Human Rights Watch alarmed by grave rights violations in Cameroon’s far north

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Soldiers in Mozogo, in the Far North region of Cameroon, have forced civilians to perform local night guard duty to protect against attacks by the armed Islamist group Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch said today.

At the beginning of this forced labor, from mid-March to late April, 2020, soldiers beat or threatened those who refused to perform the tasks, although Human Rights Watch was told that for now, following denunciations by local nongovernmental organizations and the National Human Rights Commission, the beatings appear to have stopped. However, people in the town report that they continue to live in fear of beatings resuming, and that the forced labor and threats continue.

“The Cameroon authorities should immediately stop forcing civilians to perform night guard duty and instead protect civilians through lawful means,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Cameroonian authorities should investigate the reported beatings, threats, and forced labor and members of the security forces found to be responsible should be brought to justice.”

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Cameroon's President Paul Biya before the start of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Session One on “Investing in Africa’s Future,” at the U.S. Department of State for the final day of the U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Cameroon’s President Paul Biya before the start of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Session One on “Investing in Africa’s Future,” at the U.S. Department of State for the final day of the U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Boko Haram has since 2014 waged a violent campaign against civilians in the Far North region. The Cameroon army started to forcibly mobilize civilians after a February 4 Boko Haram attack, during which its fighters burned an estimated 40 homes in Mozogo and killed 2 civilians, one of them a blind man, who was killed and then burned inside his home.

In April and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 people by telephone who have been forced to perform night guard duty under threat. Six had been beaten for initially refusing to join. Human Rights Watch also spoke with 12 Mozogo residents who witnessed but had not been subject to the forced labor, 4 victims and witnesses of other alleged military rights violations, and 4 representatives of local human rights groups.

Human Rights Watch shared its research findings on June 9 with Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, the secretary-general and Samuel Mvondo Ayolo, the Civil Cabinet director, both at Cameroon’s Presidency, requesting responses to specific questions. Human Rights Watch also followed up with a senior official from the Presidency on June 18. Cameroonian officials have yet to respond.

The civilians who were forced under threat to perform guard duty received no compensation and were put in harm’s way. They were not trained, were unarmed, and were told to run back to town to alert the army if they saw Boko Haram fighters approaching. Human Rights Watch has been monitoring local media, including Sembe TVL’Oeil du Sahel, and reports by nongovernmental groups, for accounts of attacks by the militant Islamic group. This monitoring indicates that since January, Boko Haram has carried out over 200 attacks and raids in the Far North region, killing at least 126 people.

Mozogo residents said the military unit based in Mozogo – the 42nd Motorized Infantry Battalion (BIM) – worked with local authorities to compile lists of about 90 men and at least one boy who were required to join the night guard duty and displayed these lists in public spaces. They identified at least 12 locations in and around Mozogo as posts for night duty and assigned nine civilians to each location. Those who did not willingly comply were sought out in the neighborhoods and threatened with death and beatings. Some were beaten in public.

According to victims, witnesses, and residents, at least 40 people were threatened with death and beatings or were beaten for refusing to take part.

A 38-year-old man said that a soldier beat him after he initially refused to perform night guard duty in early April: “A soldier came to my house around 10 p.m. He asked why I skipped my duty. I said that it was not my job. So, he forced me to do push-ups and hit me several times with the flat end of a machete. Then he took me by force to the river to serve guard duty.”

Once the civilians were on duty, it appears, the soldiers usually stayed until midnight, then left the civilians alone to guard the areas without any means of protection and communication. The civilians said that they would generally stay from 7 p.m. until around 3 or 4 in the morning.

A 28-year-old man who was forced to serve as a night guard for at least two months, described the forced labor: “They said everyone whose name is on the lists needs to go, but they don’t pay us anything, they don’t give us anything to protect ourselves. If Boko Haram attacks Mozogo, we will be the first targets.”

At least 40 men fled Mozogo after soldiers threatened them. A 23-year-old university student said he fled to Maroua, 100 kilometers away, after being beaten and forced into guard duty. “If I wanted to be a soldier, I would have joined the army,” he said. “But I chose to study. I do not want to spend my nights in dangerous locations and face Boko Haram fighters.”

The night guard system in Mozogo has no legal framework and those forced to perform it are not only untrained, but also lack the necessary experience and supervision needed to perform the dangerous security tasks demanded of them.

Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc in the Far North region, carrying out abusive attacks, often indiscriminate and sometimes directly targeting civilians. The attacks have included suicide bombings in crowded civilian areas; kidnappings, including of children; and widespread looting and destruction of civilian property. As a result of Boko Haram’s abuses, over 297,000 people have fled their homes and are internally displaced across the Far North region. Cameroon also hosts approximately 113,000 refugees who have fled Boko Haram’s attacks in Nigeria.

In the face of such atrocities, the government of Cameroon has the legitimate duty to protect civilians, but it must do so while upholding its human rights obligations under domestic and international law, Human Rights Watch said. Cameroon has ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the 1930 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Forced Labour Convention No. 29, which prohibit the use of forced or compulsory labour.

Human rights groups have reported widespread human rights violations and crimes under international humanitarian law by security forces, including extrajudicial executionsarbitrary arrestsenforced disappearancesincommunicado detention, systematic torture, and deaths in custody. Witnesses, victims, and residents have reported that security forces in and around Mozogo continue to commit other abuses, including extortion and sexual violence.

“Cameroon security should address threats posed by Boko Haram in a way that respects rights and wins the trust of the population,” Mudge said. “That trust has been broken by a climate of near total impunity for the military’s abuses.”

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