June 12, 2024

Human Rights Watch accuses Cameroonian soldiers of killing 10 civilians, detaining 26, forcibly disappearing 17, burning 12 homes and looting health facilities in troubled northwest region

Paul Biya
Paul Biya

Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that Cameroonian soldiers summarily killed at least 10 people and carried out a series of other abuses between April 24 and June 12, during counter-insurgency operations in the North-West region. The troops also burned 12 homes, destroyed, and looted health facilities, arbitrarily detained at least 26 people, and are presumed to have forcibly disappeared up to 17 others.

“Instead of protecting the population from threats posed by armed groups, the Cameroonian security forces have committed serious violations against civilians, causing many to flee their homes,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior central Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Cameroonian authorities should conduct credible and impartial investigations into these serious abuses and hold the abusers accountable.”

The rights group said between June 3 and July 21, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 35 people with knowledge of 4 incidents in which the security forces allegedly committed serious abuses. Interviewees included 16 witnesses, 8 family members of victims, a community leader, 3 journalists, 5 members of civil society organizations, and 2 human rights lawyers. The incidents took place in and around the towns and villages of Belo, Chomba, Missong, and Ndop. Human Rights Watch also reviewed 53 photographs and 16 videos, shared directly with researchers, showing evidence of the military violations.

The violations were allegedly committed during military operations against armed separatist groups seeking independence for the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, North-West and South-West. Human Rights Watch has also documented serious abuses by separatist fighters during the same period, including the killings and kidnapping of civilians, and attacks on students, teachers, and schools.

Witnesses said that on April 24, soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (Bataillon d’intervention rapide, BIR) outside of Ndop, stopped, severely beat, and then detained between 30 and 40 motorbike riders who were part of a funeral convoy, allegedly because the soldiers suspected them of being separatist fighters. Up to 17 of those detained are presumed forcibly disappeared, as their whereabouts is unknown, but they were last seen in military custody.

“The soldiers selected those among us who had dreadlocks,” a bike rider who was later released told Human Rights Watch. “For them this is an indication that you are an amba boy [separatist fighter]. They forced us to undress and beat us savagely with an iron hammer and with their belts.”

On June 1, soldiers from the 53rd Motorized Infantry Battalion (Bataillon d’infanterie motorisée, BIM) killed nine people, including four women and an 18-month-old girl, in Missong village, in a reprisal operation against a community suspected of harboring separatist fighters.

On June 8, soldiers conducted an abusive military operation in Chomba, burning a home and looting the local health center. They also arrested a woman along with her 11-year-old foster child and held them for 24 days at the BIR barracks in Bafut, North-West region. Human Rights Watch has documented other cases of civilians detained on military bases, in violation of Cameroonian law.

From June 9 to 11, in Belo, security forces summarily killed one man, injured another, burned at least 12 homes, destroyed a community health center, and looted at least 10 shops.

Human Rights WatchAmnesty International, and other organizations have also documented a longstanding pattern of unlawful and incommunicado detention and torture in custody in Cameroon.

On July 28, Human Rights Watch sent an email to the Cameroon army spokesperson, Colonel Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo, detailing the alleged abuses and requesting answers to specific questions. Atonfack did not reply.

Since 2016, Cameroon’s English-speaking regions have been in the throes of a political and security crisis between armed separatist groups seeking independence for their self-proclaimed state of Ambazonia, comprising the North-West and South-West regions, and the Cameroonian security forces. The violence has caused about 6,000 deaths and a major humanitarian crisis, with almost 600,000 people internally displaced within the Anglophone and neighboring regions, and over 77,000 forced to become refugees in Nigeria.

Both Cameroonian security forces and armed separatist groups have committed serious human rights abuses but have faced limited or no consequences. Impunity remains a key driver of the crisis, emboldening abusers, and fueling further harm and violence.

On July 19, speaking from Bamenda, the capital of the North-West region, while appointing new generals to command troops fighting separatists, Joseph Beti Assomo, Cameroon’s defense minister, said that the military should take all necessary precautions to prevent human rights violations during operations and hold those responsible for abuses accountable.

In a June 7 news release, Atonfack, the army spokesman, acknowledged military responsibility for the killings in Missong village and announced that an investigation had been opened. Promising to investigate violations is a positive step, but the Cameroonian government has failed to make good on previous such commitments, Human Rights Watch said.

More than two years after the massacre of 21 civilians, including 13 children, in Ngarbuh, North-West region, by Cameroonian soldiers, and the government’s acknowledgement of military responsibility, the trial of those accused of involvement in the killings has dragged on. This slow pace raises concerns about the justice system’s efficiency and ability to deliver justice to the victims and fight impunity.

The crisis in the Anglophone regions has received little media and international attention and has been considered one of the most neglected worldwide. In her June 8 briefing to the United Nations Security Council on the situation in the central African region, Assistant Secretary-General for Africa Martha Pobee urged “the international community to step up support to national efforts toward a peaceful resolution” of the Anglophone crisis. On July 25 and 26, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Cameroon, and met with his counterpart Paul Biya. Macron did not publicly address crucial human rights issues, including human rights abuses committed by both security forces and separatist groups in the Anglophone regions.

“Cameroon’s international partners, including the African Union and United Nations, should insist that there can be no peace in the Anglophone regions without justice,” Allegrozzi said. “Cameroon’s bilateral partners should send a strong and clear message to the Cameroonian government that engaging in atrocities with impunity has consequences.”

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