Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to safeguard the human rights of the English-speaking minority in Cameroon.
My Lords, Cameroon is in the grip of a humanitarian disaster that threatens to affect it and the whole region. The anglophone communities in the country see their rights and their expectations of a prosperous and safe life trampled underfoot. The crisis has its origins in a 1961 plebiscite, which I, a child in the region at the time, recall as being of concern then to the region, to my father—a Cabinet Minister in a neighbouring country—and, significantly, to Members of this House and the other place. They saw a flawed plebiscite that posed a binary question to the English-speaking regions of Cameroon: join Nigeria or join francophone Cameroon. They were not given the choice to form their own independent state.
We live with the legacy of that plebiscite in the plight of the peoples of Cameroon to this day, the English-speaking ones in particular. The horrific figures speak for themselves: 460,000 people have been displaced; 3.3 million are in need of humanitarian assistance; and more than 450 innocent civilians have been killed—often in horrific circumstances—in the conflict in the anglophone regions, as well as countless separatist fighters and government soldiers. Only this morning, I met someone whose family member was giving assistance to a government soldier who, when he returned to the place where the soldiers had gathered, had seen the heads of four of his comrades displayed on the road. Not surprisingly, he has gone mad.
Atrocities have been committed on both sides. As we speak, people are held without trial, people have disappeared and people have been kidnapped. It is a dirty war and no one comes out of it with any credit at all. What is to be done? The answer surely has to be that we have to engage. We have heard numerous expressions of concern from Her Majesty’s Government. Concern is welcome but it is not enough. The time has come to engage with the specific purpose of inculcating a genuinely national dialogue within Cameroon designed to address these grievances. The grievances are real, continuing and some years ago now—the situation has been deteriorating over the last two or three years in particular—led lawyers and teachers to go on strike.
The protections they had secured from the original federalist solution that followed the plebiscite had been so dissipated that anglophone students were at a disadvantage when they took exams. Cases could not properly be heard in the courts because francophone judges were adjudicating on a common law of which they had no knowledge, in languages that were improperly translated. All of that led to the increasing marginalisation of the English-speaking people of Cameroon. In no other country in the world is an English-speaking minority as discriminated against and disadvantaged as it is in Cameroon. Regardless of our historical responsibilities as the holders of the mandate that led to the creation of a federal Cameroon after independence, and, equally, with the universal right of people to protection, which we are obliged to accept, how can we stand by to see English people discriminated against in this way? We hope to hear from the Government tonight the practical measures that they will take to address this issue.
We have an excellent high commissioner in Cameroon. How is he to be supported by additional resource? After all, the Government have been very clear that we have made a commitment to increase the resources available to ensure that the Foreign Office is able to guarantee the right to protection against atrocity. Are these resources to be made available to the high commission in Cameroon? It cannot follow through that guarantee on the resources currently allocated for that purpose.
On 21 and 22 November, the Anglophone General Conference will be organised by Cameroonian religious leaders. How are we, as a nation, to support that with resources? Will we encourage the Government of Cameroon to engage with religious leaders at that conference and, crucially, will we encourage the separatist movements also to engage? Innocent people are being caught between a rock and a hard place: between on one hand the separatists, who terrorise them, and on the other the Government, who also terrorise them and at the same time fail to protect them.
I declare an interest in this concern. I chair two charities that currently work in Cameroon. The Minister of State for Africa rightly, in my view, referred to the long-standing friendship between the British people and Cameroon, and the fact that we are partners in the Commonwealth. That long-standing friendship has caused Book Aid International, previously the Countess of Ranfurly library trust, to work in both English-speaking and French-speaking Cameroon since 1962. It is a charity that trains librarians and provides books. It helped me as a little boy growing up in the Gold Coast and then Ghana by founding the first dedicated children’s library in sub-Saharan Africa. We are now no longer able to work in English-speaking Cameroon, such is the impact on education in those provinces.
