Monday, February 9, 2009

RIGHTS-SIERRA LEONE:Reparations Stretched Thin

"Eight years ago my husband threw his haversack on his back and bade us goodbye. My two kids and I came out of the house and watched him leave. Water was dripping from our eyes uncontrollably; it was as if we were already mourning his death. He was bound for the war front."

Fatmata Kallon, a tall, rail-thin woman in her early 40s is seated on the front porch of her shack at Sorie Town, located at the hill top in the west end of Freetown, a fast-growing settlement of tin houses, with no running water.

"About three weeks after he left, we were informed that he was killed in an ambush at the Bo-Kenema highway by the rebels. Osman Kallon, my husband had been the nerve centre of the family. Since his demise things have been hell for us."

Kallon is among the large group of women described as war widows - their total number is still unknown.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up in 2002 to investigate the causes of Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war, a brutal conflict during which all factions were accused of committing gross human rights violations.

The TRC specifically recognised the effects of violence on women and the family structure. War widows - in the words of the TRC's report, "women whose husbands were killed as a consequence of any abuse or violation and who, as a result, have become the primary breadwinners for their families" - such women were designated as a privileged categories for reparations, notes the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, Jamesina King.

The TRC recommended the provision of skills training and micro-credit schemes for these women, defined in its final report as to help equip and empower them to provide for their families.

But the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), the body that will be implementing the reparations, has no immediate plans to begin these projects.

"Because skills training and micro-credit schemes for these women need a lot of planning and the money that we have now will be insufficient to take this venture on board, when we have more funding we will consider that recommendation," the Reparations Program Manager, Amadu Bangura, told IPS.

NaCSA instead has chosen to give priority to the implementation of a housing project, providing housing to only three other categories affected by the war: adult war wounded, adult amputees and adult victims of sexual violence. The housing project was not a reparation recommendation by the TRC.

"I feel so deprived and the loss of my husband during the war will be more painful to me and my family if the reparations recommendations set out by TRC will not be followed strictly by NaCSA for whatever reasons," Kallon appealed.

Bangura maintains that the housing project is in line with the recommendations of the Reparations Steering Committee after analysing the TRC report and finding that 49 percent of victims called for the provision of housing.

He stated that when they did their assessment they found that out of the 960 amputees and war wounded registered by the Amputee and War wounded Association, 500 have already been provided with housing by international NGOs.

"We want to continue with what has been started and finish off the 460 beneficiaries that remain. We intend to start off with 50 houses for amputees and 25 for war-wounded beneficiaries," Bangura pointed out.

Bangura said that the whole reparations programme is expected to start next year, as soon as the verification process of beneficiaries is concluded. It is expected to last for six years.

Each house will cost $6,500 dollars, taken from the present reparations budget total of three million dollars.

"Housing is the best reparations and I support NaCSA to include housing," says Jusu Jarka, the chairman of an association of amputees and war wounded who stand to benefit from the housing project. Jarka is the only active representative of beneficiaries in the reparations committee.

"I agree that housing is very good, but if the TRC in their wisdom expressly did not recommend it, they must have taken into consideration many factors like limited budget for the reparations," said Jariatu Kamara, a war widow. "So I do not see any justification in providing housing for one set of people and excluding the skills training and micro credit schemes that were directly proposed for us in the report. It is unacceptable."

Jamesina King said that the TRC Report makes provisions for amendment of the reparations recommendations by the implementing body, but only with the unanimous consent of the members of the Advisory Board to the proposed amendment.

"The HRCSL was not aware that such directions had been followed before the housing decision was taken and at what level."

She told IPS that they have done a letter to NaCSA to request an explanation and justifications for making the amendments to the TRC reparation recommendation.

A total of 2.3 million dollars is expected to be expended on reparations for amputees, war wounded, sexually violated and children victims in the project's first year.

Amadu said that the Reparations Committee was expecting funding from the government which is still not forthcoming.

In addition, he said that the committee has developed a five-year strategic funding plan to attract international donors and if they have the funds they will implement all the TRC recommendations before the end of the six year Reparations Programme.

"We have suffered greatly during the war and up till now we are suffering. We are helplessly looking at NaCSA to help us get our lives back. Whatever decision they will be taking on reparations, we hope will be selfless and should be in the spirit of the TRC report that has made provision for us," Kallon pleaded.

The TRC Report stated that they were enjoined by statute to give special attention to the needs of women and girls because while the majority of victims were adult males, perpetrators singled out women and children for some of the most brutal violations of human rights recorded in any conflict.

The report states that "it is only when the legal and socio-political system treats women as equals to men, giving them full access to economic opportunities and enabling them to participate freely in both public and private life, that they will realize their full potential."

Friday, February 6, 2009

Successful Appeal Strengthens Case For Abolition

A court in Sierra Leone has overturned treason convictions for 11 men. It is the first successful appeal against a death penalty in that country, opening the possibility of an eventual end to capital punishment there.

