INTERNATIONAL LAW AND THE ANGLOPHONE PROBLEM IN CAMEROON: FEDERALISM, SECESSION OR THE STATUS QUO?

Author:Mbaku, John Mukum
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    On October 11, 2016, lawyers in the Anglophone Regions (1) of the Republic of Cameroon went on a peaceful sit-down strike to protest the government's refusal to address their grievances. (2) Earlier, these lawyers had petitioned the central government in Yaounde to address various issues that were affecting the practice of law and the legal profession in the Anglophone Regions of the country. (3) In addition to requesting that adjudication of court cases in the Anglophone Regions be undertaken only in English and based on common law, the lawyers also asked the central government to return the country to the two-state federation that had been established by the Federal Constitution of 1961 (4) as a way to guarantee the equality of English and French, as well as the peaceful coexistence of both legal systems. (5) Of course, Anglophone lawyers were not the only ones who were engaged in protests against the central government. The initial protests were organized and sponsored by representatives of several civil society organizations, including lawyers and teachers, who argued that the central government was marginalizing the Anglophones "by imposing the French language on their schools and courts," as well as the French civil law system on their common law-based legal system. (6) Later, especially in view of the government's brutal response to the peaceful protests, as well as President Paul Biya's refusal to engage in dialogue with Anglophones, more radical groups that were seeking secession of the Anglophone Regions and the formation of a sovereign nation, separate from the Francophone Regions and having an internationally recognized legal identity, soon joined the protest movement. (7)

    Anglophone teachers had become frustrated with the central government for continuing to send French-speaking teachers, with relatively poor English language skills, to teach subjects other than French in Anglophone schools. (8) The result, the teachers argued, was extremely poor performance by students who were receiving instruction from teachers who were not fluent in the English language. (9) Eventually, ordinary citizens joined the peaceful protests to decry, inter alia, the failure of the central government to provide them with basic services, including institutional environments conducive to job creation, economic growth, and development. (10)

    Instead of seeking dialogue with the protesting Anglophones, the government sent "security forces [who] used live bullets and tear gas to disperse" the protesters, killing several people. (11) Throughout the Anglophone Regions, (12) state security forces continued to brutally suppress any attempt by citizens to peacefully protest perceived or actual government injustices. In fact, citizens who gathered peacefully at police stations to demand the release of protesters who had been arrested by security forces and detained without any charges, were met with force and several of them shot dead. (13) As part of the central government's response to the sit-in strikes and demonstrations by Anglophone teachers, lawyers, and ordinary citizens, the government banned internet access in the country's two Anglophone Regions, effectively cutting off a little over twenty percent of the population from the rest of the country and the world. (14)

    International actors, such as Transparency International (TI), (15) Amnesty International (AI), (16) the Global Network Initiative (GNI), (17) the United Nations, (18) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), (19) condemned the Internet ban by Cameroonian authorities, arguing that it represented a gross violation of commonly understood and accepted freedoms and provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), (20) to which Cameroon is a state party. (21) In its communique condemning the ban on Internet service to the Anglophone Regions of Cameroon, TI lamented the fact that the non-governmental organization's former vice-chair and current chair of the International Anti-Corruption Conference, (22) Akere Muna, an open critic of the Biya regime, had been summoned by security forces for questioning and later told he was being investigated for terrorism. (23) Muna, an attorney and counselor-at-law, was representing over sixty individuals arrested and detained by the security forces in connection with the protests in the Anglophone Regions. (24) Along with other international human rights organizations and several governments, TI demanded that the government of the Republic of Cameroon "respect freedom of expression and freedom of assembly." (25)

    In its communique, the ACHPR noted that it was "[c]ognizant of the Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet, adopted by the [U.N.] Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression," and several multilateral organizations, that it had "recognize[ed] the importance of the Internet in advancing human and peoples' rights in Africa, particularly the right to freedom of information and expression." (26) The ACHPR also went on to note that it had "condemn[ed] the use of hate speech on the Internet, such as any form of speech which degrades others, promotes hatred and encourages violence against a group on the basis of criteria including race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability or a number of other traits," (27) that it had "tak[en] note of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, which was developed by a coalition of African civil society organizations and adopted during the 9th Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, in September 2014...," (28) In addition, argued the ACHPR, it was concerned by the fact that many States Parties were "interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, increasingly during elections." (29) The ACHPR then "[c]all[ed] on States Parties to respect and take legislative and other measures to guarantee, respect and protect citizen's right to freedom of information and expression through access to Internet services." (30)

    AI also put out a communique in response to the crisis in the Anglophone Regions of Cameroon. (31) AI asked the Cameroonian authorities to "immediately and unconditionally release two civil society leaders arrested in the English-speaking part of the country, and lift the ban imposed on their organization." (32) Ilaria Allegrozzi, researcher for AI in Central Africa, stated the position of AI when she declared the following: "[The] worrying pattern of arbitrary arrests, detention and harassment of civil society members is entirely at odds with the international human rights law and standards that Cameroon has committed to uphold." (33)

    The GNI also issued a statement condemning the ban of Internet access to the Anglophone Regions of Cameroon. (34) In its statement, the GNI voiced its concerns and argued that the government's action seemed to be directed at suppressing the political speech of the country's Anglophone minority and urged the government to immediately lift the ban. (35) The GNI referred to a recent study that it had recently released, (36) which "highlight[ed] the significant economic damage caused when countries deliberately shut down or otherwise disrupt connectivity." (37)

    The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, "called on the Government of Cameroon to restore Internet services to predominantly English-speaking parts of the country," calling the government's action "an appalling violation of their right to freedom of expression." (38) He proceeded to state that he was "particularly concerned at the tightening of the space for free speech at a time where its promotion and protection should be of the utmost importance." (39) In his communique, Kaye also noted that although Cameroon is officially a bilingual state, with English and French as its official languages, "English speakers have long reported that they face discrimination and marginalization, and are excluded from top civil service positions and public services." (40) In addition, notes Kaye, Anglophones "also complain [that] their access to justice is limited because the majority of legislation and judicial proceedings are in French." (41)

    In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) issued a communique in which it condemned "unequivocally" intentional Internet disruptions. (42) These intentional acts included disruptions to access and dissemination of information on the Internet, social media, and messaging services, especially during elections and in efforts by governments to frustrate individuals and groups that oppose the government. (43)

    The UNHRC also went on to call intentional Internet disruptions as a human rights violation. (44)

    The ICCPR is a core international human rights treaty and, together with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (45) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), (46) is generally referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights. (47) The ICCPR provides a wide "range of protections for civil and political rights" because it obligates states parties to recognize, "protect and preserve basic human rights," (48) including, the right of all peoples to "self-determination," (49) the "right to life," (50) and the right to be free from "slavery and the slave trade in all its forms." (51)

    Article 19 of the ICCPR specifically protects the people's "right to hold opinions without interference." (52) In addition, Article 19 also grants "everyone... the right to freedom of expression," as well as the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." (53) Nevertheless, Article 19 provides for exceptions where it is determined that the enumerated or listed rights infringe on the rights of others or if such exceptions are necessary "[f]or respect of the rights...

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