Arrest and detention of Poor Land Owners in Sierra Leone: International Rights Groups write President Bio

A group comprised of about 300 members across the globe have raised concerns and written a letter to the President of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio condemning the arrest and detention of land owners in Sahn Malen, Pujehun district, Southern Sierra Leone.

The letter was copied to fourteen groups and individuals including Mr. Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh, Vice President of the Republic of Sierra Leone and Ambassador Tom Vens, Representative of the EU Commission in Sierra Leone as well as Mr. Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

The content of the letter reads “we write to express our deep concern regarding ongoing and serious human rights violations against members of the Malen Affected Landowners and Users Association (MALOA) of the Sahn Malen Chiefdom in Pujehun District, Sierra Leone, in connection with industrial scale palm oil operations by Société Financière des caoutchoucs (Socfin Group)”.

The right groups cite credible reports, on Monday January 21, 2019 where members of a local indigenous group engaged in the traditional cultural practice of ‘Poro Society,’ a rite of passage initiation which reaffirms the customary ties that the communities have to their ancestral lands. Reportedly, the local Paramount Chief and the company alleged that the Poro Society was interfering with the operations of Socfin Group.

According to their letter, “the Resident Minister of Southern Region discouraged the practice, prompting members of the Poro Society to stage a demonstration to claim their right to carry out their cultural practices on their lands” and were “informed that military personnel that were deployed to protect palm oil plantations in the area confronted the demonstrators, resulting in the death of two civilians, raids of families in local communities and the seizure or destruction of their property. During these raids, 15 people were arrested and detained, including an independent member of parliament of that Constituency, the Honourable Shiaka Sama, who has championed the land rights of the area’s communities over time. We are greatly concerned about these human rights violations, which resulted in the initial displacement of more than 2,500 people, and the reprisals that local community leaders are facing, including alleged smear campaigns, intimidation and criminal charges”.

Read below other excerpts of the letter

“We understand that this recent incident is part of a wider land conflict between local communities, represented by MALOA, and Socfin Group, which has allegedly acquired 80% of the arable lands in the Sahn Malen Chiefdom since 2011. Allegedly, the agreement to transfer the above-mentioned lands to the company, which was brokered with a local Paramount Chief, was effected without consultation or the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of all of the landowners and residents in the affected communities. The failure to consult and obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the area’s indigenous people, allegations of coercion in the land transfer process, alleged improper land surveys and a reportedly inadequate compensation have all led to serious, and legitimate, grievances.

These troubling patterns and trends of human rights and environmental violations are not just limited to the local communities in the Sahn Malen Chiefdom, Sierra Leone. There are media and NGO reports documenting violations linked to Socfin Group in several Western African countries.

In this connection, we wish to recall that the Government of Sierra Leone has the obligation to promote, respect, protect and fulfil human rights in accordance with international standards and national laws. Specifically, Sierra Leone is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and, as such, is bound to uphold the following human rights obligations, among others: the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the rights to peaceful assembly and of association and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention. Sierra Leone is also party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and has thus undertaken the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate food. Both of the Covenants mentioned above also state that “in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”

The ICESCR also establishes the right to work, under just and favourable conditions, and the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts. Sierra Leone is also party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which, among other things, establishes an obligation to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment in order to ensure, on a basis of equality, the right to the same employment opportunities and to equal remuneration, including benefits, and to equal treatment in respect of work of equal value.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Sierra Leone is signatory, recognizes the indivisibility of all human rights. The African Charter recognizes the rights of the African peoples to development, underscores their right to freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources and prohibits the deprivation of these under all circumstances.

Additionally, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establishes the right of indigenous peoples to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used, and to free, prior and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands. The Declaration also recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.

We also recall the UN Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders, which establishes the obligations, among others, to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her actions to defend and promote human rights.

Notwithstanding the legal obligations outlined above, we understand that Socfin Group’s palm oil plantations in the Sahn Malen Chiefdom have resulted in serious violations of the right to food of impacted communities. Reportedly, after losing the land that they have traditionally used for their subsistence, many dispossessed people, including villagers, have been compelled to seek employment on the Socfin palm oil plantation in order to survive; allegedly under harsh conditions and with minimal compensation.

We understand that women have been particularly impacted by the plantations, as they are now required to walk much farther to collect firewood and water. Women also allegedly face discrimination in hiring, with most local employment opportunities being offered to men. Female workers employed by Socfin Group in the Sahn Malen Chiefdom reportedly earn less than male workers for the same jobs, when they are employed, and often suffer sexual harassment and gender-based violence at work.

We note, with concern, that community human rights defenders (male and female) who have raised concerns about the palm oil project have been targeted with violence, arbitrary detentions, defamation and efforts to criminalize their legitimate work to defend the internationally recognized human rights of the communities affected by the project.

ESCR-Net is concerned that Socfin Group has been exerting undue influence on the Government of Sierra Leone and its authorities, including through allegedly influencing the police and military, as well as through seemingly exerting pressure on the judiciary and parliament. For one, stripping member of parliament, Hon. Shiaka Sama, of his parliamentary immunity, presumably for his opposition to Socfin Group.

These seem to be various manifestations of corporate capture, exemplified in judicial interference and the manipulation of security services for the benefit and advancement of corporations and the private sector.

In light of the gravity of this situation, we respectfully call on the Government of Sierra Leone to take all necessary steps to:

  1. Secure the unconditional release of all MALOA members arrested and detained by the Sierra Leone Police in connection with the events of 21 January, and immediately drop all outstanding arrest warrants against members of the Malen communities, which have been filed in an apparent reprisal for their activities to defend and promote human rights. 

  2. Launch an independent and impartial investigation into the killings of the two community human rights defenders, identified in reports as Mohamed Ansuma and Mustapha. 

  3. Provide adequate protection for the members of the Malen communities and their advocates against threats, reprisals and harassment by members of the state security forces or individuals with ties to Socfin Group and protect human rights defenders working to defend land rights in Sierra Leone. Completely demilitarize Sahn Malen. 

  4. Take all possible steps to limit undue corporate influence over public processes and actors. including via effective legislative, policy and enforcement mechanisms which enable the state to safeguard the human rights of its population, regardless of any business interests at-stake. 

  5. Promote a model of development that upholds human rights and environmental sustainability, including the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent, and allows people to sustain their livelihoods and live in dignity. 

Finally, please inform us of any measures taken in this regard.

On behalf of ESCR-Net,

Read Full Letter

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