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Protectors or Pretenders? - Government Human Rights Commissions in Africa, HRW Report 2001

Sierra Leone



International Standards: The Paris Principles

Important Factors

Examining the Record in Africa

Innovative and Positive Contributions by Commissions

Regional Iniatives

The Role Of The International Community





Origin and Mandate

    There is probably no country with as dire a need for a strong human rights commission than war-torn Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone's eight year civil war has seen some of the most appalling human rights abuses in the world. Since l991, tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans have been killed, thousands maimed and over one million displaced. While atrocities have been committed by all sides, rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have been responsible for the vast majority, including summary execution, systematic rape and enslavement of women, the use of civilians as human shields, the abduction and use of children as soldiers, the wanton destruction of property, and the particularly horrific practice of limb amputation. Through rural and urban campaigns of terror, the rebels have made little distinction between civilian and military targets; effectively waging war against the civilian population. The systematic and widespread nature of these atrocities has led to international condemnation of the RUF for the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since the signing of the July 1999 Lomé Peace Accord, Sierra Leone has been in the balance between war and peace.

    In 1994, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) military government led by Valentine Strasser created the National Commission for Democracy (NCD) following mounting pressure on the military government, which had seized power in l992, to restore democratic civilian rule. Under NPRC decree 15, the NCD was mandated to educate the public about the constitution and cultivate, "a sense of nationalism, patriotism and loyalty to the State in every citizen."199 The chairman of the NPRC appointed a chairman and four regional commissioners, "on such terms and conditions as may be contained in their letters of appointment."200 The `independent' status of this early commission was undermined by the final article of the decree, which stated that the NCD was to "perform such other functions as may be determined by the National Provisional Ruling Council."201

    However, despite this, the first head of the commission, Dr. Kadi Sesay, attempted to create an institution that would be actively involved in the transition to multiparty democracy. The commissioners took the oath of office and commenced operations on January 20, l995. The activities of the NCD over the next two years included workshops on the constitution and voter education, producing the `Sierra Leone National Pledge,' and regular radio and television programs to promote understanding and discussion on democracy, good governance, and tolerance.

    Following the return to democratic rule in l996, the NCD was modified to add a human rights component and become the National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights (NCDHR) after the legislative passage of the NPRC Decrees (Repeal and Modification) Act of December 23, l996. While there was some debate within both the legislative committee and parliament, there was little, if any, involvement of civil society groups in the formation of the new mandate.

    In May 1997, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council took power, suspended the constitution, banned political activity, and announced rule by military decree. The AFRC (created by a group of senior military officers) soon joined forces with the RUF. The nine-month reign of the AFRC/RUF was characterized by widespread human rights abuses and a complete breakdown of the rule of law. In February 1998, the AFRC/RUF were ousted by Economic Community of West African States Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) peace-keeping forces which reinstalled President Tejan Kabbah, who had been elected in March 1996. After losing power, the AFRC/RUF waged a war of terror against civilians, committing widespread and egregious atrocities in an attempt to regain power. Civilian defense forces, such as the Kamajors, that supported the Kabbah government also committed numerous abuses. In January 1999, RUF rebels launched an offensive against the capital Freetown, capturing it from government troops and ECOMOG forces. In the months following the offensive and as a result of intense international pressure, the government and the RUF rebels entered into a dialogue which led to the signing of the Lomé peace accord in July 1999.

    As it is currently constituted, the NCDHR lacks some fundamental functions to ensure requisite independence, such as the power to subpoena witnesses, and, compel documentation, evidence or records. It also lacks the power to institute proceedings or represent cases in a court of law. The modified NCDHR retained in its mandate the previous functions of "democracy building," repealed the sections undermining the independence of the commission, and added sections mandating the promotion of human rights as guaranteed by both the constitution and international instruments.202 While independence of the commission was bolstered by the addition of a subsection stating that "the commission shall not be subject to the control or direction of any person or authority," it retained functions that could indirectly subject it to state control by mandating the commission to develop programs geared towards "the cultivation of a sense of nationalism, patriotism and loyalty to the State."203 According to local human rights activists, the omission of stronger investigative powers in the mandate of the NCDHR seemed more due to a lack of consultation with human rights professionals rather than design on the part of the state.204

    The need for a strong human rights commission within the post-war context of Sierra Leone cannot be understated. In early 2000, however, the NCDHR was in a state of flux. The July 1999 Lomé Peace Accord called for the creation of an "autonomous quasi-judicial national Human Rights Commission" within ninety days. Yet, debate was still continuing by March 2000 within governmental and non governmental sectors around the interpretation as to whether the NCDHR's powers should be expanded or, if a new commission should be created. Considerable local and international pressure has been mounting for two separate commissions: one to deal with democracy building and the other to promote and protect human rights.

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