JOHANNESBURG – Human rights abuses against civilians have continued to escalate in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, as fighting between the heavy-handed state machinery and separatists pushing for an independent state rich fever pitch.
Human Rights Watch, an international human rights watchdog, blamed both sides of the near civil war for the abuses, revealing Thursday that government forces had killed scores of civilians, used indiscriminate force, and torched hundreds of homes over the past six months.
Armed separatists had also assaulted and kidnapped dozens during the same period, executing at least two men, amid intensifying violence and growing calls for secession of the North-West and South-West regions.
Human Rights Watch said violence had intensified since October 2018 as government forces conducted large-scale security operations and separatists carried out attacks.
The human rights body challenged President Paul Biya’s under-fire government to investigate allegations of the human rights violations and ensure civilians were protected during security operations. Separatist leaders should immediately direct their fighters and followers to halt all human rights abuses and to stop interfering with children’s education, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Cameroon’s authorities have an obligation to respond lawfully and to protect people’s rights during periods of violence,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch in a statement, adding the government’s heavy-handed response targeting civilians was counterproductive and risked igniting more violence.
At least 170 civilians have been killed in over 220 incidents in the North-West and South-West regions during the past six months, according to media reports and Human Rights Watch research. The organization said given the ongoing clashes and the difficulty of collecting information from remote areas, the number of civilian deaths was most likely higher.
Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 140 victims, family members, and witnesses between December and March, including 80 in person in the North-West and South-West regions in January, who confirmed the atrocities.
In the fall of 2017, Cameroonian security forces suppressed large-scale protests organized to celebrate the symbolic independence of Anglophone regions from the country’s French-speaking areas, killing more than 20 protesters. Since then, the emergence of armed separatist groups has been accompanied by attacks and a growing militarization of the Anglophone regions. The unrest had displaced more than a half-million people since late 2016.
Human Rights Watch research shows that since October, security forces, including soldiers, members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), and gendarmes, killed civilians, used force indiscriminately, and destroyed and looted private and public property.
In one case, witnesses said, Cameroonian security forces attacked the village of Abuh, North-West region, in November and burned an entire neighborhood to the ground. Satellite images and photographic evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch show the destruction of up to 60 structures.
A woman in her 40s said she spent three days hiding in the surrounding countryside with her five children after the attack: “When I came back to the village, my house was gone, with everything inside. I am left with nothing but my clothes.”
The government’s near-total lack of prosecutions for crimes by security forces in the Anglophone regions was blamed to the continued attacks on civilians as it protected those responsible and fueled abuses.
At least 31 members of the security forces were killed in operations between October and February, in both the North-West and South-West regions, according to credible media reports and information collected by Human Rights Watch.
Witnesses said that separatists assaulted government workers, teachers, and students, preventing them from going to work or to school. Kidnappings by separatists have also surged, including more than 300 students under age 18 kidnapped in at least 12 incidents. All were released, most after a ransom was paid.
Human Rights Watch called on Cameroon’s partners, especially France to increase pressure on the government to hold those responsible for abuse to account, and ensure that any support to Cameroonian security forces did not contribute to or facilitate human rights violations.
The UN Human Rights Council should also ask the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) or relevant UN experts to conduct a fact-finding mission into allegations of human rights abuses, while members of the UN Security Council should formally add Cameroon to the Council’s agenda, request a briefing on the situation from the UN Secretary General, and make clear that individuals responsible for serious human rights violations could face sanctions.
“It is absolutely essential for the Cameroon government to restore the rule of law in the Anglophone regions and to hold those who target civilians to account,” Mudge said. “Leaders of the separatist groups should stop abusing civilians and show they are willing to resolve this crisis.”
Human Rights Watch revealed it sent a letter with its findings to Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, secretary general at the presidency February 12, requesting a response to specific questions.
“The government’s March 22 response denies state security forces carried out abuse documented in this report. The government added that its security forces all undergo human rights training prior to deployment and that about 30 cases are pending before the Military Courts in Bamenda and Buea for crimes including torture, destruction of property, violation of orders, and theft.”
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