A Gambian president has for the first time in decades welcomed human rights defenders to the West African country just under a year since its transition from autocratic to democratic leadership.
The new Gambian President Adama Barrow addressing the African human rights institute has given the country the standing, which it had lost under former dictator Yahya Jammeh, as the champion of African democracy and human rights.
Barrow campaigned on the promises of protecting fundamental human rights of Gambians. His predecessor was considered by rights activist as a brute. Jammeh was accused of torturing, maiming and kidnapping his opponents and perceived enemies.
Barrow, who signed five UN human rights treaties in New York told the gathering that he intends to also ratify many human rights related treaties including the Convention Against Torture.
“… It is important to note that human rights protection must not only be about enacting laws on paper,” Barrow, who assumed power in December 2016 from Jammeh, warned the gathering.
“Concrete steps must be taken through the creation of institutions, policies, and programmes for the full realization and enjoyment of these rights.”
The Gambian leader was given a couple of standing ovations as he read his speech at a rights session that was never attended by his predecessor.
The Gambia played the most crucial role in the creation of the African human rights commission in the 80s. Its head office is in Banjul but African leaders were under pressure to have the mission relocated due to Jammeh’s disregard for human rights values.
Gambia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ousainou Darboe says the country is now ready to be the voice of conscience in the region. Darboe was arrested and jailed last year after an opposition activist was tortured to death, igniting anger towards Jammeh ahead of the elections.
“Despite the fact that Gambia has temporarily abdicated its responsibility to the protection of human rights, the comeback through the administration, shows Gambian people have always believed in the values of human rights,” Darboe said.
“This administration has many people who have a strong passion for defending human rights. So certainly, we will be the voice for human rights in the continent. There is no way we could reduce the level of Gambia’s commitment to human rights values.”
Barrow’s government is working with international human rights organizations for the total overhaul of the media laws to remove all repressive provisions that suppress the fundamental right to freedom of Expression and opinion.
Journalists operated in a climate of self-censorship following past crackdowns on media workers and human rights defenders.
Restrictive laws continued to curb the right to freedom of expression. They included laws banning criticism of officials, laws prohibiting the publication of false news and colonial-era laws on sedition.
Barrow government has ceded that most of the media laws contravene the Constitution and the spirit of the New Gambia.
A climate of impunity and the death penalty are some of the significant human rights concerns in The Gambia but Barrow’s government shifted from Jammeh’s policy of non-co-operation with UN human rights mechanisms.