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Cameroon: English-speaking Minority - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:42 pm on 14th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:42 pm, 14th November 2018

My Lords, we are all most appreciative of the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for giving the House the opportunity to debate the plight of the English-speaking minority in Cameroon and for the passionate and eloquent way in which he set the scene. The roll-call of suffering is horrendous and a harbinger of even worse to come if, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just reminded us, we fail to act. In Nigeria, nearly 27,000 refugees from Cameroon are registered with the UNHCR. Thousands more have been forced to flee their homes and dozens of villages have been ethnically cleansed. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and High Commissioner for Refugees, 437,000 people from the anglophone regions have been displaced, while the charity, Protection Approaches, says that 3.3 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Amnesty reports that 450 to 500 civilians and 185 members of the security services have been killed. UNICEF estimates that 58 schools have been destroyed and 47 political leaders are being held without charge. A recent Amnesty report refers to,

“arbitrary arrests, torture, unlawful killings and destruction of property”.

The Catholic bishops’ conference has called it, “inhuman, blind, monstrous violence”. Of the October election, Archbishop Samuel Kleda, the president of the bishops’ conference, says:

“One has the impression election results are decided before voting takes place”.

We can all share such horrendous statistics, but I want to focus on what conclusions we can draw from the United Kingdom’s dismal approach to this situation. More than ever, with Britain’s potential departure from the European Union, we must seek to define our role in the world. It would be helpful to know from the Minister whether, for instance, human rights issues were assessed before the New Age natural gas deal was announced, what consideration has been given to targeted sanctions, and whether this crisis figures in the Foreign Secretary’s recent commitment on atrocity prevention.

The Government must not suggest that this is a “level playing field” conflict in a civil war between two equal sides. Too often in the past, in Bosnia, in Rwanda and in Darfur, the UK chose the path of moral equivalence. Hinting that both sides are as bad as each other is the easy way out. In a previous generation, this was known as appeasement. Moral equivalence signals that we cannot be expected to pass judgment on which side is more to blame for the conflict. Instead, we issue the usual calls for a cessation of violence and a negotiated settlement, or we frame political conflicts as if they were natural disasters requiring aid—we are very generous in sending aid—rather than political solutions.

At its worst, in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, we have portrayed the persecution of unarmed civilians by repressive Governments as a result of “ancient ethnic hatreds”, thereby dehumanising the victims and denying the legitimacy of the protesters who yearn for the rights that we take for granted. By citing ancient ethnic hatreds, we absolve ourselves of the obligation under international law to stop the killing. It is also disingenuous to defend our tepid response by claiming that the circumstances present us with a simple binary choice between wringing our hands in dismay and putting British boots on the ground. This is to ignore the potential of soft power available to the international community, be it concerted and sustained diplomatic pressure, carefully targeted sanctions or international justice.

The grievances fuelling the violence in Cameroon did not erupt overnight. We had plenty of warning, but we chose not to listen to Cameroon’s anglophone minority. Anglophones represent 20% of the population, but for years there was only one anglophone member of the 36-person Cabinet in Yaoundé—just one example of their systematic marginalisation.

We should not underestimate the influence that we have, but it speaks volumes that we left it to the American ambassador to express his disapproval of the Cameroonian Government’s brutal response to peaceful protests. For decades, the francophone Government have ignored the pleas of moderate representatives of civil society such as church leaders. Calls for a federal solution were ignored by President Biya, 36 years in power, fuelling the calls for secession and thereby polarising opinion.

Breaking point came when the francophone Government sought to impose French laws, in the French language, on anglophone courts and sent francophone teachers speaking French into English schools. They responded to peaceful protests with disproportionate force. The International Crisis Group reports that a government helicopter hovered outside a church, shooting anglophone worshippers as they emerged from Mass. Inevitably, disproportionate actions led to the current escalation.

There is nothing admirable about being even-handed in the face of the suffering of the anglophone community. The United Kingdom should support the anglophone community’s peaceful civil society leaders in seeking genuine and inclusive talks. We need a targeted strategy for atrocity prevention and a commitment to bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations wherever they occur.