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Cameroon: English-speaking Minority - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:49 pm on 14th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 8:49 pm, 14th November 2018

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Boateng for initiating this debate and for his passionate introduction. I do not want to repeat his excellent background to the complex and contested decolonisation process, but, as my noble friend Lord McConnell highlighted, particularly since the federal arrangements were scrapped in 1972, English-speaking Cameroonians have complained bitterly that they are politically, economically and linguistically marginalised. The current period of escalating violence and displacement goes back to when lawyers protested that a piece of legislation had not been translated into English, despite the constitutional guarantees.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, it has been claimed by the UNHCR that because of the violence more than 26,000 refugees have fled into neighbouring Nigeria—and, as my noble friend Lord Boateng said, hundreds of thousands of others have been internally displaced. The plight of refugees in Nigeria is increasingly desperate, with insufficient provision of shelter, food, water and sanitation. What dialogue has taken place with Nigeria over the worsening refugee situation? Have the Government considered any plans to resettle English-speaking Cameroonian refugees in the United Kingdom?

The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, stated:

“The crimes committed by both parties need to be properly and independently investigated and the perpetrators need to be brought urgently to justice”.

What assessment has the UK’s responsibility to protect focal point made of the situation in Cameroon? What action has been taken to respond to the rising risk of atrocities? In February of this year, the Africa Minister, Harriett Baldwin, visited Cameroon and urged,

“restraint and a de-escalation of current tensions”.

France has condemned separatist violence and urged dialogue. As the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, asked, what direct exchanges have there been, if any, with the French Government to seek a common approach to the Cameroon authorities to achieve this end? If we are both saying the same thing, surely there are grounds for a common approach.

As we have heard, Cameroon went to the polls on 7 October and, after a period of uncertainty, the Constitutional Council declared, not unsurprisingly, on 22 October that President Biya had won a seventh term, with nearly 72% of the vote. That could see him in power at least until he reaches the age of 92. This declaration, of course, was made despite claims from opposition candidates that the election was marred by fraud, including ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. In English-speaking provinces, intimidation was widely reported and it has been claimed that the turnout was as low as 5%, although official figures say it was almost 16%. At least 18 petitions for a rerun of the election were laid before the Constitutional Council, but all have been rejected.

Biya remains staunchly supported by the West, especially by France but also by the United States, which relies strongly on Cameroon in the fight against Boko Haram. The nature of the insurgency will make it difficult for state security forces to end the violence. As my noble friend highlighted, scorched-earth tactics on both sides serve only to further alienate the population. Bearing in mind his age, it is probable that Biya will appoint a successor before the next presidential election. As my noble friend said, there is a need for engagement. Surely this is the time to raise with the President what sort of legacy he will leave. Will it be one of further violence or one of peace? It is an opportunity the Government should not miss.

In May Harriett Baldwin said that the Government were encouraging,

“not only the Government there but all Cameroonians to participate in a process of inclusive dialogue”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/5/18; col. 113.]

But, as my noble friend and others have asked, how are the Government translating these words into practical steps? What concrete steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking in engaging with Cameroon to facilitate a national dialogue and avert the imminent risk of mass atrocities? What dialogue has there been with the African Union and the Commonwealth Secretariat to support initiatives such as the religious leaders’ conference that my noble friend mentioned? We have seen the report from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and civil society organisations to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. It is important that we see practical steps taken, but these cannot be left to just words. They have to be resourced, and that means backing the Commonwealth with the appropriate resources if we are to make those sorts of commitments.

In a press release on 8 June, the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, hailed a new £1.5 billion natural gas trade deal with Cameroon, seemingly oblivious to the persecution and violence in the region. It is right that the UK should seek to expand into markets in the region, but in doing so we should consider our responsibility to ensure that trade is used to tackle injustices and eliminate poverty. I hope that the Minister can tell us, for example, whether before the agreement was signed any assessment was made by the trade department of the risks that such a deal could pose to human rights in Cameroon. Human rights are being violated. There needs to be strong action on an international basis. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure noble Lords tonight on that point.