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.”
As the conflict intensified, there has been 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.
Since October 2017 at least 650 civilians, 235 members of the security forces and nearly 1,000 alleged separatists have reportedly been killed as a result of armed conflict. 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. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 700,000 people have been displaced, including 5,500 displaced between 9 and 15 December 2019 as a result of military operations in the north-west.
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.
Responding to diplomatic pressure, President Paul Biya organized a national dialogue during the first week of October 2019. Notable opposition and separatist leaders refused to participate, arguing that a dialogue should be facilitated by a neutral party on neutral territory. During October the government also released 333 prisoners from the Anglophone region, as well as opposition leader Maurice Kamto, but it continues to detain hundreds of others. On 21 December Cameroon’s parliament proposed a bill that would grant “special status” to the Anglophone regions.
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 committed atrocities in the far north of Cameroon, including the killing of at least 225 civilians, as well as abductions and mutilations. During military operations against Boko Haram there have been widespread allegations of the security forces perpetrating extrajudicial killings. In the far north region ongoing violence has displaced over 270,850 people.
The targeting of individuals based upon their cultural identity poses a direct threat to both Anglophone and Francophone civilians. Persistent attacks on civilians may amount to crimes against humanity.
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 the legislation proposed on 21 December would grant the north-west and south-west regions special status, the Senate has yet to approve the legislation and it has already been rejected by armed separatists.
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 Human Rights Council for the 2019-2021 term. 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 13 May the UN Security Council held its first Arria Formula meeting on the humanitarian and human rights situation in Cameroon.
On 27 June Switzerland offered to mediate between the government of Cameroon and Anglophone separatists. On 14 October the Council of the European Union reiterated that, “the primary responsibility for protecting the population and maintaining security lies with the Cameroonian authorities.”
The security forces must end 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.
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 Anglophone regions, the government should hold an 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.
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA