Sierra Leone Telegraph: 8 January 2022:
Senior military staff in Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), including the Assistant Chief of Defence (ACDS) Operations and Plans, Brig. Gen. R. B. Harleston, were at a press conference in Freetown on Thursday, where they responded to allegations of corruption and sexual violence and harassment against female personnel in the armed forces (RSLAF), published this week by the Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI).
The MoD officials say that they unequivocally condemn CHRDI’s allegations and described the report as “fallacious, unfounded and an effort to dent the integrity of the Army”.
Assistant Chief of Defence (ACDS) Operations and Plans, Brig. Gen. R. B. Harleston said that the CHRDI report is an “outright misinformation” and that CHRDI had failed to cross-check their evidence before publishing the report.
“Management believes that those issues raised by CHRDI are not well researched. If CHRDI has any issue that has to do with the MoD/RSLAF, let them approach the MoD/RSLAF senior management for access to credible information that will be accurate and balanced,” Harleston said.
Brig. Gen. Harleston told the media that the RSLAF has policies on sexual harassment and gender-based violence, and that tough actions are taken against any officer that breaches those policies. He spoke about a Warrant Officer who was demoted for committing gender-based violence against his wife. Senior Officers he said, have also been dismissed from the military for violating the army’s Sexual Harassment and GBV Policies.
Colonel M.S Fofanah, Director of Gender and Equal Opportunities at the MoD, said that the army does not discriminate, and that all staff recruitment and promotions are based on merit.
“In 2019, all female recruits were given equal opportunities for scholarships and promotions. We don’t discriminate here,” he said.
The Commanding Officer of the Joint Medical Unit (JMU), Dr. Stephen Sevilie, spoke about the many reforms he said they have made at the 34 Military Hospital.
On the allegation by CHRDI that patients at the hospital are sent to other hospitals for scanning, Dr. Sevilie said it is the prudent thing to do in a situation where a patient needs MRI and CT scan which the hospital do not have.
He called on CHRDI to visit the hospital for credible information, saying their doors are always open.
On the allegations of corruption in the army, the MoD officials failed to comment, especially with regards the $290,000 said to have been received by the RSLAF from the Norwegian Government. Instead, the MoD officials told the media that the matter is being investigated by the Anti-Corruption Commission.
Responding to claims by CHRDI that donors are dissatisfied with the implementation of projects, the MoD officials said that the army has recently received funding from the Canadian – ELsie Foundation.
“The Army is conducting a comprehensive assessment of the barrier to increase participation of women in the RSLAF and to propose clear path on how to make progress in the deployment of women to multinational UN peacekeeping operations. The project costs $184,676,79,” they said.
Responding to the MoD denial of the allegations, CHRDI says that it “welcomes the immediate response from RSLAF/MOD, demonstrating that the organization is willing to engage in a transparent dialogue about issues reported within their institution. “
“However, we had hoped that the serious issues raised in our press release would have received more attention than just a mere dismissal. After all, if there are no cases of sexual harassment within RSLAF, why is the institution continuing to receiving money to address a non-existent problem?
Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step toward fixing it, and it appears RSLAF leadership is in denial.
“We disagree with RSLAF’s way of responding to the issues raised by CHRDI, in large part dismissing our legitimate call for accountability. The MoD/RSLAF press conference failed to provide accountability on funds, resources, and measures/actions the institution is taking to address issues of sex-based harassment to the media and the general public.
“Perhaps MoD/RSLAF didn’t want to comment on the $290,000 USD due to concerns not to prejudice the matter under ACC investigation; But they have not commented on the fact that RSLAF nominated 4 senior staff members from both MoD/ RSLAF to have direct access to the funds, which admittedly are still under ACC investigation.
It is deeply concerning that RSLAF stated that there are no such cases of sexual harassment within RSLAF. Perhaps again there are no such cases “to their knowledge” because there are no proper complaints mechanism established within the RSLAF for GBV cases, sexual penetration, or domestic violence, and when complaints reach the management, they are sometimes catalogued as a family affair issues, and therefore personal issues.
“It seems that an approach of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was adopted by RSLAF with regard to sex based abuses. We challenge RSLAF to publish a complete documentation on mechanisms in place for members of the RSLAF to file complaints based on sex discrimination; how are these complaints processed, by whom, and within which timeframe. How many such complaints were received in the past 2 years, and how were they addressed. How many individuals were held to account for sex based abuses, and what were the punishments? How many complainants suffered retaliation because of their complaints?
“After all, all Sierra Leone’s public institutions should publish their efforts to address sex based harassment, discrimination, and assault within the workplace, particularly given President Bio and the First Lady’s costly efforts to change the attitudes on women in our society.
“We sincerely hope, and reiterate our call for the MoD/RSLAF to stand up for women rights, and treat their colleague military personnel, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, with respect for their human rights.
“CHRDI has a dedicated team of selfless volunteers who have remained committed and have contributed immensely to our existence since we registered in 2011 and since then have made a difference in the lives of many Sierra Leoneans through research and public education on human rights and social justice.
“As a Civil Society Organisation, we have a moral obligation to the people, and our democracy to ask for accountability and transparency and to help address the issues that affect the most vulnerable in our society.
“We want to assure MOD/RSLAF that we will not relent in our efforts to ask for accountability and transparency. No amount of intimidation will deter us. We continue to protect the confidentiality of our sources, as some of the survivors who spoke with us fear for their life, their job, and their family.”