Cameroon is teetering on the brink of a human-rights catastrophe in a linguistic conflict that has already killed at least 1,850 people, and bilingual Canada must bolster international efforts to avert disaster, according to a report co-written by Canadian human-rights lawyers.
A government campaign in francophone-majority Cameroon against English-speaking minority rights has devolved into an armed conflict between security forces and 10 armed secessionist groups, according to the report published on Monday.
The government is on a repression campaign, burning hundreds of villages, murdering rebels, dissidents and civilians alike and raping and torturing women, according to the report, which was published by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, based in Montreal, and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, in Cameroon. Rebel groups have committed their own atrocities, the report says.
The report concludes “reasonable grounds” exist to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed and a concerted international effort is required to prevent the violence from spiralling.
“I don’t think it’s too late,” said Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal human-rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre, who co-authored the report. “I’ve worked in Rwanda, East Timor and Sri Lanka before the civil war. In those cases, it was often too late. Cameroon is a rare case study where there is a moment to intervene.
“But Cameroon is a historically stable country that’s on the way to being dismantled.”
Ms. Eliadis said diplomatic pressure, trade incentives, supporting local civil-society organizations and a strong push for investigating crimes could all still work on a conflict that has largely flown under the international radar.
Canada could play an effective role, she added, as a bilingual country with both civil- and common-law legal systems similar to Cameroon. Canada does not have the same colonial baggage as Britain and France, the two powers that created Cameroon along with its linguistic divisions in the 1960s. Cameroon is one of Canada’s oldest allies in Africa and has been among the biggest recipients of Canadian aid in Africa since the 1960s. “Canada, I think, has something unique to bring to the table,” Ms. Eliadis said.
According to the latest numbers from the International Crisis Group published in the report, close to 1,000 separatists, at least 650 civilians and 235 security forces personnel have died in the past two years. The report says 206 villages have been burned so far in 2019, compared with 106 in all of 2017.
Paul Biya has been President of Cameroon for 37 years. His country of 25 million includes about five million English speakers, mostly in the northwestern and southwestern parts of the country. Mr. Biya has also been waging war against Boko Haram in the north. Western countries see him as an ally against Islamist terrorism.
In November, 2016, lawyers protested a government move to impose civil law on common-law regions and the lack of effort to implement basic bilingualism. Later that month, teachers joined the protest over plans to impose French in schools.
Security forces cracked down on the protests, shooting and beating dozens and jailing more than 100. Cameroonian barrister Felix Nkongho, who co-wrote the report and led research efforts on the ground, was among them. He was supposed to participate in unveiling the report Monday, but was hiding after receiving death threats.
About 25,000 people of Cameroonian origin live in Canada, about two-thirds of them in Montreal. Olivia Leke, a Southern Cameroonian who lives in Montreal, says many of her family members have fled their homes as violence has escalated.
When she saw the 2016 arrests, she says she “thought it was a joke.” Since then, an uncle’s home was burned and another uncle was kidnapped. Her grandmother died in their home village, and her mother buried her and then fled on a motorcycle to join her father, who saw the school where he served as principal burned to the ground.
“The people who have fled into the bushes have no voice,” Ms. Leke said, adding that the Cameroon government is sensitive about its international image. “Canada must act loudly and clearly to compel the Cameroon government to do what needs to be done.”