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View Anita Vandenbeld Profile
Lib. (ON)
We're resuming our committee meeting now, and my apologies for the delay. There were votes in the House.
We will begin our session with the update on the human rights situation in Cameroon. The committee will recall that we had a session on Cameroon, and today's session is to get an update on the circumstances today.
We have two witnesses by video conference. Scott Morgan is the chair of the Africa working group of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, and he is coming to us from Washington, D.C. Tity Agbahey is a campaigner for central Africa at Amnesty International's west and central Africa regional office, based in Dakar, Senegal.
We will have 10 minutes for opening remarks from each of our witnesses and then we will go to questions.
We will begin with you, Mr. Morgan.
Scott Morgan
View Scott Morgan Profile
Scott Morgan
2019-06-13 13:20
Thank you and good afternoon, Madam Chair.
My name is Scott Morgan. I am the chair of the Africa working group for the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, based here in Washington, D.C.
Although the group includes various representations from several religious groups, it should be noted that I am making these remarks on my own behalf.
It would be a great disservice to not thank Mr. Anderson for the invitation to brief the honourable members of Parliament and for his service defending freedom of religion and belief around the world. It is sad to hear he is not standing for re-election and I wish him well in his future endeavours.
Scott Morgan
View Scott Morgan Profile
Scott Morgan
2019-06-13 13:20
Currently, the issue of defending religious liberty in Cameroon is one of the most difficult tasks that can be undertaken right now. Most media outlets are all too eager to categorize the violence as a one-dimensional conflict between the state and separatists. They overlook the various religious components that are under the surface. One of the best examples of this was the reaction to the death of the Indiana-born missionary Charles Truman Wesco a mere two weeks after he entered the country—he left behind eight children—or even the random murder of eight priests who were on their way to the seminary for training. These incidents generally fall off the radar.
Moreover, the series of abductions of students from Saint Augustine's College and other Presbyterian schools highlights another debate that overshadows the religious aspect in terms of education. The government in Yaoundé has undertaken several steps to send French-speaking teachers to the anglophone region to order for them to teach French as the primary language instead of English. Most analysts concur that this act is one of the most serious concerns regarding human rights and may be an underlying factor as a root cause of this conflict.
A rising issue is one in which the Mbororos, an ethnic tribe that has close ties to the Fulanis, are being forced to swear loyalty to the government of Paul Biya. This strategy can be viewed as a counter-intelligence strategy with the goal of possibly ensuring or increasing the military assistance provided by the United States. The concern is that the Ambazonian separatists will target the Mbororos by seeing them as actual agents of the Cameroonian government, which will in turn give the Cameroonian government cover to go into the region with a heavy presence and impose its will. This would give the government some form of cover to explain some of the incidents in which other priests, nuns and seminary students have been killed as a result of this operation. This action could make the conflict worse by turning it into a religious conflict. Stating that the actions of the Fulanis would be a concern would force some actors to say that this was a religious conflict and that force should be used. It could be a religious conflict for which it appears the Biya government would be willing to pay the price in order to remain in power.
Another major growing concern involves the rights of refugees. Shortly after the re-election of President Buhari in Nigeria, the repatriation of refugees back into Nigeria began almost immediately. It is still of grave concern, because in some of the areas they're being repatriated to in Nigeria, Boko Haram is still active. The group recently launched attacks against interests in both Nigeria and Cameroon. However, there's growing concern, one that often does not make forums like this, about the silence over what's going on with the refugees from the Central African Republic who are in the process of being hosted by the Cameroonians. There are growing reports that both Seleka and the anti-Balakas are recruiting and organizing fighters in the camps in the eastern part of the country. These factors alone are creating a ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment. This situation should be addressed as soon as possible.
For one of the best sources of the current climate regarding the refugees, I refer you to the recent report by Refugees International regarding the situation in Cameroon among the refugee camps. This was just recently released, within the last 30 days, so it is a good snapshot of what is currently going on in this realm.
Another concern is how social media have been used effectively in this. Although most of the criticism has been levied against the Biya government, both sides have released videos on various social media platforms that have been criticized as being propaganda or fake news.
These actions make verifications and investigations of events that have taken place on the ground more difficult, as some people are more inclined to believe that the information from one source is more credible than the others. It has been discovered recently that local stringers for international media outlets such as the Voice of America are actually on the payroll for CRTV, which is the state-owned media company.
The Cameroonian government has also taken other measures to ensure these atrocities do not see the light of day. During Qs and As, I will be able to explain some of the moves they have taken here in Washington to suppress information and other concerns arising in the region.
