Friday, April 6, 2012

Cameroon: Human rights workshop shut down

It is no secret that Cameroon does not have a good human rights record. Fundamental freedoms, including press freedom, freedom from arbitrary arrest, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment or punishment, freedom of assembly and expression, are more often than not stifled by a 28-year-old regime. We have seen journalists arrested and imprisoned in relation to their work, we have seen musicians, such as Lapiro de Mbanga, arrested arbitrarily and imprisoned. There are reports of human rights activists threatened, harassed or arrested for doing their work. Rights to free assembly and expression are routinely curtailed by security forces who commonly use lethal force, arrests and intimidation against civilians or brutally crackdown on demonstrators and individuals who peacefully assemble for a cause or express dissenting views. Impunity is endemic, hence many perpetrators of human rights violations walk free. A recent shut down of a human rights workshop in Yaounde sheds new light on limitations on rights and freedoms in Cameroon.

According to Human Rights Watch, the authorities in Cameroon illegally shut down a  human rights workshop on 27 March 2012 in Yaounde, the nation's capital. [Source]. The human rights workshop was scheduled for three days and was to include a discussion of the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. As if shutting down the workshop was not enough, the authorities arrested one of the organizers - all in violation of the rights to free assembly and expression laid down in international human rights standards and recognized in the Constitution of Cameroon.

The human rights workshop had reportedly been authorized, but was shut down by police, gendarmes and civilians authorities after they realized that discussions will include LGBT rights.

The shut down means that Cameroonian authorities do not recognize LGBT rights as human rights, and think that the rights of sexual minorities should not be discussed in human rights workshops. This is a misguided and wrong understanding of human rights.

This goes to show that the authorities in Cameroon have a twisted understanding of the concept of human rights. The police, gendarmes and administrative officials who authorize human rights workshops and other public gatherings are clearly in need of human rights education. They should have benefited from the workshop rather than shut it down. LGBT rights are human rights.

The Preamble of the Constitution of Cameroon states that "we the people of Cameroon... affirm our attachment to the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights... and all duly ratified international conventions..." Article 45 of the Constitution states that "duly approved or ratified treaties and international agreements shall, following their publication, override national laws..."

Cameroon is party to numerous treaties and international agreements that obligate the state to respect and protect LGBT rights as well as rights to free assembly and expression. Shutting down a human rights workshop because the agenda included LGBT rights violated the Constitution of the Republic and rights to freedom of assembly and expression of the workshop organizers, participants and all stakeholders.

It is worth mentioning that Amnesty International - Finnish Section - organized a discussion on 1 February 2012 about the human rights situation in Cameroon and the systematic discrimination against LGBT people in the west central African country. I opened the discussion with a presentation of a general overview of the human rights situation in Cameroon. If it was organized in Cameroon, perhaps the event would have been shut down by the authorities. Amnesty International is currently campaigning for the release of Jean-Claude Mbede, a Cameroonian sentenced to 3 years in prison for his alleged sexual orientation. Sign a petition by Amnesty International calling for his release.

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