The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Sierra Leone is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Sierra Leone is also a party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Sierra Leone is a State Party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Sierra Leone is a party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights but has not recognised the right of individual petitition.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Section 26(1) of the 1991 Constitution provides that
Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of assembly ...
(2) Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision
a. which is reasonably required—
i. in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, or provision for the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community; or
ii. for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons; or
b. which imposes restrictions upon public officers and upon members of a defence force; or
c. which imposes restrictions on the establishment of political parties, or regulates the organisation, registration, and functioning of political parties and the conduct of its members;
and except in so far as that provision, or as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
The 1965 Public Order Act is the primary legislation governing assemblies in Sierra Leone. According to the government, the Act restricts the right of assembly "in certain cases in line with the claw back clauses in the constitution". Assemblies must be authorised under the terms of the Act. This authorisation is increasingly denied. In addition, large gatherings and demonstrations were banned under the 2014 Public Health Emergency Regulations, and movement of people restricted.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
Section 4 of the 1965 Criminal Procedure Act allows necessary force to be used to arrest a criminal suspect.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
Regulations relating to the use of force in the 2001 Police (Discipline) Regulations make it a disciplinary offence to discharge "any firearm without just cause".Second Schedule, 2001 Police (Discipline) Regulations.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2014 Concluding Observations on Sierra Leone, the Human Rights Committee did not address the right of peaceful assembly.
Sierra Leone addressed the issue of peaceful assembly in its 2015 national report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Sierra Leone:
While freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed, the police have repeatedly refused to grant permission to organizers planning protests, and violently cracked down on a number of peaceful demonstrations in recent years. In July 2018, authorities arrested the organizer of a protest against the removal of fuel subsidies for “organizing an unlawful demonstration.”