Author Archives: Damon van der Linde

Five Human Rights Stories that Made Headlines in Sierra Leone in 2011

In the past year, the Sierra Leonean government has been working to change the image of the country from that of civil war, Blood Diamonds and mass amputation to one that is peaceful and ready for large-scale international investment. Many say that the elections in November 2012 will be a landmark moment for Sierra Leone’s transition from a post-conflict nation to a developing nation – provided the process is fair, transparent and relatively free of violence. Acknowledging and protecting human rights are fundamental to this transition, creating a public dialogue of these issues is a first step. Here are just five of the more prominent human rights stories from the past year:

Free Health Care Program Comes Under Scrutiny

In September of 2011, Amnesty International Released a report on Sierra Leone’s Free Health Care Initiative, which in 2010 the government launched as major initiative to help pregnant women and lactating mothers. Unfortunately, their findings show many positive, forward-thinking initiatives, hampered by a system that is dysfunctional at some of the most very basic levels.

The Free Health Care Initiative has made strides for pregnant women, with more babies being delivered in health care facilities and maternal complications being treated. This has much to do with women being aware of their rights and what is available to them, leading to them seeking out treatment. Allegations of corruption at many levels made some question whether both foreign and local money was being squandered.

Much of the shortcomings originate from the absence of any effective monitoring and accountability systems. Drugs are coming into the country but are not making it to the clinics and hospitals where they are needed.

Blanket Ban on Political Rallies

Sierra Leoneans had to take a close look at the realities of both their Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly as police called for a blanket ban to any sort of public political rallies as a result of partisan violence in the cities of Bo and Kono in early September. Several people were killed by police in riots, politically-affiliated buildings were set ablaze and Julius Maada Bio, the flag-bearer for the opposition SLPP party, was hit in the head when somebody threw a stone. Police then used a clause in the country’s constitution to evoke the public order act until things simmered down. Feelings were mixed as to whether this ban was a violation of people’s rights or whether it truly was in the public interest. Others question whether the police should be the ones to control political activities like this.

Outside of Freetown, political events continued to be held by most, if not all of the parties, according to reports. And the ban was eventually lifted three months later, after the Sierra Leone Police had party members sign a memorandum of understanding pledging certain campaigning “good conduct” in the run-up to the 2012 elections. The SLPP boycotted the signing of that MOU, claiming that since they never recognized the ban as legitimate in the first place, there was no need to acknowledge its lifting.

The authorities imposed the ban following a series of clashes between followers of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party and the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) in parts of the southeast.

Seaweed Washes Up on Shore

This environmental rights issue was a prominent news item because of its extreme visibility on Sierra Leone’s famously pristine beaches. Sometime around July 2011, large quantities of seaweed mysteriously began washing up on more than 500km of coastline. Not only did it impact the use of beaches, it got caught in the nets of fishing boats, further affecting people’s livelihoods.

Authorities investigated the problem for months, with the cause being attributed to everything from dredging by mining companies, to climate change, to a natural occurrence in the ocean.

Sierra Leone Passes 2011 Disabilities Act but Hesitates on Delivering Funding

In March of 2011, Sierra Leone’s Government ratified the Persons with Disabilities Act. This historic piece of legislation highlights both the special attention needed by these people, who are some of the most vulnerable in the country, and action that should be taken to ensure their rights are upheld. The Act specifies that the equivalent of about $150,000 USD should be put towards programs for people with disabilities. By October of 2011, none of that money had been handed over by the Ministry of Finance. Due in part to the attention created by local media in October of 2011, some of the money was given, though it was only a fraction of the total amount. In response to the slow progress on the government’s part, disabled rights activists continue to put pressure on, including calls for a boycott of the 2012 election if these issues are not resolved.

Sierra Leone Contracts Road Projects to Companies that Don’t Deliver Legal Wages

Take a look around Freetown – as well as many other places around the country – and you’ll notice constant road construction. About 25 percent of the 2012 budget is being allocated to building new roads, which the government says is a vital investment for development in the country. Sierra Leone has few, if any road construction companies of their own, so they rely on foreign contractor expertise with local labour. Awoko newspaper’s Betty Milton broke a story about the China Railway Seventh Group Co. Ltd paying employees less than the minimum wage – which is already less than US $2 per day. Through her investigative reporting, she highlighted the labour issues that affect the rights of many Sierra Leonean, who remain on average among the financially poorest people in the world.

Could Sierra Leone’s most brutal fighting force have a political future?

For many people, the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF’s) legacy will be that of a cruel and brutal fighting force during Sierra Leone’s eleven-year civil war. The RUF became notorious for the use of “blood diamonds” to fuel their campaigns and terrorising of the civilian population through looting, rape, and the only known use of mass amputation being as a tool for warfare in recent history.

