Side Event - “Investigating International Crimes at the National Level: Realizing the Promise of Complementarity in the Gambia & the Case for Specialized Expertise”

(co-hosted by Canada, the Netherlands and the Justice Rapid Response (JRR))

Overview by Annelou Aartsen, Research Associate PILPG NL


  • The panelists agreed that the international community can strongly contribute to ensuring that national authorities are able to provide justice for its citizens and thereby ensure local ownership and accountability. 

  • An example hereof is the forensic expertise offered by Justice Rapid Response to support Gambian authorities with the investigations and prosecutions of high-profile cases. 

This side event on Investigating and Prosecuting Crimes at the National Level was moderated by H.E. Ambassador Sabine Nölke of Canada. The panel consisted of the Gambian Minister Abubacarr M. Tambadou, human rights activist and son of the late Solo Sandeng Mr. Muhammed Sandeng, the Forensic Pathologist Dr. Steve Naidoo, and the head of International Cooperation at the Office of the Prosecutor Mr. Amady Ba. After a short introduction, Ms. Suomalainen, the Executive Director of JRR, highlighted that this event aims to provide a forum to discuss how national actors can act to end impunity of serious international crimes and human rights violations. Thereby, special attention was paid to the role of the international community and how the international community can support such national efforts to fight impunity on a national level. 

As an introduction, the film ‘From Fear to Freedom: the search for Justice’was showed. This film highlighted some of the issues the national authorities of The Gambia have faced since the end of its dictatorship in January 2017. As identified in the movie, one of The Gambia’s most urgent needs was to find experts in the area of forensic sciences. Through forensic pathology objective evidence of the serious crimes committed under the previous dictatorship could be demonstrated to the prosecution. However, The Gambia had limited technical and forensic capacity to address this complex case itself due to the advanced state of decomposition of the remains. As highlighted by Mr. Muhammed Sandeng in the movie, such objective evidence would reassure the Gambian people that justice is in fact done. Something which is needed to end impunity and to provide healing for the Gambian society. 

After the movie, the floor was given to Gambia’s current Minister of Justice, Abubacarr M. Tambadou. The Minister started with highlighting that the dictatorship which lasted for more than two decades had damaged the entire infrastructure of the Gambian government. Therefore, rigorous reforms were needed. Amongst others, top priorities identified by the government of The Gambia are: constitutional reform, the creation of key institutions such as an enforcement agency, reform of the criminal court, reassessing media laws, the introduction of a National Human Rights Commission, and most important of all the establishment of a mechanism to address impunity and human right abuses. While important steps are made, The Gambia faces challenges when addressing impunity, such as their limited financial means but also their need of experienced prosecutors. These were important issues for which The Gambia can use the support of (international) partners. JRR is one of the organizations which has been able to assist the Gambian government in their fight against impunity. 

The second speaker, Muhammad Sandeng, a human rights activist represented the young Gambian people and shared the youth’s view on justice and accountability. Sadeng expressed the view that most of Gambians youth sees justice as reparation, and does not focus so much on the accountability aspect. According to Sadeng the lack of expertise is one of the constraints of the Gambian justice system. He ended his statement with stressing the importance of having people tried before Gambian Courts instead of prosecuting perpetrators outside of Gambia. According to Sadeng, national trials will more strongly reassure justice to The Gambian society and provide confidence in the national judicial system. 

The third speaker, Dr. Steve Naidoo, a forensic pathologist and member of the JRR Expert Roster, focused more particularly on the relation between scientific evidence and justice. As clarified by Dr. Naidoo science is objective, and therefore can be relied upon. It is able to offer objective evidence on which a court can rely. Forensic sciences have made great advances in DNA research, which is able to contribute to the process of justice in The Gambia. Dr. Steve Naidoo ended with stating that “we have prevailing technology and we must be prepared to apply it and overcome challenges.” 

Finally, Mr. Amady Ba addressed the issue raised by H.E. Nölke on how the international community can best work with local authorities to ensure that cooperation works well. Mr. Ba replied by stating that this question lies at the heart of the Rome Statute and that there are broad and various ways to support national systems. One way through which national systems can be supported is through reinforcing relations between different states. Mr. Ba mentioned the example of the complementarity website which provides an overview of states, International Organizations and NGO’s that are active in complementarity and who can support national projects. Concrete examples of fields in which support can be provided by other countries are: sharing information and expertise on preservation of evidence, but also sharing information on how to prioritize and select of cases. 

During the question round, a question was raised about how The Gambia, with a recently collapsed government infrastructure, managed to handle all the cases. Is there a danger for a system overload? Minister Tambadou responded by explaining that the primary focus lays with building up all the governmental infrastructures in order to ensure that what had happened in The Gambia will not occur again. In terms of their relationship with the ICC and possible future collaborations, the Minister mentioned that, that is still an open question.   

Following, a civil society actor wondered whether ‘more coordination amongst society actors and the government is required’. And if there is something The Gambian government is not getting from civil society actors at the moment. The Gambian Minister responded to this question by answering that they had identified areas in which they did not have the local capacity or expertise to tackle issues at hand. In these areas The Gambian government had reached out to civil society organizations.

The next question concerned the attitude of the Gambian security sector towards the implemented reforms. Was the security sector willing to cooperate or did they resist the introduced reforms? Mr. Tambadou responded by stating that the security sector is a difficult exercise: “more often than not there will be resistance from within.” According to the Gambian Minister of Justice it is important to ensure transparency and accountability when reviewing your security services. Thereby, he highlighted that the Gambian government faced clear challenge in this respect, because Gambian security services were dominated by members of a certain ethnic group to which the former president belonged.  

Another question raised was ‘what was done to preserve evidence, and what was done in terms of witness protection? The Minister explained with regard to witness protection that there is a particular act within national law which establishes witness protection. In addition, this is an area in which The Gambia has cooperated with organization, such as the ICC, to ensure fully functioning witness protection units. The second part of the question related to the preservation of evidence was answered by Mr. Naidoo. He explained that specific guidelines of practice for technical expertise should be put in place. Such guidelines had to be decided on in advance and should be of sufficient standard to the court so the court is willing and able to work with the evidence provided. 

The last question raised during this side event related to political entrenchment and how The Gambia developed its governmental and judicial system. Minister Tambadou answered by stating that reform in The Gambia had been rather easy due to the fact that they had to build of the judiciary sector from scratch. This has contributed to the fact that nowadays Gambian courts consists of mainly Gambian judges. After this answer, Ambassador Nölke of Canada concluded the event by stating that “if we do complementarity right, and I think The Gambia is well on its way in doing it right, the ICC is out of a job. And that will be the ultimate achievement that we are working for.”