Sierra Leone is party to numerous international and regional human rights treaties which may be relevant in the commercial context, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Chapter III of the Constitution concerns the “Recognition and Protection of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms of the Individual”.

Human rights concerns have been identified in a number of areas, including in relation to gender equality, rights relating to sexual orientation, labour rights and land acquisition along with sector-specific concerns such as mining conditions. Despite the fact that Parliament has twice unanimously passed the Safe Abortion Bill, a bill which would legalise abortion, the bill was not signed into law. At the time of writing there have been no further updates in respect of this bill.

However, steps have been taken to enhance human rights protection, with steady improvement being seen since the civil war ended in 2002, including through the establishment of the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission in 2004 with a mandate to protect and promote human rights across the country. The Commission is accredited by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and has been active in investigating human rights concerns. The Commission advises the GoSL on draft legislation which may impact human rights. It has also played an active role in the constitutional review process launched in July 2013. Individuals may report concerns of human rights violations directly to the Commission.

In 2013, following a public inquiry into human rights concerns, the Commission partnered with human rights institutions in Denmark and Ireland to develop Guidelines for Monitoring Human Rights and Business in Sierra Leone. The Guidelines are intended to be used by the GoSL, District Human Rights Commissions and civil society to promote respect for human rights in business activities. The Commission submitted the country’s eighth edition of the annual report to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in October 2015. In January 2016, the second cycle Universal Periodic Review took place at the 24th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The GoSL noted 31 of the recommendations provided during the review, including six in respect of LGBTI issues, 18 concerning Female Genital Mutilation and harmful traditional practices, four on the education of pregnant girls, and three regarding gender equality.

In 2018, GoSL has appointed five new commissioners to ensure gender and regional representation. The GoSL has reported an increasing number of complaints to the Commission which it considers indicative of increased trust in the Commission. The GoSL intends to identify a rights-based approach to business and is actively considering how it can promote and protect foreign investment consistent with human rights obligations through its policies and legal institutions. 

In addition, the National Commission for Social Action has been active in promoting the rights of those with disabilities in Sierra Leone, providing rehabilitation grants to over one thousand conflict victims, including amputees. Legislative reforms include the Persons with Disability Act 2011, which transposed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into domestic law; gender justice laws; and the Child Rights Act 2007. The first report on the status on implementation of the UN Convention is in the process of being finalised.

The GoSL is currently examining the work of the Constitutional Review Committee, which was launched in 2013 (supported by the UNDP) and concluded in January 2017. The cross-stakeholder Constitutional Review project aimed to identify weaknesses in the 1991 Constitution in order that it could be aligned with international human rights norms.

Frameworks like the UN Principles on Responsible Investment (UNPRI), together with other standards set out in soft law instruments such as the Equator Principles and IFC Performance Standards and the hard law frameworks provided in the EU’s Non-financial Reporting Directive and the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, are driving greater levels of responsible investing in developing economies. Some of the investors in Sierra Leone have published policies on sustainability and/or human rights which refer to alignment with these various international standards and others such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Such measures have also added to the complexity involved in environmental, social and governance (ESG) compliance, as the regulatory environment matures.

It is important to note that irrespective of the number of new rules adopted to combat corruption and promote human rights, it will be the degree to which those rules are applied and enforced which will determine success in these areas.