His Excellency Ambassador Professor Muhammadou M.O. Kah is Ambassador of The Republic of The Gambia to the Swiss Confederation and is a permanent representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva, the World Trade Organization, and other international organizations at Geneva. The following is an edited summary of his remarks at the ICLRS 29th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium, 4 October 2022.
The Gambia Post-2017: Vision with Action
The Gambia places a high priority on the promotion and protection of human rights. Our constitution and supporting legislation reflect that, as do ongoing legislative and criminal justice reforms that began in 2017. The year 2017 is an important one for The Gambia, which was held hostage for 22 years under a dictatorship. The country’s human rights credentials were unimpeachable prior to those 22 years. Since 2017, when the people of The Gambia decided to vote out the 22-year dictatorship, the country has embarked on restoring what it was known for: being the true hub of human dignity and human rights, peace, and security in West Africa, and an example for the African continent. We strive to ensure that our citizens can exercise their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights effectively, regardless of their ethnicity, race, place of origin, political opinion, gender, and importantly, their religion. Accordingly, the government’s vision of putting in place solid mechanisms in 2017 to promote and protect human rights in The Gambia has borne fruits, although the work towards its sustainability continues. This reminds me of words invoked by the late former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela: “Action without vision is only passing time. Vision without action is merely daydreaming. But vision with action can change the world.”
The Gambia’s Legal System and International Commitments
The Gambian legal system is modeled on the English legal system, incorporating the common law, doctrines of equity, and statutes of general application. In The Gambia, the Sharia applies to more than 95 percent of the population but as personal law, in the very specific matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Therefore, Gambian law and the Sharia are administered contemporaneously, with the Cadi Courts enjoying jurisdiction on those personal law matters.
The Gambia is a state party to all nine core international human rights treaties and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and is a member of the Human Rights Council, where I currently serve as the vice president for Africa. Its participation in and collaboration with established regional and subregional institutions within the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—as well as human rights courts on subregional, regional, and international levels—have been very beneficial, leading to significant progress in complying with the commitments assumed.
Since 2017, the government of The Gambia has resolved to improve the country’s constitutional, legal, and institutional frameworks in various governance areas to align the entire governance architecture with international justice and human rights standards. The government has made concerted efforts to domesticate the Convention Against Torture, through comprehensive review of the Criminal Code and drafting of the Prohibition of Torture Bill and International Crimes Bill, respectively. Both bills are currently before our National Assembly for enactment into law. These are efforts to ensure that human dignity is embraced fully within the legal architecture and framework.
In the same vein, the government has also embarked on a transitional justice process, focusing primarily on the establishment of a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to address past human rights violations and prevent impunity. As I said, the 22-year period was a very dark one for our small country, which was always known for good, love for humanity, love for the dignity of human beings, and allowing freedom of worship and religion. The wrongs committed are being corrected. The TRRC has now completed its investigation, which was very public and televised across the world, and has submitted its final report, including some 265 recommendations to The Gambia’s government. The government in December 2021 announced its acceptance of more than 200 recommendations and its rejection of only 2. At the moment, the government is closely working with the victims and other stakeholders to strive towards the implementation of these recommendations through the payment of reparations, promotion of peace and reconciliation, and prosecution of perpetrators. All of these factors are geared towards bringing closure to the victims’ families and restoring peace and reconciliation for the people.
The National Human Rights Commission, established in 2018, now operates with “A” accredited status. As part of its duties, the Commission monitors institutions with statutory duties to promote, respect, protect, and fulfil human rights obligations. The government of The Gambia has been recognized for its support for the National Human Rights Commission in its efforts to enhance human rights standards in The Gambia and to nurture a culture of respect for the rights, dignity, and freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.
Religion’s Roles in Peacebuilding in The Gambia
Considering the theme of this Symposium, it can be said that African countries face both common and unique challenges regarding the roles of religion in peacebuilding, and The Gambia is no exception. Religion is often considered to be a motivator and mobilizer of masses in conflict areas and labeled as a negative contributor to conflicts, instead of as a potential positive influence on conflict transformation. Oftentimes, religion is sidelined at the negotiation table. Perhaps it would better serve the world if we paid more attention to its importance and developed an understanding of its influence on grassroot levels in a positive way towards peacebuilding.
