Could ICC intervention deter conflict in Cameroon?

In a report published on May 2, the International Crisis Group (ICG) called for the International Criminal Court to intervene on the situation in Cameroon. The armed conflict between government forces and separatists in the country’s Anglophone regions is starting to get more international attention.

Could ICC intervention deter conflict in Cameroon?©Marco LONGARI / AFP
Fear reigns in Buea, capital of Cameroon's English-speaking southwestern province, caught between violence by government and secessionist forces.
4 min 14Approximate reading time

“In the last 20 months, the conflict has left 1,850 dead, 530,000 internally displaced and tens of thousands of refugees. The intransigence of the belligerents threatens to generate further violence and prolong the conflict, which neither can win in the short term,” says the report. The ICG says “the government is counting on a military victory and refuses to discuss the form of the state; the separatists demand independence”.

To force the two sides to start a dialogue and end the conflict, ICG recommends international pressure, including from the International Criminal Court.  “The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should state her intention to launch a preliminary examination into abuses committed by both sides,” it says. “This could encourage the government to initiate its own investigations and, depending on the outcome, start criminal proceedings, as well as deterring others from further abuses against civilians. That would also show the separatists that their violent actions spark international disapproval.

War crimes

Contacted by JusticeInfo, Hans de Marie Heungoup, a researcher on Central Africa at ICG, explains that some of the crimes reported do indeed fall within the ICC's mandate. "There are crimes that fall within the ICC's jurisdiction, including war crimes. When there is systematic targeting, when there is repeated shooting at civilians, when schools, hospitals and entire villages are set on fire by security forces, we think there is a war crime," he says.

"Crimes are being committed by both sides; separatists have kidnapped and executed dozens of civilians, but the security forces were the first to commit these crimes. And yet they are the ones who have been trained in academies where they have received training to ensure the safety of people and their property," he continues. Hans de Marie Heungoup points out, however, that we cannot speak, for the moment, of the crime of genocide.

There is nevertheless a difficulty: Cameroon has not acceded to the Rome Statute and therefore does not automatically fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC. The only credible option, for the time being, would be for the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the Court, without this being vetoed by one of its permanent members.

Deterrent effect

Another question is what deterrent effect could be expected from the ICC when in other countries where it is investigating like the Central African Republic crimes continue unabated? "The case of Cameroon is a little different,” explains the specialist. “In Cameroon, President Paul Biya is doing everything he can to keep the country out of the international spotlight and agenda. The announcement of a preliminary examination by the ICC would therefore have a major deterrent effect. It would create a kind of panic within the political establishment."

The massive violations perpetrated in north-west and south-west Cameroon have also been documented by local and international human rights organizations. "In the context of the armed conflict in the English-speaking regions, many crimes have been committed, including murder, kidnapping, rape, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, burning schools, markets, hospitals and homes," says Paul Guy Hyomeni, national coordinator of the Cameroon Network of Human Rights Organizations. "The people responsible are certainly on both sides. But in most cases, the two parties blame each other. Separatists have sometimes claimed responsibility for hostage-taking and ransom demands. The government, for its part, has generally denied any responsibility for any of the crimes committed." According to Hyomeni, this justifies "the need for an independent and impartial investigation -- that of the ICC, which in our view has the necessary competence".

Paul Guy Hyomeni, however, sees difficulties in conducting an investigation in the regions concerned at this time. "Given the situation in both regions, it is not easy to investigate on the ground. Such an investigation would only be possible if its preparation is thorough, namely through consultation between the investigation team and the various actors: government, traditional and religious authorities, separatists, political parties, the media, etc. This consultation would need to ensure that the parties cooperate in the proper conduct of the investigation and to inform them of the risks they would face if they were to obstruct its proper conduct.”

National justice absent

What can we expect from national justice? "Before the outbreak of hostilities in both regions, Cameroon had courts capable of trying the perpetrators of violations, abuses and crimes. Since the beginning of the conflict, due to the various threats against magistrates and other administrative personnel by the separatists and the government's inability to ensure the protection of these personnel, many have abandoned their posts to settle in safer areas," says Hyomeni.

"As well as the difficulty related to the absence of court staff, there is also the issue of the separation of executive and judicial powers. Although the Constitution enshrines this principle, the fact remains that the Supreme Council of the Judiciary - in charge of the promotion, assignment and sanctioning of judges - is presided over by the President of the Republic. This situation has an impact on the ability of judges to make fair decisions.”

International pressure

The release of the ICG report coincided with the visit to Cameroon of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. In a statement issued on May 6 at the end of her visit, Michelle Bachelet accused security forces and separatist armed groups of committing crimes. "Civilians trapped between these two powerful, if asymmetric, opposing forces, are increasingly vulnerable to lethal abuses and violations by both sides," said the High Commissioner, whose visit included a meeting with President Paul Biya.

An informal meeting of the UN Security Council was also held on May 13, at the initiative of the United States, which was the first to denounce the serious human rights violations in this conflict. In a statement released a few hours before the meeting, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) sought to increase the pressure. “In the follow-up to this meeting, the UN Security Council should make Cameroon a formal item on its agenda and press authorities to investigate members of the security forces alleged to have carried out killings and destruction of property and prosecute those responsible. It should also publicly announce to armed separatist groups that their leaders will be held responsible for serious crimes committed by their fighters,” wrote the human rights organization.

Cameroon tried unsuccessfully to oppose this informal meeting. The Cameroonian authorities, which deny human rights activists access to the areas concerned, are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the silence on the "Anglophone crisis".