HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE CONSIDER REPORT OF SIERRA LEONE
12 March 2014
The Human Rights Committee this morning concluded its consideration of the initial report of Sierra Leone on its implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Presenting the report, Yvette Stevens, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that Sierra Leone was in a transition period and still faced challenges to the implementation of the Covenant. Sierra Leone relied heavily on international donations for rebuilding the country and enhancing its human rights protection mechanisms. Ms. Stevens noted Sierra Leone’s efforts to address female genital mutilation through awareness raising campaigns and to tackle gender-based violence, as well as measures to improve detention facilities. Sierra Leone would soon undergo a Constitutional reform, which would provide an opportunity to improve the human rights legal framework on issues covered by the Committee including, among others, the death penalty.
Committee Members welcomed Sierra Leone’s improvements in the field of human rights over the past years but regretted however that no delegation from Freetown had been sent to Geneva to participate in this dialogue. Experts raised several concerns about female genital mutilation which, despite some improvement, remained widespread. The Committee also expressed concern about Sierra Leone’s intention to increase the minimum age for genital mutilation rather than prohibiting the practice altogether, in particular, in the context of the social pressure to which women were subjected by so-called secret societies. Committee Members also expressed concerns regarding harassment incidents against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. The Committee also raised other issues of concern, such as conditions in detention centres, the practice of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, justice administration, and excessive use of force against peaceful protestors.
In concluding remarks, Yvette Stevens, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva, acknowledged that many challenges remained before the Covenant was fully implemented in Sierra Leone. But Sierra Leone remained committed to protecting human rights and would work towards that goal.
Sir Nigel Rodley, Chairperson of the Committee, said that the issue of female genital mutilation had been one of the main topics under discussion. The dialogue would have been more concrete if a full delegation had come from the capital, in particular, regarding specific allegations and cases raised by Committee Members.
The delegation of Sierra Leone included members of the Permanent Mission of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public this afternoon, at 3.00 p.m., to begin its consideration of the third periodic report of Latvia (CCPR/C/LVA/3).
The initial report of Sierra Leone can be read here: CCPR/C/SLE/1.
Presentation of the Report
YVETTE STEVENS, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva, introducing the initial report of Sierra Leone, said that for various reasons a country delegation could not make it to Geneva to present the initial report. While a full set of responses to the list of issues submitted by the Committee had not been obtained, the delegation would provide the Committee detailed answers the day after.
Regarding the status of the Covenant within the domestic legal system, while there had been no initiatives to directly insert the Covenant, the Constitution of Sierra Leone provided for the protection of human rights without discrimination of any kind, including against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. While the Office of the Ombudsman was now functional and had received hundreds of complaints, it still suffered from insufficient budget allocation, as resources were not always available. Sierra Leone was going through a transition period and this led to some obstacles and challenges. The Government of Sierra Leone would appoint a Constitutional review Committee, composed of various stakeholders. This review would provide a great opportunity to enhance human rights protection and to strengthen democracy and the rule of law.
Sierra Leone’s National Commission for Social Action had begun the distribution of rehabilitation grants to more than a thousand amputees and severely wounded conflict victims. Legal reforms had been undertaken to address violence and harmful practices against women and girls, including the Child Rights Act and three Gender Justice Laws. Information regarding these dispositions had been disseminated throughout the territory in order to raise women’s awareness about their rights. Efforts to foster women’s participation in decision making processes or in the judiciary had making progress, though there remain much to do. A single policy on gender equality was being drafted in order to merge and simplify all dispositions in this area. While there remained challenges to the implementation of measures for the protection of women’s rights in remote areas, the Government would continue its efforts. Medical centres for the prevention of HIV/ AIDS had been established throughout the territory. The Government of Sierra Leone had passed robust legislation regarding sexual offenses, in line with Security Council Resolution 1820 and with the Optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
Sierra Leone had established a de facto moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty, and would examine abolition during the upcoming constitutional review. Regarding measures taken to combat ritual murders, the Permanent Representative stated that cases of ritual murders were very few and were punished according to the law. Concerning the definition and criminalization of torture, general provisions and guarantees were provided by Article 20 of the Constitution, which was supplemented by several regulations, policies and decrees. Law enforcement agents received training regarding the prohibition of torture and armed forces’ personnel was guided by the rules of international humanitarian law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention and its two Additional Protocols.
Regarding female genital mutilation, the Permanent Representative indicated that a prohibition of such practices for girls under the age of 18 had been included in the Agenda for Prosperity and a memorandum of understanding to this end had been signed at the local level. Women who did not undergo the procedure were despised by so-called "female secret societies". Female genital mutilation, Ms. Stevens stressed, should be contextualized and could only be eliminated through sensitization. In 2005, Sierra Leone adopted legislation on the fight against human trafficking. A unit established within the National Security Office was responsible for monitoring human trafficking. Sierra Leone was improving detention facilities in order to meet minimum human rights standards. A revised Criminal Procedure Act was being adopted and would introduce alternative sentencing, priorities included the reduction of backlog of cases before the courts and addressing overcrowding in prisons.
