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. There has been evidence of security forces perpetrating extrajudicial killings and burning Anglophone villages. Individuals with alleged separatist ties have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Armed separatist forces have also perpetrated abuses, including kidnapping and killing civilians.
Violence has escalated throughout 2020, including ahead of elections in February. During mid-August armed separatists allegedly killed 13 civilians, including three aid workers and two teachers, decapitating three women. In response the government tortured and killed several alleged separatists and arbitrarily arrested hundreds of civilians.
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 security forces have been killed in the Anglophone regions. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that as of 27 March at least 679,000 people have been internally displaced in the north-west and south-west regions, while 59,000 have fled to neighboring Nigeria. Due to a ban on government education by the separatists, 80 percent of schools in the two regions have closed or been destroyed.
In an attempt to ease tensions, between 30 September and 4 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 Anglophone region, as well as opposition leader Maurice Kamto. On 2 July some separatist leaders met with government officials to discuss a ceasefire agreement. However, the security situation in the Anglophone regions has continued to deteriorate.
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, killing at least 225 civilians. 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. During military operations against Boko Haram there have also been widespread allegations of the security forces perpetrating extrajudicial killings. Ongoing violence has displaced over 322,000 people.
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 armed separatists and the security forces 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 Arria Formula meeting on the humanitarian and human rights situation 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 and human rights law should be investigated and held accountable. Armed separatist groups must also halt attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
The government and armed separatists should negotiate 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 UN Office of the 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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