Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Push to criminalize forced marriage in Finland

Forced marriage is often presented as a third world problem - a grave injustice in distant lands across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But, in reality, it is a global phenomenon that negatively impacts young girls and women across the globe, including in developed countries like the United States and Finland. In February 2017 the Washington Post reported, for example, that thousands of American children are wed annually. The case of an 11-year-old forced to marry her rapist in Florida was revealed by the New York Times in an opinion piece by Nicolas Kristof. Regardless of where forced marriage prevails it should be outlawed. Those living in forced marriages or those at risk of being forced into marriage should have appropriate legal protection from the harmful practice. In Finland, the Finnish League for Human Rights, known nationally as Ihmisoikeusliitto is leading the charge to criminalize forced marriage in the Nordic country.

The Finnish League for Human Rights is running a petition (in Finnish) to criminalize forced marriage in Finland. The organization defines forced marriage as marriage that is entered into without the full consent of one or both parties, and into which they or any of them is forced or pressured. According to the organization forced marriage in Finland takes many forms. The practice was brought to light by studies by the Finnish League of Human Rights and the Ministry of Justice in 2016 and 2017 respectively but present legislation is not enough to intervene. The government of Finland has to send a clear message that it does not approve forced marriage, according to the Finnish League for Human Rights. The organization urges its supporters and supporters of the campaign to outlaw forced marriage to sign the petition, which is addressed to Minister of Justice Antti Häkkänen.

The Finnish League for Human rights states in the petition, among other things, that forced marriage has been designated a violation of human rights in many international human rights agreements such as the United Nations convention on women's rights and the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention -- which Finland ratified in 2015. The Convention  is legally binding on Member States, and demands, among other thing, the criminalization of forced marriage. The practice is outlawed by many countries in Europe such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

My Take

I signed the petition to criminalize forced marriage in Finland. No one should be forced into marriage. Marriage should be entered into freely by both parties - without any form of coercion whatsoever. And, in addition, marriage must be between consenting adults. This explains why child marriage, in my view, is forced marriage since minors - like adults under duresss - cannot give consent.


Finland's current legislation does not go far enough to address forced marriage. According to the Finnish League for Human Rights the practice could be punished under the Finnish Penal Code as aggravated human trafficking or coercion but present legislation does not cover every coercion. In addition, coercion is currently an injured party crime whereupon it is the victim's responsibility to initiate criminal proceedings. This is problematic, in my view, because victims of forced marriage, usually children, cannot be reasonably expected to initiative criminal proceedings against their parents. Forced marriage is a practice rooted in harmful cultural norms and traditions, including patriarchy. Young girls and children, more often than not, cannot challenge long-standing cultural norms within their families and communities by, for example, making police reports against their fathers or family members who force them into marriage. Challenging the norm or tradition could be seen as bringing "dishonor" to the family, and could lead to disownment -- or even death in some cases.

Ala Saeed, vice-chairperson of the Iraqi Women's Association, told the Finnish League for Human Rights that girls go into forced marriages because they do not want to lose their families. I think, in the same vein, victims would not initiate criminal proceedings for the same reason. Victims of forced marriage cannot protect themselves; they need the authorities to protect them. They need civil society to remind the authorities of their obligation to protect them. In order to adequately protect victims of forced marriage the authorities, including police and prosecutors should be able to initiative investigations and legal proceedings on their own initiative. Onus should be on the authorities, not victims. The only way this can happen is by criminalizing forced marriage, and taking it off the "injured party crime" category.

The petition to criminalize forced marriage will be submitted to the Minister of Justice on April 5, 2018. Sign the petition now. When I signed the petition it had garnered 4591 signatures, including mine. As of today, one day before it is delivered to the Minister of Justice, 5468 people have signed it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cameroon: security forces commit war crimes on two fronts

When criminals go unpunished they are emboldened by the impunity they enjoy, and go on to commit more of the same crimes. This is the case in Cameroon where state security forces have, for decades, enjoyed impunity for heinous crimes committed against unarmed civilians. Now, feeling emboldened and beyond the reach of the law, their criminality knows no bounds, and civilians in the Far North and Anglophone regions in the northwest and southwest are paying the price.

