Cameroon's release on April 22, 2020 of findings about a massacre in Ngarbuh, North-West Cameroon, is an important first step in establishing the truth around the killings of civilians by government forces, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch, in doing research about the killings, found that on February 14, government forces and armed ethnic Fulani killed at least 21 civilians, including 13 children and 1 pregnant woman, in Ngarbuh. The government's news release indicates that the findings by a Joint Commission of Inquiry diverge in significant detail from the facts of the events at Ngarbuh established by Human Rights Watch and corroborated by , including the UN. However, it does establish that Cameroonian soldiers attempted to cover up the truth around the killings and includes a government pledge to work with human rights organizations.
"The commission's findings into the Ngarbuh massacre, while flawed, are an important first step toward justice for these serious crimes," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But this report should not be a stand-alone action. A more in-depth investigation is needed to establish a clear timeline of events and to identify all those responsible, including anyone further up the chain of command, for the purposes of prosecuting them."
The attack in Ngarbuh was not an isolated case, but part of a larger pattern of serious human rights violations by the Cameroonian security forces in the Anglophone regions. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple abusive counterinsurgency operations by the security forces in the North-West and South-West regions since 2017.
Human Rights Watch had urged Cameroon's government on April 16 to make the Commission of Inquiry's full report public. Without the full report it is not possible to understand how the commission came to its conclusions, but the five-page news release includes enough information to allow for a broad analysis of the report's content.
The commission found that security forces and members of "local vigilance groups" went on a reconnaissance operation in Ngarbuh, where they confronted armed separatists, killing 5 of them. In the exchange 13 civilians were killed. The military then attempted to cover up their acts by burning homes and filing a false report on the incident. The commission identified a sergeant, a gendarme, and a soldier as responsible for the killings and named a battalion commander who failed to supervise the operation.
Human Rights Watch found that government forces, including members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion, the elite unit of the Cameroonian army, and armed ethnic Fulani killed 21 civilians in Ngarbuh, burned five homes, pillaged scores of other properties, and beat residents. The armed Fulani may be the "local vigilance groups" referred to in the government news release.
Human Rights Watch spoke with witnesses and residents who said that there was no confrontation between armed separatists and security forces, that the killings were deliberate and aimed at punishing the population accused of harboring and supporting separatists.
In the weeks after Human Rights Watch issued its report, the government denied responsibility for the killings in Ngarbuh and engaged in a smear campaign against media and national and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups and UN agencies.
However, the news release on the Joint Commission's Inquiry also highlighted President Paul Biya's assertion that the government remains ready to work with human rights organizations.
This stands in stark contrast to recent government actions. On April 12, 2019, officials at Douala international airport refused to allow the Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Central Africa to enter the country, even though she had a valid visa. Despite numerous requests for information, no explanation was ever provided for denying her entry.
"The government's decision to release the commission's findings is hopefully a signal of an end to denying and hiding the truth around abuse," Mudge said. "We are optimistic that this is a new opening to work with the government as an independent collaborator to end abuse by both state and non-state actors."