Public, forceful international pressure on Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to halt ongoing executions of death row prisoners was successful - at least temporarily - leading activists to call for governments, multinationals and human rights groups to exert more sustained pressure on the government to clean up its human rights act.
“For far too long the international and regional community has been far too quiet [on Gambia] - we haven’t been able to test if pressure does indeed work,” said Sherman Nikolaus, an Amnesty International Gambia researcher, who noted that the about-turn shows the president does care about his reputation, internationally and regionally.
Nine Gambian inmates were killed by firing squad in August, causing international outrage with statements issued by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay; the European Union; Amnesty International; the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR); and governments across the region and internationally including neighbouring Senegal and Benin.
“The moratorium [on further killings]… shows the usefulness of international pressure,” noted Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
At first the government would not confirm executions had taken place, and then was unwilling to publicly admit to them, according to Amnesty International. To go from that to publicly admit them and issue a statement that no more would take place - albeit only under certain conditions - is a sign of progress, however small.
“In the past you could go for years without knowing if a death had even taken place so it’s been a positive response,” said Sherman-Nikolaus.
International standards violated
The government’s August actions violated international standards in relation to the death penalty: the prisoners were reportedly killed without prior warning, with no notification having been given to their families, and several of them had had no right to appeal in their sentencing.
Gambia has signed up to the 1984 Convention against torture and other cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the 1966 International Covenant on civil and political rights, both of which refer to the death penalty. It has also ratified most international human rights treaties, and is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.
The government and its National Intelligence Agency has allegedly been involved in unlawful detention, torture, unfair trials, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions for years, say human rights groups.
Many of those who have been involved in detention without trial, torture and disappearance, are journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which keeps human rights for journalists in Gambia on the international radar through lobbying with individual governments and the UN, has detailed the climate of fear in which journalists work in Gambia, leading to self-censorship and forcing most of the country’s top journalists out of the country into neighbouring states.
“The media is cowed. The context is hostile and repressive and has stunted independent media,” said the CPJ’s Africa advocate, Keita Mohamed. “Impunity is acute. That is Gambia’s biggest problem. Disappearances, murder, arson attacks on media houses, all take place, and no one is arrested or held to account.”
It is rare for individual governments and multinational representatives to speak out so openly on Gambia, said one human rights activist - usually they prefer to take a soft diplomacy tack.
Regional bodies have engaged in individual cases. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court, for instance, ruled against the government in two cases - those of journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh who was arrested and disappeared in 2006, and ex-editor-in-chief Musa Saidykhan, who was tortured in custody. In both cases the government has not complied with the rulings.
ACHPR, which is based in Gambia’s capital, Banjul, issued a communiqué stating the executions would violate the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In 2009 it passed a resolution on the deteriorating human rights in Gambia, referring to the alleged murder, unlawful arrest and detention, harassment, intimidation, prosecutions and disappearances of journalists and human rights defenders deemed to be critical of the government.
Several US senators have been involved in the Chief Manneh case, while select UK members of parliament repeatedly raise the issue of human rights in Gambia through early day motions, but these efforts have had limited concrete impact, said Keita.
The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which spearheads UN human rights efforts, closely monitors the situation in Gambia, but has no country office dedicated to this, “which makes it difficult to react to all incidents, which is why we haven’t been as outspoken as we might have been,” said Shamdasani.
While the independent press has been outspoken about abuses and disappearances, it does so within a climate of fear, and press houses are regularly shut down when the president does not like what is published.
Stronger action needed
More consistent, hard-hitting human rights advocacy is needed when it comes to human rights in Gambia, the president of West African network RADDHO, Alioune Tine, told IRIN. Human rights groups will be calling on the ACHPR Commission to move its seat from Banjul at a meeting of human rights groups in the Senegalese capital Dakar in November.
Amnesty International is calling for a review of all death penalty cases.
Donors have some room for maneouvre. In 2010, the European Union, then Gambia’s top donor, cancelled US$26 million in budget support due to human rights and governance concerns.
Advocacy groups should target the high-profile tourism sector, said Keita, which currently contributes some 15 percent of annual income, and is seen by the president as a pillar of economic growth.
The government has reacted to donor pressure by fostering relations with emerging donors such as Taiwan, which may lay less stress on human rights accountability, said an observer; while two large tour operators in Gambia told IRIN they had not seen a significant fall-off in client interest since August.
Gambia’s economy is expected to grow by 10 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Targeted financial sanctions and travel bans are another concrete tool, said Keita.
Despite his poor human rights record, President Jammeh remains popular among a significant proportion of the population. He came to power through a 1994 military coup, and was elected president in 1996. Jammeh won a sweeping majority in November 2011 elections, which African Union observers described as free of intimidation, though heavily skewed by a media bias in favour of the incumbent. ECOWAS however, said the conditions were not in place prior to the election for free and transparent polls, given an opposition and electorate that is “cowed by repression and intimidation”.