In the religious landscape of The Gambia, Islam and Christianity coexist along with African traditional religions. The role of religion in peacebuilding in The Gambia has to be situated within the wider framework of religion’s role in the public space more generally. Indeed, religion and public policy intertwine and interweave because both claim to give authoritative answers to important questions about how Gambians should live.
In spite of processes of secularization, religious voices are not absent from public debates, especially those that directly challenge the core beliefs and practices of Gambians. Because of the history of religion and religious transformation in The Gambia, religion has always been perceived by a majority of Gambians as having the power to radically change social life and history. It is, therefore, no surprise that Gambians turn to religion for resources to prevent conflicts or restore peace. However, this is all done in the context of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for each other’s views and beliefs. In short, we embrace the Qu’ranic verse 256, chapter 2, which states, “There is no compulsion in religion,” and verse 6, chapter 109, which clearly stipulates, “Unto you your religion, and unto me mine.”
Over the years, The Gambia has been involved in three dimensions of peacebuilding: preventing violence, managing conflicts, and transforming conflicts. In so doing, faith-based organizations under the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Council and the Christian Council, have played and continue to play a major role since 2017, through interreligious dialogue and calls for reconciliation in their weekly sermons. Religious leaders do not hesitate to speak truth to power. This has actively promoted peace and stability within the country’s various communities.
Bearing in mind the above, I align myself with four social spaces that positively influence peacemaking.
- First, intellectual spaces, where people can rethink conflicts and envision peace, and attention is given to the private troubles of people.
- Second, institutional spaces, in which these visions and alternatives are enacted and practiced.
- Third, market spaces, where cultural, social, and material resources are put to use for the achievement of these alternatives.
- And fourth, political spaces, where groups engage with the political process to achieve a peace agreement.
In all these spaces, faith-based organizations can serve as supportive experts.
- In intellectual spaces, they can offer reconciliation, help with forgiveness, and form truth committees or commissions in the investigation of human rights violations and in negotiations of peace in conflict areas.
- In institutional spaces, they can connect local groups, employ international guidance, and help shape movements.
- In the market space, faith-based organizations can mobilize their material resources to support movements and mobilize groups in other states for funding and material support.
- Actions in these three spaces can help local movements enter the political space or establish credibility for religious leaders, to help move peace forward.
As one gets older, one finds peace in religion and spirituality. I believe peacebuilding starts with finding inner peace, and religion helps with that. The soul that finds peace can give peace back, outwards. An example in Islam is found in the return of the Prophet to Mecca, when he refused to succumb to vengeance against the Quraysh and, instead, allowed them freedom and peace in a new system of governance.
I conclude by reaffirming the commitment of the government of The Gambia to uphold the highest standards of the values enshrined in the African Charter and reflected in our constitutional and legislative frameworks. We are currently engaged in far-reaching reforms, as we transition from dictatorship to democracy. The engagement, collaboration, and partnership with this community represented at this Symposium will be deeply appreciated. I have no doubt, from what I have experienced here, that you have much to offer for the dignity of The Gambian people and beyond, depending on the nature of the right, the mode of implementation, and the available resources. Our reform activities are short, medium, and long term, alternatively. Our objective is to ensure a gradual but incremental realization of the rights enshrined in the Constitution, as we progress towards building a modern democratic state, anchored upon respect for the rule of law, human rights, human dignity, freedom of worship and religion, and democratic pluralism.
I hope this Symposium marks the beginning of many interactions and engagements as we tackle the difficulties and changes in the reconfiguration and the re-architecture of the global order, where family values are assaulted, the dignity of human beings is disregarded, and our education systems face significant challenges. In addition, we must not forget the emerging critical space of digitization, technology, and artificial intelligence, which bring benefits to humanity but are also gradually challenging family life and redefining society in ways that deprive us of our collective goodness. We must be alert, engaged, and collective and remember that what binds us and our religions is greater than the divisions that extreme elements tend to portray as the narrative.
 Quote originally attributed to Joel Arthur Barker: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” Oxford Essential Quotations (Susan Ratcliffe ed., 2016).