Similarly, I chair the International Council of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. We have had a long-standing relationship with Cameroon and work closely with ministries and civil society there. However, we are no longer able to work in English-speaking Cameroon. That is the reality on the ground and something has to be done.
I shall close my remarks by allowing the people of English-speaking Cameroon to speak for themselves. One child describes how she and her family have had to take to the forest to be safe both from government troops and from the separatists. Her education has been disrupted. She has no access to what we would expect any child to have. She says, “I will not be able to go back to my village and school, which have been burnt down. The forest is now my home, though there are no schools or books here. I still have hopes to go to school and read books again”. Book Aid International has no government support—it does not ask for it. It is supported by publishers, which provide brand-new books, by ordinary British people, and, because of the difficulty of working in Cameroon at this time, by the People’s Postcode Lottery, to which I give great thanks and credit.
As a result, we have now been able to send 5,000 brand- new publisher-donated books to be distributed not as they normally are through schools and libraries but in the forests, on the roads, in the camps and in places where these displaced children are—distributed, it has to be said, with the aid of brave local partners. The Churches are at the forefront of this. One bishop has said, “We believe that we can give these children hope in a hopeless situation. Dreams should not end because there is strife and conflict, but unless we right the wrongs now for these children so they can learn today, there will be no tomorrow for them and their communities”.
I ask the Government: are we to support the Commonwealth or the African Union to hold the ring in the national conversation that the President of Cameroon has promised to address the long-standing grievances and current abuses of human rights on all sides, and what resources will Her Majesty’s Government make available to the Commonwealth and/or the African Union for that purpose? It will not be enough to call on them to do something unless we give them the resources and unless, within the ministerial council of the Commonwealth, we exercise the political will that the people of Cameroon are entitled to look to Her Majesty’s Government to exercise.
We have a choice. We cannot, to any useful purpose, revisit the wrongs of yesteryear in the plebiscite—the flawed referendum—and in the withdrawal from imperial responsibility, but we can ensure that these children and communities have a tomorrow.
My Lords, I shall try not to repeat any of the very clear and passionate points made by my noble friend Lord Boateng about the current situation and recent developments in Cameroon. Suffice it to say that I fully support his call for UK engagement in this situation, not least because of our historical responsibilities for the actions in 1961 and a degree of abandonment thereafter when the federal system was abandoned in 1972. However, I want to add a few points to the discussion this evening.
First, although there is a role for the United Kingdom, there also has to be a role for the African Union. Over the years, many of us have welcomed the shift from the old policy of non-interference in the practices of the Governments of the member states of the Organisation of African Unity to the new policy of non-indifference in the African Union, where there is—at least, in theory—a more interventionist approach to these kinds of situations. It seems to me that it is where the region and the continent have been more actively engaged than the international community that there has been success in recent years in tackling human rights abuses and preventing atrocities.
Secondly, here, there is yet another lesson for the ambitions the Government claim to have for a global Britain post Brexit. If we are to increase our resources in the Foreign Office and to have a more active international policy, I believe that it has to have human rights and atrocity prevention at its core. We have that responsibility in the UN Security Council but also as a nation, given our historical responsibilities for our colonial past. The Government must ensure that human rights and atrocity prevention are at the heart of the new policy of global Britain. I am interested to hear the Minister tell us about the Government’s assessment in relation to atrocity prevention. What has been the Foreign Office’s approach to the “responsibility to protect” focal point? What is its response and its attitude to this situation, and how much worse it could become?
My third point relates to the crucial politics of the situation, and here I want to generalise far beyond Cameroon. If we look around the world, we see that almost every major conflict today is based on an identity clash between a majority and a minority. Many of these were created by borders that were defined by the end of the First World War or by the end of colonisation in the 1950s and early 1960s. But elsewhere many are still raging, without any engagement from any of the European former colonial powers. Look at Myanmar, the Philippines—where I have been involved as an adviser to the Mindanao peace process, as is listed in the register of interests—the former Soviet states of Ukraine and elsewhere, the Middle East, and across large parts of Africa in large and medium-sized states. We see conflict between a majority and a minority, where the minority, rightly or wrongly—in most cases rightly—feels persecuted and disadvantaged by the majority, and where the majority fears the minority and therefore will not concede power.
