When one thinks of human rights in Africa, The Gambia might spring to mind as an example of a country with a domestic record of grave violations. It is therefore rather surprising that the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights continues to be located in the country’s capital Banjul.
For the first seven years of its existence the commission’s hometown provided it with strong ideological support for its work. But in 1994 President Yahya Jammeh seized power. Since then the commission’s location has undermined its credibility and practical utility.
The case against The Gambia
President Jammeh has ruled the Gambia with an iron fist for more than two decades. He is responsible for gross and systemic human rights violations across this tiny West African nation of less than two million people.
Torture, enforced disappearances, repression of dissent, extra-judicial killings, and systematic violations of economic and social rights are rife. Repression of dissent, of civil society actors, and of journalists and the media means that information about human rights abuses is not easily obtained.
The regime refuses to cooperate or engage with almost all international monitoring bodies, investigations and human rights institutions attempting to fact-find within that state.
The Gambia all but shuns international human rights law. It is party to a number of international human rights treaties ratified before President Jammeh seized power more than two decades ago. While those treaties are still binding on the country, he has consistently ignored the obligations they impose.
President Jammeh is a vocal and active leader within the African Union. To retain that position, The Gambia has to cooperate with its regional mechanisms. It has done so, for example, by ratifying African treaties on human rights. Yet the regime fails to uphold the obligations stemming from them.
The politics of where secretariats are located
Created in 1987, the Commission is mandated to interpret the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. It also has to protect and to promote these rights. To do so effectively it needs to be accessible and visible to states, civil society and other relevant actors. It must also be credible and legitimate in their eyes.
Hosting the commission is prestigious. It is not something that President Jammeh is likely to give up easily. And the appetite for moving it may well be suppressed by states and actors that do not want too strong a human rights focus.
The location of regional and international secretariats and headquarters is intensely political in Africa – as elsewhere. In regions where one or two major powers dominate – say Nigeria in West Africa and Ethiopia and Kenya in East Africa – it can be politic to place head offices in smaller, more remote states. That way their decisions can be ignored or controlled from afar without the appearance of direct interference.
African and Western analysts argue, for example, that the location and limited capacity of eastern Africa’s regional security body, in tiny Djibouti – on the scorched and distant Red Sea coast – damages its effectiveness. The poorly-funded secretariat is far removed from the powerful de facto implementers of its agenda – Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. This engenders contradictory messaging and poor communication between headquarters and member states. In practice this means that the secretariat is cut out from its own policies and processes.
Time to relocate
Whether such dynamics are at play with the African Commission in Banjul is an open question, though the fact that it is located in the Gambian capital certainly takes the pressure off the continent’s human rights abusers.
The commission would be able to play a more significant role in the promotion of human and people’s rights in Africa if it was independent from its host state, at least theoretically, and located in a more sympathetic as well as prominent state.
Moving the commission to Dakar, Abuja, Pretoria or Addis Ababa might seem like a token gesture. But it has the potential to fundamentally reshape the Commission’s voice and influence on the continent.