Friday, February 21, 2014

Report on Sierra Leone Mine Violence Proposes Possible Remedies

Human Rights Watch has released a report on human rights abuses and development in Sierra Leone. The report looks at African Minerals, a London-based iron ore mining company. In 2012, workers of the company in Sierra Leone held a strike and a protest, demanding better working conditions, better pay and the right to form their own union. Armed police intervened, the end result being one person shot dead and several injured. VOA's Nina de Vries reports from Freetown.

The strike happened in a town called Bumbuna, north of Freetown, the country's capital.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, it was a peaceful protest but police used tear gas and ammunition to stop it.

One woman, Musu Conteh, was shot and killed, allegedly by police, during the chaos.

Rona Peligal, the deputy director for the African division of Human Rights Watch, is the author of the report, which offers recommendations to government, African Minerals and police to prevent a similar event from happening.

Police Need Better Training 

She says more needs to be done to train officers on how to deal with stressful situations without resulting in death.

"What are the rules governing the police working for private firms for example or what are the rules about how police can engage protesters, peaceful protesters," she says.

The 96-page report also recommends disciplinary action against the police officers allegedly responsible for the Bumbuna abuses.

Francis Munu is inspector general of the Sierra Leone police. He says he appreciates the report but not enough dialogue happened between Human Rights Watch and the police before bringing forth the recommendations.

"Although I had hoped that there would've been better collaboration, consultations and discussion before coming up with these recommendations so that the recommendations would've been more reflective of the Sierra Leone police point of view.  However, we still look at them and will take them into good part," Munu says.

Munu also says the police are being targeted and did what they felt was right at the time.

"They [police] handled it in their own way, even though people have quarrels in the way they handled it," he said.

Some Improvements 

Peligal says there have been some improvements since the strike. Police did apologize for their actions.

African Minerals gave workers a 400 percent salary increase; but more needs to be done for those who were displaced in Bumbuna.

Pligal says people were moved because African Minerals needed to mine for the iron ore around their homes. Many of them are farmers who have lost their livelihoods.

"They didn't really get enough money from their previous holdings, to support themselves now, nor can they farm, nor have they gotten jobs at the company, so economically they are struggling much more than they thought they would, according to what they were told by the company and the paramount chief prior to the relocation."

Human Rights Watch also concludes that rules regarding land ownership are too vague in Sierra Leone.

Peligal says: "We are also seeing signs of conflict in other parts of Sierra Leone concerning whether paramount chiefs have the ability to lease land, what consent of population means and who benefits from those land deals and who does not and I think these are very important questions for Sierra Leone's government to address."

She says a recommendation for the government is to allow African Minerals workers to form their own union, and for the company to hold human rights impact assessments for all operations.

Representatives from African Minerals and the Sierra Leone government were not available for comment but do have plans to meet with Human Rights Watch this week in Freetown to discuss the report.