Questions by the Experts
The Committee regretted the absence of a sizable delegation from the capital, especially since the first periodic report of Sierra Leone was long overdue, as well as the absence of detailed responses to the list of issues identified by Committee Members prior to the meeting.
Experts regretted that the Covenant had not been directly integrated into the domestic legal framework, although the Constitution of Sierra Leone counted with dispositions for the protection of human rights. Experts inquired about steps taken for the dissemination of the Covenant and the inclusion of civil society in the preparation of Sierra Leone’s initial report to the Committee. Experts also expressed concerns about allegations of political interference with the work of Sierra Leone’s National Human Rights Institution, two of its members had been allegedly fired after taking a position against police officers accused of committing summary executions.
Committee Members regretted that legislation on gender equality adopted by Sierra Leone did not seem comprehensive and failed to address some of the main issues and challenges faced by women. Provisions containing exceptions to the prohibition of non-discrimination on the ground of sex were a source of concern for Experts; and such concerns had already been raised by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations against Women.
Experts expressed concerns about the fact that abortion was prohibited in Sierra Leone, which had a negative effect on the enjoyment of women’s rights and health. Responding to the announcement that an abortion bill would be drafted, Experts inquired whether due attention had been given to the cost of abortion in order to make it truly accessible for all women. Experts also asked whether steps would be taken to increase the number of doctors capable of carrying out such surgical procedures in the country.
With regards to gender-based offenses, Experts inquired into allegations that police forces often failed to intervene and that there was a culture of impunity for such violations. Was it true that women living in remote areas had to travel long distances in order to file complaints for instances of domestic violence?
Experts were concerned that the issue of female genital mutilation had not been fully addressed in the report. Experts noted Sierra Leone’s commitment to raising awareness on the dangers of female genital mutilation but indicated that the practice continued in rural areas. While Experts understood there were challenges to the full elimination of this practice, the State could not rely exclusively on the work of non-governmental organizations in order to achieve progress in this area.
Experts were also deeply concerned by Sierra Leone’s remarks, during its Universal Periodic Review, concerning the intention to raise the minimum age for undertaking female genital mutilation with the consent of women, rather than simply prohibiting the practice. Given the intense social pressure faced by women, it was difficult to tell whether women fully consented to undertake such procedures.
Regarding early marriages, Experts welcomed the adoption of the Child Act and the Registration of Marriages Act. Committee Members inquired whether discriminatory provisions in customary law had been repealed, in accordance with a previous recommendation issued by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. What measures would be taken in order to provide adequate resources to the Police’s family support unit, and what plans were in place regarding cooperation with civil society organizations to raise public awareness on this issue?
Committee Members expressed concerns about the high rates of HIV-positive mothers, what measures had been taken to grant them access to free treatments? Experts also inquired about steps undertaken to address discrimination on the ground of HIV/ AIDS.
Would existing legislation imposing life imprisonment for same-sex practices and homosexuality be repealed? Although it did not seem that this law was used in practice, it led to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons refraining from filing complaints for incidents of discrimination or violence based on their sexual orientation.
Experts regretted that Sierra Leone did not seem to have made efforts to combat human trafficking, hold perpetrators accountable, or raising awareness on the issue. Despite the drafting of legislation on human trafficking, nothing seemed to have been done.
Experts noted the de facto moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty and that steps had had been taken towards its abolition. This constituted a great improvement on the situation in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Were there still prisoners awaiting for execution or under the threat that the moratorium might be rescinded? Sierra Leone had accepted all recommendations from its Universal Periodic Review relating to the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, had steps been taken in this regards?
Regarding torture and other cruel or inhuman treatments, Experts were disappointed that no legal definition of torture existed in Sierra Leone’s legal system and that the prohibition of torture was not included in criminal law. Could the delegation comment on allegations that reparations were rarely paid to victims of torture? Experts inquired whether an independent governmental body had been established to monitor police activities. Experts asked how was Sierra Leone was planning to address the situation of overcrowding in prisons, as well as allegations of corruption against penitentiary officers, and regarding the segregation of prisoners. Experts also expressed concern that some facilities did not separate female and male prisoners, nor juvenile and adult offenders.
Noting that corporal punishment was still practiced in many schools and homes and was included in statute books, Experts urged Sierra Leone to repeal such dispositions and to criminalize corporal punishment in all settings.