"It was like a miracle, I could not believe it. We were all filled with emotions when the judge said that we were acquitted and discharged," said Hindolo Trye, one of those aquitted.

The charges - laid against 10 members of the former armed opposition groups, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and one civilian - related to an armed attack on the armory at Wellington barracks, on the outskirts of Freetown in January 2003, in an apparent attempt to overthrow the government of President Kabbah.

"The acquittal of the eleven condemned prisoners is phenomenal," said Brima Sheriff, the director of Amnesty International in Sierra Leone. "This is the very first time in the history of this country that condemned prisoners had won their appeal and released especially for the conviction of treason."

Sadly, Osho Williams, the lawyer and All Peoples' Congress member of parliament who represented the eleven convicted prisoners during their 2004 trial and subsequent appeal, died just a few days after winning this victory.

This overturning of a previous decisions by the court has highlighted a key argument against the death penalty - the fact that an error in judgment can never be corrected if the victims have lost their lives.

The Court of Appeal acquitted the ten for procedural lapses during their trial; the fact that the trial judge failed to analyse the evidence led by the prosecution and to relate same to the law; and the trial judge's failure to direct the jury adequately on the law relating to accomplices, and the danger of convicting on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice.

In Sierra Leone murder, aggravated robbery and treason are capital crimes.

However there have been no judicial executions since October 1998, when 24 AFRC members convicted of treason were publicly executed after a trial before a military court.

One of the key recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was established by the government in 2000 to create an impartial historical record of human rights abuses committed during the armed conflict and to provide a forum for victims and perpetrators to recount their experiences was enshrining the right to human dignity and abolishing the death penalty.

The TRC's report explicitly calls for the immediate repeal of laws authorising the death penalty, for a moratorium on all executions pending abolition, and for the government to commute all pending death sentences.

But the Constitutional Review Commission of Sierra Leone has recommended only that the death penalty be replaced by life imprisonment in all cases of treason or other crimes of political nature that do not directly result in the death of another person and be replaced by life imprisonment.

"This is not enough," said the Amnesty Director in Sierra Leone. "We are calling for full commitment by the government for a abolition of the death penalty and nothing less"

Meanwhile, on Nov. 20, Sierra Leone abstained from voting on a moratorium on the death penalty at the UN General Assembly. This abstention has been condemned by many rights activists in the country.

The country still has 13 prisoners - ten male and three female - on death row at the maximum-security Pademba Road Prison, according to prisons officials.

Mambu S. Feika , the director of Prison Watch - an organization that monitors all prisonS in Sierra Leone - said that the acquittal of the ten death row prisoners has brought not only faith in the justice system of the country but hope for the other 13 prisoners awaiting executions.

"The previous government of Tejan Kabbah has observed a moratorium on the death penalty. The Ernest Bai Koroma government has started on a good footing on the death penalty we sense willingness by this government to get rid of the death penalty in our statutes and these signs are good for the remaining 13 on death row."

The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Serry Kamal, pointed out that the president still reserves the decision to endorse the death penalty prescribed by the courts but that as the Minister of Justice, he will not recommend to the President to sign the execution order for any condemned Prisoner.

"Osho fought to save our lives it is a pity he had to loose his before he could see us live again, we hope that his party which is in power lives his dream to abolish the death penalty," Hindolo sighed.

The Abortion Dilemma—where would Sierra Leone go?

CONFUSED, frightened, tearful, a 15-year-old girl watches her boyfriend walk away in disgust. He called her stupid for getting pregnant. She thought they were in love.
A woman is filled with despair when she realizes that she is expecting her sixth child. Her husband is out of work, and the little ones go to bed hungry every night. How can they possibly care for another child?
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” explains a smartly dressed woman to her doctor. She has finally earned her Accounting degree and is about to begin her new career. Her husband is completely absorbed in his law practice. Where would they find time for a baby?
These people live worlds apart and face different dilemmas, but they choose the same solution: abortion.
The Debate
Abortion is one of the most explosive issues of the decade, igniting raging debates in political, social, medical, and theological fields. Around the world, pro-lifers march for the rights of the unborn. The pro-choice camp stands on the grounds of freedom and a woman’s right to decide. Crusaders battle freedom fighters in elections, in courtrooms, even in the streets.
Millions are caught in a tug-of-war, torn by the impassioned arguments of each side. The very terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” were carefully chosen to woo the undecided. In this age where freedom is idolized, who wouldn’t favor choice? But then again, who wouldn’t be for life?
This whole death-dealing tragedy is aptly described in Laurence H. Tribe’s book Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. “Many who can readily envision the concrete humanity of a fetus, who hold its picture high and weep, barely see the woman who carries it and her human plight. . . . Many others, who can readily envision the woman and her body, who cry out for her right to control her destiny, barely envision the fetus within that woman and do not imagine as real the life it might have been allowed to lead.”
While this moral war rages on, in many western Countries and some parts of Africa, Sierra Leone is calm as the silence of the lambs. Abortion had never been an issue in Political debates or has been discussed in Civil Society forums. Human Rights organizations including The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone had not grappled with the issue and its controversy. But it should be noted that unofficial figures of abortions puts it at 15-20 abortions a week in the country. This figure is huge and I think the country has to take a stance on whether abortion should be legalized or the existing abortion laws be enforced.

