Cameroon at Risk: Failure to Reform Will have Repercussion for the region and the United States

By Derek Paulhus, Advocacy and Government Relations Fellow, Amnesty International USA

Cameroon is facing a crisis: in the Far north region of the country while Cameroonians have been struggling against an insurgency waged by the armed group Boko Haram over the past several years. Since late 2013, over 1,500 civilians in the Far North region have been killed, and Boko Haram engaged in widespread looting and destruction of property, attacking and burning towns and villages. Civilians have been caught in the middle and have found little to no relief from the government security forces meant to protect them. Extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, are among the human rights violations by the security forces that have been documented by the UN Committee against Torture, the US Department of State and Amnesty International .

At the same time the country has been in the spotlight for a brutal government crackdown in response to protests by the Anglophone minority in the Northwest and Southwest regions of the country. President Paul Biya’s administration, which has been in power for the past 35 years, has dismissed the protests and violence as nothing more than oppositional agitation. Despite this bravado and the military sealing off the anglophone regions to independent media and human rights groups the toll of the crackdown on the protest appears to eerily similar to the Boko Haram counter insurgency: indiscriminate killings, mass displacement, the destruction of villages, torture to extract “confessions Hundreds of people have been arrested, more than 20 people shot by the security forces during peaceful demonstrations held between 22 Sept and 1 Oct 2017 and over 20,000 people fleeing their homes to become refugees in Nigeria where they settled in isolated areas requiring humanitarian assistance.

Facing Boko Haram would be a serious challenge on its own as demonstrated by Nigeria’s struggles to protect it citizens from the armed group. Having an increasing swath of the country destabilized by protests, and a brutal crackdown that could feed an armed insurgency at the same time is a recipe for disaster.

The United States and the international community must press the Biya government to enact genuine, meaningful reforms and address governance and human rights issues or the crisis could severely undercut regional efforts to counter Boko Haram, and to restore stability in a region already beset by conflict in Nigeria and Cameroon which has generated over 2 million displaced persons. These reforms must include:

- Launch independent, impartial, thorough investigations into all allegations of human rights violations committed in the Far North by the security forces and into the abuses perpetrated by Boko Haram, as well as into the human rights violations committed by the security forces and the acts of violence perpetrated by the armed separatists in the Anglophone regions

- Take the necessary measures to prevent excessive and unnecessary use of force, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, torture, enforced disappearances, deaths in custody, and inhumane prison conditions

- Respect and protect the human rights of all people living in Cameroon as guaranteed by Cameroonian Constitution and Cameroon’s international human rights obligations including releasing Human Rights Defenders, civil society activists, political prisoners, journalists, trade unionists and teachers arbitrarily arrested and detained without charges[1] and,

- Allowing unrestricted access for UN Rapporteurs and experts, human rights groups and humanitarian organisations to the country to conduct assessments and investigations.

The violations by the security forces in its campaign against Boko Haram are, sadly, all too similar to the abuses being reported in the North and South West regions. The systematic use of torture by the Cameroonian security forces was spotlighted by Amnesty International’s 2017 report, “Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers.” The report documented over 100 individual cases of people who were held incommunicado for months and tortured for allegedly supporting Boko Haram, despite little to no proof. Detainees were subjected to cruel forms of abuse, including beatings, painful stress positions, suspension, psychological torture, and drowning. Government forces, especially soldiers of the rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) and members of the secret services often used a combination of these torture methods on victims, inflicting even greater pain and suffering. Despite these allegations, Cameroonian officials refused to comment on the report or conduct an investigation.

While the government of Cameroon is responsible for protecting the people living within its borders from the growing threat posed by Boko Haram, it must do so while respecting the human rights of the population, and by upholding its obligations under international law. The human rights violations against alleged members of Boko Haram have raised concerns that the military’s tactics are driving people to join Boko Haram, feeding radicalization and frustrations among local communities.

Freedom of expression, association and assembly are rights enshrined in the African Union Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — both of which Cameroon is party to and which apply to all people living in Cameroon whether they are Francophones or Anglophones. The government’s response to protests around claims of political and economic marginalization could lead the rise of even more groups ready to engage in violence to advance their causes.

Cameroon, Africa and the international community, including the United States, cannot risk the country facing conflict on two fronts and collapsing. The time for political and diplomatic pressure for reform in Cameroon is now.

[1] the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

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