It seems to me that the system of federated government that was designed for Cameroon back in the late 1950s and early 1960s—at least in theory—and which prompted the decision of the Southern Cameroonians in the plebiscite to choose to be part of Cameroon rather than Nigeria, is the kind of political solution that must be promoted around the world to ensure that these conflicts are not just contained but are resolved in the long term. Unless people have a political voice, representation of their identity and an opportunity to govern themselves and influence the rest of the country in an appropriate way, the underlying causes of these conflicts will not end, whether it is in parts of Africa, the Middle East, the former Soviet states, south-east asia or anywhere else.
The British Government, perhaps along with other European partners, could be making more effective interventions. We have a history of devolution and a political settlement in Northern Ireland, bringing to an end the violent conflict there, and a history in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK of creating political devolution in a peaceful way. In both these instances, there are lessons we can take elsewhere in the world and use to help prevent conflict and sustain peace. That is one initiative that could be at the heart of the global Britain approach that we are promised post Brexit.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, on giving us the opportunity to raise these issues concerning Cameroon, which are so important in our overall philosophy for the development of Africa.
After independence in 1961, there followed a long period of economic migration back and forth between Cameroon and Nigeria, together with asylum seekers fleeing from Boko Haram, perhaps inevitably, given the war between Cameroon’s army and the Islamist militant group. Since 2015, however, Cameroon has apparently forcibly removed tens of thousands of asylum seekers back to north-east Nigeria, despite warnings that the region remains unsafe due to Boko Haram attacks.
In March 2017, concerns about forced returns led Nigeria, Cameroon and the UNHCR to sign an agreement for the voluntary repatriation of Nigerian refugees living in Cameroon. The agreement states that,
“repatriation of Nigerian refugees will be done solely on the basis of their freely expressed will”,
and only when,
“the conditions are favorable for the return of refugees in safety and dignity to the place of their final destination in Nigeria”.
Yet in September 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that over 100,000 Nigerian refugees were deported from Cameroon in the hope of stemming the spread of Boko Haram, defying a plea from the UN Refugee Agency not to return anyone to north-east Nigeria, where Boko Haram had killed thousands of people. According to Human Rights Watch, the Cameroonian military’s torture and abuse of Nigerian refugees seems to be driven by an arbitrary decision to punish them for Boko Haram attacks in Cameroon and to discourage Nigerians from seeking asylum.
It is still not safe to drive from Cameroon into places like the border towns of Pulka and Banki, say leaders of the Borno Community Coalition, which assists IDPs. The attacks on returnees should prove to Cameroon that forcing refugees back to Nigeria could lead them to their death. Last week, the fury created by reports that as many as 100 students had been kidnapped from a Presbyterian secondary school subsided to a large degree when the true figure of 11 was confirmed on their release. Separatists fighting for independence of the two English-speaking regions condemned the kidnapping in Bamenda and accused the Government of staging the incident. On 5 November, the Journal du Cameroun reported that the Committee to Protect Journalists, the CPJ, was exhorting the Government to stop intimidating journalists in the country. Angela Quintal, the CPJ’s Africa program co-ordinator, said:
“Over the last year, Cameroonian journalists have been repeatedly summoned simply for doing their work. In many instances, these summons resulted in detentions. This pattern of intimidation must end”.
Before the London CHOGM, the CPA UK branch hosted the visit of a parliamentary delegation from Cameroon. The delegation was led by the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly of Cameroon, the honourable Emilia Monjowa Lifaka. The tension between anglophone and francophone areas of Cameroon was discussed, in particular the disparity between the French and English legislative and legal systems operating in different parts of the country. The delegation stated that, as a minority of the population came from the English-speaking community, there was less demand for, and therefore less incentive to provide, trained officials who specialise in the English legal and legislative systems, leading to a shortage of these personnel.