Recently, several reports, including from the Wallenberg institute, have requested that the Canadian government step in and be one of the parties that helps mediate in this conflict. Considering the history within the the conflict and the issues regarding Quebec, and Canada's long-standing ties with Cameroon dating back to the days of independence, this may actually be a good idea.
Currently, the only way forward to resolve the conflicts in Cameroon is mediation. There most likely will not be a military solution.
Recently, the U.S. undersecretary of state for Africa, Tibor Nagy, who visited Cameroon in March of this year, stated that there is a necessity for mediation as well. This statement can be taken as an official policy decision by the Trump administration. As soon as is practical, I urge consultation between the Canadian foreign ministry staff dealing with Africa and Mr. Nagy to undertake a joint strategy about mediation.
This is not the only branch of the U.S. government interested in the situation. Recently, Congress introduced H. Res. 358, which is a bill that calls for mediation to take place in the country. One of the provisions in there calls for mediation to be conducted by the religious community inside the country; however, an attempt in November 2018 by the anglophone speakers of the Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant groups was actually thwarted by the governor of the southwest state, with a vague suggestion that they would be breaking Cameroonian law.
The U.S. legislation does not have a provision to safeguard the leaders as they attempt to bring about mediation in this conflict. I have urged that this is an oversight that should be taken up by Congress. Any effort by the Canadian government should also suggest some type of protection for the mediators.
Finally, it appears that the UN will take no action to eradicate the conflict. A recent briefing of the UN Security Council regarding the situation in Cameroon found that both Russia and China felt that this was an internal matter. If this were an actual vote on a Security Council resolution, it would be vetoed.
Therefore, Canada has a unique position whereby it could work with key members of the Commonwealth and the AU to seek redress for the peoples of Cameroon. Even though CMAG was suspended for the year, it should not be an excuse not to take action regarding this.
We have noted the recent actions by the African Union in suspending Sudan for the violence that has taken place in the country after the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir. The quickness of this other suspension from the AU could be used as a model for what could be taking place within Cameroon if it's properly discussed by its peers.
Another action from the Commonwealth ministerial group that could be taken is the setting up of a working group within the body, similar to what took place in Zimbabwe after the controversial 2002 elections. A three-nation working group was set up to discuss how the internal political situation in Zimbabwe could be addressed to the resolution of all. Ultimately, that issue did fail, and it was set off to the side after the 2008 elections. This could also be a way for Canada to extensively heighten its presence as a diplomatic player in this field.
Tity Agbahey
View Tity Agbahey Profile
Tity Agbahey
2019-06-13 13:30
Thank you, Ms. Chair, and members of the subcommittee on international human rights.
Amnesty International is relieved that the issue in Cameroon is getting attention. Amnesty International has been working in and on Cameroon for five years now, documenting numerous human rights violations and abuses.
Allow me to give you a broad view of what's happening in Cameroon, not only in the anglophone regions but basically in all the country.
Cameroon is in a very difficult regional context where the rationale of security versus human rights is gaining more and more ground, and basically the state seems to think that any human rights violation can be justified by the fact that they are protecting their people and country against whatever they consider threats.
Cameroon is facing multiple crises, the first one being Boko Haram in the northern regions; it's not first by order of importance but by chronological order. The second one is the crisis in anglophone regions. The third one, which just started a few months ago, is the post-electoral crackdown in Yaoundé and Douala.
As I was saying, Cameroon is surrounded by very sensitive countries that are dealing with their own threats. Cameroon is surrounded by the Central African Republic, Chad and Nigeria, and is very engaged in the fight against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region. While Amnesty International considers that the fight is legitimate, the means they are using are not.
In the response of the Cameroonian authorities to the fight against Boko Haram, security forces have committed a huge number of human rights violations and abuses. They have committed arbitrary arrests and detention, systematic use of torture and forced disappearance, death in custody and unlawful killing sometimes. They are basically using the same pattern of human rights violations in the anglophone regions.
Whatever Cameroon considers a threat, whatever they consider a risk to their security, we have seen in our study of this for five years that the reaction is basically the same. The pattern of human rights violations and abuses is basically the same.
What the security forces have been doing in the northern regions is not over yet. In the anglophone regions now, they are doing exactly the same as what they have been doing in the northern regions since 2014: unlawful arrest and detention, systematic use of torture, unlawful killing and death in custody.
The specificity of the crisis in the anglophone regions means that now, for once, it is gaining more attention than what's happening in the northern regions. It's getting attention thanks to the fact that the anglophone diaspora is present almost everywhere and they are very powerful, which is a good thing. Basically, it's why we're here. It means that, for once, what's happening in Cameroon is gaining the attention it needs to gain.
