America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests – was a phrase coined by former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. This adage, controversial as it may sound, is consistent with the foreign policies of most nations.
On 9 March 2021, the UK government announced a trade deal with Cameroon. The statement on the UK government website reads: “The trade deal, which will support jobs and build future prosperity, was signed by International Trade Minister, Ranil Jayawardena, and Cameroon’s High Commissioner to the UK, H.E. Albert Fotabong Njoteh in London. The deal provides certainty for British and Cameroonian businesses, ensuring they can continue to trade as freely as they do now without any additional barriers or tariffs.”
Cameroon is a country of 25 million people and has been ruled with an iron-fist by 88-year-old strongman, Paul Biya, since 1982. From 1919 to 1961, Britain ruled part of Cameroon known as British Southern Cameroons, first as a League of Nations mandate and later as a United Nations (UN) Trusts Territory. The country is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and about 8 million of its citizens identify English as their first international language due to the country’s colonial past.
Since 2016, the country has been mired in a fierce civil war between the regime in Yaoundé and pro-independence groups from the two English-speaking regions of the country.
Last year, the Norwegian Refugee Council, which follows the crisis closely, termed the war the most neglected displacement crisis on the planet. With more than half a million people internally displaced, 740,000 children have been out of school for the last four years, over 120,000 refugees in Nigeria, the end of the conflict is not near.
The conflict has claimed over 4,000 lives but there is a deafening silence about the crisis in the arena of international politics.
Reports of human rights abuses have been well documented. According to Rights Africa, in 2019 the overall tally of human rights violations was 1,380 up from 1,134 the previous year.
Last year, Amnesty International published a report with graphic images of systematic abuses by Cameroon’s army titled Cameroon’s secret torture chambers.
Last week, a Human Rights Watch report said “An attack by Cameroonian soldiers on March 1, 2020, has come to light in which soldiers raped at least 20 women, including four with disabilities, arrested 35 men, and killed one man. The attack on the village of Ebam in the South-West region was one of the worst by Cameroon’s army in recent years.”
In 2019, the Trump administration cut millions of dollars in security and military aid to Cameroon following concerns over the regime’s human rights record.
On 1 January 2021, the US Senate passed a resolution that condemned the abuses committed by state security forces and armed groups in the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon.
Human Rights groups and the United Nations have proof of villages being burned down, women and children executed, and war crimes committed by the army but the UK government has not issued a single statement condemning these appalling actions.
How can the United Kingdom be indifferent to these human rights abuses and state-sponsored killings?
With its exit from the EU, there has been much talk of Global Britain. Is Global Britain designed to be blind to such flagrant violations of human rights?
For the people in the territory of the former British Southern Cameroons, this announcement must be a huge disappointment and a clear message that this former colonial master values £200 million worth of annual business than thousands of lives.
In September 2013, the UK became the first country to set out guidance to companies on integrating human rights into their operations.
The then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said “doing business with respect for human rights matters. It is good for people, for prosperity, and for the UK. We believe firmly that the promotion of business and respect for human rights should go hand in hand.”
Yesterday’s announcement has taken the UK backward from that noble commitment.
Global Britain must take the lead in condemning human rights abuses around the world not shrinking away from it or be indifferent to it.
The statement from the UK government claimed the trade deal secured opportunities for both British and Cameroonian businesses. The poor and abused people in Southern Cameroons and the families of the people executed by Mr.Biya’s regime will disagree.
They will see this as the government of Cameroon given a carte-blanche by the UK to commit more and more atrocities. The politics of Africa is that of leaders who heap misery upon their people with very little economic progress and no intention of relinquishing power.
The rich continent of Africa is a playground for regimes that have no respect for international norms or the human rights of their citizens. The UK must take the lead in demanding change in these nations as a pre-requisite for access to the lucrative UK market.
By Isong Asu, London bureau chief
Cameroon Concord News Group