The United Nations Security Council, after more than two years of neglect, is finally giving some attention to Cameroon’s deteriorating human rights situation. The three African members of the global body – Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa and Equatorial Guinea – shouldn’t miss the chance to add Cameroon’s worsening crisis to the Council’s agenda.
Over the past three years, Cameroon has been embroiled in a cycle of civil protest, followed by government repression, and violence that threatens to escalate into an all-out human rights catastrophe. A wider conflict could destabilize an already volatile region – Cameroon, which has been waging a war against Boko Haram insurgents in its Far North region, borders the Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Chad, Nigeria, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Cameroon’s separatist crisis began in October 2016, when students, teachers and lawyers from the minority English-speaking regions took to the streets to demand greater recognition of their cultural and political rights. The ruthless response of the security forces, who killed and arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters, as well as of the government, which banned civil society groups and shut down the internet, escalated the crisis.
Since then, numerous separatist groups have emerged and taken up arms calling for the independence of the Anglophone regions, which they call “Ambazonia.” These groups have killed, kidnapped, and tortured perceived opponents, while enforcing a boycott of education, which has kept children and their teachers out of school for over two years in the Northwest and Southwest regions.
The government has responded with violence, burning hundreds of homes, killing civilians, and detaining and torturing alleged separatists in a gendarme-run prison in the capital, Yaoundé. The crisis has displaced half a million Cameroonians, many of whom desperately need protection and humanitarian assistance.
As Cameroon has spiraled into violence, the African Union, the continent-wide body that aspires to promote “African Solutions to African Problems,” has refused to confront or acknowledge the problem.
The UN Security Council hasn’t done much better, failing to issue any statement about the serious human rights abuses by both the government forces and the armed separatists, or to warn both sides about the consequences.
There are signs, however, that the UN might take more robust action. Last month, the United States, with the support of Germany, the Dominican Republic and the United Kingdom, organized an informal session of the Security Council to help put the situation in Cameroon on its members’ radar.
This was a worthy effort, but the event was an informal side event and only focused on the humanitarian situation. Fierce resistance from the Council’s African members, wary of Western-led interventions on the continent, almost derailed the effort. The African Union’s permanent representative to the Security Council didn’t even attend the session.
Non-Western states uncomfortable about Western countries taking the lead on an African crisis should join forces to get Cameroon on the Council’s agenda. There is no better way to mobilize the fractious Security Council to address the crisis in Cameroon than for its African members to demonstrate leadership and demand vigorous action.
Equatorial Guinea is unlikely to rise to the challenge. As a country knee-deep in human rights violations, it has ample reason to defend the self-serving idea that what happens inside the border of a state, no matter how egregious for rights or threatening to security, is its own business.
South Africa’s long struggle against apartheid was helped by international solidarity, including the active support of the UN Security Council. In recent years, however, successive South African presidents have pushed back against international pressure seeking to address serious and widespread human rights abuses in countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, and, until recently, Myanmar. The newly elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has promised to promote, “democracy, justice, human rights, and good governance” at the UN, and the Cameroon crisis would be a good place to start.
The best hope, though, may be Côte d’Ivoire, whose brutal 2010-11 post-election crisis was resolved with AU and Security Council support. President Alassane Ouattara, when campaigning in 2016 for his country to join the UN Security Council, said that it, “must be the principal organ in which courageous decisions are taken, to save people and states from conflicts and wars, with the suffering and distress that they bring.”
Côte d’Ivoire finishes its term on the UN Security Council at the end of 2019. Although its voting record is far from perfect, President Ouattara’s government has shown some leadership on human rights issues. Côte d’Ivoire broke with other African states to initiate an arms embargo on South Sudan, although on May 30 it abstained on a resolution reauthorizing the ban.
Supporting action on Cameroon, by formally placing the Anglophone crisis on the Council’s agenda and addressing the serious human rights abuses, would strengthen Côte d’Ivoire’s legacy as a supporter of human rights defenders and conflict resolution. It would also demonstrate that African governments can have the courage and conviction to address pressing crises on the continent.