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The right to Peaceful Assembly: a wakeup call in Cameroon

The wave of protests that hit the English-speaking regions of Cameroon in the months of November and December 2016 once again portrayed the government’s unwillingness to ensure the respect for the right to peaceful assembly. Like in many similar events in the past, the events in Bamenda, Buea, Kumba, and other towns of the English-speaking regions, once again revealed the limitation in the respect and protection of the constitutional right to peaceful assembly.   

The crackdown of protests leading to the death of almost 100 protesters during the 2008 anti-government protests, the 2012 arrests of activists marching to commemorate 2008 riots; the April 2016 arrest of CPP chairwoman Kah Walla and a dozen other members of her party during their ‘Stand for Cameroon’ campaign march, the frequent arrest of political activists Mboua Massock and Andre Blaise Essama are just a few examples. In the latest events, protesters were arrested, beaten and publicly humiliated in Buea while four protesters were shot at and killed in Bamenda on December 8th 2016. The government’s nonchalance towards protest movements especially those with opposing views, is unhealthy for a country that prides itself as a functioning democracy. Many rights groups have repeatedly held that political and human rights groups are frequently denied the right to organize peaceful protests or demonstrations in Cameroon1

The right to peaceful assembly broadly speaking is an important human right which expresses our ability as humans to come together and work for common good. It is in the same spirit that this right is recognised as a fundamental freedom under international law2. Often put together with the rights to freedom of expression and association, they are considered essential for the functioning of a pluralistic and democratic society3. Components of this right will include the right to assemble, demonstrate, protest, rally, etc. Often associated with the right to promote interests and views of minority and marginalized sections of society often against dominant views4.  

Governments have an obligation to protect peaceful protests and take measures to facilitate them. This may include facilitating obtainment of authorisation to protest and providing security escorts to protesters. But this has apparently not often been the case with respect to protests in Cameroon. The culture of peaceful protests is far from being entrenched in the Cameroonian fabric. Protests are often labelled as potential threat to public order and the government appointed administrators often hesitate to grant authorisation for marches or demonstrations to opposition parties, trade unions and other sectors of the civil society. However, it is often not the case with obtaining authorisation for parades to show support for the government, and for ruling party activities. 

The forces of law and order whose role ought to be to protect protesters have in many instances been accused of either inciting violence or escalating situations of violence. During the November 2016 lawyers’ protest march in Bamenda, eye witness accounts point to the fact that the trigger for the violence and disorder that marred the protests resulted from the shooting of tear gas at a group of lawyers who had already finished marching and were making closing declarations. Also, people were being chased right into their homes in Bamenda, tear gas thrown inside market places full of people and life bullets being fired at protesters. Applying excessive force to control a situation of violence risks further escalating the already volatile situation. 

Nevertheless, it also worth noting that the right to freedom of assembly is not an absolute right under international law. It is subject to restrictions provided by the law of the state and which are ‘necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’5. Cameroon has laws that restrict public protest and demonstrations in line with the above exception – (provided by law). The newly promulgated Law No. 2014/028 of 23rd December 2014 on the suppression of acts of terrorism has been criticised for its broad definitions that could be abused to restrict dissent and thereby potentially not fully passing the necessity test.  

The double standard in granting authorisation for protests or public demonstrations equally raises concerns of lack of equality and selectiveness in government’s application of the privilege. The opposition politician Kah Wahla wrote in a note questioning why the government failed to recognise that holding a CPDM party rally in Bamenda at that time and in the prevailing circumstances would jeopardize public order and public safety, and apply the limitation clause to deny the ruling CPDM party the right to hold a rally. She stated that her party has often been denied authorisation to protest based on the excuse that it would threaten public order. 

It is important to note also that international law only protects peaceful assembly. The recent protests especially in Bamenda saw instances of violence as properties were destroyed and streets vandalized. Experience has shown that some governments justify the use of force against protesters on the excuse that protesters resort to violence. In the case of Cameroon, even deadly force is justified by authorities on this premise. Some members of government including the government spokesperson and the president himself in his 2016 end of year address to the nation, blamed the deaths of protesters on the violence rather than the security forces accused for escalating the violence and using life bullets. To avoid violent protests there is a need for authorities that be to use better crowd control measures to manage protests and deescalate rather than escalate the violence. Any misstep could spark an angry crowd to resort to more violence.  

Protesters were also accused of disrupting the December 8th planned ruling CPDM party rally in Bamenda which led to the unfortunate events. In as much as one would hold as a human rights lawyer that the right to peaceful assembly is not restricted to one group over the other, and that the protesters would be expected to allow the same privileges they seek to others, one can’t hold back the thought that a decision from the ruling CPDM party to hold a rally, considering the volatile nature of the situation at the time was reckless and dangerous. 

