By Baba Galleh Jallow
Setting up truth commissions are slow and tedious processes. This is true of both countries – like Canada and Australia for instance – where funds are readily available for the purpose, and countries like The Gambia where funds are not readily available for the purpose. In any case, we are happy to announce that the funds for the selection of TRRC commissioners and the hiring of the initial staff of the TRRC Secretariat have now been secured. Because of the Ramadan, the regional nomination and selection of commissioners is slated to begin during the week of June 18th, immediately after the eid. Meanwhile, the terms of reference for the initial secretariat staff are being finalized and will be published in the media within the next few weeks. These initial hirings are for the Head of the Outreach, Communication and Media Unit, Head of the Research and Investigations Unit, Research Officers, Investigation Officers, and Statement Takers.
Once the nomination and selection of commissioners is complete, hopefully within two weeks of June 18, the president shall then appoint the 11 members of the commission after consultations with the Ministry of Justice, regional governors and a number of civil society organizations as provided for in the TRRC Act. The list of appointed commissioners will then be publicized and the general public invited to express their views and opinions on the composition of the commission and on individual members of the commission. This process will be followed by a short retreat and training on transitional justice for the commissioners. In the meantime, statement takers, investigators and researchers will be trained and start working with victims and others wanting to testify in readiness for their appearance before the commission. It is anticipated that actual commission hearings will begin in late July or August. The TRRC is mandated to work for two years, with the possibility of extension.
The TRRC Act outlines the main objectives of the TRRC as to “create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights from July 1994 to January 2017, in order to . . . promote healing and reconciliation . . . respond to the needs of victims . . . provide victims an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations and abuses suffered . . . establish and make known the fate or whereabouts of disappeared victims . . . grant reparations to victims in appropriate cases . . . address impunity, and . . .prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered by making recommendations for the establishment of appropriate preventive mechanisms including institutional and legal reforms.”
At the end of its mandate, the TRRC will issue a final report containing its findings and including recommendations designed to help prevent a recurrence of dictatorship and gross human rights violations in The Gambia. Section 14 (4b) of the TRRC Act provides that “after the end of its mandate, the commission shall “prepare a comprehensive report which sets out its activities and findings based on factual and objective information and evidence collected, received by it or placed at its disposal; and make recommendations to the President with regard to the creation of institutions conducive to the development of a stable and democratic society as well as the institutional, administrative and legislative measures which should be taken in order to prevent the commission of violations and abuses of human rights.” In essence then, the overriding mandate of the TRRC is to ensure justice for victims and promote national healing but also to prevent a recurrence of dictatorship and gross human rights violations in The Gambia, #NeverAgain.
The question Gambians and the TRRC must address is how can we make sure that dictatorship and gross violations of human rights never happen in this country again? Do we wait for and hope that the recommendations contained in the TRRC report will prevent dictatorship and human rights violations in this country? Or do we start that work now? We must address these questions because while Never Again has been a key mandate of a majority of the 40 truth commissions that have existed around the world since 1974, most truth commissions have not conclusively helped guarantee non-recurrence of dictatorship or gross human rights violations in their countries. Most societies that have had transitional justice and truth commission processes have not experienced the kind of socio-political and cultural transformation that can prevent a recurrence of dictatorship or widespread human rights violations. Some transitional justice experts attribute this relative lack of truth commission success to a lack of inclusivity in truth commission processes. In many cases, the general public is more of an audience than an active participant in truth commission processes.
We have by departed from this tradition of public exclusion and embraced inclusion by actively reaching out and seeking the participation of all Gambians in the TRRC process. In 2017, the Ministry of Justice in collaboration with key stakeholders in this country carried out a nationwide consultation process at which Gambians were invited and encouraged to express their opinions on the TRRC process. Opinions and ideas shared at these national consultations informed the establishment by the Ministry of Justice of a technical committee of governmental and non-governmental institutions to actively work together on shaping the TRRC. This technical committee held regular consultative and brainstorming sessions at the Ministry of Justice and contributed to the conceptualization and formulation of the TRRC Act and the guidelines for the selection of commissioners which were widely publicized in the media. The committee continues to be actively involved in the production of a Strategic Plan for the National Transitional Justice Program.
