Human Rights Watch urges Cameroon to make humanitarian response to Anglophone crisis more inclusive

Concrete action is needed to make the humanitarian response to the crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon more inclusive of people with disabilities, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday on International Human Rights Day.

In September 2019, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs made a commitment to make the humanitarian response more inclusive, but the commitment needs to be translated into action on the ground, Human Rights Watch said.

Violence has intensified since July 2019 in the North-West and South-West regions, escalating in August after a Yaoundé military court handed down life sentences to 10 leaders of the separatist Ambazonia Interim Government following a flawed trial.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 130 civilians have been killed in over 100 incidents since July, and thousands have been forced to flee. Given the ongoing violence and the difficulty of collecting information from remote areas, the number of civilian deaths – including of people with disabilities – is most likely higher.

“As the crisis in the Anglophone regions shows no sign of slowing, people with disabilities are struggling to find safety and face heightened risks of attacks, displacement, and abandonment,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Cameroonian authorities and armed separatists should stop their abuses against civilians, while international organizations should fulfil their promises to those most affected by the crisis, including people with disabilities.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in November that the humanitarian situation deteriorated, with over 656,000 internally displaced people in the Anglophone regions. Humanitarian access to people in need is difficult, with aid workers facing greater risks. In October alone, armed separatists kidnapped 10 aid workers, all of whom have been released. Another aid worker was killed in November.

On September 10, President Paul Biya called for a “national dialogue” to address the Anglophone crisis. The dialogue ended on October 4 with the release of hundreds of people arrested in connection with the unrest in the regions, as well as political opponents. However, violence has continued unabated.

Between September and November, Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 24 people with disabilities living in the Anglophone regions, their family members, as well as representatives of UN agencies and of national and international humanitarian organizations. 

Human Rights Watch said people with disabilities are more likely to be exposed to danger from attacks, including because of barriers to escaping and staying out of harm’s way, and because of the degradation of whatever support systems existed before the crisis.

Since the crisis in the Anglophone regions started three years ago, Human Rights Watch said it has documented the experiences of people with disabilities who were unable to flee to safety, or were killed, assaulted, and tortured by soldiers or armed separatists. New cases have been documented since August 2019.

In one case, on September 19, Cameroonian security forces searching for armed separatists attacked a locality called “Number One Water” near the town of Muyenge, South-West region, killing four civilian men, including a man with an intellectual disability.

A witness to the attack said people fled when the military arrived and started shooting: “I hid in the nearby bush and I went back when things calmed down, the same day. I found four bodies on the ground and helped bury them. Among those killed, there was a man called ‘Jasper,’ who had an intellectual disability, which is the reason why he stayed behind. The military killed him in front of his hut. His body was partly burned, because the military also set his hut on fire.”

In another case, a 65-year-old farmer with a physical disability saw soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (Bataillon d’intervention rapide, BIR) destroy at least seven homes, including his, when they attacked his village, Nchum, North-West region, on October 30. “I hid near a spring when the military came,” he said. “I couldn’t run, because of my disability, and my family left me behind. I saw more than fifteen soldiers, who came with two vehicles. My house was well constructed, with cement blocks, and they burned it to the ground after throwing a grenade against it.” The burning in Nchum occurred one day after the military attacked a nearby village, Muchweni, where the BIR burned homes in retaliation for an ambush to a military convoy by the separatists on October 28.

The humanitarian response in Cameroon is severely underfunded, exacerbating the risks of people with disabilities whose basic needs, including food, shelter, sanitation, health, and education, are not being met. The UN resident coordinator in Cameroon, Allegra Baiocchi, told Human Rights Watch in November: “This acute underfunding of our humanitarian response in Cameroon is leaving millions of people without vital humanitarian assistance and protection, reinforcing the vicious cycle of vulnerability and violence.”

However, in September, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, announced the release of US$75 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to support underfunded responses, including in Cameroon, which received $5 million. The CERF allocation, Lowcock said, will prioritize assistance to people most at risk, including people with disabilities.

In November, the UN issued the Guidelines on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action. These guidelines, developed by the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), aim at assisting aid agencies in making sure people with disabilities are included in all phases of humanitarian action, from planning to coordination and monitoring. They have been circulated in Cameroon among UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations to raise awareness and to be put into practice.

“Slowly but surely, progress is being made and the experiences of people with disabilities affected by the crisis in Cameroon are being recognized and addressed,” Barriga said. “UN agencies and humanitarian organizations operating in the North-West and South-West regions should now deliver on commitments and make sure their response is as inclusive and accessible as possible.”

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