Sierra Leone is a constitutional republic with a directly elected president and a unicameral legislature. In March 2018 the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio, won the presidential elections. Bio defeated Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC) party by a narrow margin. In January 2018 parliamentary elections, the APC won a plurality of the seats. Following a High Court ruling in May and by-elections, the SLPP maintained a majority with 59 seats, and the APC held 57 seats. Observers found these elections to be largely free and fair.
The Sierra Leone Police (SLP), which reports to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for law enforcement and maintaining security within the country. The Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities to assist police upon request in extraordinary circumstances. The RSLAF reports to the Ministry of Defense and National Security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; criminal libel laws; official corruption; trafficking in persons; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and child labor.
The government took some steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses, but impunity persisted.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, but there were exceptions.
Freedom of Expression: Government officials used criminal slander provisions of the law to impede witness testimony in court cases, including anticorruption matters, and to target persons making statements that the government considered to be against the national interest. While there is no hate speech law, at times authorities used hate speech as a legal justification for restricting freedom of speech.
The HRCSL and Amnesty International reported no arrests or detentions in relation to freedom of expression.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Most registered newspapers were independent, although several were associated with political parties. Newspapers openly and routinely criticized the government and its officials as well as opposition parties. While independent broadcast media generally operated without restriction, there were exceptions. International media could operate freely but were required to register with the Ministry of Information and Communications and the government-funded Independent Media Commission to obtain a license. Acting beyond its mandate, the National Telecommunications Commission of Sierra Leone instructed all community radio stations to register as commercial stations, which requires the payment of a license fee. According to a media rights NGO, the fee requirement would force many stations, particularly in rural areas, to shut down.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports authorities used violence and harassment against journalists. In September presidential bodyguards physically assaulted two female journalists reporting on a sporting event at the national stadium, where President Bio was in attendance. The presidential guards reportedly threatened to shoot the journalists, and one of them was hospitalized. In October an investigative committee composed of civil society, media, and government officials recommended the removal of one presidential guard from the force, and the government complied. In October two opposition party members, including a former mayor of Freetown, were arrested and charged with the 2018 murder of journalist Ibrahim Samura (see also section 1.a.).
Libel/Slander Laws: The law punishes defamatory and seditious libel with imprisonment of up to three years. In September the cabinet voted to repeal the criminal libel law, but as of November, parliament had not approved the repeal. According to the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, during the year at least eight journalists were arrested under criminal libel law on allegations of defamation and libel.
In January police arrested and detained for two days the editor of Nightwatch newspaper, Emmanuel Thorli, for defamatory libel and released him on bail. Police investigators reportedly pressured the journalist to disclose the source of an article about the issuance of diplomatic passports to 300 relatives of President Bio.
On November 3, a comedian was arrested and charged under criminal libel law for allegedly defaming President Bio.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected the right of freedom of association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. On February 19, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security indefinitely suspended all overseas labor recruitment. Minister Edward King indicated that the rationale for this ban was to discourage trafficking in persons.
In-country Movement: There were reports that police officers operating security roadblocks nationwide as part of routine security checks often extorted money from motorists. The SLP banned unauthorized vehicular movement during an August 24 parliamentary by-election. All political parties, including the main opposition APC party, welcomed the restriction. The government continued to enforce a ban on civilian individuals and vehicular movement on the first Saturday of each month in order to support a nationwide cleaning exercise. This ban interfered with a religious group’s right to assemble for Saturday morning prayers.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR worked with government authorities to develop standard operating procedures for refugee status determination.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. During the year there were fewer reports of government corruption compared with 2018.
Corruption: The Anticorruption Commission (ACC) indicted and charged more than 33 persons, convicted 16 individuals, and recovered more than 17.8 billion leones ($1.97 million) from corrupt government officials. For example, in September the ACC indicted the former executive director of the Sierra Leone Roads Safety Authority and two other officials for defrauding the state of 2.1 billion leones ($233,000).
During the year a survey by Transparency International found that 52 percent of the residents of the country had paid a bribe for public services, with the highest rate of bribery for health services. In Transparency International’s previous 2015 survey, 41 percent reported paying bribes.
In May the judiciary assigned five high court justices to a new Anti-Corruption Court to deal with corruption cases brought by the ACC. During the year these judges presided over anticorruption cases but did not sit as a separate court. In October parliament passed into law the Anti-Corruption Amendment Act of 2019, which increased penalties for corruption and provided the ACC with alternative powers to prosecution, including out-of-court settlements to recoup stolen monies.