In July 2017 Amnesty International published a report that spotlights secret torture chambers in Cameroon. The report documents the cases of 101 individuals who were held incommunicado, tortured, and sometimes killed by state security forces between March 2013 and March 2017 in facilities run by the Cameroon military and intelligence services. In the 73-page report, titled "Cameroon's Secret tortured Chambers: Human rights violations and War crimes in the fight against Boko Haram", Amnesty International states that the use of torture by security forces has become widespread and routine, and is practiced with impunity. Violations documented in the report include arbitrary arrest and detention, incommunicado and secret detention, death in custody, and torture. According to Amnesty International, the actions of Cameroon security forces constitute war crimes and violations of international human rights law. The detailed report, which includes concrete recommendations, a letter to President Paul Biya of Cameroon, and a letter to U.S diplomat Michael S. Hoza - who served as U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon from 2014 to 2017 - accuses Cameroon's security forces, including the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) of torture and war crimes. The report also includes a reply from Ambassador Hoza to Amnesty International in which he acknowledges receipt of Amnesty International's letter concerning allegations of human rights abuses, and affirms that the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde and the Department of State "take such allegations seriously...".

Now, with a crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, state security forces have moved south -- deployed by the government to quell a popular uprising in the Northwest and Southwest regions. Their modus operandi remains the same: arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, extrajudicial killings, and torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of civilians.

Since the closing months of 2016 Anglophones in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon have been protesting against what has been described as "Francophonization" of the region. But what started as a call for reform in the educational and judicial system in the region has morphed into calls for secession and outright independence. Anglophones, who make up 20% of the country's population, feel marginalized and discriminated against by the Francophone majority for decades. Many now want an independent state of their own. In response to the calls for independence the government sent in security forces, and numerous, widespread human rights violations have been reported ever since. According to Amnesty International, unlawful killing of several people in the the Anglophone regions coupled with blocks on Facebook and WhatsApp have been reported, and represent an escalation of the government's campaign to silence any form of dissent.

My Take

It is clear to me that gross human rights violations and war crimes have been committed by Cameroon's security forces in the fight against Boko Haram in the Far North. The violations are well-documented and should be investigated and prosecuted. The only question that remains is whether or not same crimes have been committed in the governments effort to quell the Anglophone uprising in the Northwest and Southwest regions.

In order for war crimes to be committed there must, first of all, be an armed conflict. Reports on the ground suggest that there is an armed conflict, albeit in its early stages.

According to Sky News three security forces were reported killed by "separatists" in the city of Bamenda in November 2017, and a source said the security forces were ambushed by armed men on motorbikes. At the time of this writing it was reported by Reuters that three soldiers were killed and four wounded by "separatist fighters" during an overnight attack in Kembong, a village in the Southwest region. According to Reuters, 25 soldiers and policemen have been killed in a series of raids over the past year. More than 15,000 Cameroonians have fled their homes for refuge in Nigeria, according to Reuters. On January 11, 2018 UNHCR reported that 8,050 Cameroonian refugees had been registered in Nigeria, mainly in Cross River State. According to BBC News Pidgin, the governor of the Northwest region, Adolphe Lele Lafrique, banned firearms and ammunition, and ordered the local population surrender any local or imported gun to the authorities. He also ordered a curfew, restricting the movement of persons and property between 8 pm and 6 am for a period of one week from February 10, 2018. BBC News Pidgin reports that the Northwest looks like a military zone.

The way I see it, based on the above, the Anglophone crisis has escalated into an armed conflict. The armed conflict is in its early stages but it is nonetheless an armed conflict - with killings on both sides. Civilians and security forces are being killed. Social media reports of frequent gun shots in towns, villages and cities in the Anglophone region, support this assertion.

