January 30, 2018 By Hassan Morlai⃰
A Sierra Leonean company Tonkolili Iron Ore (SL) Ltd and its former parent company in England African Minerals Ltd have been sued by 142 Sierra Leoneans in a court in England for complicity in human rights violations in northern Sierra Leone. If they succeed, each of the 142 claimants will receive £30,000 (equivalent of Le229.5 million).
High Court Judge Mr. Justice Turner and the legal teams of both the claimants and defendants were expected in Sierra Leone last night (29 January). This is the first time an English court judge will be conducting an extended trial in Sierra Leone to take testimonies and evidence from victims of human rights abuses and to visit the sites of alleged abuses. The visit to Sierra Leone was necessitated by the refusal of the British High Commission in Freetown to grant visas to some of the claimants to travel to England to attend the hearings in the case (Kadie Kalma & Others v Tonkolili Iron Ore (SL) Limited & Others).
The 142 Sierra Leonean claimants are claiming for personal injury and false imprisonment against Tonkolili Iron Ore Ltd and African Minerals Ltd. A separate number of 101 Sierra Leonean claimants have already had their claims settled by agreement, with each receiving not less than £4,500 (which is about Le48,733,400)
The legal fees for counsel, experts, witnesses, interpreters, air tickets, accommodation and other expenses are simply put very huge: the total approved budget for the Sierra Leonean claimants is £5.4 million while that for the defendants is £2.9 million.
What are the chances that these Sierra Leoneans will succeed in their claim in an English court? Well this is not the first time victims of human rights abuses have taken their cases to an English court. So Sierra Leone is only catching up with what has already happened elsewhere. For example, in Zambia, workers and local community people near a copper mine operated by a Zambian company owned by an English company successfully sued in an English court and were awarded damages. So the case of Lungowe & Others v Vedanta Resources Plc & Konkola Copper Mines Plc  EWCA Civ 1528 will be a useful precedent for the Sierra Leonean claimants. In this case, the companies were sued for personal injury, damage to property, and loss of income, amenity and enjoyment of land due to pollution and environmental damage caused by toxic discharges from the mine operated by Konkola Copper Mines Plc (KCM), a Zambian company owned by KCM, a holding company in England.
One interesting point to note is that the solicitors’ firm Leigh Day that represented the Zambians in Lungowe is the same law firm that is representing the 142 Sierra Leoneans.
Human rights activists in Sierra Leone who support communities affected by operations of companies in the mining, agriculture and other sectors should consider the decision in Lungowe very helpful. Those 142 Sierra Leoneans currently pursuing claims against Tonkolili Iron Ore Ltd and African Minerals Ltd will also find this judgment useful.
For companies in Sierra Leone, it is not all doom and gloom. In fact the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone has issued very helpful guidelines to help businesses to make their operations human rights compliant.
A company in Sierra Leone that fully employs the Human Rights Commission’s “Guidelines for Monitoring Business and Human Rights in Sierra Leone” is able to make a strong argument that they have taken appropriate steps to comply with applicable human rights guidelines in their operations. Whether this will be sufficient to fully absolve or mitigate a company’s liability for human rights abuses only time will tell in future court cases.
In the meantime, Sierra Leoneans should come to terms with the fact that economic, social and cultural rights are gradually becoming justiciable rights which courts are now being bold to uphold and award damages for their breach.