Sierra Leone: Protect land rights defenders!
On 4 March 2019, ESCR-Net sent a collective letter to the President of Sierra Leone to express concern regarding a violent incident on 21 January 2019, between local communities and military personnel deployed to protect the palm oil plantations of the agribusiness Socfin Group in the Sahn Malen Chiefdom in Pujehun District, Sierra Leone. As a result of the incident and ensuing raids in local communities, two civilians were shot dead, allegedly by military personnel. Further 15 people were arrested, including a member of parliament, and more than 2,500 people were forcibly displaced.
The incident is part of a wider land conflict between local communities and Socfin Group. Socfin Group’s operations in the Chiefdom have resulted in serious human rights violations including acquisition of land without free, prior and informed consent of the area’s indigenous people, allegations of coercion in the land transfer process and a reportedly inadequate compensation to landholders. Additionally, ESCR-Net is concerned about local human rights defenders being specifically targeted with violence, arbitrary detentions, defamation and efforts to criminalize their legitimate work.
ESCR-Net also calls attention to the undue influence Socfin Group seems to be wielding over the government of Sierra Leone, including its security personnel as well as judiciary and parliament. This illustrates various manifestations of corporate capture, exemplified in judicial interference and the manipulation of security services for the benefit of corporations and to the detriment of public interest and the human rights of communities.
The letter expresses ESCR-Net’s collective demands to the Government of Sierra Leone:
- Secure the unconditional release of all community 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
- Launch an independent and impartial investigation into the killings against the two community HRDs
- Provide adequate protection for the members of the Malen communities and their advocates against threats, reprisals and harassment against them 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.
- 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
- 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.