Source: Facebook
Faced with attacks against security forces, the forces ramped up attacks against civilian suspects and perceived secessionists. Circulating on social media are gruesome videos and photographs of the crimes security forces reportedly leave in the wake, including a video of an interrogation of two suspects. The video, reportedly captured in Belo in the Northwest region, shows security forces interrogating suspects after a reported attack on gendarmes in the area. A state security personnel can be clearly heard in the video threatening to shoot one of the unarmed suspects. What appears to be at least one of the interrogated suspects later shows up dead in other photographs. The most gruesome photograph of them all shows a member of the military cutting off the head of a civilian. Another photograph shows an armed member of the military stepping on dead civilians. I have been unable to independently verify the videos and photographs but they are worth investigating. If Cameroon is truly a state of law as claimed by government officials including the Head of State and the Minister of Communications such allegations of serious crimes would be investigated. The Anglophone crisis spiraled out of control due to the government's unwillingness or inability to dialogue. Rather than address grievances raised by Anglophones in peaceful protests in 2016 the government cracked down heavy-handedly on protesters - killing and imprisoning many. The government's brutal response radicalized many, forcing some to take up arms.

Human rights violations and war crimes are, in my view, being committed on two fronts by Cameroon's security forces. The armed conflict with Boko Haram in the Far North is full-blown while the conflict in the Anglophone regions is in its early stages. The military operates on two fronts but the M.O. in both conflicts is the same.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Cameroon Anglophone crisis: Should international arrest warrants be executed?

The Republic of Cameroon has been embroiled in political crisis since the closing months of 2016 and more than one year on the crisis has taken a turn for the worse - in the direction of possible armed conflict in English-speaking parts of the country with reports of deadly attacks against security forces and an influx of Cameroonians, including women and children seeking refuge in Nigeria. Following the killing of security forces the government of Cameroon issued international arrest warrants against individuals living abroad suspected of involvement. Cameroon's human rights record and the state's treatment of arrested persons and detainees suggest that if arrested and extradited to Cameroon suspects would suffer untold human rights violations, including torture, cruel and inhuman punishment or treatment in squalid detention facilities.



What started in 2016 as a protest against what was described as the "Francophonization" of Anglophone institutions like courts and schools in English-speaking parts of Cameroon quickly degenerated into massive civil disobedience and unprecedented expression of discontent against the Biya regime that has ruled Cameroon for over 30 years. A strike action started by lawyers was picked up by teachers, university students and people from all walks of life. Schools and courts in many English-speaking towns were shutdown in protest and "ghost towns" were declared. The government's response was brutal: mass arrests, killings, disappearances and trumped up charges against Anglophone civil society leaders. Organizations such as the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) were banned and numerous Anglophones were detained, transported to Yaounde and dragged to military court on charges including terrorism, treason and rebellion. Charges against some of those arrested were eventually discontinued on the orders of the Head of State but many others remain in prison. In addition to mass arbitrary arrests and killings the internet was blocked and an English-language TV channel was banned. What started as simple demands for reform by Anglophone lawyers and teachers morphed into calls for outright secession of English-speaking regions. Attacks against security forces were also reported - an indication that the crisis is getting worse. According to Sky News security officials were killed following a violent crackdown on demonstrations against the government. Following the killings the authorities issued 15 international arrest warrants according to the BBC. Troops were also deployed to the region, according to Reuters. According to BBC News Pidgin tension is high in Manyu Division in the southwest region due to increased military presence.

The issuance of international arrest warrants raises questions as to whether or not countries where wanted Cameroon Anglophone individuals reside should execute the warrants.

My Take

The government of Cameroon under president Paul Biya has little or no regard for human rights - evidenced by numerous reports over the years by human rights groups like Amnesty International. Common human rights violations include arbitrary arrests by security forces, incommunicado detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, restrictions of freedom of expression and association and peaceful assembly. Amnesty International noted in its annual report 2016/17 (see page 106) that demonstrations in Anglophone parts of Cameroon from late October 2016 were "violently repressed" by security forces- with journalists, students, human rights defenders and members of opposition parties arrested and some tried in military courts. Amnesty International also reported deaths and disappearances in custody. The rights group pointed out in its report that Cameroonian civilians, including journalists continue to face unfair trials in military courts. Cameroon's prison conditions are also deplorable. In June 2017 Cameroonian prisoners smuggled out video footage of horrific prison conditions in the main prison in Yaounde. An inmate who contacted France 24 described it as "overpopulated, filthy and rife with corruption and abuse." A report that was put together on the leaked video is very disturbing to read. A few months later another shocking video showed detainees, all reportedly from English-speaking regions of Cameroon, in a dark cell. Amnesty International described Cameroon's prison conditions in its 2016/17 report as "poor, marked by chronic overcrowding, inadequate food, limited medical care and deplorable hygiene and sanitation." According to Amnesty International the prison in Maroua, north of the country, housed about 1,400 prisoners - more than 3 times its intended capacity, and the central prison in Yaounde housed approximately 4000 prisoners despite its intended capacity of 2000. Amnesty reports that mass arrests, large numbers of detainees held without charge and Cameroon's ineffective judicial system are main contributing factors to overcrowding.

