U.S. government report on Cameroon cites entrenched power and security issues as causes of human rights violations

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Wednesday announced the release of the 45th annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. As required by law, the U.S. Department of State must submit this report to Congress “on all countries receiving assistance [from the U.S.] and all United Nations member states,” which includes Cameroon, a country in Central Africa.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha

“Our aim is always to identify human rights challenges and use our voice and our position on the world stage to draw attention to abuses of human rights, no matter where or when they occur,” said Acting Assistant Secretary Lisa Peterson at a press conference announcing the release of the report. “And in order to make progress on human rights, you need the facts,” she said.

In Cameroon, despite the appearance of democratic institutions – three branches of government, and distributed power from national to regional administrators, municipalities as well as to “traditional rulers” – and “Human Rights Bodies” – the Cameroon Human Rights Commission (CHRC) to replace the existing NCHRF, and a constitution and laws to hold these institutions and officials accountable, and protect the rights of citizens, workers, minorities, asylum seekers, and refugees; in practice, not only has the government failed to enforce laws, in come cases, it has been the main perpetrator of human rights abuses.

These include the most egregious abuses such as “unlawful and arbitrary killings, forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment”; and reportedly the recruitment of child soldiers – as armed Anglophone separatist groups, other non-state armed groups, Boko Haram and ISIS- West Africa, and Cameroonians deployed to UN peacekeeping missions have done. The government has also jailed political opponents, placed others under house arrest, and “threatened violence” against human rights personnel.

Institutionally, the government has failed to implement laws, such as those governing corruption, and to effectively implement its own “systems,” such as that providing protection for refugees. In another failure of implementation, the CHRC, lacking personnel, was “not operational during the year”.

Laws have also been “applied selectively” to privilege “senior government officials and well connected individuals”, particularly at the express of journalists. The government has also used “laws against terrorism or protecting national security” to “threaten critics of the government” and has used others to “restrict” the right to peaceful assembly and therefore “stifle discourse”. Certain laws are “seldom respected,” such as those for due process and appeal, and for police to obtain a warrant before conducting a search.

In its investigations of security forces’ abuses of power, the government has not acted “systematically” or transparently. There is also lack of “investigations and accountability” for violence against women – who additionally, “continue to be underrepresented in all levels of government”; and crimes and threats of violence against members of the “LGBTI” community for whom there is also “the existence and use of laws criminalizing same-sex conduct between adults.”

There is also a lack of turnover and representation in the government for which the legislative, municipal, and regional elections last year – and the Presidential election in 2018 –  “were marked with irregularities”. In attempting to maintain power, the President and other government officials have undermined human rights: The Minister of Communications, Rene Emmanuel Sadi reportedly accused Human Rights Watch and other organizations “of being tirelessly determined to undermine the image of the country and the stability of its institutions.”  

The institutions, however, appear stable: Despite over 300 registered political parties and nearly the same amount of ethnicities, the government, at all levels, largely operates under one-party and mono-ethnic control. President Paul Biya, who in 2021 will have served as president for 39 years, “retains power over the legislative and judicial branches.”

There are, however, real threats to national security: The 2018 election occurred “against the backdrop of protracted sociopolitical unrest in the two Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions.” After “lawyers’ protests and a teachers’ strike in 2016 morphed into armed conflict,” the population of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and returnees has increased 58 percent since 2018. Boko Haram violence is also a factor driving displacement. Calls by opposition leaders for “a resolution to this crisis in the Anglophone Regions and for electoral reforms” went unheeded.

Since 2019, the Cameroonian government has worked with the Central African Republic (CAR) and UNHCR to repatriate 285,000 CAR refugees to their home country, though this process stalled early in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions. To address IDPs and CAR refugee needs, the government has taken some measures but has largely been ineffectual and at times impeded humanitarian access to the regions.

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