Concerning the administration of justice, Experts asked questions about delays in judicial decision-making, the dissemination of information about the judiciary in the local languages, and the right to access a lawyer. Experts stressed the lack of safeguards for children enrolled in the judicial system and expressed serious concern at the fact that life-long imprisonment sentences could be imposed on children.
Committee Members called on Sierra Leone to decriminalize public defamation, or to ensure that criminalization was carefully restricted to the most serious cases and that these sentences did not lead to the deprivation of liberty for this crime.
Regarding allegations of unlawful and arbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists and activists, Experts asked whether reparations were available for victims. Experts asked whether it would be possible to introduce a maximum period of detention-without-charges in the Constitutional reform. Experts asked the delegation for explanations regarding allegations of excessive use of force against and the arbitrary arrest of peaceful protestors, noting that non-governmental organizations were indeed concerned about the lack of political will to hold perpetrators fully accountable.
Experts welcomed Sierra Leone’s accession to the Kampala Convention on the situation of internally displaced persons, which constituted a relevant issue for Sierra Leone. However, the Committee regretted that the dispositions of this Convention had to this day not been incorporated into domestic law.
Experts commended Sierra Leone for advancing the process of registering war victims, although concerns remained regarding the limited reach into remote rural areas. Concerns were also raised regarding the scope and nature of reparations for victims, which seemed too low and took the form of a single payment rather than as a monthly pension. Was Sierra Leone committed to abide by its international obligations to investigate and prosecute allegations of atrocities committed during the civil war? Experts were concerned that amnesty laws seemed to constitute an unacceptable obstacle to the provision of justice for past crimes.
The challenges posed by the reintegration of former child soldiers was recognised by the Committee. Had the Government considered monitoring their situation and paying reparations, as well as working closely with community leaders in order to facilitate their reintegration at the community level?
Responses by the Delegation
YVETTE STEVENS, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva, recalled that Sierra Leone had signed the Covenant in the middle of a civil war that had disastrous consequences for the country. Sierra Leone depended heavily on external donations for the development of its human rights mechanisms. The fact that donors’ support was being reduced had a negative impact on Sierra Leone’s capacity to deliver on civil and political rights. Reforms in many Government sectors had led to an important backlog of bills awaiting for Parliamentary action; and once that legislation was adopted it had wait for resources for implementation.
Regarding the implementation of the dispositions of the Covenant, Ms. Stevens said that after acceding to the Covenant its provisions were included in Sierra Leone’s 1991 Constitution. Training programmes for officials had been organized by the Human Rights Commission and the police had established a human rights desk. The Government subventions to the Ombudsman had continuously increased. The National Human Rights Commission was fully compliant with the Paris Principles; and the Government took its recommendations seriously and fully cooperated with it, including in the preparation of the Universal Periodic Review. The composition of the Constitutional Review Committee had been made available online.
Regarding harmful cultural practices, Ms. Stevens said that legislation was not sufficient to eradicate these practices and that sensitization was needed at all levels. There was no explicit legal prohibition on female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone. However, campaigns were being undertaken throughout the country to raise awareness, and dialogues with local authorities on the dangers of harmful practices had taken place. Civil society organizations were active at the local level as well. This method was the most effective way to ensure that the practice of female genital-mutilation would be eradicated.
Ms. Stevens insisted that no lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons were being harassed in Sierra Leone. There was a “don’t ask don’t tell policy” and there had been no arrests on the grounds of anti-sodomy legislation, which was part of Sierra Leone’s colonial inheritance. Homosexual practices had been seen for many years as sinful and, therefore, changing mentalities would take time.
The Government was making efforts to increase the number of safe houses in the country to react to cases of domestic and gender violence. The 2009 Domestic Violence Act protected both men and women against all forms of gender-based violence and a Family Support Unit had been established within the police. This unit had the power to investigate and prosecute sexual and gender-based violence offences. Magistrates had been specially appointed to deal with cases of violence against women and Saturday Courts had been established. Measures would be taken to increase the number of judges and improve the State’s response to gender violence.
The HIV/ AIDS Secretariat had been created in 2004 to lead efforts to distribute free anti-retroviral drugs to persons living with HIV. It played a leading role in raising awareness about HIV/ AIDS prevention and combating stereotypes and the stigmatization of victims. A National HIV/ AIDS Council had also been established and was chaired by the President.
A bill on abortion was before the Parliament and, while it enjoyed the support of the Government, was part of the backlog of bills pending a vote.
The 2005 Anti-Human Trafficking Act established punishments for perpetrators of human trafficking; and the Child Rights Act criminalized child labour and child trafficking. A unit within the National Security Office had been established to coordinate and monitor human trafficking.
