Conflicts in Cameroon Escalate, Human Rights Experts Respond

People in a Cameroon Community
Credit: Sodeit via Wikimedia Commons

In the past month, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have called on Cameroon to launch an investigation into persistent reports of a deteriorating human rights situation in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon, including to investigate a video showing the alleged extrajudicial executions of a woman and two children. [ACHPR Press Release: Allegations (French only); OHCHR Press Release] The conflict in Cameroon stems from tensions that arose in 2016 after the English-speaking communities in the State mobilized to demand respect of the English-speaking educational and judicial systems, and to demand more political autonomy. See HRW, These Killings Can Be Stopped: Abuses by Government and Separatist Groups in Cameroon’s Anglophone Regions (2018), 1. In response, the Cameroonian government violently suppressed the protests and arrested many of the demonstrators, which led to armed confrontations. See id. Most recently, the tensions between Anglophone separatists and the largely Francophone government of Cameroon have escalated as a result of separatists’ attacks targeting a Minister of Defense convoy in the country’s Southwest region and the government’s “heavy-handed response.” [OHCHR Press Release; Guardian] Cameroon is obligated, under international human rights law, to ensure the rights to life and to humane treatment, among other rights.

Statements by Human Rights Bodies

The ACHPR and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have issued press releases on the ongoing violence between, and reports of human rights abuses by, State forces and the Anglophone armed groups in Cameroon, and urged the government to launch independent investigations into the alleged abuses that have been reported. The High Commissioner also called on the State to grant the UN Human Rights Office access to the Northwest and Southwest regions and stated that the Office of the High Commissioner will consider other methods of monitoring, including remote monitoring. [ACHPR Press Release: Allegations; OHCHR Press Release]

In particular, the ACHPR and High Commissioner highlighted, and called for investigations into, allegations that the security forces have killed, used excessive force, arbitrarily detained and tortured individuals, and burned down houses; and reports alleging that armed separatists have extorted and torched schools, carried out kidnappings, and killed police and local authorities. [ACHPR Press Release: Buea (French only); OHCHR Press Release] Additionally, the press releases condemned the video reportedly showing members of Cameroon’s armed forces executing two women, a child, and a baby accused of being members of Boko Haram, and noted with concern that these extrajudicial killings may not be isolated cases. [ACHPR Press Release: Allegations; OHCHR Press Release]

The African Commission specifically called on the State to put an end to retaliatory actions, arrests, and targeted killings of civilians or demonstrators; to release individuals that have been in detention since the October 2016 peaceful protests; to conduct impartial investigations into human rights violations by State officials or the military; and to initiate an inclusive dialogue between the populations. [ACHPR Press Release: Buea] The ACHPR also called on the separatist movement to put an end to the violence and targeted killings of the Cameroonian Armed Forces, to halt the abduction and murder of State officials, and to engage in a constructive dialogue with the State in order to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. [ACHPR Press Release: Buea] Additionally, the ACHPR called on the Central African Economic and Monetary Community and the African Union to take a more leading role in solving the situation to increase security and stability in the region. [ACHPR Press Release: Buea].

The Situation in Cameroon

The ongoing violence has resulted in extensive destruction to civilian property and displacement. The United Nations Children’s Fund has also indicated that as of June 2018, at least 58 schools have been damaged in the Anglophones regions. The separatist attacks on the education system are thought to be an attempt to leave the regions ungovernable and have had the effect of preventing tens of thousands of children from attending school. See HRW, These Killings Can Be Stopped: Abuses by Government and Separatist Groups in Cameroon’s Anglophone Regions, 1-2. Further, investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch revealed that at least 20 of 131 villages in Southwest Cameroon showed signs of destruction that were consistent with arson, and counted at least 1,800 destroyed buildings. [HRW] Currently, the UN estimates that at least 21,000 persons have fled to other countries, with 160,000 persons internally displaced in Cameroon as a result of the crisis. [OHCHR Press Release]

The current situation in Cameroon arose out of protests initiated by lawyers and teachers that began in October 2016 as a result of Francophone teachers and judges being sent to English-speaking regions. [Washington Post] See HRW, These Killings Can Be Stopped: Abuses by Government and Separatist Groups in Cameroon’s Anglophone Regions, 15. When the peaceful protests began in 2016, the Cameroonian government responded with violence against the lawyers, teachers, and other members of civil society in the English-speaking regions of Northwest and Southwest Cameroon. This led to protesters looting and burning down villages, including schools, and to the formation of armed separatist groups that seek the autonomy of the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. [ACHPR Press Release: Buea (French only)]. See HRW, These Killings Can Be Stopped: Abuses by Government and Separatist Groups in Cameroon’s Anglophone Regions, 15-16. For example, in July 2017, separatist groups implemented a government in the “Republic of Ambazonia,” which claimed sovereignty over Southern Cameroon. See HRW, These Killings Can Be Stopped: Abuses by Government and Separatist Groups in Cameroon’s Anglophone Regions, 1, 16. In response, government officials increased their use of force and violence against Anglophone activists and civilians. [HRW]

Cameroon’s Human Rights Obligations and Monitoring

At the universal level, Cameroon has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which obligates States parties to ensure the right to prohibition of inhuman treatment; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the rights to life, prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment, liberty, and due process under articles 6, 7, 9, and 14, respectively; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The UN treaty bodies that correspond to each ratified instrument monitor Cameroon’s implementation of its human rights obligations under the relevant treaty through periodic reviews. The Committee Against Torture; the Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the ICCPR; and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women may review individual complaints against Cameroon of violations of the relevant treaties.

The Committee Against Torture (CAT) recently addressed the situation between Anglophones and Francophones in Cameroon in its 2017 concluding observations on the State. See CAT, Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Cameroon, UN Doc. CAT/C/CMR/CO/5, 18 December 2017, paras. 19-20. The CAT recommended that the State conduct impartial investigations into the allegations of excessive use of force, extrajudicial execution, and arbitrary arrests by State officials during and after the 2016 protests; not invoke military jurisdiction over individuals who were peacefully protesting; ensure the right to due process of all persons taken into custody by bringing them promptly to a civilian court and informing them of the charges against them; and ensure that civilian bodies are entrusted with public security and security forces are trained in the use of force, particularly with regards to protests. See id. at paras. 19-20.

At the regional level, Cameroon has ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the AU Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, and the AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. The African Commission is a quasi-judicial body that monitors implementation of human rights obligations by the 54 Member States to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It reviews complaints of human rights violations in those States, makes State visits, and considers periodic reports from States parties on implementation of their obligations.

Additional Information

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