Author: Dunia Tegegn
Human rights lawyer, Ethiopia
The war in Cameroon
The conflict in Cameroon is complex. It involves different actors including the separatists Ambazonia Governing Council, which leads the Ambazonia Defense Forces. The conflict also involves Southern Cameroons Defense Force, Boko Haram and government forces. For many years, Cameroon has been considered a refuge for Boko Haram, where the organisation was tolerated by the Cameroon authorities in the sense of an unspoken mutual non-aggression pact. Since 2013, however, the organisation has extended its attacks to Cameroon itself.
Again and again, the inequality between the Anglophone and the Francophone parts of Cameroon have been the trigger for burgeoning conflicts within society. Other triggers and exacerbators of conflict are corruption and state failure, especially with regard to the education and health systems. Already after the reunification, the Anglophone part began to strive for autonomy, which has intensified since 1990. As a result, the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) was founded in 1995, advocating the separation of the English-speaking part from Cameroon and the establishment of an independent “Republic of Ambazonia”. There were also demonstrations in the Francophone part of Cameroon against a possible secession.
In the current Cameroon, civilians bore the brunt of the ongoing conflict. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in recent years by clashes between security and defense forces and by armed separatist groups in Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions. Between 3,000 and 12,000 people are estimated to have died in the country since the onset of the crisis. The country also has a high number of displaced persons. According to the United Nation, rising insecurity had led to the internal displacement of about 530,000 Cameroonians by April 2019.
Cameroon’s government has been fighting separatists in the region for three years. According to UNICEF, Nearly two million Cameroonians face humanitarian emergency. Arbitrary arrest, burning of villages and indiscriminate killings by both sides have been conducted with impunity. There are reports of continued attacks against civilians, including extra-judicial killings, torture, destruction of property, as well as retaliatory attacks, rape and other forms of sexual violence that disproportionately affect women and children in the north- and south-west regions of the country. Because of this, a growing number of Cameroonians are fleeing their home to seek safety in the United States and other parts of the world.
COVID- 19 sorsening the situation of the civilian population in Cameroon
It is the men, women and children trapped in the crossfire of armed conflict – banished by violence, living in countries which have been fundamentally devastated by years of fighting, destruction, erosion of basic services that are the most susceptible to the current infection. This vulnerability of people in conflict zones is the result of tarnished or weak essential services for the civilian population including water, sanitation, and health care, because of neglect over many years of States’ obligations as stated under international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Nearly 168 million people around the world now depend on humanitarian relief because of conflict, violence and disasters. As terrifying as the health, social, psychological and economic impacts have shown to be, the coronavirus is not one, but rather one more, calamity that befalls them.
Cameroon is believed to have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Central Africa. Reports indicate that there are about 4 900 cases in conflict-prone Cameroon, provoking fears that the situation may get out of hand if the virus spreads to areas where internally displaced persons from the country’s separatist crisis and Boko Haram terrorism reside. However, few cases have been reported in the North-West and South-West, either because of little testing or because conflict has heavily restricted movement, effectively putting many urban and rural areas on lockdown long before the outbreak of coronavirus. Following the United Nations General’s call for a cease fire, the Southern Cameroons Defense Force agreed to a preliminary 14-day ceasefire, on 29 March to protect people from coronavirus. However, none of Cameroon’s other secessionist groups, have observed this call. For example, the Ambazonia Governing Council, which leads the Ambazonia Defence Forces, refused to suspend fighting.
To aggravate existing challenges, neighboring Chad, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon announced that they were protecting their populations from the spread of COVID-19 by refusing to grant entry to people traveling from Cameroon. This measure came after news about the number of COVID-19 patients in Cameroon was made public. This is made worse because Cameroon’s government, led by the French-speaking President Paul Biya, has not declared a truce either and, to the dismay of aid workers, has banned humanitarian flights, along with commercial flights, in its efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates that about 255 of the 7 421 health facilities in the North-West and South-West are either non-functional or only partially functional because of the conflict. Some of the facilities have been attacked and burnt down, forcing medics to flee. This has increased fears about ability to treat people in the event of a major outbreak of Covid-19.
Calls to action
1. All parties to the conflict should observe the UN’s appeal for ceasefire
Two billion people living in fragile and conflict-affected states are now at intensified risk from the illness, including in areas where health systems are damaged and hospitals bombed, forcing them to escape into congested camps. According to Oxfam’s recent report, in the last year alone, the international community spent more than $1.9 trillion on their militaries. This would have paid for the UN’s coronavirus appeal more than 280 times. To date, 59 states have signed a statement, led by the French government, in support of the global ceasefire and 70 states have expressed support for the global ceasefire call in some way. If implemented, a global ceasefire has the potential to immediately stop hostilities and protect populations affected by violence. This applies to Cameroon. All warring actors in Cameroon should accept the UN Secretary General’s appeal for cease fire including the republic. COVID-19 should be used as a breakthrough for a peaceful and negotiated resolution of the ongoing conflict.
2. Respect for international humanitarian and human rights law principles
Cameroon is a party to the Geneva Conventions and the two additional protocols.
Under international humanitarian law, medical personnel, units and transports exclusively assigned to medical purposes must be respected and protected in all circumstances. Parties should ensure and maintain medical and hospital establishments, services, public health and hygiene.
International humanitarian law prohibits actions to attack, destroy, remove or render useless, objects considered indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas, livestock, drinking water installations, irrigation works and similar objects. Civilians must not be displaced unless it is for their own security or for reasons of imperative military necessity. In that case, all possible measures must be taken to ensure that satisfactory arrangements are made in the new location for shelter, hygiene, safety and nutrition. It is also forbidden to compel civilians to leave their own territory for reasons connected with the conflict. Relief organisations such as the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society located in the country should be able to offer their services to the victims of the conflict.
Water supply facilities are of critical importance during the current crisis. In armed conflict situations, many of these installations have been demolished by fighting over the years. Any interruption to their functioning means thousands of civilians would no longer be able to implement the basic deterrence measures, such as frequent hand-washing, which can lead to further spread of the virus. As a result, in the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to protect civilian objects, including water supply network and installations.
3. Humanitarian access
All parties ‘to the armed conflict and third States should allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief subject to their right of control (e.g. by adjusting any pandemic-related movement restrictions to allow victims to access humanitarian goods and services). Armed conflicts are already huge challenges to the distribution of life-saving aid in conflict-affected countries. Measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus are an additional barrier and may make these existing challenges worse. Limitations on the movement of people and goods has limited supply chains and resulted in the suspension and scaling down of a large number of humanitarian activities. Humanitarian access can be made better through a ceasefire that would reduce security-related access constraints to allow a focus on averting the spread of the virus to already at risk populations.
About the Author:
Dunia Tegegn is a human rights and national security lawyer from Ethiopia with LLM from Georgetown University Law Center. Before moving to the United States, Dunia Tegegn was working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a Human Rights Officer. She is also a certified humanitarian law professional with a women’s rights concentration. Dunia recently completed African Human Rights Fellowship with Amnesty International USA.
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