By: Sara McNaughton and Bonnie Worstell, UNA-NCA Program Assistants
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a briefing in the afternoon of Friday, June 15th, led by Congressman James P. McGovern (D-MA) along with a panel of experts, concerning human rights abuses and the presence of Boko Haram in Cameroon.
Cameroon is actively involved in a vicious cycle of violence involving the Francophone government against the marginalized Anglophone minority. The government limits access to the internet (thus restricting freedom of expression), represses peaceful protesters, and carries out despicable human rights violations including, but not limited to: arbitrary arrests, unjust trials, kidnappings, scorched earth tactics, extreme torture, and murder. The separatists’ response has been similarly violent. Amnesty International reported on various attacks by separatists on teachers, students, security forces, and others who show sympathy to the government.
President Paul Biya, along with his Francophone government, has led Cameroon since 1982. Biya eliminated term limits in 2008 and is up for re-election in 2018. He demonstrates tendencies of an authoritarian leader and the upcoming elections are predicted to be manipulated and non-legitimate, with opposition parties facing repression and even jail time. Due to these circumstances, it is highly probable that Biya will come out victorious in the election and continue current trends of violence and repression. The uncertainty for the future in a post-Biya Cameroon troubles the international community, as he turned 85 earlier this year. Biya’s extended and personalized regime created a nation characterized by conflict and weak institutions. Therefore, it is unlikely that the government will be able to handle a peaceful transition of power.
Another concern for the panelists is the threat of a terrorist organization, Boko Haram, in the northern part of Cameroon. Terrorist organizations are like a virus: they will find the weak spot to attack and spread their influence. Violence coming from both the government and the separatists alike, poor and unequal governance, corruption, and decentralization create conditions for terrorism to flourish, thus driving many to join Boko Haram because they see it as their lone solution.
Cameroon is a vital partner in United States defense operations in efforts against regional terrorism and extremism, and therefore the U.S. has a vested interest for diplomatic intervention in the budding crisis in Cameroon. Congress must emit a clear signal that the current relationship between the two nations may be re-examined if the issues in Cameroon persist. The U.S. must use its influence to promote democratic values and freedoms such as freedom of speech, press, and assembly by encouraging, supporting, and holding Cameroon’s government accountable to holding legitimate elections this October.
Dr. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group supplied potential key policy recommendations for the situation in Cameroon. He highlighted the necessity for a credible investigation into all claims emerging from the conflict to be conducted by an independent organization such as the United Nations. Additionally, Mr. Akwei from Amnesty International recommended that Congress should request U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) release the report of the investigation they conducted regarding allegations of secret torture orchestrated by US-trained Cameroonian forces. Government officials have been reluctant to engage in dialogue with Anglophone separatists, denying propositions from peaceful leaders and even jailing them as a silencing tactic. The Trump administration must pressure Cameroon to limit the expenditure of lethal force, abolish arbitrary arrests, and partake in reconciliation with the opposition with the help of an independent mediator.
Assuring legitimate elections in October remains one of the most vital solutions to decreasing tensions in Cameroon. If the government continues to hold power illegitimately, marginalization will persist, possibly resulting in further extremism and increased tensions.
The continued issues with Boko Haram in the North cannot be ignored. The U.S. should support de-radicalization programs for members of Boko Haram who wish to disband from the organization and reintegrate into society.
Currently, the UN has several agencies active in Cameroon working on various projects. The UN Refugee Agency is providing relief items to those affected, legal assistance, shelter materials, and sanitation facilities. The Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs is working on a mapping project to track elections, conflict, and refugees. The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women is supporting Women Cohesion Spaces that “provide safe spaces where women refugees and survivors [of Boko Haram] can access a package of services, including psychological treatment and economic assistance” according to the agency. Increased U.S. Congressional support of the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation of human rights abuses in Cameroon would heighten the UN’s pressure on Cameroon’s government and the separatists to engage in dialogue, as well as appoint a moderator.
Overall, U.S. citizens have an important responsibility to advocate for Congressional involvement in Cameroon. Having a clear indication that constituents are in favor of intervention is essential in eliciting a congressional response. Like panelist Mr. Temin said, “constituents are what make congress move and make congress work.”