Meet Abubacarr Tambadou, the Justice Minister of The Gambia—a tiny African country barely twice the size of Delaware and with fewer people than Miami-Dade County—who is taking on one of the worst genocides in the 21st century.
Under his direction, The Gambia is the only country to file a claim in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Myanmar for violating the Genocide Convention through its persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, which has killed tens of thousands and driven out over a million more. Tambadou also convinced the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to back the effort, bringing a fourth of the world behind him.
Born in 1972 as one of the middle children of 18 siblings, he considered himself lucky for his middle-class upbringing. He had no intention of studying law—having excelled in sports all his life—but the first offer he got was a law program at a British university. After graduating in the 1990s, he returned home to be a public prosecutor.
At the time, Gambia was ruled by a vicious dictator who frequently killed and tortured real or perceived political opponents. In 2000, when security forces killed over a dozen student protestors, Tambadou was roused into pursuing human rights work.
To that end, he soon left Gambia to join the United Nations’ Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), where he successfully prosecuted some of the genocide’s most notorious perpetrators, including former army chief Augustin Bizimungu, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
As he told the BBC, what he was doing “was not just prosecuting the Rwandan genocidaires”, but “was a way for us Africans to send a message to our leaders… I saw it as more of an African struggle for justice and accountability than a Rwandan one.”
Sure enough, in 2017, Gambia’s dictator fell after 22 years of power. Opposition leader Adama Barrow took power promising to restore human rights and address corruption, prompting Tambadou to return to help lead this effort.
“Twenty-two years of a brutal dictatorship has taught us how to use our voice. We know too well how it feels like to be unable to tell your story to the world, to be unable to share your pain in the hope that someone out there will hear and help.”
A devout Muslim with a prominent prayer bump on his forehead, Tambadou acknowledged that Islamic solidarity was a factor behind Gambia and the OIC’s actions but emphasized that “this is about our humanity ultimately”.
Indeed, it was after visiting a refugee camp full in Bangladesh of genocide survivors that he was spurred to act. Last spring, Gambia foreign minister pulled out at the last minute from the annual conference of the OIC in Bangladesh, sending Tambadou instead. While there, he joined an OIC delegation visiting overcrowded refugee camps, hearing stories of children burnt alive and women systematically raped; he claimed to even smell the stench of dead bodies from across the border.
“I saw genocide written all over these stories”, he said in an interview, no doubt making the connection between these accounts and what he had learned after ten years prosecuting Rwandan perpetrators for similar crimes.
To that end, his case against Myanmar—which took the world by storm—has for the first time forced its leaders to answer for their alleged crimes. Though the case will no doubt take years to resolve—given the high bar set to prove genocide—the ICJ has since ordered Myanmar to cease its actions against the Rohingya, not buying the argument that it’s simply the result of a broader military conflict.
Yes, I know: It’s a toothless order given the nature of international law. But it’s powerful nonetheless, as many Rohingya themselves agree:
Yet the mere fact that it took place at all counts as a huge moral victory for the Rohingya. For the first time, this group — which has endured decades of systematic discrimination at the hands of its own government — experienced a fair hearing from an impartial tribunal. The power of that realization prompted tearful reactions from Rohingya activists in The Hague.
“It was very emotional to see the military facing charges in a court for the first time,” U.K.-based Rohingya activist Tun Khin told me. “The military have been getting away with human rights violations against us for decades. We have worked so hard for this day.”
And to think it began with a public prosecutor of a small country most have never heard of.
To that end, Mr Tambadou thinks this is the time for The Gambia to reclaim its position on the world stage. “We want to lead by example” in human rights. “The case at ICJ is Gambia showing the world you don’t have to have military power or economic power to denounce oppressions. Legal obligation and moral responsibility exist for all states, big or small.”