Freedom in the World
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Sierra Leone received an upward trend arrow for progress on disarmament and a decline in human rights abuses.
Disarmament was well underway in Sierra Leone at the end of the year as preparations continued ahead of elections scheduled for May 2002. The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) had reached its full capacity of 17,500 troops as the largest peacekeeping operation in the world and was deployed throughout the countryside to collect weapons. By December, more than 36,000 of an estimated 40,000 fighters had been disarmed. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the wider deployment of UNAMSIL had created a more secure environment, improved freedom of movement, enabled the gradual return of refugees, and promoted economic resurgence in the provinces. Human rights abuses, including abduction, forced conscription, rape, mutilation, and summary execution continued throughout 2001, but they had diminished significantly compared with the previous year. Politicians, former combatants, and civil society representatives joined together in a conference during the year and approved a new electoral system for polls scheduled for May 2002.
Founded by Britain in 1787 as a haven for liberated slaves, Sierra Leone became independent in 1961. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched a guerrilla campaign from neighboring Liberia in 1991 to end 23 years of increasingly corrupt one-party rule by President Joseph Momoh. Power fell into the lap of Captain Valentine Strasser in 1992, when he and other junior officers attempted to confront Momoh about poor pay and working conditions at the front. Momoh fled the country. The Strasser regime hired South African soldiers from the security company Executive Outcomes to help win back key diamond areas. In January 1996, Brigadier Julius Maada-Bio quietly deposed Strasser. Elections proceeded despite military and rebel intimidation, and 60 percent of Sierra Leone's 1.6 million eligible voters cast ballots that eventually resulted in the election of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah as president.
The following year, Major Johnny Paul Koroma toppled the Kabbah government, established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and invited the RUF to join the junta. Nigerian-led West African troops, backed by logistical and intelligence support from the British company Sandline, restored President Kabbah to power in February 1998, but the country continued to be wracked by war. A peace agreement in July 1999 led to the beginning of disarmament, but the disarmament process stopped in May 2000 with the return to hostilities and the taking of about 500 peacekeepers as hostages. The hostage crisis prompted the arrival of hundreds of British troops, who were not part of the peacekeeping force, to help train government forces and act as a deterrent to any possible attack on Freetown. Disarmament resumed in May 2001.
Hostilities could resurface if the electoral process is not seen as transparent and credible. The proportional representation system under which parties were awarded seats in parliament on the basis of the percentage of votes they polled in various constituencies was replaced in 2001 with a direct voting system for legislators in each district. Delegates to a conference that drew up the new rules said proportional, majority-based elections were not feasible because a national census would have to be conducted, constituency boundaries would have to be redrawn, and refugees and internally displaced people would have to be resettled to their original homes.
Sierra Leone has vast resources of diamonds, but smuggling and war have turned it into one of the world's poorest countries. The economy in 2001, however, grew about 6 percent, up from 3.8 percent in 2000, because of relative peace. The UN Security Council in December 2001 agreed to extend the ban on imports of all rough diamonds from Sierra Leone because of continued illegal mining of diamonds whose sale has helped purchase weapons. The ban exempts diamond imports from Sierra Leone that carry proven certificates of origin from the government. The U.S. State Department in 2001 designated the RUF as a terrorist organization after reports had linked the group through diamond sales with the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Presidential and legislative elections in February and March 1996 were imperfect, but the most legitimate since independence. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's return to office after the AFRC's ouster reestablished representative government, although the legislative system, like most of the country's other institutions, is in disarray. Dozens of political parties have been formed, but most revolve around a personality and have little following.
The judiciary is active, but corruption and a lack of resources are impediments. Despite these obstacles, it has demonstrated independence, and a number of trials have been free and fair. There are often lengthy pretrial detentions in harsh conditions. The government released more than 70 prisoners during the year, including several members and leaders of the RUF. A special court for Sierra Leone has not yet been set up despite several appeals for additional funding. The court is to try persons deemed most responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. A truth and reconciliation commission is also to be established.
Human rights abuses, including abductions, maiming, rape, forced conscription, and extrajudicial killing, continue to be a problem in the countryside, although violations abated in 2001 with the wider deployment of peacekeepers. Among the most frequent violators were the RUF and the Civil Defense Forces, also known as the kamajors. A number of national and international nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups operate openly in Freetown.
Freedom of speech and of the press is guaranteed, but the government at times restricts these rights. Reporters are intimidated not only by the security forces, but also by the country's various armed factions. Several government and private radio and television stations broadcast. The UN sponsors a community radio project that also receives support from the ministries of information and health. Newspapers openly criticize the government and armed factions. Dozens of newspapers are printed in Freetown, but most are of poor quality and often carry sensational or undocumented stories. Sierra Leone's Independent Media Commission in 2001 approved 21 of 60 newspapers circulating in the capital.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice. The rights of freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed, and these rights are generally respected. Despite constitutionally guaranteed equal rights, women face extensive legal and de facto discrimination as well as limited access to education and formal sector jobs. Married women have fewer property rights than men, especially in rural areas, where customary law prevails. Female genital mutilation is widespread. Abuse of women, including rape, sexual assault, and sexual slavery, has escalated dramatically since the war began in 1991.
Workers have the right to join independent trade unions of their choice. About 60 percent of workers in urban areas, including government employees, are unionized. There is a legal framework for collective bargaining. Although the constitution prohibits forced labor, including that performed by children, rebel factions continued their practice of abducting civilians and forcing them to work as virtual slaves performing domestic duties and mining in diamond areas.