A group of concerned Israelis are asking for immediate action to ban weapons sales to Cameroon after photos of Israeli-made weapons being used in the government’s brutal war on the English-speaking Southern Cameroonian population. Cameroon’s 85 year-old dictator Paul Biya is the world’s longest ruling despot, having run the country with an iron fist since 1982.
Thanks to the Cameroon-based newspaper, Bamenda Online, we can provide you with the actual letter sent today from Israeli Advocate Eitay Mack addressed to Racheli Chen, Head of the Israeli Defense Export Controls Agency at the Israeli Ministry of Defense, titled “Subject: Urgent request to Apply Article 9 of the Defense Export Control Act in the case of the BIR Unit in Cameroon”. It is an accurate if revolting summary of the horrendous conduct of Cameroon’s military. Take a look:
1. This letter is sent on behalf of human rights activists Aya Gavriel, Yael Frenkel, Sahar Vardi, Vered Keisar, Shai Eistein, Guy Butavia, Ofer Neiman, Niv Hachlili, Guy Yadin-Evron, Noam Yadin, Elisheva Kravtzov, Uri Agnon, Gal Alfasi, Vered Bitan, Amir Bitan and Yaniv Yurkevich and on my behalf.
2. Since October 2016, a severe political crisis is taking place in the English-speaking provinces of Cameroon, situated in the country’s south western and north western provinces, near the border with Nigeria.
3. These regions span 16,364 sq. km, out of Cameroon’s 475,442, and 5 out of the 24 million citizens of Cameroon reside there. These areas contain the political base of the main opposition party – the Social Democratic Front (SDF), and they are very significant economically, especially for the oil industry, which amounts to 10% of the country’s GDP.
4. The background for the political crisis relates to the establishment of Cameroon: Between 1885-1915 the entire area of Cameroon was a German colony. After WWI, the League of Nations divided the mandate over the area between France and Great Britain. French Cameroon was granted independence from France on 1.1.1960 while British Cameroon was granted independence from Britain, and decided to unite with the former French Cameroon on 1.10.1961.
5. During the French and British mandate in Cameroon, each of the two administered the area under its control differently. In the British mandate areas, the official language was English, the legal system was that of Common Law, and society, the currency and the education systems were based on the British model. Furthermore, Britain allowed a relative freedom of expression and press, and autonomous local institutions. By contrast, the French mandate was highly centralized, the legal system was the Continental one, and the official language was French. The less democratic nature of the French mandate reflected on the centralized development of state institutions in Cameroon after the unification of the French and British parts. Thus, mass political arrests of dissidents and critics of the regime began as early as 1962.
6. The consent to unification given by the residents of the British mandate territory, was based on making Cameroon a federation, including the recognition of English as an official language with French, and stipulating that the President and his deputy, at any time, would represent both states. In spite of that, between 1961 and 1972, the autonomy of the English-speaking regions was denied in a creeping process, and the regime became centralized by the French-speaking majority. Thus, for example, in 1966 Cameroon became a one-party state – “Cameroon National Union”; in May 1972, the Federation was effectively annulled and the united “Republic of Cameroon” was founded; only in 1990 did Cameroon become a multi-party state again, and the aforementioned SDF party was founded; As of 2017, the overwhelming majority of power positions in the executive, judicial and legislative branches is held by representatives of the French-speaking provinces.
7. While some leaders from the English-speaking provinces acted in international forums to promote their independence, separatist groups which called for a violent struggle were established, and Cameroonians from these provinces who immigrated to other countries supported politically and economically their relatives who remained there. But only in 2016 did the situation become volatile, in a manner which risks the entire country’s stability.
8. The crisis began on 11.10.2016 when lawyers went on strike. They demanded that State laws be translated into English, criticizes the takeover of the Continental legal system, and the appointment of French-speaking judges to courts in the English-speaking provinces. Their strike and protests gained wide support and public interest in the ongoing discrimination and marginalization in Cameroon against the English-speaking provinces. In addition, calls for a return to a federation or for full independence grew.
9. On 21.11.2016, the teachers also went on strike and began to protest, due to the appointment of teachers who did not speak English and the attempt to marginalize the British educational model in schools and universities in these provinces.
10. Strikes and demonstrations by teachers and lawyers began a “snowball” in the English-speaking provinces, which are being oppressed heavy-handedly. Cameroon’s security forces, including the BIR unit, have used live ammunition against protesters, raided universities, businesses and residential buildings, beat civilians, raped students and arrested the political leadership of these regions, which have become de-facto military zones. One of the detainees is a judge of the Supreme Court of Cameroon1. The school system was closed for a year, and in January 2017, the State blocked Internet access in the area for several months, which harmed many businesses. Some of those arrested have been tried by military courts, based on draconian anti-terror laws. Tens of thousands have fled to refugees camps in Nigeria2, and many have left their villages are hiding in the forest.
11. On 15.12.20163, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Published a condemnation of security forces’ violence in the English-speaking provinces:
The Commission’s Country Rapporteur for Cameroon and Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Hon. Commissioner Reine Alapini-Gansou, is deeply concerned by the deteriorating human rights situation in Cameroon, in particular: killings of civilians; the deployment of armed military personnel, special security forces (BIR) and war machines to these two regions; the disproportionate and deathly use of force and violence to dispel peaceful and unarmed Lawyers, Teachers, Students, civilians and protesters in Bamenda, Buea and Kumba; the raping of students in Buea; the arbitrary arrests, detention and merciless beatings orchestrated by the police, gendarmerie, military and the BIR following strikes and protests that have been going on since October 2016.
