Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cameroon government forces kill with impunity

For many years the government of Cameroon under president Paul Biya, who has been in power since November 1982, has killed unarmed civilians with impunity. In the past the government swept killings under the rug but with the advent of the internet and social media the regime lost control of the narrative. The world is now able to witness the extreme cruelty of the regime. Regardless the regime continues to claim lives - with absolute impunity. The latest episode of blatant unlawful killings happened in full glare of social media and the evidence is compelling.

Unarmed civilians in English-speaking regions of Cameroon took to the streets on 1 October 2017 to symbolically declare independence as part of almost one year of protracted mass protests and civil disobedience against marginalization and unequal treatment of Anglophones in majority French-speaking Republic of Cameroon. Anglophones are a minority group in Cameroon. They make up about 20% of the population and have been historically discriminated against and marginalized. Now a good number of them want independence. The government's response to the symbolic declaration of independence was, as usual, heavy-handed and brutal: numerous civilians were killed by security forces. Besides killings Amnesty International expressed concern about blocks on Facebook and WhatsApp, and arbitrary ban on meetings and movement by the government. Amnesty International urged the government to respect people's right to freedom of assembly and movement and called on security forces to cease "unnecessary and excessive" use of force. The human rights group later confirmed that at least seventeen (17) people were killed by security forces. Before the killings the government had banned travel, public meetings and pro-independence rallies in English-speaking parts of Cameroon. 

Still image taken from video shows nurse trying to resuscitate victim
Witnesses told Reuters that security forces shot live bullets and tears gas at protesters from low-flying army helicopters.

According to Al Jazeera internet was blocked in English-speaking regions of Cameroon for the second time in less than a year in an effort to quell protests. Electricity was also cut.

In press briefing notes on Cameroon the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) reiterated concerns raised by the UN Secretary-General about the 1 October crackdown, said credible sources indicated that some of the deaths resulted from excessive use of force by security forces. The spokesperson for the UNHCR called for "prompt, effective, impartial and independent investigations...". The spokesperson also said people should be allowed to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, "including having uninterrupted access to internet connection" - alluding to the government's shutdown of the internet. The office of the UNHCR called on all people to pursue peaceful means and noted that property have been destroyed over the past months and at least two homemade bombs were reportedly planted in public places.

My Take

First of all, the grievances of people in English-speaking parts of Cameroon are well-founded. The government's failure to address their concerns has led to calls for independence. Historically and legally Cameroon's English-speaking people (commonly known as Anglophone) are, in my view, a people who achieved independence from the British in October 1961 by joining the independent Republic of Cameroon. As a people they have the right to self-determination.

For many years the Biya regime has killed protesters with impunity while the international community watches. Failure by the international community to hold the regime accountable has emboldened the regime hence killings continue. In the latest episode Amnesty confirmed that 17 people were killed during October 1 protests. The government claims about 10 were killed. Some local activist groups put the number at 100 killed. Based on social media videos I personally believe the governments figure is inaccurate. More than 10 people were killed on 1 October and the days leading up to the symbolic declaration of independence based on my observation online. A single graphic Facebook post alone, for example, shows 4 dead bodies, and there are many of such posts, including graphic photos and video. It is worthy to note that the recent deads come after numerous civilians were killed in the early months of the struggle. In December 2016 the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) confirmed that at least nine (9) people were killed in Buea, Bamenda and Kumba.

Statements by Amnesty International and the Spokesperson of the UNHCR condemning the killings and human rights violations are great but repressive regimes do not moved by statements alone. It is time the international community, including regional and international organizations go beyond issuing statements. Decisive action against the Biya regime is needed. Stronger measures against the brutal regime should be explored, including targeted economic sanctions against members of the regime and international criminal investigation and charges -- since Cameroon's national justice system has failed to deliver justice for killings of civilians by state operatives. The international community's unwillingness to take decisive action against the Biya regime only emboldens the regime and further endangers civilian lives in the country.

The US Department of State issued a statement in the aftermath of the 1 October crackdown in which the department said "the United States is deeply concerned about the violence and loss of human life". However, the United States continues to do business with the Biya regime. If the United States is truly deeply concerned as claimed by the State Department it would, for example, stop arming the Biya regime. In 2015 the United States, according to VOA, sent a consignment of military equipment to Cameroon to help in the fight against Boko Haram. The same military the United States supports kills civilians in the Northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon and commits war crimes in the fight against Boko Haram in the north. According to Amnesty International Cameroon military is committing war crimes in the fight against Boko Haram. The United States is essentially supporting and arming a military that is committing atrocious human rights violations on two fronts.

