Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

Gambia truth commission shows no one is above the law

Not all leaders who abuse power face justice but efforts must be made to hold them accountable

Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Frank Franklin II / AP
Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Frank Franklin II / AP

After decades of dictatorship, Gambia is hearing allegations of abuse and crime committed during ex-president Yahya Jammeh’s 22 years in power, thanks to its Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, set up to investigate claims of torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Jammeh was ousted in 2017 and is now in hiding in Equatorial Guinea but it is not too late for him to face justice.

He allegedly embezzled nearly $1 billion from the state and ordered the murder and torture of opponents. Now, following a report into allegations of sexual abuse and rape, compiled by Human Rights Watch and Trial International, a number of women have come forward demanding their day in court. Toujah Jallow has waived her right to anonymity in a bid to encourage other victims to come forward and alleges Jammeh drugged and raped her. Ms Jallow says by shedding light on Jammeh’s behaviour, it “becomes somewhat easier for someone who’s dealing with a CEO, a boss, a schoolteacher or an uncle”. Hearings of this kind are vital, not simply to provide closure to the victims.

They also serve as a reminder that no one, no matter how powerful, is untouchable and that justice must be dealt to those who abuse their power.

Human rights advocates are hopeful that Jammeh, who denies the allegations, will eventually be brought to face justice, although he is yet to be extradited. But he is not alone in committing atrocities or flouting the laws of his own land.

Across the world, leaders who once seemed unassailable are being held accountable for their actions. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Pakistan’s ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Park Guen-hye, former South Korean president, all currently languish in prison after being convicted of corruption. Former Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir has not yet been charged for genocide in Darfur, despite an International Criminal Court indictment, but he is behind bars in Khartoum. Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacob Zuma, accused of corruption while serving as presidents of France and South Africa respectively, will both face trial this year.

Justice might not always be swift to follow the ousting and downfall of political leaders who abuse the powers of their office. In the case of Ratko Mladic, the butcher of Bosnia, it took 22 years; some investigations can take even longer. Prosecutors are currently preparing cases against women in their 90s who worked as switchboard operators in Nazi concentration camps. And it is worth remembering not all architects of misery feel the full force of the law in their lifetime. That is why Gambia’s truth commission is such an important step in the right direction. It sends a strong message to the world that no one, however powerful or protected, is above the law.

Updated: July 1, 2019 06:46 PM