The Constitution prohibited torture and allowed for victims to seek reparation before the Supreme Court. Other laws also addressed the issue of torture, such as the Human Rights Commission. Corporal punishment had been prohibited by the Child Rights Act in 2007.
The Constitution also contained provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention. A Commission of Inquiry had been set up to investigate the causes of violence and alleged instances of arbitrary deprivation of life and serious injuries. Steps had been taken to address long pre-trial detention periods by establishing new magistrates’ courts. A prison facility for female detainees had been created to ensure the separation between male and female prisoners. Measures had also been taken to address overcrowding in prisons, including refurbishing detention centres and building new facilities.
In order to ensure access to justice in rural areas, a system of local courts had been integrated into the formal justice system and was now officially part of the judiciary. The Legal Aid Act was currently at a pilot stage and faced funding constraints. Trials were all held in public to ensure the right to a fair hearing.
Regarding the reinsertion of former child soldiers, Sierra Leone was convinced that the solution depended on addressing youth unemployment. Sierra Leone had to develop its economy and make use of its natural resources, with the aid of international donors. Just after the war, former child soldiers had been taken back to their local communities. Reconciliation efforts had work for the most part and many of these children had been accepted back in their communities.
Questions by the Experts
Experts underlined that the Covenant created obligations for Sierra Leone as a whole, including the Government as well as other public bodies, including the Parliament. The Committee was here to identify difficulties regarding the implementation of the Covenant, and to offer its expertise to constructively help and support governments in better complying with their international obligations.
Female genital mutilation was not a question of tradition, it was about the rights of children and women. Experts welcomed the fact that the rate of women undergoing female genital mutilation had decreased since 2005, which was encouraging and showed that awareness raising campaigns had some effects. It was difficult to prohibit this practice in law in a country where more than 80 percent of women had undergone the procedure. However, Experts insisted on its negative effects on and danger posed to women and girls’ health. Would Sierra Leone continue to update its legal framework, including the adoption of action plans and long term strategies, and to cooperate with international and regional bodies to better combat female genital mutilation?
Experts asked for further clarification regarding the so-called women secret societies that seemed to promote female genital mutilation and which did not faced restrictions imposed by the State. Although these secret societies aimed at empowering women, their results were unclear.
Experts expressed concerns regarding the use of mediation in the context of gender violence, which could impose limitations on the rights to justice of women victims of violence. Were there mechanisms in place to ensure that only suitable cases went to mediation mechanisms, including on issues regarding gender violence?
Experts were surprised to hear that the delegation was not aware of any cases of violence or discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Several cases had been highly publicized by human rights non-governmental organizations, including the case of George Freeman, who had to flee Sierra Leone and had been granted asylum in Spain
Regarding discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, Experts underlined that cases were not isolated and encouraged the delegation to take a close look at the shadow report submitted by non-governmental organizations. Experts were concerned that Sierra Leone had rejected all recommendations made during its Universal Periodic Review regarding the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Rather than waiting for mentalities to change, Parliament had to take action. The colonial experience could not be used as an excuse for the State not to address discrimination and violence on the ground of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Responses by the Delegation
Combating female genital mutilation of girls under 18 years of age was a priority for the Government. But women over 18 were often willing to undergo this practice and should be allowed to make that choice. Sierra Leone wanted to give women over 18 the right to choose. The Government was committed to reach out all communities and women groups’ leaders.
Responding to questions about allegations of violence and harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, and the case of Mr. Freeman, the Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone said that it was counterproductive to draw conclusions on the basis of isolated cases.
The Family Support Unit dedicated an important amount of its capacity to training police officers to deal with cases of gender-based violence, and training would be intensified.
Sierra Leone would not withdraw its 2002 amnesty law since the country was now focusing on the future, authorities refused to re-open the Pandora Box they had aimed at closing with this law.
The secret societies had initiation practices, and no one knew what those rituals were. The Government chose not to ask. Banning secret societies was politically impossible. The problem was not the existence of those organizations but rather the practice of female genital mutilation. Sensitization, therefore, remained the only way to address that issue.
YVETTE STEVENS, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva, speaking in concluding remarks, said that the delegation had been honest regarding the human rights situation and the many challenges that remained before the Covenant was fully implemented in Sierra Leone. The Government, however, was committed to protecting human rights and would work towards this goal.
SIR NIGEL RODLEY, Chairperson of the Human Rights Committee, said that the issue of female genital mutilation had been one of the main topics under discussion. The Committee was not requiring the eradication of secret societies but was asking that the problem of female genital mutilation was addressed. The dialogue would have been more concrete if a full delegation had come from the capital, in particular, regarding specific allegations and cases raised by Committee Members. The Committee looked forward to receiving further information regarding those concerns within the next few days, which would help the Committee’s preparation of Concluding Observations.
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