Human rights in Gambia

Thursday, May 02, 2019

The Gambia’s history has been marred by serious human rights violations especially since ex-president Yahya Jammeh led a military coup in July 1994, overthrew Dawda Jawara’s democratic government, and declared himself Head of State before winning elections two years later.

During this 21-year period, the space for expression of dissent has been severely limited. Amnesty International has documented systematic human rights violations during President Jammeh’s regime including enforced disappearances, torture, restrictions on freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests and detention.

There has been a history of human rights violations in the run-up to periods of political contests.

The last Presidential election was held on 24 November 2011, and the lead-up to these elections –as well as those in 2006 –saw targeting of journalists, opposition members and human rights defenders.

For example, in the run-up to the 2011 elections, two family members of exiled opposition leader Mai Fatty were arrested and detained for displaying political campaign materials in March 2011.

The situation has improved dramatically as President Adama Barrow, and his government have taken steps to reverse former President Yahya Jammeh’s legacy of authoritarian and abusive rule.

After winning the December 2016 election and taking office in January, Barrow moved quickly to distinguish his government from Jammeh’s, whose security forces used arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings to suppress dissent and independent media during his 22 years in power.

The new government in a promise to make Gambia the “human rights capital of Africa,” released scores of political prisoners, and began to strengthen the judiciary and reform the security services. It also reversed Jammeh’s planned withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) played a critical role in convincing Jammeh to leave office after he lost the elections, and still maintains an ECOMIG peacekeeping force in The Gambia. 

During 2017, Barrow’s government largely respected media and opposition freedoms and promised to repeal laws that curtail freedom of expression, including those criminalizing sedition, defamation and the publication of “false news.”

Many journalists who fled Gambia during the Jammeh era, often after being arbitrarily detained and even tortured, have returned to Banjul. The government announced in November that it will comply with judgments of the ECOWAS Community Court against Gambia regarding the forced disappearances of two journalists and torture of another, including by negotiating compensation payments with victims’ families.

The United Nations, both through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), provided financial and technical support to the creation of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. The OHCHR also facilitated visits to Gambia by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.

A Guest Editorial