The honourable Emilia Monjowa Lifaka later attended the opening plenary session of the London CHOGM, as the newly elected chair of the international Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Referring to the CHOGM themes of fairness, prosperity, security and sustainable development, she said:
“There can be no peace without fairness, there can be no meaningful development without peace, there can be no security without peace, and therefore, no nation can prosper without fairness, peace and security”.
As the chair of the all-party group on the Commonwealth, I wonder what advice the Minister might give the chair of the international CPA on how her wise words might well be applied to her own Parliament, as well as to the Commonwealth at large. With the anglophone conflict edging towards civil war, will the Minister urge dialogue between the separatists and the Government of Cameroon as a means of halting escalation? Will she call for support for an anglophone general conference, able to negotiate with the Government of Cameroon, breaking their reliance on a military campaign to crush the rebels? Will she also confirm that she will urge the Government of Cameroon to reflect that, as signatories to the Commonwealth charter, they too are committed to helping to establish and apply human rights throughout the Commonwealth in accordance with the Latimer principles?
My Lords, Cameroon has the hallmarks of the region and the world sleep-walking into another humanitarian disaster even beyond that which we are witnessing today. My past visits to Cameroon have been to assess the appropriateness of a key agricultural investment in the French-speaking north.
I begin with my conclusion and a possible way forward—but not before commending the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for securing a debate on this rapidly deteriorating situation and for his powerful intervention.
It is terrible and so sad that these wounds have resurfaced, but I fear it was always going to be thus with the exclusion of the English-speaking minority from the affairs of state. The only practical solution, from a distance, is a political settlement with either a United Nations or African Union peace-keeping contingent being placed on the ground to enable an immediate cessation of violence, ensuring a humanitarian protective intervention and a cooling-off period to create the conditions to allow an equitable settlement to be hammered out. Building on lessons learned, autonomy but not separation in a close-knit federation is the formula for lasting peace and should be embraced as a solution.
I have not tracked the papers that explain why this was not contained in the 1961 plebiscite when divesting from Southern Cameroons. The Minister could usefully shed light into the thinking of the day and as to why not. Are the Government satisfied that sufficient regard was paid to sensitivities, responsibilities and their consequences by our forebears? The Minister may wish to comment on the background of the 6 November 2018 ruling in favour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office regarding the legality of the original plebiscite. I wonder whether the right question was before the court. I will refer to the Cairo declaration and the subsequent Constitutive Act of the African Union.
What was always, and still is, envisaged as an acceptable solution to the English language-speaking people of Cameroon was a choice of a federation made up of two states with equal status. I am not critical of London in isolation. The Quai d’Orsay possibly pressed what it considered to be an advantage by not containing this key option in restricting the alternatives to a choice between Nigeria and French Cameroun.
Importantly, the 1964 Cairo declaration on African borders, reaffirmed in Article 4b of the Constitutive Act of the African Union and signed off by the President of Cameroun, makes it clear that demarcation of the territory of each African state is recognised as being such on the date of its independence. Do the United Kingdom Government accept this to be the case or not? Have there been subsequent declarations that nullify these issues on borders? If not, it would follow that French Cameroun and Ambazonia are both able to assert territorial integrity. At no time before or after its independence from France was the Southern Cameroons part of that country known by its French name and style as La République du Cameroun.
A solution would be a close-knit federation made up of two entities, thus ensuring no parting of the ways. The question of the legitimacy of territorial integrity superseding that of self-determination would not be relevant in this instance. An international boundary separating French Cameroun from the Southern Cameroons existed and was affirmed in the Anglo-French boundary treaty of 1916 and confirmed in 1931. If that be the case, would it not follow that the territorial integrity of the Southern Cameroons should be recognised sitting alongside that of French Cameroun.
