Saturday, February 10, 2007

Debt relief: a Panacea for Sierra Leone?

In January of this year, the Paris Club of creditor nations forgave $218 million of Sierra Leone’s external debt.  The move followed the decision at the end of 2006 by the World Bank and IMF to slash that debt by $1.6 billion.

These actions freed funds that had been earmarked for debt servicing for more productive uses including, presumably, the enactment by the government of the recommendations of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  But will that actually happen?  The likelihood is that it will not, since implementation of most of the major recommendations requires not so much additional financial resources as it does political will, which remains in very short supply.

The Sierra Leone TRC set a precedent as the first truth commission to actually require the government to implement its recommendations.  The recommendations sought not only to repair the damage that had been inflicted upon victims, but also to address the long-term causes of the conflict and thereby prevent its reoccurrence. 

What has the government so far done to implement the recommendations? Next to nothing, say the critics, despite the fact that the TRC published its final report, Witness to Truth: Report of the Sierra Leone Truth & Reconciliation Commission, in October 2004. Eight months later, the government responded to the TRC’s one hundred plus pages of recommendations with a brief twelve-page White Paper that was roundly condemned by civil society groups as inadequate.  The government’s response served to confirm widespread fears that despite the legal requirement, that it was not committed to implementing the necessary reforms.

The TRC report listed numerous recommendations for political reforms centering on protecting human rights, promoting good governance, and fighting corruption.   It concluded that decades of neglect in these areas were the major antecedents of the war, and that it was crucial to address these root causes that led to the conflict in the first place.   However, the government has either ignored or outright rejected these recommendations. 

A key recommendation was that a Human Rights Committee be established to monitor the government’s implementation of the reforms.    Although the government was required to establish the committee within ninety days after receiving the report, there was still no committee when the White Paper was released, even though Parliament had passed the enabling legislation.  It was only in October 2006 – some two years later – that the commissioners were finally appointed.    The feeling among local NGOs is that the government was using the long drawn out process of committee member selection as an excuse to delay implementing the TRC recommendations.

Aware that the denial of a meaningful voice in national life to Sierra Leone’s youth had fueled the rebel movements, the TRC recommended that at least 10% of candidates for public office be young people between the ages of 18 and 35.  It also mandated the establishment of a National Youth Commission.   In its White Paper, the government stated that it was “working towards” establishing such a commission, but a year and a half later there still is no youth commission, nor is there a quota for youth candidates for the upcoming elections scheduled for July 2007.

The government explicitly rejected the TRC’s recommendations to abolish the death penalty, which the TRC had argued was used capriciously against political opponents and was inconsistent with the promotion of a human rights culture.  Instead, the government has sentenced 22 suspects to death in the post-TRC period.  In December 2006, President Kabbah announced that although the death penalty would no longer be carried out – at least under his administration, which will end in July– it will nevertheless be retained to serve as a deterrent.    

The government also rejected the TRC’s recommendation to subject the president’s use of emergency powers to judicial review.  Presidents have enjoyed wide latitude in using emergency powers to quell dissent and have exercised this power to move against political opponents.  Responding to the TRC’s condemnation of arbitrary detention, the government denied that there were any arbitrarily incarcerated persons (though this is disputed by human rights organizations).  It likewise failed to implement the recommendation to protect free speech by repealing the laws of criminal libel and sedition, which have historically been used to curb criticism of the government

Fighting corruption was high on the TRC’s list of recommendations, since corruption was highlighted in the report as the major cause of the war.   The dissatisfaction of junior officers who witnessed the use of public resources by high-level officials for their own private use had led to two coups during the 1990s, both in the name of rooting out corruption.   Corruption not only caused the war, it helped to keep it going as soldiers on both sides – pro-government and rebels — were able to divert public resources (including diamond revenues) to sustain the war effort.

The TRC urged the government to intensify the campaign against corruption, bribery, and nepotism, starting at the top.  It called upon the government to require the disclosure of all government officials’ assets.  Since plundering of diamond revenues had been rampant, it urged the government to examine the mineral licenses of relatives of public officials.  It recommended that all public funding to the provinces be publicized to ensure transparency and honesty.  An imperative recommendation was to amend laws to prevent secrecy and confidentiality provisions from stopping the exposure of corruption.   The TRC called upon the government to initiate a freedom of information act which would help journalists to expose corrupt practices.  To date none of these recommendations have been implemented.

While the TRC acknowledged that the government’s Anti-Corruption Commission was a good first step, it insisted that the ACC be empowered to pursue its own prosecutions apart from the attorney general, in order to be free from political pressure.  Instead, observers point to the fact that only 10% of suspects have been charged by the ACC, none of whom are high level officials.  Most believe that corruption is simply not being taken seriously by the government. In fact, the White Paper said very little about corruption, even though most Sierra Leoneans regard this issue as the most significant challenge facing the country.  Regrettably, few steps have been taken to stymie the culture of corruption.

To be sure, the new availability of financial resources created by debt forgiveness could give the TRC’s recommendations for reparations a badly needed jump-start.  The White Paper stated that the government “accepts in principle” the findings on reparations and will implement these “subject to the means available.” Paying for health, pension, education, and skills-training programs for amputees, the war-wounded, and victims of sexual violence is daunting for a country consistently ranked as the poorest in the world and whose decade-long civil war devastated the economy.  Still, the government waited two years after the TRC’s report before announcing the establishment of the mandated Special Fund for War Victims, and even then funded it with a modest outlay of only $100,000.  The general impression remains that reparations are not high on the list of government priorities.

What, then, does debt forgiveness mean for the implementation of the TRC’s recommendations?  If the reason for the failure to undertake reforms has been a lack of funds, then releasing resources from debt servicing is welcome news.  We may well see some improvements in education, skills training, and medical services to victims, and that is to be applauded since repairing the damage done to victims in an effort to make them whole again is crucial.  But ensuring that conflict is not re-ignited by attacking the root causes of the war may be far more important for long-term peace. The root causes of the war – corruption, lack of transparency, political marginalization, abrogation of human rights – do not require great expenditures of financial resources to reform, yet they have not been addressed.  Rather, they require significant expenditures of political will, something that is clearly in short supply in Sierra Leone.

Link to Garowe Online - Features