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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for tabling this debate and for what I thought was a very eloquent and powerful speech, and all other noble Lords for their thoughtful and perceptive contributions. I also pay tribute to the commendable charitable work done by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, in Cameroon.
Before I respond to the noble Lord’s Question, I emphasise that promoting and defending human rights is a fundamental part of the UK’s foreign policy. A number of your Lordships raised that question. We believe that everyone, everywhere, should enjoy equal rights and protections under the law. Standing up for human rights is not only the right thing to do but a wise thing to do, because human rights are the essential foundation for a fairer, more secure and more prosperous world. We promote respect for human rights in a variety of ways, from quiet diplomacy and discussions in private to leading campaigns with our international partners. Quite rightly, the noble Lords, Lord Boateng and Lord McConnell, focused on human rights.
Individually and collectively, your Lordships have given a very good commentary on the current situation in Cameroon. There have been tensions between the majority francophone and minority anglophone regions since modern-day Cameroon was formed in 1961. Sadly, these deep-rooted tensions have intensified in recent years. Protests by teachers and lawyers against the imposition of francophone education curricula and legal systems in anglophone Cameroon in October 2016 led to violence. As your Lordships acknowledged, some anglophones are now demanding secession from Cameroon.
To compound these problems, this violent dispute is taking place at the same time as Cameroon is also tackling the threat of Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa in the extreme north and Lake Chad basin, and supporting tens of thousands of refugees from the Central African Republic and Nigeria, who have themselves been displaced by violence. A number of your Lordships referred to that.
The causes of the dispute are complex and, as in many conflict situations, it is not always easy to establish accurately what is happening on the ground. While it is clear that the anglophone community has legitimate concerns, terrible human rights violations and abuses have been carried out by both sides. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, acknowledged that, as did the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. In the past year we have witnessed a heavy-handed state response as well as a campaign of intimidation and violence by armed separatists.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised a number of important points which I feel I must try to deal with. He used the phrase “ethnic cleansing”. I know that he feels passionately about these matters and is exceedingly well informed but I suggest to him that while human rights violations have undoubtedly been committed, the British Government do not consider the Government of Cameroon to be engaged in ethnic cleansing. I do not wish to diminish the severity of the situation, because there is evidence of forced displacement as a result of government security force operations, as well as attempts by armed separatists to create so-called ghost towns. However, Cameroon is a deeply heterogeneous country with over 200 ethnic groups and I understand that the linguistic divide does not always align with ethnic identities. Some ethnic groups span the anglophone/francophone boundary.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also claimed that the United Kingdom was resorting to the phrase “a level playing field”. We do not claim this to be a level playing field. We believe that the causes of the conflict are clear: decades of the marginalisation of anglophones, a deep sense that English-language usage is being squeezed from public life and a heavy-handed security response to legitimate protests. As the noble Lord notes, Amnesty International has reported that 185 members of the security services have been killed by anglophone separatists, so we do not claim moral equivalence but neither can we neglect the role that armed separatists are playing in worsening the situation. I suggest to him that we do not claim there is a binary choice; we think that a range of options are available to the international community, with sustained diplomatic pressure being the starting point. Now that the presidential elections are over, we and our international partners are calling on President Biya to commit urgently to a process that resolves this crisis.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, rightly raised the question of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. Let me reassure him that we will continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations. We are committed to upholding the UK’s high standards, particularly to full implementation of the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
I think that the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Alton, inquired about the New Age natural gas deal. We do not see that there has to be a choice between securing growth and investment for the UK, and raising human rights. Our experience is that political freedom, dialogue between groups and the rule of law are vital underpinnings for both prosperity and stability, and that by having a strong relationship with Cameroon we are able to have open discussions on a range of admittedly difficult issues, including human rights.
A number of your Lordships referred to the distressing incident in the school in Bamenda last week. I was pleased to see that the students were apparently quickly released. The UK Government are urging those responsible to release the teachers, who I understand are still being held.
The humanitarian impact of this conflict on the lives of ordinary people is of course deeply troubling. As many of your Lordships indicated, the consequences are disruptive and destabilising. High levels of violence are causing many people in the English-speaking areas to flee their homes while across Cameroon, more than 3.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. That is an awesome figure. To put it in context, I think it is more than three times the population of Birmingham. That puts into perspective the enormity of the problem.
The escalating violence is severely damaging the economy. The long-term consequences for the country could be catastrophic. All noble Lords raised the very legitimate question of what the United Kingdom is doing. They said they did not want platitudes or warm words. We are deeply concerned, and it would be ridiculous to say otherwise. We are providing £6.5 million of support to Cameroon for the Lake Chad basin crisis and the refugees from the Central African Republic. In terms of specific support for the anglophone crisis, we have provided funding for a humanitarian adviser based in Yaoundé, who will be advising on the humanitarian response as a whole, including food security efforts, nutrition and shelter, and for a protection adviser in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Cameroon, who will be focusing on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. We are closely monitoring the situation and will reassess what further support we may be able to provide as the crisis evolves.
We are clear that the divisions that are causing the violence and displacement can be resolved only through constructive dialogue. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, is right to emphasise that. I may be able to provide some comfort. I think he raised the forthcoming conference. Our High Commissioner has met Cardinal Tumi. We encourage his efforts and we call for all sides to enter into dialogue. This opportunity should be seized, but the Government of Cameroon must approve the conference. The noble Lord also raised the issue of resource. The Foreign Secretary has announced 1,000 new diplomatic jobs. We are currently recruiting across Africa, including in Cameroon.
I think it was the noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Collins, who asked about the Commonwealth. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, engaged with President Biya in December 2017 and pressed for dialogue. The former Foreign Secretary engaged with the Government of Cameroon in April of this year and with Prime Minister Yang at CHOGM to remind them of the values and expectations of Cameroon as a Commonwealth member and called for an end to violence and for dialogue.
I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverly, who asked about dialogue with France. The Minister for Africa raised this with Minister Lemoyne earlier this year and President Macron wrote to President Biya post the election to encourage action and offer support for dialogue. This is an interesting step-up in pressure. So there has been an international exchange in that respect.
A number of your Lordships referred to the visit by my honourable friend the Minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin. She used the opportunity to call on the Government of Cameroon to take urgent action to address the crisis. She has urged all parties to commit to a peaceful and structured process that addresses the underlying constitutional issues of this dispute. We believe that anything less will simply store up issues for the future rather than solve the current problems. A number of your Lordships touched on that aspect.
At the end of the day, Cameroon is an independent sovereign state and these issues must be determined by Cameroon. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that when my honourable friend Harriett Baldwin visited in February this year she used the opportunity to reiterate the Government’s commitment to defending human rights, and she pressed Government Ministers to grant humanitarian access to the 47 anglophone leaders who were then in detention. I am pleased to say that following her intervention the International Committee of the Red Cross was granted access.
The UK Government are deeply concerned about the situation in Cameroon. We commend our fellow Commonwealth nation, which is what Cameroon is, for giving shelter to so many refugees from neighbouring countries and for its efforts to tackle the threat of Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa in the Lake Chad basin—but the Government of Cameroon must now step up and deliver real progress on the ongoing crisis within their borders for the benefit of all their citizens.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked a penetrating and pertinent question when he asked, “What is the President’s legacy to be?” I am absolutely sure that the President will reflect on that very question. I very much hope, as we all do, that the President’s legacy will focus on peace, constructive dialogue and seeking a way to end the turbulence that has so dogged and negatively affected Cameroon.
House adjourned at 9.09 pm.