Learning from the lessons of history and in fulfilment of our functions under Section 23 (1c & e) of the TRRC Act, the TRRC Secretariat has initiated a “Never Again Campaign” aimed at engaging Gambian civil society and Gambian communities across the country on an ongoing national conversation on the structural and cultural causes of dictatorship, with a view to helping transform Gambia’s political culture and making it hard for gross human rights violations and impossible for dictatorship to prevail in The Gambia again. We have reached out and will continue reaching out to civil society organizations, religious communities, women’s groups, school children, and other communities across the country to sensitize them on the nature and work of the TRRC and to encourage their active participation in the Never Again campaign against dictatorship and human rights violations.
As we have seen in recent social media postings, school children are set to be important participants in our national conversation on Never Again. As custodians of our country’s future, children are fundamentally crucial to the prevention of future dictatorship and human rights violations in this country. A Children’s Network on Transitional Justice has been created in schools across the country and there is a high level of interest and enthusiasm for the TRRC process and the Never Again campaign among the students we have encountered so far. We will continue sensitizing students across the country and encouraging their active participation in the TRRC and wider transitional justice process.
We are extending our outreach and engagement with students to the Gambia College and the University of The Gambia. We have already expressed to the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences our interest in meeting and having a conversation with their student community. We will be reaching out to the deans of other UTG schools as well as GTTI, MDI and others in the near future. Meanwhile on Wednesday May 2, we had a meeting with student members of the Law Clinic at the UTG Law School. Again, the idea was to explain the TRRC process and see how best they could become active participants in the Never Again campaign. We are in the process of finalizing a memorandum of understanding between the TRRC and the Law Clinic that will outline our strategies for engagement, most notably, how law students can visit schools and communities to enlighten students and the wider community on their constitutional rights and responsibilities. In this regard, we will be reaching out to the National Council on Civic Education to seek their collaboration and support in this process and ongoing partnership with the TRRC.
We are also reaching out to religious leaders and communities of all denominations across the country. So far with the support of Pastor Forbes of Abiding Word Ministries, we had a very fruitful interface with the Evangelical Fellowship of The Gambia on April 29, 2018. The idea was to explain the TRRC process and see how best the Evangelical community can support our work, especially national healing and the Never Again campaign. We are happy to report that the EFG has declared its wholehearted support and willingness to partner with the TRRC in our engagement with the Gambian public. We will be following up with other engagements with the EFG. Meanwhile, we are reaching out and will engage other Christian denominations as well as Muslim communities to see how best justice, reconciliation, national healing and Never Again can be promoted through the use of religious teachings and arguments.
We continue to work very closely with The Association of Nongovernmental Organizations (TANGO) with a view to collaborating with their network of civil society organizations on promoting the Never Again campaign. On May 15, 2018 we had a fruitful dialogue with some member organizations of TANGO at which we explained the TRRC process, familiarized them with the rationale for the Never Again campaign and jointly came out with resolutions that will ensure our engagement with them in moving this process forward. One of the key objectives is to continue working closely with TANGO in their “The Gambia We Want” campaign throughout the mandate period of the TRRC.
As part of this update, we are happy to point out that the international community both inside and outside The Gambia is expressing a rich fund of goodwill for The Gambia and our transitional justice process. Over the past few months, we have been invited to meet the ambassadors of France, Britain and the EU Delegation to The Gambia. The US ambassador has said her doors are always open to us. We also met with the visiting Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium and most recently, two officials of the U.S. State Department. All these members of the international community have expressed genuine admiration for the manner in which Gambians managed the impasse and a willingness to support the TRRC and wider transitional justice process. We are receiving technical support and working very closely with the International Center for Transitional Justice who have a resident representative in the country, the Institute for Integrated Transitions who facilitated a workshop on truth commissions for us in Barcelona back in March and continues to support our work through their Brain Trust in The Gambia, and International IDEA with whom we are set to collaborate on our outreach activities with civil society. Human Rights Watch is working closely with the Victims’ Center and many other international organizations including Justice Rapid Response, the International Committee of the Red Cross and TRIAL International have reached out to express their willingness to support The Gambia’s transitional justice process and the work of the TRRC in particular. The UN Peace Building Support Office, the UNDP and UNICEF are all rendering significant support to the TRRC and The Gambia’s transitional justice program.
Finally for this update, we want to call upon the Gambia Government to consider increasing its budgetary allocation for the TRRC in the next budget. The ideal scenario would have been for the government to take over total funding for the TRRC. Where this proves difficult, the government should consider significantly increasing its financial investment in the process so that the TRRC can fulfill its mandate with distinction. Suffice it to say that the success of the TRRC will be a defining legacy of the Barrow administration. And we ARE going to succeed.
Note: The author is the Executive Secretary of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC)