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.
2 Article 21, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171
4 OSCE/ODIHR, Handbook on Monitoring Freedom of Assembly, 2011, p.7
5 Article 21 Op cit.