By Andrew Friedman

It can often be difficult to argue to both countries and individuals that human rights matter on the international stage. While they make a huge difference to those that find their rights violated on an every day basis or must fight to have even the most basic of rights respected, such considerations seldom come up in international relations.

At every stage of the game, from columnists influencing opinion to politicians speaking on behalf of a particular viewpoint, one is bombarded with evidence that countries continually act in their own self interest, maintaining strong relationships with serial human rights violators, focusing on stability over the chaos that progress and democracy can so often bring.

Luckily, The Gambia is finding out this is not always the case.

On Tuesday the 12th of August two United Nations’ torture experts were set to begin a week long tour of the West African state.

According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the visit would have been the first of its kind in the two decades of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s rule and “ was regarded as a litmus test of his commitment to improving observance of human rights.”

However, instead of attempting to pass this litmus test by making tangible improvements to the country’s human rights situation, the Gambian Government refused entry to the UN experts.

Citing only an “unexpected commitment,” the “Government of The Gambia informed the UN independent expert that the visit is no longer suitable,” according to a press release by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

While Jammeh’s government has rescheduled the visit for early 2015, according to the UNHCR’s statement ”…the lack of information about the reasons gives rise to legitimate concerns about whether this visit will actually take place.”

This is particularly frustrating due to the difficulty in the country of striking up a conversation on the human rights.

According to Freedom House, “The government does not respect freedom of the press. Laws on sedition give the authorities great discretion in silencing dissent, and independent media outlets and journalists are subject to harassment, arrest, and violence.”

With this in mind, “civil society organizations, victims of summary executions, torture and ill-treatment, and their families viewed our visit as an opportunity for dialogue,” according to the experts.

Unfortunately there are many such victims. Over the last 20 years Jammeh has been implicated in a number of flagrant violations of human rights, including arrest, torture and forced confessions of political opponents.

When it comes to political rights and dissent, Freedom House paints with a broad brush simply saying, “The Gambia is not an electoral democracy.”

In one bizarre example, a former government minister Amadou Scattred Janneh was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison simply for printing and distributing t-shirts with anti-government slogans until he, along with another former government official convicted of treason, were “released into the custody of Revered Jesse Jackson following a personal appeal to President Jammeh.”

While, other than the appearance of the Reverend Jesse Jackson this reads like a tale that could be told in too many countries throughout the globe and, in particular, south of the Sahara, in The Gambia the European Union took notice.

Over the past six years the EU has given approximately 75 million Euros ($100 million) to The Gambia. This is a considerable boon for The Gambia, one of the world’s poorest countries.

Extending The Carrot

Despite the rights violations the EU was poised to potentially double the sum to 150 million Euros ($201 million) over the next seven years. This was until bilateral talks took place last November where the EU decided to place the aid package under review. When the issue was reviewed, the package was blocked until progress was made.

With this in mind, European representatives paid attention when Jammeh opted against allowing entry to the UN experts.

Katy Clark, one British parliamentarian who has advocated for strong punishments against the Jammeh regime, including a visa ban and an asset freeze against those implicated in abuse, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that “if the European Union is serious about protecting human rights in Gambia now is the time for action, we cannot allow the Gambian Government to believe it can simply continue with business as usual while routinely abusing its human rights obligations.”

Too often human rights considerations are swept aside in international relations, with countries instead opting for a realpolitik world view.

The Gambia has clearly been a routine violator of the most basic human rights including dissent, political pluralism and the prohibition against torture.

Human rights advocacy at the national level can take the form of either a carrot or a stick. Punishing the Jammeh regime in the form of a visa ban or asset freeze could be effective in ensuring the country changes course. As could the promise of greater aid packages for tangible human rights advancements.

As a major provider of aid for the West African state, the European Union must heed Clark’s advice and act now, ensuring that Jammeh does not believe that he can simply violate human rights while both avoiding the stick and receiving his carrot.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman

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