Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone: Civil society criticises "vague" government plan for post-war reform

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DAKAR, 13 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - The government of Sierra Leone has published proposals for implementing the recommendations of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), but human rights and other civil society groups have criticised them in a joint statement as "vague and noncommittal".

Paul James-Allen, a Freetown-based human rights advocate, said the government white paper, published quietly in late June, fell short of expectations that the authorities would adopt far-reaching reforms to prevent a repetition of Sierra Leone's brutal 1991-2001 civil war.

"The paper hand-picks just some recommendations, and even those it treats very briefly," he told IRIN. "This represents non-commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process."

James-Allen accused the government of taking the TRC's recommendations, delivered to the government in October 2004, too lightly.

"We still believe we can bring institutional reform to Sierra Leone, but if it's the wish of the government just to keep things the way they are, that's unfortunate for us as citizens," he said, speaking by telephone from the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

The TRC investigated atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's civil war, which became notorious for the rebels' trademark practice of hacking off the limbs of captured civilians.

The commission, chaired by Sierra Leone's Methodist bishop, Joseph Humper, recommended a series of measures to ensure the protection of human rights and specifically the rights of children.

It also called for reform of the judicial system, the elimination of discrimination against women and a drive to root out corruption.

The commission designated its recommendations according to four levels of priority: "imperative," "work towards," "serious consideration" and "call on".

In the human rights section among the TRC's "imperative" recommendations was the abolition of the death penalty and the avoidance of criminal sanctions on the free exchange of ideas.

Among the measures proposed to promote "good governance", the TRC recommended that the government provide legal protection for whistleblowers and keep all procurement activities "scrupulously open and transparent."

No timeframe

However, the government's 17-page policy document, entitled "White Paper on the Truth and Reconciliation Project" failed to establish a timeline for implementing any of these measures.

In many cases it pointed to actions already taken, such as the establishment of a human rights commission, whose membership has still to be finalised.

Civil society groups had been eagerly awaiting the white paper, seeing it as a crucial first step towards government implementation of the TRC recommendations.

Many had advised the government on what should be done. But a coalition of citizens' groups expressed their dismay over the weak content of the document in an open letter to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah dated 1 July.

The white paper "does not reflect any serious engagement" with the TRC process, the letter said. "If this 'White Paper' is intended to represent Government's definitive response to the TRC report, then in civil society's view it is in need of substantial revision."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission warned in its report, finalised in October 2004, that the conditions of extreme poverty, lack of government services to the population and rampant corruption that gave rise to the civil war still existed in this small West African country.

In May, President Kabbah publicly pledged to release the government's implementation strategy in mid-July shortly after the publication of the paper version of the TRC's final report. It is already available on line.

But the government jumped ahead of that schedule and released the white paper quietly to local newspapers and a radio station on 27 June.

Gavin Simpson, Freetown-based consultant for the human rights watchdog group Witness in New York, said the white paper appeared to have been put together hastily.

Its release could be simply a sop to the international community which has been pushing for concrete steps to stamp out corruption and improve governance in Sierra Leone, he said.

"I think the government has put this out to appease the international community," Simpson said. "But by anyone's standard it's a document that is fundamentally lacking."

Witness, which uses video to expose human rights abuses, is working with local and national NGOs throughout Sierra Leone to circulate its film "Witness to Truth" - a graphic video version of the TRC report.

Starting point or final version?

Simpson said he was guardedly optimistic that the white paper would turn out to be a starting point for the discussion of reform and a springboard for civil society to have further input to the policy making process.

"I like to see it as a beginning not as an end," he said.

Marieke Wierda of the International Center for Transitional Justice said the government white paper was disappointing in that it did not show any genuine government commitment to the TRC's call for change.

"Progress is always going to be incremental in these kinds of complex conditions," she said. "No one expects a radical turn-around. But we can expect a serious commitment to change....Here we are seeing very much a business-as-usual mentality. It is an issue of political will."

She noted that the white paper does not commit the government to any concrete steps, particularly on improving governance and rooting out corruption. Nor does it appear open to public debate.

"This white paper is a peek into the mindset of the current government," she said, adding that "This government tends not to welcome stringent debate."

Sierra Leone's Attorney General Frederick Carew said on Wednesday the government remained open to civil groups' input on the government strategy.

"If civil society wants to give input they are free to submit it and the government would take that into consideration in implementing the TRC recommendations," he said.

In one statement that pointedly contradicts the TRC recommendations, the white paper rejects the abolition of the death penalty.

"Government wishes to state that Sierra Leone has just emerged from a decade-long armed conflict with attendant wanton killings of individuals and the commission of various atrocities, and as such does not accept the Commission's call for immediate abolition of death penalty for persons guilty of heinous crimes," it said.

It added that the government "will continue to monitor and review its present stance on this matter."

James-Allen and other human rights activists are particularly troubled by the government's lack of commitment on the TRC's recommendations on reparations for war victims, notably amputees and victims of sexual violence. The TRC calls for provisions such as free medical care and monthly allowances.

The white paper merely says the government "will use its best endeavours" to implement recommended reparation programmes, "taking into consideration the resources available" to Sierra Leone and assistance from the international community.

James-Allen said this is treating the recommendations in a very vague manner.

"Something as important as reparations to war victims should not be simply dependent on the availability of resources," he said.

Representatives of Sierra Leonean human rights groups are scheduled to meet on Wednesday with UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour, when she arrives in Sierra Leone as part of a West African tour that has included Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia.

After months of delays, copies of the final TRC report are expected to arrive in Freetown for public distribution next week.

[ENDS]

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