Members of the international Community that are basically aiding and abetting the Biya regime in its violation of human rights should stop doing so. The international community, including the United Nations and the African Union should do more than issue statements. Focus should be on bringing perpetrators of human rights violations to book. Suspension of military aid to Cameroon and targeted economic sanctions against president Paul Biya and members of his regime, including those who give military personnel orders to shot and kill civilians is a good place to start. Civilian deaths during protests should be independently and impartially investigated -- preferably by an international body since the Biya regime is essentially corrupt and cannot be trusted to investigate itself.

Personally I would like to see resolute, coordinated international action that goes beyond prepared statements taken against the Paul Biya regime that has killed a countless number of civilians in its 35 years in powers. However, I think resolute action is unlikely because of Western interests in Cameroon and the region. The fight against Boko Haram for example is in the interest of western democracies like the United States hence they will continue to support the Biya regime despite its abysmal human rights record. The African Union (AU) on its part is enert. It released its own statement urging "restraint and dialogue" and expressed "condolences to all affected persons and families". Clearly inadequate. The AU did not even bother to call for an investigation.

It is therefore in the hands of Cameroonians to shape the kind of country they want to live in. Protesters in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon are doing just that through massive protests and civil disobedience that have stretched for almost a year. Western countries with interests in the status quo won't initiate change in Cameroon or elsewhere in Africa where dictators serve Western interests. The people have the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Their rights should not be brutally infringed.

Monday, August 14, 2017

There is no such thing as "white supremacy"

The phrase "white supremacy" has been used repeatedly by so-called white supremacists themselves, those who oppose them, the media and the authorities, including politicians -- so much so that the phrase has been legitimized and many people have internalized the idea that a group of people are somehow superior to others by virtue of their race or skin color. That is not true.

The idea of "white supremacy" was thrust to the limelight after a White nationalist rally in Charlottesville ended in deadly violence. White nationalists and counterprotesters clashed in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia in what The New York Times described as "one of the bloodiest fights to date" over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South. One of the White nationalists plowed a car into a crowd killing a 34-year-old woman and injuring at least 19 people. Some 34 others were injured in skirmishes, according to the New York Times. The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency and the National Guard was deployed to help the police restore law and order.

A man identified as James Alex Fields Jr. was arrested and charged in relation to the car attack. CNN reports that the suspect holds extreme views, according to his former teacher. The teacher who teaches Social Studies at Randall K. Cooper High School told CNN that the suspect held "outlandish, very radical beliefs" with a "fondness for Adolf Hitler".

The incident was followed by a mainstream media and social media frenzy -- with almost everyone referring to "white supremacy" as though it were a legitimate concept grounded on facts.

My Take

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." [- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 1]

There is no such thing as white supremacy. Just like the jihadist statehood idea of so-called Islamic State, the idea of white supremacy is an illusion based on an inhuman desire by some to control and subjugate others. The difference between the idea of a jihadist Islamic State and white supremacy lies in the fact that there seems to be consensus in the West that the former is an illusion, hence it is commonly referred to as "so-called Islamic State" by western news outlets while the latter is fully legitimized and presented as fact. More than 120 British MPs reportedly signed a letter urging the BBC to stop referring to jihadist group ISS as "Islamic State" because, according to the MPs, the terrorist group is neither Islamic nor a state. The BBC went on to review its use of "Islamic State". Same logic, in my view, applies to so-called white supremacy. Those who subscribe to the racist idea of "white supremacy" are, in my view, white but they are not supreme.

The idea of white supremacy is a social construct designed to push a racist agenda that white people are superior by virtue of the color of their skin.

A more realistic concept is White privilege, which was well-demonstrated in the aftermath of the Charlottesville car attack. Donald Trump, president of the United States, refrained from condemning the so-called white supremacists - understandably so since they make up his base and helped get him elected based on the racially divisive presidential campaign he ran. Condemning the group would be political suicide for the beleaguered US president. Had the attacker been non-white, Mexican, an immigrant or a Muslim rhetoric from the White House would have been stronger and louder. After ramming his car into a crowd in a manner reminiscent of the London Bridge attack James Alex Fields Jr. was, according to The New York Times, charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of a crash. That is white privilege not white "supremacy". Someone who looks different and affiliated to a different extremist group would have been labelled "radicalized" and had law books thrown at him with charges including terrorism and first-degree murder.

Referring to a bunch of racists as "white supremacists" legitimizes the uninformed, racist ideology on which such groups are founded. Referring to them as "so-called white supremacists" is more like it because those who identify themselves as such are not supreme -- they are privileged at most.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lack of will to hold Finland police accountable for racism

A stunning revelation by an online investigative journalism site put the spot on racism in the Finnish police force. Finland's Minister of Interior, the National Police Commissioner and the National Police Board released purportedly strong statements in the aftermath of the scandal -- professing "zero tolerance" for racism and pledging a thorough investigation into the matter. But talk is cheap. It is easier said than done.

