The Commission was established in total compliance with International Standards of the Paris Principles on National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). It has the mandate and powers to protect and promote human rights, with powers broad enough to enable it to undertake its responsibilities. The 2004 Act (Act No.9) gives the Commission the mandate to : (1) Investigate any allegation of human rights violations; (2)Promote respect for human rights through public education; (3)Publish guidelines and other materials explaining the human rights obligations of public officials; (4)Review existing legislation and advise government concerning its compliance with international obligations; (5) Monitor draft legislations, policies, programmes and administrative practices to ensure they comply with human rights principles, standards and obligations; (6)Visit prisons and other places of detention, monitor and document violations of human rights in Sierra Leone; and,(7) Publish and present to the President and Parliament an Annual Report on the State of Human Rights in Sierra Leone.
The Commission is composed of five Commissioners and a secretariat. It handles alleged cases of human rights violations relating to civil and political rights, labour rights, police brutality, rape, threat to life, domestic and gender violence. To strengthen the effectiveness of promoting and protecting human rights through education, training, research, monitoring and investigation of complaints, the Commission is made up of five directorates namely: (1) Administration and finance; (2) Complaints, Investigation & legal Services; (3) Education, Communication and Training; (4) Monitoring and research; and (5) Regional Services.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, Article 1 reminds us that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; they are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Following that, there has been a paradigm shift in the recognition and protection of women’s rights, children’s rights and the rights of people with disabilities, manifested in the three U.N. Human Rights Conventions signed and ratified by member states including Sierra Leone. Human rights have now become central to the global conversation regarding peace, security and development and there is now a global consensus that serious violations of human rights must not go unpunished.
With a twin celebration by HRCSL commemorating first the International Human Rights Day on December 10 as well as celebrating 10yrs of continued realization of rights, I reflect on some of the strides taken by the State to embrace human rights principles for post war peace building, reconciliation, democracy and development in Sierra Leone. Several significant legislative and institutional reforms have been undertaken to address human rights challenges including the establishment of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone as the national human rights institution.
No doubt, the HRCSL had a humble beginning and like a baby it has gone through several stages of growth. With only five appointed Commissioners and an Executive Secretary at its inception, working in a modest one-roomed office space at UNIPSIL headquarters, the Commission can now boast of over sixty staff, and regional offices in all the regional headquarter towns.
In compliance with its statutory mandate, the Commission has successively produced ten annual reports on the State of Human Rights in Sierra Leone in which it reports on the ways in which fundamental rights and freedoms in the Constitution and in International and Regional Agreements to which Sierra Leone is a party have been observed or violated. It also includes steps taken by HRCSL to protect and promote human rights. In furtherance of the protection and promotion of human rights, the Commission has acted as the de facto Follow Up Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeing to it that the recommendations of the TRC are implemented, produced a Matrix on the Status of Implementation of the Recommendations as well as monitored the reparations programme.
In the area of receiving complaints and responding to it, HRCSL in 2008, finalized its complaints, investigation and inquiries rules of procedure for investigating allegations of human rights violations on its own initiative or those brought to its attention. Thousands of complaints have been received and processed within this ten year period and most of these have received appropriate remedies through investigation, mediation, conciliation and referrals.
Added to that, the HRCSL’s interventions into some human rights violations needed to be highlighted. The Public Inquiry into alleged human rights violations in Bumbuna (Tonkolili District) in to the events of 16th -18th April 2012 where aggrieved workers demonstrated against their employers, the African Minerals Limited leading to the loss of life , wounding of several people and destruction of property caused by the police. The Sierra Leone Police made a public apology to the Bumbuna Community and progressively implemented some of the recommendations. The successful completion of its Public Hearing in the matter between Blamo Jesse Jackson and 234 others against The Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence. These Ex- Soldiers were retired from the military with the nomenclature of chronically ill, and mentally imbalanced. The Government of Sierra Leone acted on the Commission’s key recommendations of paying the actual benefits and changing their discharge cards. All 363 Wounded in Action ex-servicemen received their payments and appropriate discharge cards. The Commission presented a position paper to the Constitutional Review Commission calling for a human rights compliant constitution.
In collaboration with its partners and in its effort to begin to address some of the negative human rights impact by corporate and business entities, the Commission developed a monitoring tool on Business and Human Rights which was launched together with the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the context of National Food Security.
The Commission held several conciliation meetings between complainants and respondents. One such was between the Metropolitan Police of Freetown City Council and a complainant. The Metropolitan Police tendered an apology to the complainant and paid minimal compensation for loss of property and medical fees. Part of HRCSL’s mandate is to monitor conditions of Prisons, Police cells and hospitals nationwide, and to review draft legislation and supporting Government in fulfilling its reporting obligations under various human rights treaties. It led consultations for the compilation of Sierra Leone’s first and Second Universal Periodic Review Report presented by the Government of Sierra Leone to the U.N Human Rights Council in 2011 and 2016 respectively as well as organizing post review conferences on the implementation of the recommendations.
Protecting and promoting the rights of vulnerable groups through training, awareness raising and effective engagement with key stakeholders nationwide have been cardinal to the HRCSL.
Public confidence in the Commission has grown and the Commission continues to enjoy collaboration with the media, democratic state institutions, other Ministries, Departments and Agencies, District Human Rights Committees, the Human Rights Working Group, civil society organizations and the general public. The work of the Commission has been recognized at international level by the attainment of an “A” status re-accreditation from the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights ( now Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions). This status qualified the HRCSL to participate in Human Rights Council meetings, vote and be voted for, and hold positions of trust within the international human rights arena.
These laudable successes have not been without challenges and there is urgent need to improve on the Commission’s logistical facilities and office space to respond to the growing demand for its services in a timely manner. As a global leader in human rights, the Commission had called on government to increase its commitment and action in protecting and promoting and fulfilling human rights and strengthening state institutions in Sierra Leone. Notwithstanding these challenges, the Commission remains committed to its Mission to take the lead in building a culture of human rights as well as respect for individual responsibilities through partnership and collaboration; and its Vision of a Sierra Leone where a human rights culture prevails and the people respect the rule of law and live in peace and dignity.
One should not shield away the challenges that adversely affect the rights of many in overcrowded prisons, prolonged delays in trials particularly in certain districts, arbitrary application of customary laws, weak enforcement mechanisms, discrimination and violence against women, endemic poverty, inadequate protection of marginalized and vulnerable groups, youth unemployment, concerns connected with large scale acquisition of land for mining and agriculture, violence and disrespect for the rule of law, incidents involving The Sierra Leone Police use of force resulting in loss of lives. These challenges should be given serious consideration and measures taken to address them.
The author is the Public Information Officer of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone