2001 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 4.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 4

Ratings Change

Sierra Leone's political rights rating changed from 3 to 4 because those rights are barely exercised beyond the capital, with most of the countryside occupied by rebel forces.


Sierra Leone's tattered 1999 peace accord was resurrected in November 2000, which set the stage for the eventual deployment of United Nations peacekeepers throughout the countryside, including into sensitive diamond areas. However, deep mistrust of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) lingers. Its leader, Foday Sankoh, was captured by peacekeepers in May after more than 500 UN troops had been abducted and it appeared as if the country could go back to full-scale war. Sankoh reportedly has been replaced by another commander, but the RUF is divided and continues to carry out atrocities and buy weapons from neighboring Liberia, according to a UN report released in December. Sankoh could face war crimes charges now that the Special Court for Sierra Leone is being organized to address atrocities committed during the country's nearly decade-long war. Human rights abuses, including abduction, forced conscription, rape, mutilation, and summary execution continued throughout the countryside during the year.

Founded by Britain in 1787 as a haven for liberated slaves, Sierra Leone became independent in 1961. The 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. In a second-round runoff vote in March 1996, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, of the Sierra Leone People's Party, defeated John Karefa-Smart of the United National People's Party.

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. Six months later, a peace agreement was signed between the government and the RUF.

The nearly 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, already the world's largest, has been beset by infighting and a limited mandate. The hostage crisis prompted the arrival of hundreds of British troops, who are not part of the peacekeeping force, to help train government forces and act as a deterrent to any possible attack on Freetown. In September, fighters from the rogue faction known as the West Side Boys held seven troops, including six British soldiers and one Sierra Leonean soldier, hostage. British troops stormed the camp and rescued the hostages, leading to the demise of the West Side Boys. In December, Britain announced that 300 Gurkha soldiers were to help train government troops.

Sierra Leone is potentially one of Africa's richest nations because of its vast diamond resources. However, smuggling and war have turned the country into one of the world's poorest. An international embargo imposed on uncertified Sierra Leonean diamonds has so far had little impact in bringing the war to an end. The country's economy relies heavily on foreign aid.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Presidential and legislative elections in February and March 1996 were imperfect, but the most legitimate since independence. President 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 RUF is now recognized as a legal political party, and its members will be allowed to contest elections.

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. Controversy surrounds the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which would try suspects under international and Sierra Leonean law. Many children have been abducted and forced to commit abuses during the war, and human rights groups are urging that fighters who had a leadership role be forced to take greater responsibility.

Human rights abuses, including abductions, maiming, rape, forced conscriptions, and extrajudicial killings, continue to be a widespread problem in the countryside. Human Rights Watch reported in November 2000 that the RUF and armed factions fighting on behalf of the government were responsible for ongoing atrocities against civilians. A number of national and international nongovernmental organizations 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 also began radio broadcasting during the year, disseminating information on humanitarian and peace issues. Dozens of newspapers are printed in Freetown, but most are of poor quality and often carry sensational or undocumented stories. Newspapers openly criticize the government and armed factions.

Fewer journalists were killed in Sierra Leone in 2000 than in 1999, when ten reporters were killed, but the country remained a dangerous place for reporters. Three journalists were killed in 2000, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international media watchdog. Kurt Schork, with Reuters news agency, and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, of the Associated Press, were killed by rebels in an ambush outside Freetown in May. Two other Reuters journalists were wounded. Saoman Conteh, of the independent weekly New Tablet, was shot and killed by RUF fighters during a demonstration in May outside Foday Sankoh's home in Freetown.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice by the government. The rights of freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed, and these rights are generally respected in practice. A demonstration against Sankoh in May, however, was violently suppressed by RUF fighters. At least 19 people were killed.

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. No law prohibits retribution against strikers. 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.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.