Sierra Leone: The power of public inquiries to drive change on torture 

 

 

While prohibited under the nation’s constitution, there is no law in Sierra Leone that makes torture a specific and punishable crime. In recent years, many individuals have come to the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) to lodge complaints of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of police and military officials. But with no clear legal recourse, their hopes of securing justice and accountability have been limited. It was a situation the Commission was determined to change by putting this highly sensitive issue in the public spotlight, as Vice Chairperson Victor Idrissa Lansana explained at the 14th International Conference of NHRIs. 

 

What are the priority areas for the Commission in your efforts to prevent and respond to torture and ill-treatment? 

Our priority is to work with the victims. We have a very serious problem in the country because we don’t have specific legislation that criminalises torture and yet citizens come to us to lodge a complaint. We do investigations and we ensure that the victims are protected. However, we decided that the best way to address this gap in accountability was to hold a public inquiry. We went across the country and we held public hearings. Even the military, they came before us and we were able to examine them. In some places where we went, the police were able to show up and participate. We believe that, as the national human rights institution, our rule is not only to monitor the human rights situation, but to take our findings and ensure that those who are responsible are held accountable for their actions.

What was the response to the Commission’s decision to hold a public inquiry on torture and ill-treatment?  

It was very difficult at the time. Before we started the inquiry, we had to engage with different stakeholders, including the police, the military and even the President. We wanted them to understand that the inquiry was about accountability. It was not to be a witch hunt, because we knew the police would resist such a move. We engaged with them to explain why they should make themselves available and give their buy-in. We wanted to assure them that the purpose of the inquiry was not to go after them, but to ensure that people are safe. It was to ensure that as institutions of the State, they are responsible to protect life and property, that they are accountable to the people for that, and that the people demand it. 

What outcomes do you hope to achieve through the public inquiry?  

The primary focus of the inquiry is protection. That is the first thing: to ensure that there is no recurrence of torture, or at least there is a minimisation of torture in our country. It is also about law reform as our Constitution is currently the only law in the country that prohibits torture. We believe that this inquiry can encourage duty bearers to ensure that there is separate and specific legislation, an Act of Parliament, to criminalise torture. We also wanted to ensure that there is an understanding among rights holders and duty bearers alike that torture is real, that torture is in our backyard, and that we must take collective efforts to address it.  

What relationships do you need to establish and strengthen to make progress for the reforms and protections you want to deliver? 

As the NHRI, working between government and the people is always challenging. You must strike a very fine balance to ensure that you are able to get the attention and support of government. When you have the political will and backing of government, you are better able to do what you have to do, based on your mandate. And what we have to do is to get our recommendations implemented. We have to engage the highest authority in the land, the President, in this discussion. Once we are ready with the inquiry report, we will go back to the President and present the report to him officially. We will also urge the relevant duty-bearers to commit themselves to implementing the report’s recommendations. 

Through this public inquiry, and through your broader human rights work, what lessons have you learned that you could share with other NHRIs? 

We have learned how important it is to have continuous engagement with our stakeholders. National human rights institutions are problem-solving institutions. And how do you solve a problem? By engaging continuously with people to build their understand about what you are doing and why, and then ensure you have their buy-in. Many times, for instance, when you engage with State authorities, they will ask you, ‘Where does that obligation come from?’. They are unaware that their State has gone to the international stage and signed up to these human rights conventions.  

It is also important to understand that engagement is not a one-off event; it is a process. It should be continuous. You can engage people in public education. You can people engage people in roundtable discussions. This regular dialogue helps people understand the nitty-gritty of your mandate, what you stand for, and their own responsibility as duty-bearers, so together we can build communities where human rights are entrenched and respected in practice.