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Image: AP

Gambians living under fear

Interview: Isaac Mugabi / cm
October 3, 2013

The Gambia has pulled out of the Commonwealth. It accuses the institution - many of whose members are former British territories - of "neo-colonialism." The tiny West African country is known for violating human rights.


DW: Did Gambia's withdrawal from the Commonwealth surprise you, and what is the reason behind it?

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus: With the Gambia, I am never surprised but I am always shocked. When you look back at last week's speech by President Yahya Jammeh at the UN General Assembly, he does criticize what he calls “neo-colonial powers”. He even says that human rights, democracy and good governance are a religion that is being prescribed by the same descendants of these colonial powers. The statement in itself - that he sees these three fundamental values as a religion being prescribed to him - is very worrying.

Half of the tourists who throng the beaches of the Gambia are British, how is this withdrawal going to affect tourism in the country?

It's not clear. Most of the tourists who travel to a foreign land are not really aware of the human rights situation of the country that they are travelling to. Tourists enjoy relative freedom in the Gambia. But I think as a responsible tourist, you should be looking at the human rights record and looking at how people are living. In this case, you will find that there is a big element of intimidation of the Gambian people. There is what we call a climate of fear. And this is something important for the tourists, who are travelling to the Gambia, to be aware of.

Will Gambia's departure from the Commonwealth have any ramifications?

Membership to the commonwealth is voluntary. But it doesn't seem as if the government consulted with the people of the Gambia. It doesn't even appear that the president consulted with his own cabinet, the legislature or anybody in government. One thing to be concerned about is what the people of the Gambia want. Being part of the Commonwealth comes with a lot of benefits. Access to scholarships, capacity building for the judiciary and also the Commonwealth is trying to establish a national human rights commission. These are a lot of things that the people of the Gambia are going to miss out on, now that the Gambia is not a member of the Commonwealth.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, Researcher West Africa at Amnesty International. Copyright: Privat Zugeliefert von Chrispin Mwakideu
Amnesty's Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus says African leaders are not doing enough in the GambiaImage: Privat

You refer to a plan by Commonwealth nations to establish a human rights commission. What kind of human rights abuses are common in the Gambia?

Amnesty International has been reporting on human rights abuses in the Gambia for many years. We have seen illegal arrests and detention, killings and forced disappearances of journalists and human rights defenders. Last year in December, a prominent Muslim cleric, who is also a human rights activist, disappeared for five months. He was severely tortured and finally released following intense pressure. His family and lawyers did not have access to him, and there were even rumors that he had been murdered. We also see the judiciary being used to put people in prison. We have seen threats against the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. There's a wealth of human rights violations that happen in the Gambia.

President Jammeh doesn't take criticism lightly. What can be done to improve human rights conditions in the Gambia, or is this unrealistic as long as he is in power?

I think African institutions have a big role to play. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights is based in Banjul. As such, it has the ability to pressure the government of President Jammeh to implement the various recommendations that have been made in terms of improving the human rights record of the country. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also has this opportunity to be able to pressure the government into carrying out the various recommendations. There have been two cases before the ECOWAS court of justice, they have ruled against the Gambian government on freedom of expression issues. Two separate cases on two different journalists who were illegally detained, one was tortured and the other was subjected to enforced disappearance. These judgments have yet to be implemented. It's up to ECOWAS to see how these judgments are going to be enforced.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus is the West African researcher at Amnesty International.

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