Mindful of the aforementioned, if countries where individuals wanted by Cameroonian authorities in relation to the Anglophone crisis were to execute the international arrest warrants issued it would be tantamount to condemning the individuals to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment - or even death in custody. Many of those wanted are already living in exile due to their political opinions. They are essentially political refugees in the countries that host them. Turning them over to Cameroonian authorities from whom they fled would be a violation of the international law principle of non-refoulement. According to VOX Julius Ayuk Tabe, a leading member of the Anglophone struggle, was arrested and taken into custody in Abuja, Nigeria on 5 January 2018. He was reportedly arrested with six others. If extradited to Cameroon, a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution, torture, cruel and inhuman form of punishment or treatment Nigeria will be in violation of its international obligations with regard to non-refoulement.

Non-refoulement, according to the UNHCR prohibits states from returning a refugee or asylum seeker to a territory where there is a risk that his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. In addition to its relation to refugees, the concept is also relevant in other contexts -- notably in the context of general human rights law pertaining to the prohibition of torture, cruel or inhuman form of punishment or treatment.

The wanted individuals might be suspected of "crimes" but they have a right to a free and fair trial, and freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment -- rights that are not, I believe, guaranteed in Cameroon especially under current circumstances. Cameroon has a reputation of unfair trials of civilians before military courts. The trial of Radio France Internationale correspondent Ahmed Abba comes to mind. According to Amnesty International he was charged with complicity with and non-denonciation of terrorist acts. He was reportedly tortured and held incommunicado for three months. Other trials include the trials of three journalists in Yaounde military court: Rodrique Tongue, Felix Ebole Bola and Baba Wame. Their trials are, according to Amnesty International, marred by substantive and procedurial irregularities, including refusal by judges to allow witnesses to testify. Other more recent and perhaps more recent civilian detainees to appear before the military court in Yaounde include Agbor Balla of the CACSC and Mancho Bibixy who remains in prison. The individuals with international arrest warrants in their names could face the same fate if extradited to Cameroon hence there should be no extraditions.

Now, Cameroon could provide solid diplomatic assurances and guarantees that the rights of those involved would be respected, including the right to freedom from torture, freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the right to a free and fair trial. However, even if assurances are given, sending countries should note that there is, according to Human Rights Watch, growing evidence and expert opinion that diplomatic assurances cannot protect people at risk of torture from such treatment on return. It is therefore plausible to conclude that wanted individuals should not be extradited to Cameroon, even with diplomatic assurances.

Now, let me be clear: the attacks that left state security forces dead are reprehensible. I denounce such violent attacks. I also strenuously denounce attacks against unarmed civilians by state security forces - attacks that left many dead. Those responsible, on both sides, should be brought to book through free and fair trials. There should be no double standard.

It is unfortunate that in addition to being unable to guarantee freedom from torture or cruel and degrading treatment and free and fair trials against political dissidents, Cameroon authorities are only going after civilians accused of wrongdoing while state security forces, including police officers and members of the notorious Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) who have brutalized and killed numerous civilians walk free. Dozens of civilians have been killed, tortured and seen their houses broken into and their property destroyed by security forces in Cameroon during this episode of unrest, and in previous episodes over more than three decades of the Biya administration. Needless to say, the government has not lifted a finger against state-sponsored perpetrators. On the contrary the Head of State in his end-of-year address to the nation praised them for their "professionalism", thereby emboldening them to commit more atrocities against civilians.

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