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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