Our recommendation as Amnesty International, both for the crisis in the north but also the crisis in the anglophone regions, is that the Cameroonian authorities investigate all allegations of torture and of unlawful detention. I'm specifically thinking, in regard to the crisis in the northern regions, of a village just north of Maroua where more than 130 men—only men—disappeared in 2014. The families have not heard from them for five years now. It has to be investigated. That's just one example of what has happened in the northern region and is happening now in the anglophone regions.
The third crisis that Cameroon is facing is the post-electoral crackdown. At the end of January, Maurice Kamto, who is the main political opponent in the country, organized a peaceful demonstration to protest what he considers mass irregularities during the latest presidential election. During those protests, peaceful protestors were arrested and habitually detained. They are still in detention as we speak. There are more than 130 people in detention now in Cameroon. Some of them have not even taken part in the demonstration. Maurice Kamto was arrested in the house of a friend. Lawyer Michelle Ndoki and hip hop artist Valsero are among the people arrested and still in detention.
I'll just show you how systematic the crackdown and the repression is in Cameroon. There is a woman who has been arrested. Basically, the woman was the cleaning lady. She was present in the house when security forces came in and asked people not to move. They were taken to the police station and then to the prisons. That woman is in detention now. She's accused of charges that could lead to the death penalty.
My intervention is basically around the fact that even if there are multiple crises in Cameroon, even if from afar it could seem like those crises have no links among them, there is a clear pattern in the way that the Cameroonian authorities react to the crises. It has to be stopped. It has to be stopped because we have been working on this for five years. Basically, for five years, we have been telling people to look at Cameroon, but don't look at Cameroon only thinking that it is key in the region in the fight against Boko Haram. Look also at what's happening inside the country. All signals in Cameroon are happening right as we speak.
One example of this is the fact that they denied entry to the researcher of Human Rights Watch. She tried to go into the country for a research mission just a few months ago, and she was denied entry to the country. It's always a bad signal when a country starts to deny entry to foreigners or to any people they consider to be not on their side.
Our recommendations to the Cameroonian authorities, of course, are to investigate, to send a clear message to the security forces that they should not allow impunity to prevail. For the partners of Cameroon, the human rights issue should be in the priority issues that the countries discuss with Cameroon. It shouldn't come after the security issue. It shouldn't come after the role that Cameroon is playing in the region. Those two things are linked.
Canada, as a fellow member of the Commonwealth, has one key, specific role to play. It hasn't happened yet that members of the Commonwealth will address Cameroon. It has been, for now, France and the U.S. mainly, but Canada has a role to play here in being one more actor to flag to Cameroon that although the fight is legitimate, the means it is using are wrong.
Thank you.
View David Anderson Profile
CPC (SK)
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to our witnesses for being with us today.
Thank you, Mr. Morgan, for those generous words at the beginning.
I want to ask you about lack of discipline by government forces. I understand that this is a complex issue and that there are a number of different players involved here. One of the common themes seems to be government forces' excessive violence. Can you talk a bit about that? Is it a lack of discipline? Is it a deliberate escalation by leadership that's causing this to happen?
I note that the U.S., Germany, France, China and Israel all supply arms to the military. Is it possible that between them they could bring some restraint through the pressures of cutting those military supplies? I know that the U.S. has already cut back a bit. Could you talk about that a bit? Is this a lack of discipline of the government forces? Is it a deliberate escalation of violence that's being done for some people's purposes?
Scott Morgan
View Scott Morgan Profile
Scott Morgan
2019-06-13 13:40
I would say that this is a deliberate escalation. Before I go any further, you might want to add another country to that list of countries that supply weapons to Cameroon, and that would be the United Arab Emirates. It supplied 27 armoured cars in the short period between the time of the election last October and the time that the results were actually announced. That is a very interesting timeline to look at, as well.
It seems that most of the atrocities that we're seeing seem to be local units on the ground. The U.S. policy is that units that actually receive training under the terms of the Lake Chad Basin Commission initiative, those in the north dealing with Boko Haram, are still able to receive military assistance from the United States. Those are unlike the rest of the units of the Cameroonian military because the U.S. has also pulled out 150 trainers that were on the ground training the military last year. That was just one of the first steps.
Obviously—
View David Anderson Profile
CPC (SK)
I have a very short time here. Are you suggesting then, that it's local commanders who are escalating the violence?
Scott Morgan
View Scott Morgan Profile
Scott Morgan
2019-06-13 13:42
That would be suggested. Considering there's been very little criticism of what's been going on in Yaoundé, that has to be considered. You don't see any criticism by the senior leadership unless groups like Amnesty or others speak out against it. That's the only time they will actually address the violence.
