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Cameroon: Official Blames Activist for His Own Murder

Reconsider Rejection of UN Human Rights Council Recommendations

(Geneva) – Cameroon’s ambassador to Geneva, Anatole Nkou, told the United Nations Human Rights Council on September 20, 2013, that a murdered human rights defender was killed because of his “personal life,” Human Rights Watch said today.

Eric Ohena Lemembe was a human rights defender and journalist who focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights. The government representative suggested that Lembembe might be a criminal who was killed in a “settling of scores,” despite the authorities’ failure to identify any suspects two months after his death, and despite the  high rate of  homophobic and transphobic violence in Cameroon.

“The comments by the official state representative toward the late Eric Lembembe, who is no longer with us to defend himself against such vitriol, represent a new low by Cameroon’s government,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch. “Cameroon should be focused on improving its human rights record before the UN, instead of blaming the victims and asserting it has no obligation to protect sexual and gender minorities from violence and discrimination.”

Nkou made this statement after his government rejected nearly all recommendations put forward by Human Rights Council member states concerning Cameroon’s need to address violence, discrimination, and arbitrary arrests of LGBTI people. The recommendations were made as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, under which UN member states’ human rights records are reviewed by their peers every four years. Fifteen countries made recommendations to Cameroon for improving its treatment of LGBTI people. Cameroon accepted only one of those recommendations.

The mutilated body of Lembembe, the executive director of Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), was found in his home in Yaoundé on July 15. Two weeks earlier, he had made a public statement condemning the state’s inaction following several attacks on human rights defenders, including those protecting the rights of LGBTI people. Several of his friends were briefly arrested and interrogated, including about their sexual behavior. Since then, activists in Yaoundé say, investigations appear to have stalled. 

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have communicated concern to the government of Cameroon that Lembembe’s murder may be linked to his LGBTI rights activism, a concern that Nkou dismissed at the Human Rights Council as a “fantasy.” Nkou said, “He might have committed crimes, and he was the victim of a settling of scores which was all too quickly attributed to the Cameroon government.” Nkou’s conclusion that Lembembe’s “personal life” caused his murder reinforces a message made clear from Cameroon's rejection of the recommendations: that LGBTI people can be killed with impunity in Cameroon, Human Rights Watch said. 

Human Rights Watch, CAMFAIDS, and 10 other organizations issued a letter to President Paul Biya and the government of Cameroon on September 11 urging them, in light of the recent wave of violence against LGBTI human rights defenders, to adopt the UPR recommendations on sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, Cameroon rejected recommendations at the Human Rights Council that would ensure people’s basic rights not to be killed, raped, or assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These included a recommendation from Uruguay to tackle harassment and violence based on sexual orientation, and a recommendation from Germany to protect LGBTI people from violence.

“In rejecting these common-sense recommendations, Cameroon has failed to uphold the basic principle that every person has the right to life and to security,” Ghoshal said. “It has distanced itself from a growing consensus, voiced by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN Human Rights Council, that discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity are never acceptable.”

In a more encouraging move, Cameroon accepted Belgium’s recommendation to investigate police violence against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. In March, Human Rights Watch, the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals, Alternatives-Cameroun, and CAMFAIDS issued a report documenting that security forces torture people to extract confessions concerning same-sex relationships. Cameroon should make good on its commitment and take immediate steps to hold these security officers responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

However, Cameroon rejected recommendations to end arbitrary arrests for consensual same-sex conduct. In response to UN member states’ arguments that Cameroon’s anti-homosexuality law violates its own constitution, as well as international law, Cameroon said that the law targets people who have sex in public, a claim that is patently false. Since the beginning of 2013, at least six people have been convicted for homosexuality; not a single one was caught having sex.  

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