As in previous years, human rights groups expressed concern that police corruption remained a serious problem. Some police and guards exacted bribes at checkpoints, falsely charged motorists with violations, impounded vehicles to extort money, and accepted bribes from suspects to drop charges or to arrest their rivals and charge them with crimes. In exchange for kickbacks, police reportedly arrested persons for civil disputes, such as alleged breach of contract or failure to satisfy a debt.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officers, their spouses, and their children to declare their assets and liabilities within three months of assuming office, and according to the ACC, officials largely complied. The Amended Anti-Corruption Act further requires public officials to declare their assets no later than three months after the end of their employment.
The law also mandates disclosure of assets by government ministers and members of parliament. The ACC is empowered to verify asset disclosures and may publish in media the names of those who refuse to disclose and petition courts to compel disclosure. The particulars of individual declarations were not available to the public without a court order.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to the views of local and international NGOs and generally acknowledged the problems presented. The government, including security forces, generally responded to human rights concerns raised by the HRCSL but was at times slow to support the HRCSL or implement its recommendations.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Parliamentary Human Rights Committee operated without government or party interference. It focused on keeping human rights matters on the parliamentary agenda, paving the way for the passage of amended laws and ratification of international conventions and doing public outreach. Separately, the HRCSL, modeled in accord with the UN Paris Principles, monitored and investigated human rights abuses.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law allows workers in both the public and private sectors to join independent unions of their choice without prior authorization, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes, but it prohibits police and members of the armed services from joining unions or engaging in strike actions. The International Trade Union Confederation raised concerns about onerous union registration requirements as well as administrative means of dissolving unions without cause. The law allows workers to organize but does not prohibit discrimination against union members or prohibit employer interference in the establishment of unions. The government may require that workers provide written notice to police of an intent to strike at least 21 days before the planned strike. The law prohibits workers at certain specified public utilities from going on strike. Labor union officials, however, pointed out that public utility workers frequently went on strike (and were in fact among those union employees most likely to strike), the legal prohibition notwithstanding.
The government generally protected the right to bargain collectively. Collective bargaining was widespread in the formal sector, and most enterprises were covered by collective bargaining agreements on wages and working conditions. Although the law protects collective bargaining activity, the law required that it must take place in trade group negotiating councils, each of which must have an equal number of employer and worker representatives. There were no other limits on the scope of collective bargaining or legal exclusions of other particular groups of workers from legal protections.
While labor unions reported that the government generally protected the right of workers in the private sector to form or join unions, the government has not enforced applicable law through regulatory or judicial action.
The government generally respected freedom of association. All unions were independent of political parties and the government. In some cases, however, such as the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union, the union and government had a close working relationship.
In December 2018 the Sierra Leone Labor Congress (SLLC), the umbrella body of labor unions, claimed government interference after an election for a union affiliate was disrupted and eight union leaders and members were arrested and detained. The vice president of the SLLC and the president of the National Commercial Motor Bike Riders Union were among those arrested. The SLLC met with President Bio, and the detained individuals were eventually released after protests.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The constitution prohibits all forms of forced and compulsory labor, including by children. Penalties for both sex and labor trafficking include fines and imprisonment, but enforcement was insufficient to deter violations. By law individual chiefs may impose forced labor (compulsory cultivation) as punishment. The government stated to the International Labor Organization (ILO) that this provision is unconstitutional and unenforceable, but sporadic incidences of its use have been reported in previous years. Chiefs also required villagers to contribute to the improvement of common areas. There is no penalty for noncompliance.
The government did not effectively enforce antitrafficking in persons law, was hindered by judicial inefficiencies and procedural delays, and has not convicted a trafficker since 2011.
Men, women, and child victims of forced labor originated largely from rural provinces within the country and were recruited to urban areas for artisanal and granite mining, petty trading, rock breaking, domestic servitude, and begging (see also section 7.c. and section 6, Sexual Exploitation of Children). The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs reported it was aware of trafficking, domestic service, mining, or other activities, but it had no specific data on these forms of forced or compulsory labor.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit or criminalize all of the worst forms of child labor. There is no law prohibiting the use, procurement, or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs. The law limits child labor, allowing light work, the conditions of which are not adequately defined by the law, at age 13, full-time nonhazardous work at 15, and hazardous work at 18. The law states that children younger than age 13 should not be employed in any capacity. Provided they have finished schooling, children age 15 may be apprenticed and employed full time in nonhazardous work. A government policy, however, continued to limit girls who are pregnant from attending public school, making them more vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor. The law also proscribes work by any child younger than age 18 between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. While the law does not stipulate specific conditions of work, such as health and safety standards, it prohibits children younger than age 18 from being engaged in hazardous work, which the law defines as work that poses a danger to the health, safety, and “morals” of a person, including going to sea; mining and quarrying; porterage of heavy loads; chemicals manufacturing; work in places where machines are used; and work in places such as bars, hotels, and places of entertainment where a child may be exposed to “immoral behavior.” The prohibitions on hazardous work for children, including quarrying and sand mining, do not adequately cover the sectors where child labor is known to occur.
