At the 17th session of the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) to the Rome Statute, Justice Rapid Response hosted a side-event on the role of national actors in the investigation and prosecution of international core crimes.
The event, “Investigating International Crimes at the National Level: Realizing the Promise of Complementarity in The Gambia and the Case for Specialized Expertise”, was co-hosted by Canada, The Netherlands and The Gambia. It presented the collaboration between Justice Rapid Response and the Ministry of Justice in The Gambia as the country confronts the legacy of crimes committed during the reign of former President Yahya Jammeh. Currently under investigation is the case of the 2016 abduction, torture and killing of opposition activist Solo Sandeng and several others. At the request of the Attorney General and the Ministry of Justice in The Gambia, Justice Rapid Response provided expertise to assist in the forensic analysis of the exhumed victims, providing key evidence to prosecutors in the case currently ongoing in the High Court in Banjul.
“Increasingly, we see national actors taking leadership in the fight against impunity for acts such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” said Justice Rapid Response Executive Director Nina Suomalainen.
“These developments are significant—because when credible investigations and accountability measures can happen at home, the chances are greater that victims can attain some measure of reconciliation and healing,” she said.
After a screening of the short film From Fear to Freedom: The Search for Justice in The Gambia, created by Justice Rapid Response, several distinguished speakers engaged in a panel discussion: Minister Abubacarr M. Tambadou, Attorney General and Minister of Justice of The Gambia; Mr. Muhammed Sandeng, activist representing the victim community and son of the late Solo Sandeng; Dr. Steve Naidoo, forensic pathologist and member of the Justice Rapid Response expert roster; and Mr. Amady Ba, Head of International Cooperation, Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC. The discussion was moderated by Ambassador Sabine Nölke of Canada.
Attorney General Tambadou emphasized the need to fully address past crimes committed under the Jammeh regime, and thanked the forensic experts deployed from Justice Rapid Response, who were able to assist in the identification and analysis of bodies exhumed by national authorities. He noted that, given the volume of cases to be addressed, The Gambia has established a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission which has now just started its work, and underscored the importance of having ongoing technical support for all transitional justice efforts.
Muhammed Sandeng told the audience that in his view, carrying out justice at home in The Gambia is more impactful on society than if the cases were being pursued outside of the country. He also encouraged all to remember that “justice means different things to different people,” and that there was still much work to be done in order for Gambian society as a whole to understand the transformative potential of justice as part of the project of building “The New Gambia.”
In his remarks, Dr. Steve Naidoo reflected on the specific value of scientific expertise in cases such as the one of Solo Sandeng in The Gambia. “Science is always objective and neutral, never partisan, does not respect attitudes and affiliations, and is there to establish the truth and pursue justice,” he said. Naidoo noted that his role in the Gambia was a way to help bring a measure of both healing and justice to families and communities who have been brutalised by human rights violations committed under the former regime.
Amady Ba expressed thanks on behalf of ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda for the invitation to participate in the panel discussion. Ba explained that while the role of the Office of The Prosecutor (OTP) is limited in terms of its role in supporting States with national accountability, they can exchange best practices and information that can help States with their accountability efforts. This is what has been developed as part of the OTP’s Strategic Goal 9 of its Strategic Plan for 2016-2018, which seeks to develop a coordinated investigative and prosecutorial strategy to close the impunity gap for the Rome Statute. He noted that the OTP works with organisations such as Justice Rapid Response in order to do this.
The panel concluded with a dialogue with the audience members.