Letter: The challenge of Gambia's tragedy

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The Independent Online
Sir: Buying a copy of the Independent in Dubai, on my way back from observing a Sri Lankan election in which the governing party was peacefully dismissed after 17 years, I was greatly heartened by Richard Dowden's strong defence of democracy in Gambia, now filched from its people by a handful of soldiers ('How to end Africa's bloodshed', 17 August).

Gambia has been a beacon for human rights in Africa. President Dawda Jawara, revolted by the excesses of Idi Amin, was responsible for pressing the Organisation of African Unity to adopt the African Charter on Human and People's Rights and for persuading the inter-governmental Commonwealth to take its first, small institutional steps to promote human rights.

But in rightly castigating Britain I was sorry that Mr Dowden did not also refer to the responsibility of the Commonwealth. Three out of four West African Commonwealth states are now ruled by unaccountable force in spite of the Harare Declaration of 1991 in favour of democracy and human rights. In some 25 Commonwealth states, with populations of a million or less, it would be only too easy for small numbers of troops to take power, if they had a mind to.

Hitherto the Commonwealth has not come up with a united response, although Senegal intervened in Gambia before, as did the US in Grenada and India in the Maldives. If the tide of democratisation is not to retreat, something much more hard- edged is required. The tragedy of Gambia is as great a challenge to the Commonwealth as the invasion of Kuwait was to the United Nations.

Yours sincerely,


London, SE10

19 August

The author was Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (NGO) from 1989-92.

(Photograph omitted)