforms to assure that Jammeh-era abuses are never repeated.

The announcement of a truth commission should be part of a wider effort to hold accountable those most responsible for human rights violations during Jammeh’s rule. While criminal prosecutions of past human rights violations can present challenges, especially to a newer administration facing many competing demands, we have seen the benefits of ensuring such cases do not fall off the agenda. Victims need to have the opportunity for redress for the crimes they have suffered. In addition, fair trials in accordance with international standards build respect for the rule of law. They send a clear message that serious crimes will not be tolerated, while also signaling that justice – not vengeance – will prevail.

As the Gambian government sets out the function and structure of a truth commission in the coming weeks and months, it should consider how the commission will work alongside and complement judicial prosecutions. It is also crucial to consider how judicial institutions and a truth and reconciliation commission might share information while protecting the rights of victims and witnesses as well as respecting the rights of the alleged perpetrators.

3. Strengthening and ensuring the impartiality of the judiciary

Ending the impunity of the Jammeh era will also require efforts to strengthen the Gambian justice system, which faces significant challenges as it struggles to overcome more than two decades of neglect and misuse. Human Rights Watch documented widespread executive interference in the judiciary when Jammeh was president, including executive pressure on foreign judges on temporary assignment in Gambia. The new Gambian chief justice should work with the Ministry of Justice to devise a system for the training and appointment of judges that protects them from executive interference, both in law and practice. Thought should also be given to the creation of independent complaints commissions to provide oversight of the police and office of the prosecutor.  

Gambia should also consider the reforms needed to develop the investigative, prosecutorial and adjudication techniques and capacities necessary to prosecute torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Gambia now has the unique opportunity to build such a capacity including by inviting international experts to work alongside Gambian investigators and prosecutors. Gambia also currently lacks any formal program for victim or witness protection, and should devise mechanisms, ideally through the passage of legislation, to protect victims and witnesses involved in sensitive cases.

4. Reforming the legal framework to better protect human rights

Gambians fought hard for the right to freedom of expression including expressing criticism and opposition to the government. It is vital that Gambia now revises its legal framework to reflect these values. Jammeh’s government used a series of draconian and overly broad laws to suppress activists and opponents and target vulnerable groups he sought to demonize. An arrest pursuant to one of Gambia’s old repressive laws was often a gateway to far more serious human rights violations, including prolonged incommunicado detention and torture.

I want to add Human Rights Watch’s voice to calls to immediately repeal or substantially amend the laws that Jammeh’s government used to suppress freedom of speech and assembly, including on sedition, criminal libel, “spreading false information,” giving false information to a public servant and on the censorship of online expression. The government should also amend the Public Order Act requirement of permits for public assemblies, so as to require only notification to the authorities of planned public assemblies.

Gambia should also adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. Any laws that run contrary to these values should be repealed or amended.

Conclusion

I have covered a lot of ground, and made perhaps too many recommendations to the Gambian government, which has after all only been in office for a few months.

But if we and other human rights groups are demanding a lot of our interlocutors in the Gambian government, it is because we sense both a true opportunity and the political will to build a truly rights-respecting and democratic Gambia. 

Many of the members of President Barrow’s government, like much of Gambian civil society, have a proud and courageous history of human rights activism, while Gambia itself is the home of the African Union’s flagship human rights institution.

At a time when the human rights movement is looking for flickers of light in an ever-darkening world, Gambia truly has the chance to cement its status as the human rights capital of Africa and to develop the legal and institutional guarantees to ensure that Gambia truly can say, “Never Again.”