Sierra Leone is a constitutional republic with a directly elected president, a unicameral legislature, and a population of approximately six million. In peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections held in August and September 2007, the opposition All People's Congress (APC) won a majority in parliament, and citizens elected as president APC party leader Ernest Bai Koroma. Domestic and international observers characterized the elections as credible and free but noted irregularities that did not affect the outcome. The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens. However, there were serious problems in a number of areas, including: security force abuse, including rape, and use of excessive force with detainees, including juveniles; police theft and extortion; official impunity; arbitrary arrest and detention; excessive bail, and insufficient legal representation; restrictions on freedom of speech and press, although fewer than in the previous year; government and chiefdom detention and harassment of journalists; forcible dispersion of demonstrators; harassment of opposition party supporters by ruling party members; widespread official corruption; societal discrimination and violence against women; female genital mutilation; trafficking in persons, including children; forced labor, including by children; and child labor.
The U.S. strategy to promote democracy and freedom emphasizes building a strong foundation of democratic principles, transparency, and upholding human rights. This approach seeks to address a number of obstacles that stand in the way of improvement. Notably, the need for reformation of government structures, full constitutional review and revision of anachronistic policies, empowerment and political will for agencies to combat corruption, and an organized and focused civil society. These persistent, unaddressed issues, coupled with the currently bleak economic outlook, create a constantly expanding need for U.S. intervention and assistance to support democratic and rights-based principles. The focus for the United States is to achieve results through targeted diplomacy and assistance in major areas of concern, including: the development and implementation of fair, transparent, and sustainable democratic processes; the empowerment of women in all avenues of life, from political to economic to social; support for the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) to ensure punishment for those guilty of crimes against humanity; devolution of power from the central government to give all regions of the country an equal voice in political proceedings; and training for media to ensure accurate and reasoned reporting of issues. Increasing the informed civic participation of all citizens is a primary goal for the mission.
During the year the United States promoted and supported continuing government efforts to decentralize and become more transparent and accountable, thereby reducing factors, including ineffective leadership and endemic corruption, which had contributed to the country's civil war. One area of focus is the rebuilding of local government institutions, which were abolished in the 1970s but reinstituted in 2004. The United States provided training for local government leaders, who lacked a basic understanding of the responsibilities of public servants. The U.S. government seeks to promote good governance and the development of a stable political process by supporting local and international organizations working to expand and strengthen civil society. To support the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections, the United States provided direct assistance to local and international organizations to build the country's institutional capacity for conducting and monitoring electoral processes, providing technical assistance to key elections institutions, providing civic education, promoting political parties' compliance with the election law and codes of conduct, mitigating conflict, encouraging a responsible media, and strengthening civil society organizations. The United States also focused on empowering women and the physically challenged in the political process, and supported forums to encourage women's participation as voters and candidates.
The ambassador and U.S. officials use multiple outlets to address human rights-related issues and the need for good governance. Speeches to parliament and the public, radio interviews, development assistance programs, and other fora provide opportunities to discuss the need for engagement on women's issues, rule of law, anticorruption, and labor exploitation. The elections, in particular, were discussed at every opportunity in public fora with a focus on advancing the need for free, fair, and transparent political processes, as well as urging active public participation.
The United States provides support for NGOs and civil society in the country through programs that included films, lectures, and discussions on an array of topical subjects, including civil rights, women's rights, the role of civil society, and politics in democracy. These programs create opportunities for free discussion and exchanges of ideas by students, journalists, civil society organizations, academics, and civil servants.
The United States is the largest contributor to the SCSL, which is charged with trying to bring to justice persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights in the country since November 30, 1996. U.S. officials communicate regularly with senior SCSL officials to determine how the United States can most effectively support their efforts.
U.S. government programs support the expansion of educational opportunities for young women and address gender-based violence, which is a common occurrence. U.S.-funded studies found that lack of money for school expenses was a common barrier that limited educational opportunities for young girls, and that rural families, often out of economic desperation, selected male family members over females to attend school. Through the U.S. Ambassador's Girls' Scholarship Program, the United States provides educational scholarships to send thousands of young women to primary school. The United States also provided support to former practitioners of female genital mutilation, to help them find alternative income-generating activities.
To counter the exploitation of child laborers in the country's alluvial diamond fields, the United States provided assistance to government ministries and senior officials to promote management and monitoring of the diamond industry, encourage legitimate investment, and reduce opportunities for criminal activity, including smuggling and exploitation of child workers. U.S. programs also support efforts to design and implement a project to expand educational opportunities for nearly 10,000 children either employed in, or at risk of being employed in, the worst forms of child labor. With U.S. funding, a national antitrafficking task force met in November 2007, and drafted one-year and three-year national plans of action to sensitize communities and combat trafficking in persons in the country. The U.S. government supports projects that provide comprehensive services to trafficking victims and train social workers and care givers on providing effective psychosocial care to victims.