South Africa can stop the spiral of abuses in Cameroon

Cameroon soldier
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South Africans love it when Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions fly the flag for African football at the Fifa World Cup, but they don’t pay much attention to its politics, or to its volatile neighbourhood.

Attention, and action, are needed now, as this important regional anchor spirals toward crisis, and the rest of the world averts its eyes.

Over the past three years, Cameroon has been embroiled in a cycle of protest, repression and violence that threatens to escalate into an all-out human rights catastrophe. Don’t expect the danger to stop at the border. A wider conflict could spill over to the neighbours; Cameroon borders the Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Chad, Nigeria, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

In October 2016, students, teachers and lawyers from the English-speaking Western regions took to the streets to demand greater recognition of their cultural and political rights. The ruthless response of the security forces, who killed peaceful protesters, arrested leaders, and banned civil society groups 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 using intimidation and violence to keep children and their teachers out of school.

The government has responded in kind, burning entire villages, killing civilians while detaining and torturing alleged armed separatists in a notorious facility run by the gendarmes in Yaoundé. As a result of the crisis, half a million Cameroonians have been displaced, with most in desperate need of protection and humanitarian assistance.

The UN Security Council, on which South Africa sits until the end of 2020, was created to preserve international peace and security. Its members routinely tout the importance of preventive diplomacy and addressing emerging threats before it’s too late.

Sadly, on Cameroon, the UN Security Council has done little more than bury its head in the sand, with South Africa standing by. The Council has barely touched on the crisis, failing to issue even the mildest statement warning the Cameroonian government and separatist leaders that those who kill and kidnap civilians in the pursuit of their goals will face consequences.

This silence is bordering on diplomatic malpractice.

Regional countries and organizations, which ought to be closer to the problem, have done no better. They are watching from the sidelines, with no mediation efforts to speak of, and no credible prospects for improvement.

Last week, the US, with the support of Germany, the Dominican Republic and Britain, organized an informal session of the UN Security Council to put the situation in Cameroon on the radar of Council members. This was a worthy effort, but the event was almost derailed by fierce resistance from the three African members of the UN Security Council – Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast and South Africa.

Some discomfort over Western countries taking the lead on an African crisis is understandable. Indeed, the best way to get the fractious Security Council to end its neglect of Cameroon is for its African members to demonstrate leadership and demand 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 own long human rights emergency under apartheid was resolved in part thanks to international solidarity – and the active support of the UN Security Council. Ivory Coast’s brutal conflict in the early 2000s, too, was resolved with AU and Security Council support.  Both countries have legal frameworks designed to uphold human rights and have the potential to become global leaders for the continent.

So why insist that the Cameroonian crisis is not the UN Security Council’s business? By putting Cameroon squarely on its agenda, the Security Council would signal that the world is watching. It can warn those bent on violating human rights that they may face targeted sanctions – a measure that has no downside for the population and presents no risk of escalation.

With President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new popular mandate to govern following South Africa’s elections earlier this month, he has an opportunity to move in the foreign policy direction he promised – including the commitment to “democracy, justice, human rights, and good governance” at the United Nations.

That approach was in evidence before the polls, when South Africa reversed its earlier position, and voted in favour of a General Assembly committee resolution condemning grave human rights abuses against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

Addressing Cameroon would send a strong signal that South Africa is serious about elevating human rights in the Security Council and would bolster its case for a permanent seat. South Africa’s values, and its interests, would be served by standing up for Cameroon’s people, not just its dazzling footballers.

Nic Dawes, former editor of the Mail and Guardian, is the deputy executive director of Human Rights Watch.