By John Baimba Sesay :
On the occasion of the presentation of the 2011 Human Rights Report by the National Human Rights Commission at State House President Koroma had this to say, “A culture of rights is taking hold, there are no political prisoners, no journalist has been incarcerated, no person has been executed under my government, and we are promoting the social rights of vulnerable women and children through the Free Health Care Initiative,”-President Ernest Bai Koroma (Source: http://www.salonereporter.com/?p=5370). So far, a lot of achievements have been scored by the government in the area of human right.
Now, let us look at the Office of the Ombudsman and free speech and expression as case studies in looking at how human right issues have been protected under President Koroma. The office itself came into being in Sierra Leone by the Ombudsman Act, 1997, of the Parliament of Sierra Leone. It draws its powers from Section 146 of the Constitution, and it is empowered to do “investigation” of “any action taken or omitted to be taken by or on behalf of any department or ministry of government; any statutory corporation or institutions of higher learning, set up entirely or partly out of public funds”. In short, all those in government who abuse power, and have their complaints filed in the Ombudsman’s office, will have to answer to this Office. New office spaces have been provided in Freetown, Bo, Makeni and Kenema, giving the office greater publicity. The new Ombudsman office is today housed in a prestigiously old United Nations headquarters in the heart of Freetown – on Siaka Stevens Street, opposite Electricity House, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Freetown. For almost seven years, prior to 2008, the Ombudsman in Sierra Leone was a renowned Freetown lawyer, but during his tenure, little or nothing was know about the relevance of the office.
When President Ernest Bai Koroma appointed a former Judge who was also former Speaker of the House of Parliament, Justice Edmund Cowan as Ombudsman, there was a herculean task of image laundering, and moving forward to educate the people about the essence of the office. During an interview with Newstime Africa in August 27, 2009, he spoke of the political support that the Koroma administration has been providing the office; “…the office has the support of the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, because this President is committed to making a significant positive difference in good governance during his term in office. It was the President’s goodwill that stimulated those variables which have enabled us to get this office, and to make the progress we have made so far. So yes, the political will is there. We have also been getting the support of the Justice Sector Development Project and other internationally-sponsored peace building organizations…” In fact within one year in office, Cowan received over a hundred complaints. Today, even as stated by the learned former High Court Judge, during the said interview three years ago, “people have …realizing that there is an Ombudsman office where they could come and make complaints.
Justice Cowan has always been optimistic about the successes of the office, when he spoke, then that “we are sure we are not going to get back to those (old) days. What we have done is to establish an office and secondly we have got the staff in place required to do the work. We have been going out to promote the image of the office and to give confidence to people that there is hope and that we can do the work. We have started communicating with the public, this was lacking and I think people have started responding in the sense that they now come to the office to complain. But really, it is a gradual process. The perception of people about this office is that it is a corrupt office and changing that perception is a gradual process. We are also trying to get support from institutions that we are to deal with, especially those institutions normally complained by the public. (http://www.newstimeafrica.com/archives/1883)
Another area of success is that dealing with freedom of expression and ensuring independent voices at every level. Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, guarantees right to communicate and it states that: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ (United Nations, 1997).This aspect of human right has been very practical today in Sierra Leone. Today, numerous independent newspapers circulate freely, and there are dozens of public and private radio and television outlets. The number of community radio stations has proliferated in recent years. The government of President Ernest Bai Koroma does not restrict internet access in the country. Discussions on a Right to Access Information Bill to guarantee freedom of information in Sierra Leone have been ongoing for over a decade now. ‘In 2009, President Ernest Bai Koroma and other government figures pledged their support for a draft law prepared by the Society for Democratic Initiatives, a local advocacy group, and largely endorsed by Article 19. In June 2010, after slightly weakening the draft law, Sierra Leone’s cabinet passed the bill, and in November the parliament gave it a first reading and referred it to a committee.’ (http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2011/sierra-leone).
There is also the Open Government Initiative of President Koroma, in a way of making provision for an independent and free voice for the citizenry of the country. The Open Government Initiative (OGI) has a focus of increasing accountability and transparency of the three branches of government (Executive, Parliament and Judiciary) by enhancing the visibility of these institutions, and fostering a two-way communications. It seeks to bring the government and the people into closer kinship by piloting direct/interpersonal and mass media communication to promote open government and dialogue within governance processes (http://www.sl.undp.org/opengovtintiative.htm). This so far has made provision wherein, government officials, head of government’s Ministries, Departments and Agencies give account to the people by providing a platform where they would brief citizens on what they have done and then people provided with the opportunity to ask questions. In addition to respecting the rights of journalists to freely practice their profession, the government also created the space for freedom of expression to thrive, allowing for independent voices everywhere. Government’s support for the Independence of the Human Right Commission has allowed it to improve its effectiveness resulting in its recent elevation to “A” status by the United Nations. The commission has maintained a third comprehensive annual state of human rights report and provided assistance to government that ensured successful reporting and participation in the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review.
Overall, “with the support of international partners, Sierra Leone has made progress in building its capacity for the promotion and protection of human rights. An active multi-party democracy has evolved and the enactment of crucial laws in the area of women and children rights and person with disabilities has improved the legal framework to protect vulnerable categories…” (http://mpwiis02-beta06.dfs.un.org/Default.aspx?tabid=4421)
It therefore suggests that with this progress having been made in the protection of human right issues in Sierra Leone, there is the greatest possibility of us making more progress with the reelection of President Koroma in November 17th.