‘’Sierra Leone-COVID-19 State of Emergency should not be used to violate human rights’’ –Messeh Leone

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By Messeh Leone, Global Human Rights Defender, May 6 2020

Like the rest of the world, Sierra Leone is facing a dangerous crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of abating. The seemingly endless flow of dire headlines has overwhelmed people from all walks of life, triggering inherent survival mechanisms and leading people to prioritize their health and wellbeing. Due to the void created by the uncertainty and tension, state authorities may be motivated by political interests to consolidate power and use emergency laws to violate human rights.

Despite protests from citizens and human rights groups, the Sierra Leone Parliament voted to give President Julius Maada Bio the power to rule by decree for the duration of the crisis. The declaration of a state of emmergency is especially dire because the avenues for organisation, protest and civic engagement—all fundamental human rights—have already been curtailed by the lockdown, curfew and quarantine measures. In a state of emergency, human rights activism is subject to government controls. Already the government has been criticised for failing to take action to address existing and emerging human rights violations in the country. There are reports of casualties after a riot at Pademba Road Prison in Freetown where a COVID-19 case was earlier confirmed. Prisoners reportedly rioted, killing many people and setting the jail ablaze. There are also reports of mass arrests. In a specific and high profile case, the Sierra Leonean authorities are holding Dr Sylvia Blyden, a female activist, journalist and health advocate, in detention despite being held over the 72 hour legal limit provided by law. Dr Blyden has been held in detention now for 6 days. According to the Pipul Pikin Media Network, she was detained, following her arbitrary arrest on Friday, 1 May 2020, at 1:15pm (SL time), after being holed up in her home for several hours under an armed security barricade. Dr Blyden’s assistant, Hussain Muckson Sesay, who is a prominent child rights activist for the Children’s Forum Network, is also in detention without any credible explanation from the Police. The continued detention without charge is a flagrant disregard of the rule of law and an affront to justice by the Sierra Leone Police. Dr Blyden was reportedly detained after calling on the government of President Julius Maada Bio to take more appropriate measures to tackle Covid-19.

Government responses to the Coronavirus crisis have been regarded as disproportionate. Tensions are rising in the country and the virus is having a disproportionate impact on certain communities due to an increase in misinformation or disinformation, the targeting of vulnerable groups and individuals, and the risks of heavy handed security responses undermining the health response. Although the government has imposed curfew as one of the measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, the potential for aggressive implementation can result in human rights violations. Despotic officials on both ends of the political spectrum have grown stronger since the outbreak of the pandemic as people clamors for quick, decisive leadership across the world.

Rights groups, media, and political leaders have widely condemned the use of the state of emergency to violate human rights. The Sierra Leone police have a history of rights abuses, including during law enforcement operations, and the officers involved are rarely investigated or held to account. There is also a tendency for state authorities to manipulate the coronavirus threat to consolidate their own political power and to run roughshod over democracy and human rights. We don’t want to see a situation where the country is suddenly transformed from an already fragile democracy into a full-blown dictatorship.

The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has warned that the coronavirus pandemic must not be used as a pretext for authoritarian states to trample over individual human rights or repress the free flow of information, that what started as a public health emergency was rapidly turning into a human rights crisis. The UN Secretary-General called for national states of emergency to be proportionate and time limited, with a specific focus and duration. In a briefing paper on the pandemic, the UN pointed out that in some cases, under the pretext of fake news, journalists, doctors, healthcare workers and activists or members of the political opposition were being arrested. The UN report further notes that “the potential for abuse is high: what is justified during an emergency may become normalised once the crisis has passed.” Online surveillance and aggressive cyber policy are also on the increase. The report states that, “Sweeping efforts to eliminate misinformation or disinformation can result in purposeful or unintentional censorship that underpins trust.” The best solution, the UN Secretary-General said, is for governments to be open and transparent about their efforts to contain the virus, including by allowing opposition or civil society groups to scrutinise the executive actions online.

Most importantly, state of emergency measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 should not be used to violate human rights, including the right to life, freedom of speech and freedom of association, as guaranteed under the Sierra Leone Constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As COVID-19 is a threat to public health, the government is allowed to take more restrictive measures but these restrictions must have a clear legal basis, be necessary to protect public health, and be proportionate to this aim, and must not be applied in an arbitrary manner or discriminate against specific groups. The measures should be regularly reviewed by the government to check that they remain necessary and must not become permanent or normalised. Parliament must be empowered to review these measures and to ensure protection and promotion of human rights at all times.

The Constitution of Sierra Leone recognises the right to life. The Constitution also guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and movement, and prohibits torture at all times. Sierra Leone has ratified international treaties which guarantee these rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life”. States cannot derogate from their obligations under this provision, even “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation”.   The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) provides the right to liberty and security of person (Article 6). Any use of force by authorities must comply with the UN Basic Principles on the use of Force and Firearms. The security forces may use force only when strictly necessary to protect life.

Human rights, rule of law and democracy should guide the COVID-19 response and state authorities should ensure that any emergency measures are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory, have a specific focus and duration, and take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health. The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights recently urged states to take appropriate measures and ensure that restrictions on human rights under emergency measures are crafted carefully and implemented in a proportionate manner.

UN human rights experts have urged States to avoid overreach of security measures in their response to the coronavirus outbreak and have reminded governments that emergency powers should not be used to quash dissent. “While we recognize the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind States that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory,” the experts said. Their appeal echoes the recent call by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to put human rights first, at the centre of Coronavirus response.

The establishment of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), following 11 years of bitter civil conflict, was appropriate, necessary and highly significant for the healing of a traumatised nation. The report of the TRC highlighted the government corruption during the years leading up to the conflict, the desecration of the constitution, the perpetuation of injustice and the pillaging of the country’s wealth. The Commission called upon the Ministry of Justice, including judges and lawyers, to defend the rule of law (paragraph 176 of the TRC). The Commission’s findings challenge us, as a nation, to learn the past and to reinforce the belief that the past cannot, and must not, be forgotten. This is the time for the country to come together to promote a better and united sierra Leone. Everyone is needed to come on board and have a voice in the governance of the country, regardless of tribal and political affiliations.

About the Author:  

Messeh Leone was a child during the civil war in Sierra Leone and experienced firsthand the brutal impacts of the war. In 2003, he served as President of the Children’s Forum Network of Sierra Leone and chaired the input to the children’s version of the TRC report. He has worked for international institutions, including the Commonwealth, the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations.

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