By Madi Jobarteh
Today marks International Human Rights Day dedicated to the promotion of human rights awareness and protection in celebration of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The day cannot be more significant for the world in these times, especially for the Gambia which just came out of a 22-year culture of human rights violations under the APRC Regime. It is five years since Gambians ousted that regime yet the protection of human rights remains a challenge in this country.
The theme for this year is, “Equality, Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights.” This theme relates to the human rights principle and objective of ‘Equality’ as espoused in Article 1 of the UDHR that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ The principle of equality is at the heart of human rights. Where there is equality, there is non- discrimination. Hence without accepting that all human beings are equal in rights and dignity regardless of sex, origin, tribe, belief, birth or any other status, there will be discrimination which gives birth to exclusion, prejudice and leads to violations.
It is obvious that there is a high prevalence of inequality in the Gambia, socially, economically and politically. There is widespread and deep-seated culture of discrimination, exclusion, prejudice and violence in this society. These are based upon and fuelled by the caste system and patriarchy which are fused with the stinking culture of corruption and lack of accountability across the society. As a result, there is a perpetual violation of the rights and dignity of persons on account of their origin, birth, sex, disability, age or other status. These violations are perpetrated in Gambian homes, schools, markets, streets and other public spaces, in the communities and work places in the public and private sectors.
The 1997 Constitution guarantees the equality of all citizens. Section 1 subsection 2 stipulates that sovereignty of the Gambia resides in the people, meaning all Gambians are equal in sovereignty, hence rights, as the source of power and authority. Chapter Four of the Constitution guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens without any distinction. It has guaranteed the equality of men and women in Section 28, the rights of children in Section 29, and the rights of persons with disabilities in Section 31. Furthermore, Section 33 guarantees the right of all before the law and prohibits any law that is discriminatory. These constitutional provisions on equality are further buttressed by the Women’s Act, the Children’s Act and now the Disability Act, among other laws.
However there still remains some provisions in the various laws of the Gambia that undermine equality in various ways. At the same time, despite the Constitution guaranteeing equality, several cultural practices remain that contravene the Constitution on this issue. The prevalence of the caste system in many communities is an affront to the principle of equality. The caste system does not only perpetrate and perpetuate inequality but also encourages discrimination, dehumanisation, and violence against persons including sexual and gender-based violence while limiting the voice and participation of citizens in the affairs of their communities. Therefore, there is need to abolish the caste system because it is an offense to a democratic republic.
As we celebrate this day, it is also pertinent to highlight that after five years of removing the Dictatorship, draconian provisions still hold sway in the Criminal Code, Public Order Act, Information and Communications Act, the Elections Act, Official Secrets Act, while anti-human rights provisions can be found in the Constitution such as denying persons to hold certain public offices simply because they hold a dual citizenship. These laws need to change in order to guarantee equality not only before the law but also ensure availability and access to opportunities, power and enhance citizenship participation.
Equally concerning on a day like today is to realise that violations of rights continue to take place perpetrated by the State and non-state actors of which there have been no accountability until today. Without accountability, human rights are meaningless simply because violations and perpetrators go unchecked hence impunity. Over the past five years there have been numerous violations for which the Government said they were investigating yet there has been no result shared with the public.
These cases include the gruesome murder of Marie Mendy and Zilson Gomez for which there is still no justice and accountability since April 2021. The cases of Haruna Jatta of Kanilai in 2017, Ousman Darboe in Sere Kunda as well as Kebba Secka in Senegambia continue to be ignored since 2019. Until today, no one knows the case of PIU officers who were standing trial for the killing of protesters in Faraba in 2018. In May 2021, an 11-year old boy was raped and there is still no justice. In October 2021, a fire incident at Bilal Boarding School killed 5 young boys yet until today there is no justice. Where are the police investigation reports?
As recent as this week, we have seen the paramilitary police use unnecessary force on unarmed citizens in and around the compound of UDP leader’s home leading to injuries. Rather PIU officers were seen celebrating their actions of using teargas on people. We are yet to see any investigation by the police on the actions of it officers in that incident. In Brikamaba, drug law enforcement officers severely manhandled a young man in September leading to severe bodily injuries. That incident as well as the assault on one Ebrima Sanneh by the Commander of the Anti-Crime Unit Gorgui Mboob in 2020 all point to not only the destruction to human rights in this country, but also the failure of security sector reforms.
In all of these cases, either there is no justice or justice is being subverted in such a way that the perpetrator is rewarded while the victim is neglected. As the Gambia have just elected a new president, it is critical therefore that these issues be brought before him so that the necessary attention is given to these issues. Meantime, if there is any lesson to learn, it is that all citizens must now stand up to become Human Rights Defenders in this country. If we fail to do so, then the rights of each and every one of us are under threat.
For The Gambia Our Homeland