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.