On 3 June 2017 Long Play published a report about widespread racist commentary in closed Facebook group made up of about 2,800 Finnish police officers. The report included screenshots of some of the comments. One member of the group for instance claimed that people of African descent do not succeed anywhere in the world for reasons including culture and genetics. Another member of the group claimed that Islam is an expansionist religion and that Europe is a victim. According to Long Play, immigrants and Muslims were smeared in many discussions and immigration-related articles and video from known anti-immigration propaganda groups were shared in the group. Police officers in the group mocked an asylum seeker who attempted suicide and a rapper who accused the police of racial profiling. The report also revealed that the head of a national anti-hate speech online task force was once a moderator of the group and moderators didn't intervene to stop racist comments.

Long Play also published an in-depth article on racial profiling. According to the article ethnic profiling is illegal but it happens in Finland continuously - according to Finns belonging to minority groups and police officers who interact with minorities as part of their job. One police officer interviewed for the article acknowledges that he has "certainly" carried out ethnic profiling. "Olen tehnyt etnistä profilointia itsekin, tietysti", he said. He acknowledged profiling the Roma and dark-skinned people.

Following publication of the report the Minister of Interior Paula Rusikko and the National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen sprang into action proclaimed "zero tolerance" for racism. They pledged a full investigation. The National Police Board also announced that the material published by Long Play had been handed to the Office of the prosecutor general to determine whether a preliminary investigation should be launched. The board also proclaimed "zero tolerance" for racism and hate speech in the police force, and stated that it had launched an investigation into ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring.

On 11.7.2017 the National Police Board cleared police ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring. And according to Yle a District Prosecutor, Laura Sairanen, decided the previous week not to launch a preliminary investigation into openly racist postings in the police Facebook group.

My Take

District prosecutor Sairanen and the National Police Board had an opportunity to partially restore confidence in the Finnish police force among people of African descent and other minority groups like Muslims and the Roma but they blew it.

In my earlier blog post related to the marvelous piece of investigative journalism by Long Play I gave the Finnish police force the benefit of the doubt in my assessment of whether or not racism is a structural problem in the force. I argued that one ingredient was lacking for the matter to rise to the level of a structural problem: legitimization and normalization of racism. The district prosecutor and the National Police Board just normalized and legitimized openly racist actions by Finnish police officers online and offline by basically rubbishing serious allegations of racism and ethnic profiling.

According to Long Play, there's erroneous information in the decision of the prosecutor. One of the grounds for not pursuing the matter reportedly put forward by the District Prosecutor assigned to the case is that the identities of those who posted comments in the Facebook group are not known. The claim doesn't hold water, according to Long Play, because names were visible in over 50 screenshots handed over to the office of the prosecutor general. Another reason for turning a blind eye to the openly racist comments is that the plaintiffs or injured parties have not made a police report of an offence. How convenient! The prosecutor reportedly wrote in her decision that the Facebook comments seem to have been written during the police officers' free time although according to Long Play posting were made in the Facebook police group at all times of the day, and the prosecutor didn't bother to ask the police board or police departments for clarification about working hours. Again -- how convenient!

The National Police Board on its part also dropped the ball on the investigation into ethnic profiling. According to a statement by the board the investigation focused on immigration monitoring, and police departments' immigration monitoring guidelines and practices were examined. The board also examined whether police departments have had to intervene in illegal ethnic profiling cases. The investigation found four cases in which officials' actions had been looked into for possible ethnic profiling but no wrongdoing was found. On these basis the board cleared police of ethnic profiling in immigration monitoring. Mindful of the fact that the probe was sparked by a report by Long Play that alleged routine ethnic profiling it is unclear if the National Police Board actually read the detailed report and made an effort to contact at least some - if not all - of the victims of alleged ethnic profiling who were interviewed for the report. A total of 94 people belonging to minority groups, 12 police officers and 6 people who know about the subject through their work were reportedly interviewed by Long Play but the National Police Board's investigation seems to have been limited itself to looking at paperwork provided by various police departments and then concluding that there is no illegal ethnic profiling.

A Twitter user summarized the investigation by the National Police Board in one tweet:

The board basically asked police departments if they practice ethnic profiling. None of the departments said they do hence the board cleared police of wrongdoing.

Besides the superficial nature of the investigation it is also problematic that it focused on immigration monitoring although the report that triggered the investigation raised ethnic profiling of Finnish Roma individuals who are not subject to the Aliens Act but are reportedly eagerly stopped by traffic police.

The way I see it the District Prosecutor and the National Police Board didn't carry out a "full" investigation as pledged by the Minister and Interior and the National Police Commissioner. They rushed the investigation and bungled it. It's hard to imagine that a comprehensive and impartial investigation into such a serious matter was completed by both the office of the Prosecutor General and the National Police Board in about six weeks. Perhaps an independent commission should be set up to look into the matter.

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