Eldred Collins was the official spokesperson for the RUF during the Sierra Leonean civil war. He is now the interim leader and Chair of the Revolutionary United Front Party, which has aspirations to enter government as a legitimate political party.

I spoke with him at the recently acquired party headquarters in Freetown about what it was like doing public relations for the infamous rebel group and why he thinks the people of Sierra Leone would ever accept the RUFP as peaceful political representatives.

Damon van der Linde: How can you defend the RUF’s actions during the civil war – like targeting civilians, mass amputations and looting?

Eldrid Collins: If you had conscience, you would have seen what was happening in this country. It came to a time in Sierra Leone where you couldn’t even buy a shoe. People were lining up for rice. The economy was in bad shape. Only those with money or in power could educate their children, the infrastructure, everything was down. Corruption was rampant.

 

The system in this country was so bad, was so ugly, it was deplorable. Some of us left this country for greener pastures. But with the mind of thinking that this system is supposed to be changed. But this system could not have been changed by words or the pen, because the powers that be were full of violence. Look at the background of this country, politically before the war. Look at the education sector before the war. Look at the health sector before the war. There was a recipe for war. People were crying: “if we don’t fight, it won’t get better!”

 

Don’t forget that there is no war fought in the war that does not have looting. We too did some looting, but it was food, medicine, that is the truth. We did not allow any combatant at that time to loot things like video, radios, bags of money. You leave the money. All we wanted was food. Those were the things we took from the war.

 

Most of those things that were said about us were mere fabrications because we had no defence out there to counter those allegations.

 

DV: Many of those allegations have been heavily reported over the years. How can you say they were fabrications?

EC: RUF members were never soldiers, they were freedom fighters. The propaganda machine against the RUF was so strong that we never had any sort of PR system in the outside that can defend the allegations made against us during the war. That is why the truth never came out.

There was only one side of the story. You have journalists on the other side just writing about people saying “the rebels did this to me, they did that to me.” If you are on the rebel side you will never see the government side during the war, so how can they receive information about us? It was impossible.

I remember one time I was talking to [RUF leader] Foday [Sankoh] and I said, “look, I’ve been hearing some news that people are saying things about us that are not correct,” and he said, “at the appropriate time it will happen,” and we only continued with our armed struggle. I thought it was very dangerous, and our image was destroyed.

I knew these things would happen. Strange tales will be told about us. That is what I am trying to clean now; to make the world know the truth.

 

The truth of the war and how the war has been fought has not yet come out. There are a whole lot of fabrications, statements made about the way. We are writing a book, the true story of how the war was fought, and that will be published the later part of next year.

 

DV: Do you think some people might be worried the RUFP might instigate violence in the future?

EC: Now the war is over and we have been disarmed. I can tell you with confidence and definity that the RUF will have no hand in violence in this country again. The RUFP is now a political party. We have been fighting to be recognized and to be a political party; to take part in the political process.

 

I have the responsibility of building the RUFP to be a very viable political party in Sierra Leone not only as an opposition, but in the years to come to take state power in our country.

Maintaining Community in Women’s Prison

I visited Freetown’s prison for women with Martha Kargbo, jhr’s first BBC World Service Trust Fellow in Sierra Leone. She is producing a feature on how women behind bars maintain contact with their families and communities. What we found is that they often have very little contact with the outside world. Phone calls are difficult and visits with family – including children – are extremely limited. Aside from the problems making contact, there is also a stigma against women who are convicted of crimes and can be stigmatised by their communities even after they are released.

To cope with this isolation from society, we saw that these women formed their own communities, much like a large extended family. Some are in for a few months if they are convicted of marijuana possession, some for years, and one or two on life sentences. They work together sowing clothes and making beaded purses.

It is a right for women with newborns to be able to look after their babies, even if they are in prison. So when there is a baby in the prison, we were told that it is often not only cared for by the biological mother, but by all of them.

The women’s prison in Freetown is not a large facility. It is housed in the former UN Special Courts for war crimes in Sierra Leone. It is not large – there were only 24 women incarcerated at the time of our visit.

When women are released from prison, they face unique challenges reintegrating into society.  They often do not have as many job opportunities as men, and the stigma against female convicts can remain in their communities. There are few government programs available to provide assistance, and correctional services say the look to international organizations for support. Some women who have been released meet every week at a local NGO called Advocaid, and have formed something of a support network. There they discuss legal issues, as well as those affecting their careers and personal lives.

Much like in the prison itself, the support group provided acted not only as a network for navigating legal issues after these women were released, but as a community for those who had lost much of theirs during incarceration.