Friday, December 19, 2014

Cameroon's anti-terrorism bill threatens civil and political rights

Public demonstrations that culminated in the ouster of dictators in North Africa, the Middle East and most recently in Burkina Faso in sub-Saharan Africa have put last-standing regimes that have been in power for decades on edge, and forced them to explore ways of tightening their grip on power -- even if it means passing laws that have the potential of prohibiting public demonstrations, the likes of which recently toppled unpopular regimes elsewhere.

Six years after the president of Cameroon eliminated presidential term limits from the constitution of the Republic, the country's parliament, which is dominated by members of the ruling party, passed another controversial bill seemingly designed to discourage mass demonstrations and the dissemination of information against a regime that has ruled Cameroon for 32 years.

According to The Cameroon Journal, Cameroon's National Assembly (parliament) voted into law a bill that prescribes the death penalty for individuals found guilty of acts of terrorism. A section of the bill reportedly states, amongst other things:
"Whoever, acting alone as an accomplice or an accessory, commits or threatens to commit an act likely to cause death, endanger physical integrity, cause bodily harm or material damage, destroy natural resources, the environment or cultural heritage with intent to: a) intimidate the public, provoke a situation of terror, or force the victim, the government, and/or a national or international organisation to carry out or refrain from carrying out an act, adopt or renounce a particular position; b) disrupt the normal functioning of public services, the delivery of essential services to the public or create a crisis situation among the public; c) create widespread insurrection in the country..." 
Many Cameroonians, including a leading member of parliament are concerned, and rightly so. The National Commission for Human Rights and Freedom also criticized the bill. Reporters Without Borders urged Cameroon's president to reject the bill on grounds that certain provisions would adversely affect freedom of information. 

In my view, the bill, which might be well-intended in light of a real terrorist threat posed by terror groups like Boko Haram operating in the region, is vague and if promulgated into law could lead to the suppression of a catalogue of civil and political rights, including freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, the right to freedom of expression (press freedom included) either orally, in writing or through peaceful public demonstrations.

Public demonstrations are usually intended to "force" the government "to carry out or refrain from carrying out an act, adopt or renounce a particular position." Demonstrations in Burkina Faso for example were intended to force the government to refrain from changing the constitution. I'm of the view that the protests - although disrupted public services and culminated in the ouster of Blaise Compaore - were by no means an act of terror.  

Legitimate peaceful demonstrations sometimes "disrupt the normal functioning of public services", but are not necessarily acts of terror. Street occupations that broke out in Hong Kong in September for instance disrupted public services as well, but weren't "acts of terror;" neither were peaceful protests that ousted Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011.

If the bill in question goes into law protesters in Cameroon who demonstrate like those in Hong Kong could be, I believe, prosecuted under the anti-terrorism law.

Cameroon has obligations under international human rights law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other key international human rights standards to which Cameroon is party obligate States Parties to guarantee the right of peaceful assembly. The state should refrain from enacting laws that threaten this right.

Any country that outlaws protests and threatens demonstrators with the death sentence is, in my opinion, dictatorial and repressive. It follows that "Bill N° 962/PJL/AN on the suppression of acts of terrorism" portrays Cameroon as a dictatorship where public demonstrations are frowned upon and could be branded "acts of terror." The right of peaceful assembly, including the right to protest is a key facet of free and democratic societies.

Cameroon needs a law on the suppression of terrorism, especially due to the fact that Boko Haram operates in neighboring Nigeria and has reportedly carried out cross-border attacks in Cameroon. Other terrorist groups like ISIL operating further away also have the potential to radicalize and recruit militants across borders through the internet. Anti-terrorism laws are therefore important. However, laws on suppression of terrorism - like all other laws - should be unambiguous and shouldn't have the potential of being used to stifle protests and political dissent.

Cameroonians at home and abroad have seen criminal laws in the country used in the past against dissidents like Lapiro de Mbanga. A vague anti-terrorism law would be an addition to the state's arsenal of laws used to crush political dissent.

It's my wish that the Head of State holds off signing the bill into law until sections that threaten civil and political rights are dropped.

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