The United States is scaling back its security assistance to Cameroon following credible allegations that the Cameroonian military carried out human rights violations in the Central African country, the State Department said Wednesday.
Cameroon is a key U.S. security partner, and about 300 U.S. troops are based there to train and assist the Cameroonian military, including in its fight against extremism in its far northern region. Human rights groups have reported that Cameroonian security forces have targeted civilians in the far north and in the country’s unstable southwest and northwest regions, where the military is battling English-speaking separatists fighting to create a breakaway nation called Ambazonia.
“We emphasize that it is in Cameroon’s interest to show greater transparency in investigating credible allegations of gross violations of human rights security forces, particularly in the Northwest, Southwest, and Far North Regions,” the State Department said through a spokesman via email Wednesday.
At a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on Thursday, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said Cameroon has “been a good partner with us counterterrorism-wise, but you can’t neglect the fact that . . . there are alleged atrocities.”
Ahead of widely contested presidential elections in Cameroon in October, Waldhauser said he and the U.S. ambassador to Yaounde had “a very direct conversation” with President Paul Biya about investigations into alleged atrocities and “appropriate battlefield behavior.”
“We were very emphatic with President Biya that the behavior of his troops, the lack of transparency could have a significant impact on our ability to work with them,” he said.
Security cuts will include the “provision of four defender boats and nine armored vehicles, and the upgrade of a Cessna aircraft belonging to the Rapid Intervention Battalion,” or BIR, the State Department said.
Members of the BIR, an elite force that has received assistance from the United States, have been accused of a wide variety of human rights abuses. The Washington Post reported this week that English speakers from Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions said members of the BIR burned down civilians’ homes and executed a pregnant woman. The Cameroonian military denied targeting civilians.
Waldhauser called the BIR “the top-shelf counterterrorism unit inside Cameroon,” and noted that U.S. programs have included law of war and battlefield ethics training.
In an email, Cmdr. Candice Tresch, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, cited the Leahy Law, noting “the U.S. government does not provide assistance to security force units or individuals where we have credible information that the unit committed a gross violation of human rights.”
“We have informed the Cameroonian government that lack of progress and clarity about actions undertaken by the government in response to credible information of gross violations of human rights could result in a broader suspension of U.S. assistance,” she said.
The U.S. aid cuts also include the withdrawal of a U.S. offer for Cameroon’s candidacy in the State Partnership Program, which pairs American states’ National Guards with another country’s armed forces, delivery of certain equipment and helicopter training.
Washington “will not shirk from reducing assistance further if evolving conditions require it,” the State Department said.
In more than a dozen interviews with displaced English speakers in Cameroon, witnesses described to The Post how the Cameroonian military fired indiscriminately at civilians, in some cases driving moderate Cameroonians to begin supporting the separatists. Col. Didier Badjeck, a spokesman for Cameroon’s Defense Ministry, said the allegations of human rights abuses amounted to “propaganda.”
Last summer, Amnesty International released an analysis of two videos that appeared to show Cameroonian security forces executing unarmed people, including children, in the country’s far northern region.
In August, the Cameroonian government claimed it had arrested soldiers in connection with one video and opened an investigation of the other.
On Wednesday, Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International’s deputy director for advocacy and government, urged the United States to suspend “all security assistance until the Cameroonian government can show it has not been utilized to commit serious violations of international law and persons responsible have been held accountable.”