Civilians in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon continue to face mass atrocity crimes due to widespread violence between government forces and armed separatists. The armed extremist group Boko Haram also poses an ongoing threat.
During October 2017 armed Anglophone separatists proclaimed independence and declared a new state of “Ambazonia” in the north-west and south-west regions of Cameroon. Since then, separatists and Cameroonian security forces have clashed, resulting in widespread abuses against the civilian population. Security forces have perpetrated extrajudicial killings, burned Anglophone villages and subjected individuals with alleged separatist ties to torture and ill-treatment. Armed separatist forces have also perpetrated abuses, including kidnapping and killing civilians.
Violence has escalated throughout 2020. On 24 October a group of unidentified armed men attacked the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba, south-west Cameroon, shooting and killing at least eight children and wounding twelve others. Both the government and armed separatist groups have accused one another of perpetrating the attack, but no one has officially admitted responsibility.
The political conflict over cultural rights and identity first intensified in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions during 2016 when English-speaking lawyers, students and teachers began protesting against their under-representation and cultural marginalization by the Francophone-dominated government. 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.
Since 2016 at least 3,000 civilians and hundreds of members of the security forces have been killed in the Anglophone regions. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that at least 705,000 people have been internally displaced in the north-west and south-west regions, while 60,900 have fled to Nigeria. Separatists have banned government education and frequently attacked schools and teachers, resulting in 80 percent of schools in the two regions being closed or destroyed. Approximately 30 percent of health facilities are also unable to operate due to insecurity.
In an attempt to ease tensions, during October 2019 President Paul Biya organized a national dialogue, followed by the adoption of several measures, including granting “special status” to the Anglophone regions. The government also released 333 prisoners from the region. On 2 July some separatist leaders met with government officials to discuss a potential ceasefire agreement.
The armed extremist group Boko Haram is also active in the Lake Chad Basin region that includes Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. During 2019 the group killed at least 225 civilians in the far north of Cameroon. Recently, at least 16 civilians were killed by suspected Boko Haram fighters in a grenade attack on an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp on 2 August. On 1 September a suicide attack on a village hosting IDPs resulted in 18 people killed. There have also been widespread allegations of the security forces perpetrating extrajudicial killings during military operations against Boko Haram. Ongoing violence has displaced over 322,000 people. On 16 October the government announced the closure of at least 60 schools in northern Cameroon due to attacks by Boko Haram.
The targeting of individuals based upon their cultural identity poses a direct threat to both Anglophone and Francophone civilians. Persistent attacks on civilians by both sides of the conflict amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The government 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.
The government of Cameroon is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect and requires international assistance to mediate and end the armed conflict in the north-west and south-west regions.
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 UN Human Rights Council for the 2019-2021 term.
On 13 May 2019 the UN Security Council (UNSC) held its first and only Arria Formula meeting on the crisis in Cameroon.
The UN’s Special Representatives on Children and Armed Conflict, Sexual Violence in Conflict, and Violence Against Children, as well as the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, issued a joint statement on 21 February deploring human rights abuses committed against civilians in the south-west and north-west regions of Cameroon.
On 22 June five Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, along with two former heads of state, other eminent figures and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, called upon all parties to the conflict in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon to declare a humanitarian ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Security forces must end all extrajudicial killings of unarmed civilians and ensure that the human rights of all Cameroonians are equally protected, regardless of cultural identity. Security forces implicated in violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) should be investigated and held accountable. Armed separatist groups must also halt attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
The government and armed separatists should declare a ceasefire as a prelude to peace talks. In order to work towards a negotiated political solution to the crisis in the Anglophone regions, the government should hold an inclusive dialogue mediated by a neutral player on neutral territory.
The government of Cameroon should grant the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights immediate and unfettered access to the north-west and south-west regions to investigate potential violations and abuses of IHRL. Foreign governments and regional organizations should suspend all military aid to Cameroon until its security forces have made demonstrable progress towards upholding the human rights of vulnerable populations. 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. The UNSC should add the situation in Cameroon to its formal agenda.
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