On November 5, around 78 students were kidnapped from a school in Cameroon, allegedly by separatist rebels. The students were released days later, but the story does not end there (not least because two teachers are still being held). Look a little closer and it is clear that child abduction has become a favored tactic in the ongoing conflict in west Cameroon, an Anglophone portion of the country that was once under the administration of the United Kingdom, and was described, in June, as being on the brink of civil war. Including the incident last week, there have been at least four cases of child abduction in the last two months: on September 3, armed separatists kidnapped around seven students from a school in Bafut, they were later released after the payment of ransom. On October 19, five students were abducted from another school; their whereabouts remain unknown. And on October 31, 11 children were kidnapped from a school in Bamenda. Again, ransom was reportedly paid for their return. Of course, this may be the tip of the iceberg; we do not know how many other, unreported, incidents there have been.
Attacks on schools in this region are unsurprising since there have been protests over the government’s alleged failure to adequately recognize the English legal and education systems in the North-West and South-West. Separatists groups have reportedly called for the boycott and closure of schools. There has been serious violence in the region for months and, no doubt, there are many other troubling matters that require investigation. Nevertheless, the high incidence of these abductions – all in the same region, over a short period of time, involving the payment of money – is concerning. Although the children have been returned in some cases, these cases illustrate the use of child abduction as a ‘tactic to terrorize’. Given the political and factual context, it would be unsurprising if other, similar, attempts are made in the future.
However, it is unclear what, if anything, the government of Cameroon is doing in response to these abductions. The army was apparently deployed to find the 78 children and the government is reported to have promised a swift response to the incident. While President Paul Biya did not expressly refer to the incident in his inauguration speech on Tuesday, he appealed to the separatists to lay down their arms and said, “They need to know they will face the rigour of the law and the determination of our defence and security forces.”
Rhetoric aside, proactive steps must be taken to prevent further abduction attempts. For example:
First, the government of Cameroon should be actively considering its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), both of which it has ratified.
- Article 35 of the CRC and Article 29 of the ACRWC require States to take ‘appropriate’ measures to prevent child abduction ‘for any purpose’.
- In this context, appropriate measures could cover a range of legal and practical In Protecting Children in Armed Conflict, we highlight the need for the CRC Committee and the African Committee of Experts to issue a General Comment which sets out the scope of this requirement to take appropriate measures and suggests the content of such measures.
- In relation to legal steps: it appears, from Cameroon’s last report to the CRC Committee, covering the period of 2010 to 2014, that ‘Law No. 2011/024 of Dec. 14, 2011, pertaining to the fight against trafficking and smuggling in persons’, criminalizes child abduction and that this law led to prosecutions and convictions for child abduction in 2011 through 2013. Of course, law enforcement may be challenging in the ongoing conflict in western Cameroon but it falls on the government to take such steps as it can to ensure the enforcement of applicable domestic law – not only in order to punish and hold accountable those that have carried out the historic child abductions but also to deter future violations. In their 2016 study on the impact of conflict and crises on children, the African Committee of Experts recommended that all African Governments,
‘End impunity and bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against children in conflict situations … [Governments] … should ensure that accountability mechanisms address crimes against children, through investigation of crimes, prosecution of perpetrators and provision of redress for victims. … Mechanisms of accountability are essential to halt the cycle of repeated violations and end the impunity that threatens sustainable peace.’
- In addition, practical steps need to be considered, such as the focused use of tightened policing, or other security, around schools. There was apparently no guard or police protection around the school from which the abductions occurred on November 5; a troubling omission given the fragile security situation and the other recent abductions from schools in that region.
Second, there is a role for the African Committee of Experts to investigate whether Cameroon is carrying out its obligations under Article 29, ACRWC. Under Article 45, ACRWC, the Committee is empowered to
‘resort to any appropriate method of investigating any matter falling within the ambit of the present Charter, request from the State Parties any information relevant to the implementation of the Charter and may also resort to any appropriate method of investigating the measures the State Party has adopted to implement the Charter’. (Note: the CRC Committee cannot be used because Cameroon has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the CRC on a Communications Procedure.)
Third, if Cameroon fails to take “appropriate measures” then this could be challenged, before the African Committee, by a ‘person, group or non-governmental organization recognized by the Organization of African Unity, by a Member State, or the United Nations’ by way of a communication (Article 44, ACRWC). (Note: equivalent communications cannot be made to the CRC Committee as Cameroon has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the CRC on a Communications Procedure.)
Fourth, separatist groups in Cameroon should be encouraged to sign Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment for the protection of children in armed conflict. Although abduction is not expressly identified in this Deed, signatories commit to treat humanely children who are detained or imprisoned for reasons related to the armed conflict and recognize ‘that deprivation of liberty may be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time’ (para 5).
The domestic and international laws by which the government of Cameroon is bound, and the respective accountability mechanisms, must be used to protect the children of west Cameroon.