In a meeting with editors of Gambian newspapers, the new US chargé d’affaires to The Gambia, Ambassador George Staples discussed a host of issues ranging from the raging debate on homosexuality, US’s human rights record, recent report on CIA’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and two Americans missing in The Gambia. Ambassador Staples began by introducing himself:
I am the new chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy and a former US ambassador. I was ambassador three times in Africa – Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Rwanda right after the genocide. So, it is my first time in The Gambia but I spent a good time of my foreign career in African countries. I also served in Zimbabwe and traveled around the continent. So, I am not new to Africa although I am new to The Gambia. It is a pleasure to be here and one of the things I always like to do when I come to a new position like this is to meet with the press and have a chance for us to get to know each other and to answer your questions and continue to have what I know you haven’t had – that is good contact and good access so that you can get your stories out and do the news, and we can read your papers and follow you and learn more about what is going on.
Ousman Sillah, Foroyaa: We used to have US ambassadors but now we have charge d’affaires. Why the change?
It is not a change. An ambassador is someone who is accredited to a country and you present your credentials in this case to your president, to my president and the person serves as ambassador for two or three years. That is the normal in our system. A chargé d’affaires means in charge and we don’t have an ambassador here in The Gambia. I am sent here from Washington to do what I can do to work on our relationship to help make it improve. I am the chargé d’affaires and I will be here till the spring time, probably in April. I hope we will be able to have a permanent ambassador here but that has not been the case for some time. I hope we will be able to have one here eventually.
Ousman Sillah, Foroyaa: What is the reason?
Well we had a nomination back in the spring time but the government here, as it is its right, decided not to accept that person. I am still not exactly clear why. It is very unusual but those are private diplomatic conversations. I am hoping that can be corrected and fixed sometime in the future.
Madi Ceesay, Daily News: US-Gambia relations have not been as good as they could be despite its longevity. Could you throw light on that?
The relationship with The Gambia is good. It is not as I would hope it would be. Any country in Africa should have a relationship with the US government that’s the very best at every time. In every country I have served, the US Embassy, the US ambassador, is perhaps the best friend, the closest confidant of the president, ministers and parliamentarians. The number one best friend in the country is the US Embassy and the Americans. We have had some issues with the government over time in the area of human rights concerns mainly. But let’s give the government credit where it is due as well. The government has been very forthright in its opposition to international terrorism. The government is providing troops for peacekeeping operations. Our citizens who come to visit the tourism sites and so forth have been welcomed as tourists are. I think having His Excellency, The President go to Washington for the recent African leaders conference signified again that we want to have very good relations with the government just as we do with the people of The Gambia. It should be better. Like with any country, any government, there are always some things that come along that sometimes cloud the relationship and make it more difficult but friends work through these things. Certainly, that is my message here when I meet with officials and the public – that we want the very best of relations. We want to do things respecting the sovereignty of the country and finds ways we can cooperate together.
Sainey Darboe, The Standard: There has recently been a heightening of anti-gay rhetoric from the president down to pro-government officials with some citing the US’s lack of moral authority to preach human rights to The Gambia with the US’s own record in Guantanamo Bay, among others. Don’t you think you should practice first what you preach to other countries?
That’s a good question. I didn’t think anybody was gonna ask about that (laughs). Here is my answer to that and I am glad you asked that question so that I can set the record straight with all of you. You have seen the statement put up by the National Security Council [of the USA]. Does anybody think that statement is pushing a lifestyle onto The Gambia or any other country? The answer is no. What it talked about, what we talk about not just in The Gambia but around the world, is respect for human rights. We are not pushing a lifestyle – in this case homosexuality or anything else or saying this is how The Gambia should be and this is what Gambians should do. Not at all! We are simply saying there are all kinds of people in this world that have all kinds of lives and as human beings we should respect each other. I don’t know of any country in the world that has brought out a law saying that people who have a certain type of lifestyle should face life imprisonment. Life in prison is what people get for murder, killing a child; not something like this. And I would say that all of you in the media need to take a look at how you report this. The USA is not pushing a kind of life style on The Gambia. We are pushing mutual respect, respect for human rights and a recognition that people however they live should be treated with dignity. That’s all. If you look at the statement, it is not just about the homosexuals. It was about arbitrary arrests and detention. In this beautiful country where we have had a relationship going back well over a hundred years – on my wall I have a document accrediting a vice-councillor in 1881 – in this special country with such long ties of friendship it should not be the place where people live in some cases worrying about a knock on the door late at night. And you might be taken off to jail where – forget about 72 hours -you may not be heard from again for 720 hours or for 7 years. Anything could happen. That is not the way that I know people should live and be treated. The Gambia is not a country of former Soviet bloc. It is a free country and what we consider in many, many ways democratic and a friend of the US. If you looked at that statement it talked about arbitrary arrest and detention. We are concerned about that. We are not singling out The Gambia. We express those concerns everywhere. And it is not new here. This is not new news. If you look at our previous human rights reports and so forth, we expressed these concerns many times. So take a look at our statement, take a look at our position and what we stand for in this world. And that is what it means. It is not pushing a certain kind of lifestyle.