Abortion Laws in Sierra Leone
Under Sierra Leone law, The English Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 is still in effect. This Act prohibits the performance of all abortions and makes a person performing an abortion and a pregnant woman consenting to the performance of an abortion subject to imprisonment. A law introduced in 1988 to regulate the practice of pharmacy (Pharmacy and Drugs Act of 1988) also prohibits any advertisement of drugs or services that could be used to terminate or influence the course of a human pregnancy.

Nonetheless, under general criminal law principles of necessity an abortion can be performed to save the life of the pregnant woman. In addition, Sierra Leone, like many Commonwealth countries whose legal systems are based on English common law, follows the holding of the 1938 English Rex v. Bourne decision in determining whether an abortion performed for health reasons is lawful. In the Rex v. Bourne decision, a physician was acquitted of the offence of performing an abortion in the case of a woman who had been raped. The court ruled that the abortion was lawful because it had been performed to prevent the woman from becoming “a physical and mental wreck”, thus setting a precedent for future abortion cases performed on the grounds of preserving the pregnant woman’s physical and mental health.

Facing the issues
I think Sierra Leone should join the debate and determine as a state, what side they should take on the issue of abortion: to what extent should they as a government be allowed to interfere with a woman's reproduction? This is a major issue in a number of countries. A parallel question also runs through the debate over legalized abortion: to what extent is the right to life a basic human right that the state has an interest in protecting?

As a nation we still have to come to grips with some of the most significant and common issues treated in the abortion debate which are:
The beginning of personhood (sometimes phrased ambiguously as "the beginning of life"): When is the embryo or fetus considered a person?
Universal human rights: Is aborting a zygote, embryo, or fetus a violation of human rights? What about fetuses with genetic disabilities? On the other hand, is not allowing a woman to terminate her unwanted pregnancy a violation of the woman's human rights?
Circumstances of conception: How important are the circumstances of conception to the ultimate fate of the embryo or fetus? Does pregnancy induced by rape or incest, or by poor or non-existent birth control use, change the permissibility of abortion?
Alternatives to abortion: Is adoption a viable and fair alternative to abortion? Are there resources available to aid mothers who are unprepared for parenthood, but who may wish to keep their child?
Limit of government authority: Are laws controlling abortion violations of privacy and/or other personal liberty rights?

In a nut shell, where does Sierra Leone stand on this emotional issue? How would we answer these key questions: Is it a woman’s fundamental right to decide? Is an abortion justified under any circumstances? When does life begin?

Sierra Leone to take a Position
Many volleys fired in this conflict deal with the question of when life begins. Few will argue the point that the fertilized egg cell is living. The question is, living as what? Mere tissue? Or is it human? Is an acorn an oak tree? Then, is a fetus a person? Does it have civil rights? The wrangling over words is endless. How ironic that in one and the same hospital, doctors may work valiantly to save the life of a premature baby and yet end the life of a fetus of the same age! The law may allow them to kill a baby inside the womb, but it’s murder if the baby is outside the womb.
There are many questions that need answers to in the issue of Abortion in this country and this is the finest time we have to banter with these questions because we are going through a constitutional review. Human Rights organizations, The Human Right Commission and the government should begin to take a stance –if the stance is to enforce the English Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 and the Pharmacy and Drugs Act of 1988 or pitch tent with Reproductive Rights activists, there has to be a clear cut and defined position of the government and the state.

However as we are looking at what to do with the issue of Abortion, we should also note that with the prevailing free access to abortion, many have felt no pressing need to guard against unwanted conception. They prefer to use abortion as a safety net to do away with any “accidents” that come along.
Statistics show that the age of puberty has dropped in this century. Hence, younger children are capable of childbearing. Are they taught the weighty responsibility that accompanies that privilege? The average Sierra Leonean loses his or her virginity by age 12. One third of married men and women are carrying on an affair or has done so in the past. Abortion finds ready clients among the promiscuous. The legalizing of abortion may make the practice somewhat safer medically and address the issue of reproductive rights but what about that unwanted piece of tissue a growing, thriving life, complete with its own set of chromosomes. Like a prophetic autobiography, it tells the detailed story of a unique individual in the making. According to renowned research professor of fetology A. W. Liley explains: “Biologically, at no stage can we subscribe to the view that the foetus is a mere appendage of the mother. Genetically, mother and baby are separate individuals from conception.” So with abortion would we not be taking the life of another Human being, would such laws legalizing abortion not tantamount to the state violation of the fundamental human Right to life? We have to chose.