“I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it,” Gambian President Yahya Jammeh declared on national television on September 21, 2009. “If you are affiliated with any human rights group . . . rest assured that your security and personal safety would not be guaranteed by my Government.”
Making public death threats to human rights workers unquestionably breaches one of the Gambian government’s most fundamental duties as host to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). Located in the Gambian capital of Banjul, the ACHPR is the main human rights monitoring body on the continent, charged with protecting and promoting individual and collective rights of Africans by providing redress for human rights offenses. As host of the ACHPR, the Gambian government is responsible for maintaining a political atmosphere conducive to the work of the ACHPR, according to the African Union (AU).
Within days of President Jammeh’s remarks, outrage in the international human rights community spurred the creation of an online petition to halt any further meetings of the ACHPR in Gambia and permanently relocate its premises to a new host country. The petition’s cosponsors, the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and the African Court Coalition (ACC), plan to forward the petition to Jean Ping, Chairperson of the AU Commission. As of this writing, neither the AU nor any individual African leader has publicly rebuked the Gambian President for his death threats.
“This is not the first, second, or third time he has issued threats,” explained Chidi Odinkalu of the OSJI in an interview with IRIN news service. But, he continued, “There is a chilling dimension to this threat. It is indiscriminate and it is directed at the whole world.”
Ultimately, what is critically at stake is access to justice. Minorities and other marginalized groups rely heavily on support from human rights monitoring and advocacy organizations when bringing their claims before the ACHPR. By declaring that the Gambian government will no longer guarantee the security of individuals affiliated with human rights groups, President Jammeh has placed significant obstacles in the path of future claims.
Nevertheless, the proposed relocation of the ACHPR raises numerous logistical concerns. Consideration must be given to possible alternative locations for ACHPR headquarters, funding for construction of a new building, and the ability of current staff members to relocate. Since ACHPR’s inauguration in 1989, the Banjul headquarters has served as the primary location for meetings between the 11 commissioners, their staff, and the parties to proceedings. Although the ACHPR currently meets once every six months, the frequency of sessions is expected to increase substantially once the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights becomes operational within the structure of the Court of Justice of the African Union.
The campaign launched by OSJI and ACC, though principled and symbolically important, appears detached from these practical matters. When asked about these concerns, Nobuntu Mbelle, the Coordinator of the ACC, emphasized instead that what is “most important is the political message [associated with] hosting particular institutions.”
Relocating the ACHPR would also raise questions about the authority and effectiveness of fundamental human rights instruments in Africa. Gambia acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1979 and ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1999. Both agreements provide equal protection of individuals’ rights in a court of law. President Jammeh’s egregious breach of these treaties is precisely the type of violation that the ACHPR was established to address. As such, the campaign to relocate the ACHPR must proceed cautiously so as not to undercut the very work that it is trying to preserve.