Sierra Leone

Committee on Rights of Child takes up report of Sierra Leone on implementation of Children's Convention

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HR/CRC/00/7
Systematic Killings, Abduction, Amputation, Rape and Recruitment of Child Combatants Abated or Stopped, Officials Say

The Committee on the Rights of the Child this morning started its consideration of an initial report submitted by Sierra Leone, with a Government delegation saying that there had been a slow improvement in the situation in the country which gave renewed cause for optimism.

Introducing the report, Sidikie Brima, Deputy Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone, said that the systematic killings, abduction, amputation, rape and the recruitment of child combatants by the warring factions had now been either abated or stopped. He said that former faction leaders were presently touring the country and appealing to their followers to lay down their arms.

Mr. Brima said that just a week ago, a member of the rebel forces who was believed to have thousands of abducted children in her custody had expressed her willingness to allow access to those children by Government officials and representatives of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and non-governmental organizations.

In the course of their consideration of the report, Committee members asked questions on such issues as a national plan of action for children; a programme of poverty alleviation; registration of birth; immunization campaigns; and the situation of kidnapped children, among other things.

The delegation of Sierra Leone also consisted of Alfred Bobson Sesay, Director-General at the Ministry of Youth, Education and Sports; Iris Juxon-Smith, Chief Social Development Officer at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs; and Miatta Howard, Administrative Assistant at the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) Sierra Leone Chapter.

As one of 191 States parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Sierra Leone is obliged to submit periodic reports to the Committee on its efforts to implement the treaty.

When the Committee reconvenes at 3 p.m., it will conclude its consideration of the report of Sierra Leone.

Initial Report of Sierra Leone

The initial report of Sierra Leone (document CRC/C/3/Add.43) reviews the measures taken by the Government to implement the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It says that the armed conflict has seriously damaged the infrastructure, disrupted social structures, increased the incidence of diseases and malnutrition, and disrupted the educational system. Hundreds of children have been orphaned and up to 2,500 children have been involved in the war, suffering severe trauma as combatants. It is also believed that there are 5,000 street and unaccompanied children in Freetown and other urban towns.

Sierra Leone's ongoing rebel war has resulted in the massive displacement of an estimated 690,000 children under 18 years of age of whom 145,000 are of primary school age, the report says. They have been hardest hit by the net capital outflow from the country, lack of private or public investment and a structural adjustment programme. With a majority of schools destroyed, almost 70 per cent of children of primary school age are out of the school system and are faced with increased potential for high-risk behaviour and militarization.

The report says that the infant mortality rate in Sierra Leone is estimated at 135 per 1,000 live births and under-five mortality at 229 per 1,000 live births. Current estimates put the rate of maternal mortality at 700 per 100,000 live births, one of the highest in the world; and an estimated 17 per cent of all births occurred to girls aged between 13 and 19 years.

Introduction of Report

SIDIKIE BRIMA, Deputy Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone, said that the armed conflict in his country had culminated on 6 January 1999 with the rebel invasion of the nation's capital, Freetown. That single event had resulted in more than 6,000 deaths, thousands of cases of amputations of limbs, rape and the destruction of homes and property. However, there had been a slow, but steady, improvement in the situation in Sierra Leone which gave renewed cause for optimism.

A government of national unity was now in place which included members of previous warring parties, Mr. Brima went on to state. United Nations peacekeepers had taken up positions in various parts of the country, including areas previously occupied by the rebels. The guns were silent to a large extent, the roads were opening and confidence was returning. Those heartening developments were creating the enabling environment for the implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Mr. Brima continued to say that the systematic killings, abduction, amputation, rape and the recruitment of child combatants by the warring factions now had either abated or stopped. At the present moment, former faction leaders were touring the country and appealing to their followers to lay down their arms. Just a week ago, a member of the rebel forces who was believed to have thousands of abducted children in her custody had expressed her willingness to allow access to those children by Government officials and representatives of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and non-governmental organizations.

Further, Mr. Brima said that the cessation of hostilities had also allowed the Government to give greater attention to education and health. The campaign against the scourge of HIV/AIDS had also seen a marked improvement. In addition, hospitals and schools continued to be refurbished in the whole country.

Discussion

Committee members raised a number of questions under the clusters of general measures of implementation; definition of the child; general principles; civil rights and freedoms; family environment and alternative care; and special protection measures. They wanted to know, among other things, if the national plan of action was successful; about the programme on poverty alleviation; if registration of birth was carried out on a regular basis; about the immunization campaign; and if the Government cooperated with non-governmental organizations.

In response to the questions raised by Committee experts, the members of the Sierra Leonean delegation said that children's activities were coordinated by the Ministries of Social Welfare and Education which also overlooked the implementation and monitoring of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Minimum age for recruitment in the army was fixed at 18 years, the delegation said, adding that at present, in its efforts to reorganize the armed forces which were crippled by the armed conflict, the Government had already made known that only persons above the age of 18 years could be drafted into the army.

Concerning registration of birth, the delegation said that in Sierra Leone, the birth of most of the children was not registered. Instead, other criteria were used to determine the age of children, including medical examinations and information from their parents and other relatives. Parents normally determined the age of their children by recalling major events in the farming or other calendars. A comparison might also be made to the age of children born during the same period but whose parents had registered their birth.

Corporal punishment was not completely banned either in schools or families, the delegation said. In schools, corporal punishment could be inflicted against pupils only by the school head-masters. Girl students were punished only by female teachers.

A number of measures had been taken by the Government, the United Nations Children's Fund and national and international non-governmental organizations to raise awareness of the Convention, the delegation said. In addition, the Government had plans to train and raise the level of awareness of members of the judiciary, the armed forces, civil servants and other professionals of children's rights.

The proportion of the national budget devoted to child health and education remained to be 5 per cent, the delegation said. The National Council for Children received subventions from the Government and UNICEF to monitor the affairs of children.

Due to the absence of a minimum age for marriage and the frequent practice of forcing young girls into early marriage, customary law was incompatible with the Convention, the delegation said. The Government had no immediate plans to unify customary laws or to harmonize national legislation.

With regard to disabled children, the Government had taken a number of steps to prevent discrimination against them, the delegation said. In addition, campaigns had been carried out in the national press to educate and sensitize the general public about disabled children. Although special schools were set up for disabled children, the Government advocated their integration into the mainstream schools.

Responding to a question on ill-treatment of children, the delegation said that a number of cases of ill-treatment of children had been reported, including the burning of hands and battering of children. The authorities had prosecuted a number of those cases to deter others from repeating the same. In addition, there were cases of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment of children. The vast majority of the cases involved children abducted by rebels.

The delegation said that international non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International, had documented and reported cases of the crude amputation of the hands, arms, lips and ears of hundreds of children as well as the conscription of children and their abduction to work. Young girls had also been raped, impregnated and infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

The Government of Sierra Leone had taken measures to demobilize and integrate child combatants and victims of the armed conflict by implementing a number of rehabilitation programmes. However, the Government was in need of international cooperation for financial and know-how resources to fully integrate the children.