African Leadership in Human Rights: The Gambia and The Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, 1977–83

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This article examines The Gambia’s campaign from 1977-83 for a new international mechanism to protect human rights in the Commonwealth of Nations. President Dawda Jawara’s crusade for a Commonwealth Human Rights Commission complicates the dominant scholarly interpretation of human rights history, which tends to dismiss or overlook African participation in the international human rights movement. The article explains The Gambia’s display of human rights idealism as a strategy to attract aid and legitimacy in the global arena. It also shows how The Gambia’s project was thwarted by the ‘Old Commonwealth’, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Western member states worked together to surreptitiously weaken and defeat The Gambia’s initiative, while deflecting blame and counting on ‘New Commonwealth’ governments in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific to play the role of antagonist. Overall, the article contends the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission was killed because it threatened illusions and assumptions about the human rights movement that were convenient for western powers. With the use of archival sources from the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, this article spotlights the need for a more nuanced understanding of African and Global South actors in human rights history.




Kirby, J. (2021). African Leadership in Human Rights: The Gambia and The Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, 1977–83. Journal of Contemporary History, 56(1), 191–215.

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