Around the world, especially this week, there are reports about the senate report investigation. We are a big enough nation to recognise that we have made mistakes and to admit it publicly and to release a public report and be critcised. We are big enough to do that. Tell me another country especially in Africa willing to do that? Give me the name of a country willing to have its leadership – from the president on down – go to people and say we made mistakes, we are correcting them, we are gonna learn from them and do things differently? Where are you gonna find that? So, it is not whether you have the right to criticise. If you care about human rights and human decency, then you do speak up. And even when you make mistakes, you admit it, learn from it and move on. That’s pretty special and I wish one country in Africa will be this special.
Ousman Sillah, Foroyaa: The pervasive perception is that you are trying to promote homosexuality in The Gambia?
No! It is human rights. No one is saying in the US that everyone has to live this way. No, for me personally that’s not what I’m saying. I have colleagues in the state department and friends who live in the US, people I have known who are, shall we say, gay. They are wonderful people and do good things in business and in government in the State Department. Before the State Department I was a military officer and people like this had given their lives for freedom. Some of them are decorated heroes. That’s their personal life people are talking about. It has taken a while to get acceptance in the US that this is not an abhorrent lifestyle – it is a choice. But nevertheless, they should not be imprisoned and should not be discriminated against. We have laws that prohibit discrimination in hiring anyone and access to facilities. Again I wanna make this point: we are not pushing a lifestyle choice – homosexuality. We are not saying every Gambian family should have one child. You don’t have to agree with everything we do but they don’t need to be imprisoned and locked up, rounded up. They don’t need that. Not anywhere. When our government sees it, we feel we have a responsibility to speak up. And we do so. I was at a programme at Kairaba Hotel when the First Lady launched her children’s project and the president came and made remarks. He praised teachers and how important teachers are to children. My mother was a teacher. She told me early in my life the most important thing in life is to have good friends. Because you may think you are in a certain position whatever but you need your friends to step up and tell you, you are going the wrong way. The US is in my view the best friend the Gambian government and Gambian people could ever have. If a friend won’t tell you when you are going wrong, then who will? So, when we say something, we say it as a friend.
Musa Sheriff, The Voice: Elections are just about a year way. What are you doing to strengthen the democratic process?
The first thing is that The Gambian people should be strengthening the democratic process in the country. Students, young people, universities, civil society, your politicians, members of parliaments are in the forefront looking at ways to strengthen democracy to ensure that there is fairness, to educate people on the need to participate in the electoral process, to be informed, to make good choices and to speak out and make your positions clear. The US has always done things like bringing speakers, funding voter education projects, public affairs things. Not to take sides but making sure people understand the importance of the vote, respect for results, fairness, etc. The first responsibility to make things as you want them in The Gambia is with the people of The Gambia. We can only help; it is your country.
Sheriff Bojang, The Standard: What are the likely diplomatic implications if US-Gambia relations stagnate or even deteriorate? We saw the punitive measures taken by Washington against Uganda over these gay rights issues, for example.
I know Museveni. He went off that way and steps were taken that reflects the values of the human rights community in general. And we were not alone. Other governments also took actions. I would hate to see the kinds of things that happened in Uganda happen here. We are not there. I hope we don’t get to that point but at a certain point you recognise that certain countries that decide to pursue activities and policies that run very counter to our view of the way people should be respected and treated, it can’t be business as usual. As I said we are not at that point yet and I hope we don’t get to that point. It is certainly not only on this issue of homosexuality which is not the big issue here but human rights in general. So I am hoping we won’t get to that point.
To be continued]]>