The respect and protection of human rights enshrined in the Cameroon constitution gives priority of international conventions over national laws. The Cameroon constitution stands out as an important tool to guarantee the protection of human rights in the country. The preamble of the constitution makes mention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and refers to specific fundamental human rights including the right to freedom of assembly. Article 65 of the constitution confers a legal effect to the above-mentioned right enshrined in its preamble. By translating international agreements into domestic law, government agents have an obligation to respect and ensure the protection of the enunciated human rights.  

Contra Nocendi reiterates its condemnation of the acts of forces of law and order and urges the Cameroon government to conduct independent inquiries into the crimes committed. We further call upon the protesters to shun violence and for the government to ensure the respect and protection of the right to peaceful assembly.

 

Sources

https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/africa/cameroon/report-cameroon/ 

Article 21, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171

https://www.icj.org/sogi-casebook-introduction/chapter-four-freedom-of-assembly-association-and-expression/ 

4 OSCE/ODIHR, Handbook on Monitoring Freedom of Assembly, 2011, p.7

5 Article 21 Op cit.

Burundi Must Adhere to its State Reporting Obligations to the ACmHPR

Its has been more than 6 years since the government of Burundi submitted its last State Report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights creates an obligation upon States Parties, including Burundi, to submit a state report to the Commission every two years. Burundi is now three reports overdue and must take active steps to bring itself current with its obligations as expeditiously as possible. 

The state reporting mechanism is a key part of the African Commission system. It allows for the Commission to keep itself abreast of the human rights issues in each State Party and also allows for civil society to raise issues in response to state reports. Additionally, States are given a forum to illustrate its advancements in human rights protections as well as raise issues that they feel are being misrepresented or omitted (intentionally or unintentionally) by other interlocutors. This can facilitate a very needed dialogue, which if done in an honest and constructive manner, would only have a positive impact on the practical realization of human rights protections in the State Party in question. The same is true with Burundi. 

The government of Burundi, in its most recent state report, recognized that it had previously not met its obligation to submit a report every two years. While this recognition was very welcomed, the government has not taken any effective steps to change the status quo in terms of standard conduct for adhering to its state reporting obligations. 

Contra Nocendi International calls on the government of Burundi to submit its state report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights as expeditiously as possible. Furthermore, we call on the government of Burundi to address the very apparent concerns about the fulfillment on their state reporting obligations in a manner that facilitates meeting these obligations from this day forth.

Human Rights Day 2016

As we mark Human Rights Day this year, we take time to reflect on the past year of our work in defending human rights. We must first applaud our partners in Cameroon and Burundi who do amazing work and never cease to impress us with their passion and expertise. We take great pride in being able to work with such distinguished partners. 

At the same time we cannot help but think about the regular struggles we see with our partners and others in promoting human rights protections.These vital activities become even more difficult when human rights organisations and defenders conduct their activities with full respect for the right of sexual orientation and gender identity expression for all persons. LGBTIQ activists throughout Africa risk persecution for standing up for equality. Something that should be not a topic is disaccord, but a topic that brings everyone together. While we are encouraged by the UN Human Rights Committee's decision to appoint a Special Rapporteur on SOGIE rights, much more must be done at the AU/ACHPR level. In Cameroon, we have seen barristers harassed and even assaulted because they have provided competent legal counsel to persons accused of sexual conduct with a person of the same sex, which is a criminal offense in Cameroon. The problem is not the sexual conduct of the individual, but the fact that such innocent conduct is criminalized. Our independent section in Cameroon has been harassed and been levied additional fees for having respect for SOGIE rights in its Articles of Association just as Contra Nocendi International does. Putting the rights of everyone on equal footing should not incur such treatment. 

At the same time, we look at the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which is supposed to be a bright example of how international justice has advanced and we can't help but notice its clearly discriminatory stance on gender in the manner in which it has been drafted. Article 7(3) states "For the purposes of this Statute, it is understood that the term 'gender' refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. The term 'gender' does not indicate any mean different from the above." This is completely unacceptable and reflects an outdated viewpoint on gender that was likely more built upon ignorance and bigotry than science or reality. Taking into account the requirement to domestically implement the Statute, the States Parties to the Rome Statute have bound each other to domesticate discrimination of certain people, while criminalizing discrimination of others. In other words, it could be seen as creating an international legal obligation to discriminate based on gender. Article 198(10) of the Penal Code of Burundi is a prime example of the domestic impact of such a reality.   

The Assembly of States Parties should take steps to amend the Statute to make the definition of gender more aligned with reality than bigotry. It should be very clear that the Rome Statute recognizes SOGIE rights and that the Court has jurisdiction over such crimes as persecution of LGBTIQ persons as a crime against humanity.   

On this Human Rights Day we invite everyone to stand up for someone's rights" and acknowledge their freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity. Contra Nocendi International and Contra Nocendi Cameroon reaffirm our commitment to uphold the rights of all persons. 

