Cameroon needs a rapid and deep-rooted effort to tackle a crisis of violence that has erupted in several areas of the country, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Monday at the end of a visit to the West African country.
Violence has spilled over Cameroon's borders from Nigeria, Chad and Central African Republic, while crackdowns on separatists in the southwest and Islamists in the northeast have caused long-running tensions to flare up, the U.N. has said.
Bachelet said the situation could spiral out of control and the challenges are immense, with ten or more separatist movements.
"I believe there is a clear — if possibly short — window of opportunity to arrest the crises that have led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses that have affected the northern and western areas of the country," she said in a statement.
"It will take significant actions on the part of the government, and substantial and sustained support from the international community — including us in the U.N.,” Bachelet said.
Cameroon was among the most settled countries in the region until a few years ago, but now villages have been burned, civilians killed and mutilated, with children abducted and forced to join armed groups or used as unwitting suicide bombers.
Bachelet took part in three days of talks in Yaounde, including an in-depth discussion with President Paul Biya, and offered to help ensure that military operations respect human rights, which the statement said would help to win popular trust.
"If they fail to do that, they will not defeat an enemy that thrives on civilian mistrust of the authorities," Bachelet said.
"In the meantime, the civilians trapped between these two powerful, if asymmetric, opposing forces are increasingly vulnerable to lethal abuses and violations by both sides."
She said the government had told her about steps to ensure that crimes committed by the armed forces are punished.
"This particular issue is damaging Cameroon's international standing and undermining international support for efforts to combat the armed groups operating on its territory," she said.