(Nairobi) – Government forces in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have killed scores of civilians, used indiscriminate force, and torched hundreds of homes over the past six months, Human Rights Watch said today. Armed separatists have assaulted and kidnapped dozens of people during the same period, executing at least two men, amid intensifying violence and growing calls for secession of the North-West and South-West regions.
Violence has intensified since October 2018 as government forces have conducted large-scale security operations and separatists have carried out attacks. Cameroon’s government should investigate allegations of human rights violations and ensure that civilians are protected during security operations. Separatist leaders should immediately direct their fighters and followers to halt all human rights abuses and to stop interfering with children’s education.
“Cameroon’s authorities have an obligation to respond lawfully and to protect people’s rights during periods of violence,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s heavy-handed response targeting civilians is counterproductive and risks igniting more violence.”
Since October, at least 170 civilians have been killed in over 220 incidents in the North-West and South-West regions, according to media reports and Human Rights Watch research. Given the ongoing clashes and the difficulty of collecting information from remote areas, the number of civilian deaths is most likely higher.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 140 victims, family members, and witnesses between December and March, including 80 in person in the North-West and South-West regions in January.
In the fall of 2017, Cameroonian security forces suppressed large-scale protests organized to celebrate the symbolic independence of Anglophone regions from the country's French-speaking areas, killing more than 20 protesters. Since then, the emergence of armed separatist groups has been accompanied by attacks and a growing militarization of the Anglophone regions. The unrest has displaced more than a half-million people since late 2016.
Human Rights Watch research shows that since October, security forces, including soldiers, members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), and gendarmes, killed civilians, used force indiscriminately, and destroyed and looted private and public property.
In one case, witnesses said, Cameroonian security forces attacked the village of Abuh, North-West region, in November and burned an entire neighborhood to the ground. Satellite images and photographic evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch show the destruction of up to 60 structures.
A woman in her 40s said she spent three days hiding in the surrounding countryside with her five children after the attack: “When I came back to the village, my house was gone, with everything inside. I am left with nothing but my clothes.”
The government’s near-total lack of prosecutions for crimes by security forces in the Anglophone regions has protected those responsible and fueled abuses.
At least 31 members of the security forces were killed in operations between October and February, in both the North-West and South-West regions, according to credible media reports and information collected by Human Rights Watch.
Witnesses said that separatists assaulted government workers, teachers, and students, preventing them from going to work or to school.
Kidnappings by separatists have also surged, including more than 300 students under age 18 kidnapped in at least 12 incidents. All were released, most after a ransom was paid.
In one case, a man in his 50s said separatists kidnapped and held him for ransom days after the October presidential election – an exercise the separatists opposed – as he drove between Kumba and Buea in the South-West region. He was taken to a remote base operated by the Ambazonia Restoration Forces – one of the armed separatist groups operating in the Anglophone regions and affiliated with the Ambazonia Interim Government – where he said he saw fighters execute two young men. “They were accused of voting,” he said. “They were beaten to death.”
Cameroon’s partners, France in particular, should increase pressure on the government to hold those responsible for abuse to account, and ensure that any support to Cameroonian security forces does not contribute to or facilitate human rights violations. The UN Human Rights Council should ask the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) or relevant UN experts to conduct a fact-finding mission into allegations of human rights abuses in Cameroon. Members of the UN Security Council should formally add Cameroon to the Council’s agenda, request a briefing on the situation from the UN Secretary General, and make clear that individuals responsible for serious human rights violations could face sanctions.
“It is absolutely essential for the Cameroon government to restore the rule of law in the Anglophone regions and to hold those who target civilians to account,” Mudge said. “Leaders of the separatist groups should stop abusing civilians and show they are willing to resolve this crisis.”
On February 12, Human Rights Watch sent a letter with its findings to Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, secretary general at the presidency requesting a response to specific questions. The government’s March 22 response denies state security forces carried out abuse documented in this report. The government added that its security forces all undergo human rights training prior to deployment and that about 30 cases are pending before the Military Courts in Bamenda and Buea for crimes including torture, destruction of property, violation of orders, and theft.
Violations by Security Forces
To protect witnesses and family members, Human Rights Watch has withheld the identities of some victims and interviewees.
Attacks on Villages