Abuse against protesting University of Buea students

 

Students of the University of Buea Cameroon launched a protest movement on the 28th November 2016 against actions of the administration that increase the effective cost of attendance and that the students find unreasonably detrimental to them. The estimated number of student protesters has been put at about 700 per multiple sources. The protest followed a wave of protest movements that rocked the Southwest and Northwest (both English speaking regions of the country) for over a month now. It started with lawyers protesting the perceived marginalisation and assimilation of the Anglo-Saxon common law system that was inherited from Britain colonial rule. Followed by teachers in the same region protesting similar claims against the English inherited system of education. The two groups are currently still observing a sit-down strike as the courts in both regions have been paralysed by absence of lawyers, and most public schools are without teachers. 

The University of Buea, a major English speaking university in Buea the head quarter of the Southwest region became another scene of dissent as students gathered in front of the administrative block on the 28th November with placards castigating the school administration and chanting slogans. They took the opportunity to voice out grievances long held against the university administration. Per their declarations, two main grievances stood out: The non-payment of government grants to final year students and the requirement for payment of a fee to check results from the university’s online portal. The protests and response of government security forces was widely captured on video and in pictures and shared widely on social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter.  

 

 

Government security forces who seemed to have been prepared for such eventuality responded swiftly with truck-loads of police and gendarme forces flooding the campus. Anti-protest gear such as police water cannons were deployed into the university campus. Some accounts have it that the number of security forces on campus and surrounding neighbourhoods possibly amounted to half the number of protesters. A long barricade of security forces could be seen circling the protesters, while others paraded the campus and student residential areas. The protest appeared quite peaceful at the outset as students could be seen squatting on the tarmac at the university entrance while others chanted slogans. Unlike other protests movements in the wave of the region wide protest which appeared unruly, the University of Buea protesters were genuinely peaceful. 

A couple of hours after the start of the protest saw the most despicable and humiliating treatment inflicted upon the peaceful student protesters. Police and gendarme forces scattered over the campus and student residents launched a brutal crackdown on the protesters. As if without fear of the public eye and cameras, the forces could be seen very publicly humiliating students both boys and girls. There was a routine practice of arresting any passing individuals around the vicinity and forced to rub themselves in mud before being asked to prostrate and severely beating. Videos of university students of all sexes performing this ritual flooded the internet in the wake of the protests. The forces were captured on video breaking into student hostels, arresting students, beating them up and detaining them. There are reports of more of such break-ins during the night of the 28th November. Very disturbing images emerged of torture related injuries sustained by protesters. It could be considered one of the most photographed public humiliation of protesters in the country’s modern history. 

Events that took place behind the scenes were reportedly even more gruesome and terrible violations of human rights. Students were seen be carted behind military trucks to undisclosed locations where they were reportedly tortured and humiliated while some were allegedly raped.  At least one student was hospitalized for rape related injuries and more than twenty others were treated for back wounds per our sources. More than a hundred students were said to have been detained in the days following the protests. While some were released, others were taken to court and charged. While most of those brought to court two days later were released by the state prosecutor, it is alleged some students who were considered protest leaders are still under detention. 

The security forces committed blatant violations of human rights of peaceful student protesters. There was evidence of torture, degrading and humiliating treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention and interference with rights to protest peacefully. Cameroon is a signatory of several human rights conventions including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR protects the rights of people to freedom from torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment (Art. 7); of expression (Art. 19(2), assembly (Art. 21), association (Art 22); the freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention (Art. 9); and the freedom from arbitrary or unlawful interference with one’s privacy (Art. 17). These provisions protect the rights of the students to assemble, engage in peaceful protests over their rights and entitlements and to not be illegally arrested and detained for the sole purpose of exercising their constitutional rights. The protesting students should have been protected against the torture cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment they received from the security forces whose duty is to protect these same protesters. The security forces equally went against the provisions of Article 17 ICCPR by breaking into students’ hostels, destroying property and arresting students in their rooms. Many of the arrested protesters could be heard stating in court that they were arrested from their hostel rooms. 

The respect and protection of human rights enshrined in the Cameroon constitution gives priority of international conventions over national laws. The Cameroon constitution stands out as an important tool to guarantee the protection of human rights in the country. The preamble of the constitution makes mention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and refers to specific fundamental human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom from torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, etc. Article 65 of the constitution confers a legal effect to the above-mentioned rights enshrined in its preamble. By translating international agreements into domestic law, government agents have an obligation to respect and ensure the protection of the enunciated human rights.  

Contra Nocendi International and Contra Nocendi Cameroon urge the government to respect their human rights obligations and release all student protesters still under detention; and to work with the university administration and student union to resolve the issues. We further call on the government to protect the right to peaceful protest and take proactive steps to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future.

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