Tity Agbahey
View Tity Agbahey Profile
Tity Agbahey
2019-06-13 13:42
Yes. From a human rights point of view, I will say it is the reign of impunity. I work in five countries in central Africa and while situations and dynamics are very different—in Chad, for example—it's absolutely the same thing. The military is above the law and above everything, and the state basically gives them the right to do whatever they want.
There's a specific unit in Cameroon that is involved both in the fight against Boko Haram but also in the anglophone regions. The unit is called the BIR, bataillon d'intervention rapide in French. They are supposed to be trained for a specific war. They consider that to be a war against Boko Haram but it is actually a war against the people, whoever the people may be. It's impunity and it's also the fact that nobody's addressing that, nobody is really telling the Cameroonian government that those people should be charged with criminal offences. They shouldn't be charged before civil courts. What happens is that sometimes they will say that the people responsible for that have been tried before military courts, but it usually stays at the administrative level. They don't carry any serious charges, so basically they change their regions. For example, you find the same person who was responsible for something in one city being transferred to another city.
View David Anderson Profile
CPC (SK)
Do they have francophone and anglophone units in the military or are they combined? Is that an issue, as well, in terms of the conflict?
Tity Agbahey
View Tity Agbahey Profile
Tity Agbahey
2019-06-13 13:44
They're usually francophone. I have yet to meet any anglophones among them. They're usually francophones in that unit.
View David Anderson Profile
CPC (SK)
Okay.
Just moving quickly along, I noticed in some of our material that some of the anglophone schools have been shut down for the past two years. This is common in conflict areas. The first thing that seems to go is children's access to education. I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about the situation that typically leads to a lost generation of young people and then further conflict. I hope you don't mind addressing that.
I had one more question for Mr. Morgan. You wanted to talk about suppressing information outside of Cameroon. Could you get ready to address the issue of how the government has been suppressing the information outside of Cameroon? I may have enough time for that.
Please talk first about the schools, if you would.
Scott Morgan
View Scott Morgan Profile
Scott Morgan
2019-06-13 13:45
It's a struggle with the schools because, as you know, forcing people who speak one language to learn another is a major concern. That is one of the criticisms that the government has been levelling against the Ambas. The Ambas are actually the ones who have attacked the schools to make sure they have the lost generation. They don't trust the government because of its actions, so it's the Amba boys who are actually doing this.
Briefly going to my second point, here in Washington, the Cameroonian government has retained the services of three high-profile lobbying firms. One of these firms is Squire Patton Boggs, which on the first of May was the target of a press conference by a group known as Save the Persecuted Christians. This group has also been retained by the Cameroonian government. Between July 2018 and December 2018, this group received more than a quarter of a million dollars from the Cameroonian government for advice on U.S. policy towards Africa and assistance with PR.
Another one of the firms is the Glover Park Group. They have a similar mission to assist the Cameroonian government with PR here in Washington. As well, there's Mercury communications, which actually had the same message. The Cameroonian government is hell-bent on having their point of view presented and has nothing else to say. It's “We know what's going on in Cameroon and there's not really an issue here.”
View Marwan Tabbara Profile
Lib. (ON)
Thank you, Madam Chair.
My first question will be to Ms. Agbahey. What measures are being taken to control the spread of incitement and discrimination in Cameroon? Have any human rights activists been pushing to help stop the spread of this incitement and discrimination?
Tity Agbahey
View Tity Agbahey Profile
Tity Agbahey
2019-06-13 13:47
There are measures that have already been taken. There is a crisis going on, but the issue that is the origin of the crisis goes back to the independence of Cameroon in 1960. There have been small measures like nominating someone from the anglophone regions to the government. One measure that generated the crisis that we have now is the fact that they were sending francophone teachers to anglophone regions instead of anglophone. It's a culture. It's really hard to see what exactly the government is doing because it's the culture and it's something that's been going on for more than 40 years now. It's really hard to see what exactly the government is doing in the right way.
I can give you a list of what they're doing wrong, but what they're doing in the right way is really hard to see. They're not sending the right signals to the people in the anglophone region. The president himself called them terrorists. He called them terrorists and he called for the army to respond to that as they would do in the northern part of the country, for example. It hasn't yet been a strong positive signal against discrimination.
In Cameroon, there are activists on specific issues. On the anglophone regions, there is a lawyer named Felix Agbor, who is one very vocal activist. He is a lawyer, so of course he knows the laws but also he is from the region. He's still based in those regions despite what's happening. He's one vocal and strong voice in the country on this issue.
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