The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, after concluding a visit to Cameroon, has welcomed the Government’s openness to work with the UN Human Rights Office, and the rest of the UN, to seek effective solutions to the major human rights and humanitarian crises caused by the serious unrest and violence taking place in the west and north of the country.
“I believe there is a clear – if possibly short – window of opportunity to arrest the crises that have led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses that have affected the northern and western areas of the country,” Bachelet said. “But it will not be easy to turn these situations around. It will take significant actions on the part of the Government, and substantial and sustained support from the international community – including us in the UN.”
“The challenges are immense, and the situation involving some ten or more separatist movements in the North-West and South-West regions risks spiraling completely out of control, if serious measures are not taken to reduce tensions and restore trust. There is also a general understanding that the root causes and underlying grievances must also be tackled if long-term stability is to return to a country that had, until just a few years ago, been one of the most settled and peaceful in the region.”
The UN Human Rights Chief noted that the Government is also facing other major challenges, including cross-border incursions by armed groups and criminal organizations along its eastern border with the Central African Republic. At the same time, in the north of the country, the armed forces are struggling to cope with the depredations and suicide attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram and, in the far north around Lake Chad, the population is being terrorized and attacked by another extremist organization, the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). In addition, Cameroon is hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Central African Republic and Nigeria.
In several regions, civilians and soldiers have been killed and mutilated, and entire villages have been burned. Children have been abducted and forced to join the armed groups, and have even been utilized as unwitting suicide bombers by Boko Haram. In the two western regions, schools, hospitals and other key infrastructure has been targeted and destroyed by the various separatist groups; and government employees, including teachers who have dared to continue teaching, have been targeted and killed or abducted.
The security forces have also been accused of committing serious violations, including extra-judicial killings and torture, against civilians and captured fighters in both the north and the west.
During three days of meetings and consultations in the capital, Yaoundé, the High Commissioner had an in-depth discussion with President Paul Biya on the human rights challenges facing the country, and initiatives the Government has taken to deal with them, as well as their broader linkages with peace, security and development. She also met with the Prime Minister and the Minister of External Relations; the Minister of Defence, alongside top army and police officials; the Minister of Territorial Administration (Interior), the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Women, Empowerment and Family, and the Minister of Secondary Education.
The UN Human Rights Chief thanked the President for inviting her, and expressed appreciation to him and the members of his Government, as well as her other interlocutors, including civil society organizations and media, the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms, the President of the National Assembly and Vice-President of the Senate, opposition and ruling party politicians and seven senior leaders of various religious communities, as well as the diplomatic corps.
She also noted with appreciation the briefings she received from the leaders of two new bodies set up by the President to tackle specific issues related to the problems in the west and the north, namely the National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, and the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Committee.
“The work of these two bodies is still in its early stages,” Bachelet said. “But I believe they can potentially make important contributions over time to better understand and deal with the crisis in the two western regions, and to encourage increasing numbers of fighters to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society in both the north and the west. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the daunting challenges both bodies are facing, and I offered to share advice and important lessons we have learned from similar efforts in other parts of the world.”
Bachelet also offered to provide advice and assistance to the Government – similar to that being provided to the G5 forces in the Sahel – to help ensure that military operations are in compliance with international human rights standards and violations are prevented, when military forces are engaged in counter-terrorism operations and combat against armed groups.
“As a former Minister of Defence myself, I recognize the difficulties and dilemmas faced by soldiers confronted with extremely violent armed groups moving in and out of civilian areas, committing atrocities as they go,” the UN Human Rights Chief said. “Nevertheless, every violation committed by Government forces is not only unlawful, but also counter-productive as it plays into the hands of the extremist groups, by feeding local resentment and aiding recruitment. The armed forces must win and keep the trust of local populations, and to do that they must keep scrupulously within the framework of international law and standards. If they fail to do that, they will not defeat an enemy that thrives on civilian mistrust of the authorities. In the meantime, the civilians trapped between these two powerful, if asymmetric, opposing forces, are increasingly vulnerable to lethal abuses and violations by both sides.”
The High Commissioner stressed that it is essential that members of the security forces who commit serious violations are held accountable.
“The Government briefed me on steps they have taken in response to allegations of violations,” Bachelet said. “And I urged them to be fully transparent about such cases. It is essential that crimes are punished, and are seen to be punished. If there is impunity, then there is an assumption of immunity – and this will lead to more crimes being committed, and a further decline in trust in the armed forces, which will only compound the challenges they face. The maintenance of morale is important, but deterring unlawful actions by members of the security forces is imperative. This particular issue is damaging Cameroon’s international standing, and undermining international support for efforts to combat the armed groups operating on its territory.”
The High Commissioner said she utterly condemned the targeting of civilians by all armed groups, as well as the torching of schools and medical facilities by the separatist groups in the North-West and South-West regions. “There is no logic to their behavior,” she said. “If they are arguing for more autonomy, why seek to deprive their own children of education, why kill the teachers, and destroy the health facilities? This is not idealistic, it is nihilistic. The only way to solve the issues in the two western regions is through dialogue, including in-depth analysis of the root causes of the unrest, and I urge all sides including the Government to make a strenuous effort to end the fighting and begin peace talks.”
Bachelet also raised the issue of lack of access for both international and national human rights workers – including the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms – and the humanitarian agencies, to the affected regions. “I’ve heard this from so many people,” she said. “The lack of access is feeding international and local mistrust: including mistrust of the casualty figures; suspicions and competing narratives about who is responsible for which violations and abuses; and reluctance to give full support to the Government’s efforts to deal with these crises, for fear that the lack of access and lack of clarity is masking something untoward. Limited access is also hampering the efforts of the humanitarian agencies to reach victims, and this in turn may fuel further population movements. So, as much access as possible – within the limits of what is safe – would be an important positive step forward in terms of building confidence, and I appreciate the attention the Government has given to this particular request.”
She also expressed concern to the Government over the shrinking of civic space in Cameroon, noting that some of the civil society organizations, religious leaders, opposition politicians and diplomats she met with described how certain rights and freedoms, especially those of peaceful association and assembly, had been eroded in recent months. Human rights defenders described how they have been facing harassment by the police, and many of the High Commissioner’s interlocutors raised the issue of the arrest of leading opposition politician Maurice Kamto and more than 150 of his supporters.
“I raised all these matters with the Government,” the High Commissioner said. “And I urged them to halt the practice of charging civilians before military courts. I believe there is an urgent need for a change of approach towards dissenting politicians and critical members of civil society, and a need for significant gestures to rebuild trust and confidence.”
“Everyone – Government, opposition, civil society – is in agreement that the country is facing the most serious set of crises it has seen for many years. Everyone wants to bring these crises to an end as soon as possible. The Government, civil society, political opposition, religious leaders and the international community can all make important contributions to a drive for peace, if they can discuss options openly and freely.”
While noting it was just a first step, Bachelet said she believed the welcome she received and the willingness to cooperate shown by the Government during her visit could help clear a path to effective joint action to help Cameroon come through this very difficult period.
“I, for my part, pledge my Office, including the staff serving in our regional office in Cameroon, will do all we can to help the Government find workable solutions, so that – with additional involvement of other parts of the United Nations and support from other Governments – we can work together to contribute to the restoration of peace and security, protect human rights and clear the space for effective development for people all across Cameroon. The stakes are high, not just for Cameroon itself, but for the whole region.”
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