Populations at Risk
There is an imminent risk of mass atrocity crimes due to widespread violence between government forces and armed separatists in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. The armed extremist group Boko Haram also poses an ongoing threat.
Political conflict over cultural rights and identity have escalated in Cameroon's Anglophone regions since 2016 when English-speaking lawyers, students and teachers began protesting against their under-representation and cultural marginalization by the Francophone-dominated government. Violent repression by the security forces resulted in arbitrary arrests, sexual violence and the killing of civilians in the north-west and south-west regions. The crisis deepened after October 2017 when Anglophone separatists proclaimed independence, declaring a new state of "Ambazonia." Since October 2017 at least 650 civilians, 235 members of the security forces and nearly 1,000 alleged separatists have been killed as a result of armed conflict. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 530,000 people have been displaced.
As the conflict has intensified, there has been growing evidence of the security forces perpetrating extrajudicial killings and burning Anglophone villages. Individuals detained by the government for alleged separatist ties are reportedly subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Armed separatist forces have also perpetrated abuses, including kidnappings and killing civilians. Due to a ban on government education by armed separatists, 80 percent of schools in the two regions have closed and at least 74 have been destroyed.
Following diplomatic pressure, President Paul Biya organized a national dialogue during the first week of October. Several opposition and separatist leaders refused to participate, arguing that a dialogue should be facilitated by a neutral party on neutral territory. Even though the dialogue resulted in several proposals on how the government should address the grievances of the Anglophone population, at the time of publication it remained unclear whether these proposals were seriously being considered.
The Anglophone and Francophone areas of Cameroon were unified in 1961, but there have been long-term disputes over the extent to which access to government resources is controlled by the French-speaking majority. Although the Anglophone minority constitutes 20 percent of the population of Cameroon, they are a majority in the north-west and south-west regions.
The armed extremist group Boko Haram is also active in the Lake Chad Basin region that includes Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. The group continues to commit atrocities in the far north of Cameroon, including the abduction, mutilation and killing of civilians. During military operations against Boko Haram there have been widespread allegations of the security forces perpetrating extrajudicial killings. As of June 2019, there are 240,000 internally displaced persons in the far north region.
The targeting of individuals based upon their cultural identity poses a direct threat to both Anglophone and Francophone civilians. As a result of ongoing violence and insecurity in Cameroon, 4.3 million people are in need of emergency assistance. The deteriorating situation in Cameroon has received little international attention despite persistent attacks on civilians, potentially amounting to crimes against humanity. Jan Egeland, Head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, noted during April 2019 that "there is no mediation, no large relief programme, no media interest and little pressure on the parties to stop attacking civilians."
The government of Cameroon continues to deny the severity of the crisis and has failed to address the root causes of the Anglophone conflict, or provide a political means for resolving it. Although during October the government released 333 prisoners from the Anglophone region, as well as main opposition leader Maurice Kamto, it continues to detain hundreds of people in potentially abusive conditions.
The government of Cameroon is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect the Anglophone minority and requires international assistance to mediate and end the armed conflict in the north-west and south-west regions.
On 17 November 2017 six UN Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement urging the government to engage in meaningful dialogue and halt violence in the north-west and south-west.
Despite the government's failure to protect populations from violations and abuses of human rights or to hold security forces accountable for extrajudicial killings, during October 2018 Cameroon was elected to the Human Rights Council (HRC) for the 2019-2021 term.
On 13 May the UN Security Council held its first Arria Formula meeting on the humanitarian and human rights situation in Cameroon.
Following a visit to Cameroon, on 6 May the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the government to hold accountable members of the security forces who commit serious human rights abuses.
On 27 June Switzerland offered to mediate between the government of Cameroon and Anglophone separatists.
On 14 October the Council of the European Union adopted conclusions on Cameroon, reiterating that, "the primary responsibility for protecting the population and maintaining security lies with the Cameroonian authorities."
The security forces must cease all extrajudicial killings of unarmed civilians and ensure that the human rights of all Cameroonians are equally protected, regardless of language, cultural identity or political affiliation. Armed separatist groups must also halt attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. The government and armed separatists should immediately negotiate a ceasefire agreement.
The government of Cameroon should grant the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights access to the north-west and south-west regions to investigate potential human rights violations and abuses. Foreign governments and regional organizations should suspend all military aid to Cameroon until it has made demonstrable progress in upholding the human rights of vulnerable populations.
In order to work towards a negotiated political solution to the crisis in the north-west and south-west regions, the government should seriously consider a more inclusive dialogue mediated by a neutral player on neutral territory. The African Union and Economic Community of Central African States should work with Cameroon's government to prevent any further deterioration of the armed conflict.
Last Updated: 15 November 2019
The most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Cameroon has been featured in R2P Monitor since the July 2018 issue.