National Justice Programme Officer at Justice Rapid Response
The recent release of the Gambian Government White Paper on the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) Report demonstrates the importance of applying a victim-centred approach to implementing the commission’s recommendations, particularly the search for and identification of the forcibly disappeared.
The TRRC released its final report on 25 November 2021. The report is the culmination of the commission’s impressive efforts to provide redress for violations committed during the 22-year rule of former President Yahya Jammeh. The Jammeh regime was marked by widespread abuses, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and arbitrary detention. From the start of the TRRC in 2018, witness testimonies captured the harrowing and traumatic violations committed against victims across the country.
The White Paper, released on 25 May 2022, lays out plans for implementation in several areas of transitional justice, including prosecutions, reparations, memorialisation and, importantly, making known the fate of the disappeared. The White Paper shows a victim-centred approach in some sections. For example, plans to address SGBV include provisions for psychosocial support, safe houses, training of personnel to prevent re-traumatisation and reparations for victims. When it comes to the question of the forcibly disappeared, however, the approach is less comprehensive.
The TRRC itself faced significant capacity challenges in searching for the disappeared, particularly around forensics. An illustration is its 2019 exhumation of two sites at YundumBarracks believed to hold the remains of soldiers killed during the November 1994 coup. Following its investigative priorities, the TRRC proceeded with the exhumations without the required technical knowledge on-site and with limited preparation and participation of victims’ families. It had no comprehensive plans to conduct post-exhumation forensic analysis of the remains.
To date, these remains are in storage, which could negatively affect their evidentiary value. More crucially, it is a source of distress to the victims’ families, who still have little information on what will happen to the remains of their loved ones. This could lead to re-traumatisation and reinforces the need for a victim-centred approach in implementing the White Paper recommendations.
The challenges faced by the TRRC reflect broader capacity challenges in The Gambia. In 2018, Justice Rapid Response deployed a small team of forensic experts at the request of the Attorney General’s Chambers (AG) to establish the cause of death of deceased persons exhumed the previous year. The experts noted that in addition to there being only one forensic archaeologist in the country, The Gambia lacks the infrastructure to ensure the safe identification and protection of sites and exhumations and safe storage to maintain the chain of custody. The forensic team shared their capacity assessment with the AG, which expressed their intention to engage in partnerships to address these gaps.
Victims’ families and civil society organisations have also shared their frustration and concerns about how the government will address their needs in the search for the disappeared. The White Paper mentions that the government will prioritise victim participation in designing the various institutions and frameworks it will establish in the implementation process. In practice, this requires a coordinated and collaborative approach that victim communities have not seen to date.
The right of victims’ families to know includes access to forensic information and its implications, collected across different phases. As the process includes technical details, it also requires communication in a way that is accessible to victim communities. Victims’ participation must not cause them further harm and should ideally expand their opportunities for recognition in a meaningful way.
Fostering a Victim-Centred Approach
Several factors are key to ensuring a victim-centred approach to the search for the disappeared in The Gambia. Firstly, managing victims’ expectations around what is possible is essential, given the country’s capacity challenges. The government can do this through regular consultations among authorities, investigators, forensic experts and families, with clear communication on timelines and the resources required to undertake the search and identification.
Secondly, government must ensure that victims’ families have access to psychosocial support throughout the investigations, based on a tailored needs assessment. There is often a lack of understanding and appreciation of the psychosocial needs of victim communities during these processes, which are complex and protracted.
Thirdly, the government should enter into robust partnerships with experts who can provide training and support to security and justice sector personnel on best practices in investigating enforced disappearances. Applying a victim-centred approach will require a concerted effort from a range of stakeholders acting in cooperation with government.
The White Paper mentions the government’s intention to seek such collaborations, including with international forensic institutes such as the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), which can conduct DNA analysis on remains. Civil society organisations such as the African Network Against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED) can devise clear communications strategies.
Actors from local civil society, who in many cases include families of the disappeared, can provide invaluable advice and support to authorities on how to ensure their meaningful participation. They can also provide regular updates to the public on the process of searching for the missing. Entities such as Justice Rapid Response can offer necessary expertise within the framework of the special investigative mechanism that the government will set up.
The TRRC’s establishment of a record of violations committed in The Gambia is a commendable first step in providing a sense of closure and justice for victims. It sets a precedent for the successful implementation of transitional justice mechanisms in Africa. The timely release of the White Paper is also an encouraging development for victim communities, who have been waiting for justice for far too long.
For the government’s post-TRRC work to have legitimacy, addressing the needs of victims and ensuring their active participation will be key. In this way, the implementation process can achieve the restorative and healing effects it seeks to have.
This opinion piece was originally published by the African Transitional Justice Hub, an initiative of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.