Africa needs The Gambia’s leadership on human rights

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By filing a case against Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya, Gambia has shown Africa’s potential to promote human rights.

On November 11, The Gambia filed a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for violating the United Nations’ 1948 Genocide Convention. The landmark action will bring the first legal scrutiny of Myanmar’s campaign of murder, rape, arson, and other atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.

"The aim [of Gambia's lawsuit] is to get Myanmar to account for its action against its own people: the Rohingya",  The Gambia's Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said. [File:Luc Gnago/Reuters]
“The aim [of Gambia’s lawsuit] is to get Myanmar to account for its action against its own people: the Rohingya”, The Gambia’s Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said.

“The aim is to get Myanmar to account for its action against its own people: the Rohingya,” The Gambia’s Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said at a news conference held at The Hague. “It’s a shame for our generation that we do nothing while genocide is unfolding right under our own eyes,” he added.

By filing the case, the small West African nation opened up a crucial human rights frontier and displayed Africa’s largely undeveloped potential to play a leading role in promoting human rights on a global scale. To this end, The Gambia’s Vice President Isatou Touray described the country as “a small country with a big voice on matters of human rights on the continent and beyond”.

It is a far cry from the often disappointing, perplexing and idle standpoint some African states have in the past adopted against human rights abuses around the world and certainly Myanmar’s attacks on the Rohingya people. For example, in 2007 despite being well aware of the systematic human rights violations committed by Myanmar’s ruling junta against the country’s myriad minority groups, including the Rohingya, South Africa voted against a UN resolution calling on the country’s government to cease its attacks against civilians in ethnic minority regions. Pretoria only reversed its position on this issue in December 2018.

With any luck, The Gambia’s robust and resourceful leadership will not be restricted to only backing Myanmar’s Rohingya population. Similarly, unequivocal interventions are sorely required to help regulate Africa’s floundering democracies and support a plethora of human rights concerns.

Indeed, without trying to blemish, question or diminish its praiseworthy leadership on human rights in Myanmar, or draw unwarranted moral parallels, it is incumbent upon The Gambia to show equally strong leadership in Africa’s own political affairs. The African Union (AU) and individual African countries, particularly Africa’s major powers, have generally failed to help inspire or establish a systematic commitment to defending human rights on the continent, despite vowing to “promote democratic institutions, good governance and human rights”.

For the most part, according to Amnesty International, AU member states are refusing to cooperate with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission), the African Child Rights Committee, and the African Court; and “Africa’s human rights bodies are being wilfully subverted” at a most difficult time.

Despite Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize and despite President Paul Kagame receiving widespread praise for rebuilding Rwanda, Africa is buckling under a growing, powerful, regressive strain of oppressive and murderous leadership.

In September, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful Assembly and Association, bemoaned an “excessive use of force by police and military during protests” which killed 17 demonstrators in Zimbabwe’s January fuel demonstrations.

After visiting Egypt, Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the UN working group on arbitrary detention, in November described the death of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as a “state-sanctioned arbitrary killing” and warned that “thousands of other prisoners in Egypt may also be at risk of death”.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s administration has clamped down on journalists, student protests, harassed opposition leader Kizza Besigye and labelled popular singer-tuned-politician Bobi Wine an “enemy of the country’s prosperity”, all this amid shadowy plans to introduce the death penalty for gay sex.

In Tunisia, bloggers have been charged and arrested over social media posts under laws that criminalise freedom of speech. In Tanzania, President John Magufuli’s government stands accused of suppressing media rights, human rights and democracy. Meanwhile, in Cameroon, which is facing an insurrection in the Anglophone regions, government forces have reportedly participated in the “killing of civilians, burning of hundreds of homes, and the systematic use of torture and incommunicado detention.”

Impunity, violence and widespread intolerance for divergent political views, coupled with debilitating inaction and insufficient protections for citizen’s rights, have become a norm for AU member states. African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) CEO Professor Eddy Maloka, speaking at an African Governance Architecture (AGA) convention, voiced worries over governance crises and deadly protests in Africa. “The continent needs to be robust and frank when dealing with governance matters. We are concerned about the deteriorating trend in governance in Africa.”

Still, many of Africa’s leading nations remain unmoved by the widespread establishment of an embarrassingly grisly human rights culture. After it voted for a UN resolution condemning Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, South Africa claimed it was “a demonstration of a new dawn in South African foreign policy and a return to its founding principles of standing against human rights violations”. Yet, since then, South Africa has, among many conspicuous violations, disregarded brazen human rights abuses by the AU chairperson and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s administration during crackdowns on journalists, activists, politicians and demonstrators.

In the obvious absence of strong leadership, The Gambia’s firm resolve to promote human rights and, by extension, democracy must evolve into a loud and persevering voice for progressive development in Africa. It might be small and not boast the historical grandeur or diplomatic leverage less visionary states have, but The Gambia can certainly help to hold wayward administrations accountable for severe transgressions by introducing purportedly taboo topics at continental gatherings, confronting serial rights abusers and promoting Africa’s legal establishments.

Source: Tafi Mhaka (for Al Jazeera Opinion) is a Johannesburg-based social and political commentator.

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