In remote villages, children were forced to carry heavy loads as porters, which contributed to stunted growth and development. There were reports that children whose parents sent them to friends or relatives in urban areas for education were forced to work on the street, where they were involved in street vending, stealing, and begging.
In September the Ministry of Labor and Social Security in collaboration with an international organization trained five labor officers. Additionally, an international donor agency provided training for labor inspectors to monitor child labor. The government did not effectively enforce applicable child labor-related law, in part due to lack of funding and limited numbers of labor inspectors in areas where child labor was prevalent. The legal penalty for employing children in hazardous work or for violating age restrictions was not sufficient to deter violations.
Child labor remained a widespread problem, and enforcement of child labor law was weak. The ILO reported 72 percent of children were engaged in some form of work for money, noting in particular child labor in the mining industry. Children were on the streets selling water, groundnuts, cucumbers, and other items. Children engaged in exploitive labor activities, including petty trading, carrying heavy loads, breaking rocks, harvesting sand, begging, diamond mining, deep-sea fishing, agriculture (production of coffee, cocoa, and palm oil), domestic work, commercial sex, scavenging for scrap metal and other recyclables, and other age-inappropriate forms of labor under hazardous conditions. Larger companies enforced strict rules against child labor, but it remained a pressing problem in small-scale informal artisanal diamond and gold mining.
As in previous years, many children worked alongside parents or relatives and abandoned educational or vocational training. In rural areas children worked seasonally on family subsistence farms. Children also routinely assisted in family businesses and worked as petty vendors. There were reports that adults asked orphanages for children to work as household help. Because the adult unemployment rate remained high, few children were involved in the industrial sector or elsewhere in the formal economy.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits most discrimination with respect to employment and occupation. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, national origin or citizenship, social origin, age, language, HIV status or that of other communicable diseases, sexual orientation, or gender identity. NGOs at times expressed concerns that discrimination appeared to occur based on sex, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity with respect to employment and occupation.
In July 2018 the government launched the National Labor Migration Policy that aims to protect both migrants’ rights in the country and the rights of Sierra Leoneans working abroad.
As of September there was no information available on whether the government enforced the applicable provisions of the law regarding combating discrimination at workplaces. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
There is a national minimum wage, but it falls below the basic poverty line in the country. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security is responsible for enforcing labor law, including the minimum wage, but the number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance, and the penalties for noncompliance were insufficient to deter violations.
Although not stipulated by law, the customary workweek was 40 hours (60 hours for security personnel). There is no statutory definition of overtime wages to be paid if an employee’s work hours exceed 40. There is no prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime nor a requirement for paid leave or holidays.
A union may make a formal complaint about a hazardous working condition; if the complaint is rejected, the union may issue a 21-day strike notice. The law also requires employers to provide protective clothing and safety devices to employees whose work involves “risk of personal safety or potential health hazard.” The law protects both foreign and domestic workers. The law does not provide workers with the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and the government took no steps to protect employees who so acted.
The occupational safety and health (OSH) regulations were outdated and remained under review by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. The government did not effectively enforce these standards in all sectors. Although the responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with an OSH expert and not the worker, the small number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance.
According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, labor law and standards continued to be violated primarily due to lack of resources, corruption, and lack of enforcement, rather than due to the deterrent effect, or lack thereof, of the penalties. Minimum wage compliance was particularly difficult to monitor in the informal sector.
Violations of wage, overtime, and OSH standards were most frequent within the artisanal diamond-mining sector. Violations were common in the case of street vendors and market-stall workers, rock crushers, and day laborers, many of whom came to Freetown from elsewhere in the country to seek employment and were vulnerable to exploitation. There were numerous complaints of unpaid wages and lack of attention to injuries sustained on the job, but victims often did not know where to turn for recourse and as a result their complaints went unresolved.