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The Future of Human Rights in Africa

The credibility of the African regional human rights system suffered a serious setback last week when President Yahaya Jammeh of The Gambia made comments threatening human rights activists.  This is not the first time an African head of state has made disparaging remarks about human rights activists and unfortunately will probably not be the last.  But these remarks are gaining more attention because The Gambia is the location of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, the only regional human rights body currently functioning in Africa.

Last week the man known in The Gambia as His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh made headlines after announcing on state television that death awaited anyone wanting to make trouble in the small West African country.  In the statement, Jammeh specifically pointed out human rights activists as possible targets:

“I will kill anyone, who wants to destabilize this country. If you think that you can collaborate with so called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world. I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it. We are not going to condone people posing as human rights defenders to the detriment of the country. If you are affiliated with any human rights group, be rest assured that your security and personal safety would not be guaranteed by my government. We are ready to kill saboteurs.”

While it is not clear why Jammeh made these comments, some believe that he is aware of his shaky hold on power and the comments were designed to intimidate his critics while also issuing a veiled threat to the military of what could happen if they attempted a coup.  Jammeh came to power in a military coup in 1994, and has repeatedly feared that his own military may turn on him some day as well.  However, as dominating as he is in Gambian politics, his policies have left many in The Gambia wanting change.  This is where the threat of human rights activists comes in, as they have been increasingly monitoring the forced disappearances, incidents of torture, and other abuses by the state that define Gambian politics.

Human rights groups across the continent have responded by calling for an end to all activities of the African Commission until it can be relocated to a different country.  This movement appears to be gaining strength, especially through the use of online petitions.  Some human rights groups in West Africa are calling on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the main regional security organization, to condemn The Gambia’s human rights record which has been notoriously bad as of late.  However no updates have been made on the African Commission’s website about the incident as of the time of this writing.

It is of course unacceptable that a country so opposed to human rights hosts the continent’s human rights commission but it is unclear right now what will happen next.  The most practical option includes moving the African Commission to Arusha, Tanzania.  It is believed that the African Court of Justice, the judicial organ of the African Union, will merge with the newly founded African Court of Human and People’s Rights which currently sits in Arusha.  At the time of the African Court of Human Rights’ founding in 2004, there was also talk of moving the African Commission to Arusha for the sake of resource management.  However, that proposal was shot down in order to keep a balance between East and West Africa, and because neither the African Court of Justice nor the African Court of Human Rights are functioning yet, it seems unlikely that the African Commission will be moved there any time soon.

Thus, for now the future of Africa’s official human rights mechanisms hangs in the balance.  The founding of the African Court of Human Rights and the swearing in of its first judges in 2006 was lauded around the continent as a momentous step in the right direction, bringing Africa closer to matching the regional human rights mechanisms currently found in the Americas and Europe.  But last week that movement took a serious step back.  It appears that the time has come for Africa to decide what direction it wants to take, and whether it will allow one dictator in The Gambia to spoil decades of arduous progress towards establishing a credible regional human rights system in Africa.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa