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Under New Leader, Gambia Cancels Withdrawal From International Criminal Court

A billboard calling for the inauguration of Adama Barrow as president on the side of a road last month in Serrukunda, Gambia.
Jerome Delay
A billboard calling for the inauguration of Adama Barrow as president on the side of a road last month in Serrukunda, Gambia.

As Gambia's new president Adama Barrow settles into his new role, he is also taking steps to resuscitate international ties cut off by his predecessor Yahya Jammeh, including membership to the International Criminal Court and the Commonwealth of Nations.

The tiny West African nation has now formally informed the United Nations that it is reversing its request to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, made by Jammeh last October.

The new government issued a statement announcing its reversal on state television, Reuters reported. "As a new government that has committed itself to the promotion of human rights ... we reaffirm The Gambia's commitment to the principles enshrined in the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court," the government said.

Jammeh's withdrawal from the ICC had not yet taken hold — according to the terms of the Rome Statute, a state's withdrawal goes into effect a year after initial notification.

At the time, Gambia had accused the court of being biased against Africans, with one government minister going so far as to describe it as the "International Caucasian Court," as The Two-Way reported. Gambia, like South Africa and Burundi, accused the court of ignoring crimes of non-African nations and took steps to withdraw late last year. Here's more from our previous reporting:

"Every person tried by the ICC since the treaty creating it was adopted in 1998 has been African.

"Other war crimes trials have been carried out by ad hoc tribunals created after a specific conflict, such as those created for Yugoslavia and Cambodia, or for the Nuremberg trials conducted after World War II."

Clément Capo-Chichi, Africa regional coordinator with the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, told The Associated Press that the move is a "crucial victory for victims of grave crimes and the rule of law."

Barrow's road to the presidency was extremely tumultuous. In December's presidential election he defeated Jammeh, the leader of Gambia for 22 years. But then Jammeh refused to step down, eventually resulting in West African military troops crossing Gambia's borders. After Barrow was sworn into office in neighboring Senegal, Jammeh eventually succumbed to massive international pressure and left the country.

He fled to Equatorial Guinea – incidentally, a country that is not a member state of the ICC.

Now, the new Gambian government is also receiving high-profile diplomatic visits and pledges of international support.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson paid Barrow a visit Tuesday, which the BBC describes as "the first to the Gambia by a British foreign secretary." On the agenda: Gambia's request to rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations, an international organization comprised of 52 nations that were once British colonies.

The former leader pulled Gambia out of the Commonwealth in 2013, according to a statement from the organization. Now, a Commonwealth spokesperson said it welcomed the move: "We looked forward to the country's eventual return because it was part of our very close knit family and our doors have always remained open."

The European Union has also declared a "new chapter of relations with The Gambia." It froze assistance nearly three years ago, according to the BBC. But last week, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica traveled to Gambia and announced a $79 million package of immediate support.

Jammeh had a dismal human rights record. Barrow appears to be taking steps to change that pattern. As Reuters reported, "police opened their first investigation on Monday into unresolved deaths and disappearances under Jammeh."

In a recent press conference, Barrow also stated that he intends to convene a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address human rights violations of his predecessor.

He was also candid about the scope of obstacles he faces: "There was a government here for 22 years. 22 years is a long time. And we are able to change the government after 22 years, so obviously there will be a lot of challenges. To look at all the system, and make a complete overhaul. I think that is a big challenge to my new government."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.