An integral part of a peace formula lies with France. Given the David and Goliath nature of the situation in Cameroon, I ask the Minister on what occasions have a British Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary brought up this matter with a French President or the Quai d’Orsay?
On the multilateral front we should not forget that Cameroon is a Commonwealth member. It was always envisaged by the secretariat that the Commonwealth would take the wind out of the sail of secession. Membership was pressed for by Ambazonians against the will of Paris, with France, unsurprisingly, mightily resisting Cameroon’s application for Commonwealth membership
When the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, visited Yaoundé in December 2017, President Biya recalled all the measures taken by his Government to appease the situation in the north-west and south-west regions. He reiterated his willingness for dialogue, but also that he stood firm on his determination to “restore order”. The Commonwealth must surely now regain some of its focus, with the UK pressing the Commonwealth to serve more of a purpose in Cameroon than just monitoring elections.
A practical and immediate imperative is to effect measures to end the atrocities by the military. What is being done to stem the refugee flows into Nigeria; the halting of the burning down of over 100 towns and villages; the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of women, children and the elderly into the forests, hills and bushes; and the dislocation of the livelihood of others?
Let this debate, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, be the catalyst for all sides to sit together before yet another series of continuing calamitous events befalls the world.
My Lords, I would like unreservedly to thank and congratulate my noble friend Lord Boateng on having taken up this cause. To have someone with his experience and insight leading on our concerns is magnificent. I also think that he introduced this subject to terrific effect and with considerable passion in the best sense.
I have a personal affection for Cameroon because as a young man, the first time I went to Africa, as part of my journey, I visited Senegal and Cameroon. I remember being struck then by the immense difference in the character, tradition and life between the West Cameroonians and the French Cameroonians. I was bewildered as to how the administrators thought that these two communities made a natural combined entity; I just did not see it.
This is an auspicious day in terms of our own domestic history here in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. There are lessons here. You cannot fix these things by imposing agreements, they have to grow out of the commitment, will and understanding of the different parties to the situation. If I am allowed to continue with my digression for a moment, that is what is so desperately sad about the situation in Northern Ireland because within the context of the European Union, there was a sense of equivalence. The minority population had the reassurance of the European institutions in talks with their colleagues and fellow Northern Ireland citizens. A large number of people were working away at building a future and building the peace, and we have got to get that right.
On this subject, I am particularly sad because I have just had news today of a recent ugly event in Bamenda. The Presbyterian secondary school there, Nkwen, has seen 79 schoolchildren abducted, while the headmaster and another key individual are missing, their whereabouts unknown. Also, an American missionary by the name of Charles Wesco has been killed. Bamenda was one of the key places I visited when I was in West Cameroon and I rather think that this is the school in which I received warm hospitality at the time.
My noble friend Lord Boateng said that we have gone past the time for urging and talking about our concerns: we need action. In that context, he concentrated on some of the things that could be done. He mentioned the soon-to-occur Anglophone General Conference for Cameroon being organised by church and other religious leaders in the community. It is to be held on 21 and 22 November. We need an answer tonight as to what the British Government are doing—not what they think about it, but what they are actually doing to help that conference be a success. What support have they provided both directly and indirectly? If they have not done so, why have they not? All the professions of good will and concern become rather unpleasant in the context of nothing being done in terms of constructive and hopeful action.
My noble friend also talked about people who are going into the forest and the implications of that. What are we doing about shelter and non-food items? What are we doing about food security? What are we doing about health? Vulnerable people are at risk in the forest. What are we doing about water, sanitation and hygiene? What are we doing about gender-based violence? What are we doing about education?
This is the time for action and for us to see the evidence of action, it is not the time for being told yet again that we are concerned. What are we doing in the Commonwealth which professes to give priority to conflict resolution? What are we doing at the UN, and while we are still in the European Union, what we are doing with our EU partners?
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.
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.
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.