The Special Rapporteur has received information that the strikes and protests are allegedly provoked by what has been dubbed, “the Anglophone problem,” due to discontented Anglophone Lawyers, Teachers and Civil Society in English speaking Cameroon legitimately and peacefully seeking a halt to: the gradual, but systematic destruction and obliteration of the Common Law Legal System and the Anglosaxon System of Education; the marginalisation and neglect by the administration of Cameroon of the two English speaking regions of Cameroon; and the return to Federal system of governance. The Special Rapporteur is particularly concerned about the alleged deaths of more than nine (9) Cameroonians during the protests in Bamenda, Buea and Kumba, and the allegations that the Government is planning mass arrest, kidnappings and assassination of leaders of Lawyers’ associations, Teachers’ unions, Civil Society and human rights defenders as a means to thwart the Anglophone cause.
12. During October 20174, following intensified protest in the English-speaking provinces marking the day of independence from Britain, the violent repression by the security forces increased, especially by the BIR unit. Any assembly of more than four people was banned. Bus stations, restaurants and stores were closed. Security forces set up checkpoints limiting freedom of movement between various parts of the English-speaking provinces, lookout posts were established on the roofs of buildings and the Minister of Communication announced he would close any media outlet which supported those calling for independence.
13. On 29.1.20185, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, published another statement condemning security forces’ violence in the English-speaking provinces:
Since October 2016, the human rights situation in the Republic of Cameroon has continued to worsen following brutal crackdowns on legitimate and peaceful protests by lawyers, teachers and members of civil society of the English-speaking regions of North-West and South-West, who called for the preservation of the Anglophone legal and educational systems in their regions, an end to marginalisation, and for better management of the regions by the State in terms of development and infrastructure.
The Commission is particularly concerned about the deployment of soldiers in these regions, the disproportionate use of force against unarmed civilians, and the intermittent shutdown of means of communication such as Internet connection.
The Commission is deeply concerned about reports of cases of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention under deplorable conditions, prohibition of peaceful demonstrations, and constant insecurity leading to the displacement of more than 5,000 Anglophone Cameroonians to Nigeria since the beginning of the crisis without means of subsistence and access to basic necessities.
The Commission strongly condemns the ongoing violence and human rights violations in Cameroon, in particular the militarisation of the English-speaking regions and the disproportionate use of force against the population.
Therefore, along with a condemnation of violence by Cameroon’s security forces, the Commission called for the following:
- The Commission calls upon the Government of the Republic of Cameroon to fulfill its obligation to protect, and to:
- Put an immediate end to the use of force against unarmed civilians;
- Ensure respect for the right to freedom of expression and information, freedom of association and assembly, and the right to liberty and security of the person enshrined in the Charter;
- Ensure the immediate release of all persons arbitrarily detained since October 2016 following the protests;
- Conduct impartial and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, inhuman and degrading treatment, and human rights violations reported to have been committed by police, gendarmerie and military officers;
- Initiate constructive dialogue without delay, towards putting an end to the suffering of the population.
14. Human rights groups and activists in Cameroon report that the unit which terrorizes the population of the English-speaking provinces the most is the BIR unit, also named “The Israeli Unit”. According to reports, soldiers of this unit raid villages, conduct processions with military gear at the heart of residential neighborhoods, are involved in looting, torture, the beating of men, women and children and also in live firing on protesters and civilians, as well as the demolition of commercial and residential buildings.
15. The unit was established in 2001, officially in order to combat crime organizations. In fact, the unit, along with Cameroon’s Presidential Guard, is intended to secure the dictatorial regime of Paul Biya, who has ruled the country since 1982. Biya has established these units due to his mistrust towards the military and his fear of a military coup against him. The BIR unit is directly subordinate to the President and it is accountable only to him, which is exceptional.
16. Although the BIR unit also receives arms and training from the US, it is named “The Israeli unit”, since according to reports, and this is exceptional, in addition to Israeli training and advice services, an Israeli ex-IDF officer commanded the unit – Lt. Colonel (reserve) Avi Sivan (former head of the Israeli Duvdevan unit during the first Intifada)6, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Cameroon in 2010. Prior to providing dictator Biya with security services, Sivan has served as the Israeli military attache in Cameroon. According to reports, after Sivan’s death, another Israeli ex-IDF officer replaced him7 .
17. From footage of the BIR unit, published by the media, and delivered to us by huma rights activists from Cameroon, one can conclude that its soldiers are using Israeli weapons, including Galil, Galil Ace, Tavor rifles and Negev machine-guns8. For examples of these videos, see here.
18. Early in 2014, BIR became Cameroon’s special military unit to combat the murderous terrorist group Boko Haram. The latter has murdered thousands of civilians in Northern Cameroon, kidnapped women and girls to be used as sex slaves, and has made 200,000 people refugees.
19. Unfortunately, similarly to the case of Nigeria, the justifiable war on the terrorist group Boko Haram has become a war on civilians of communities and ethnic groups from which combatants had been enlisted into the terrorist group, while committing grave violations of human rights and war crimes. Cameroon’s security forces have carried out torture, disappearance, extrajudicial executions, rape and illegal deprivation of liberties.
20. The BIR unit, which leads the fight against Boko Haram, is one of the main units accused of crimes. Thus, for example, Amnesty International’s 2017 report9 “Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers” documents severe torture of civilians – women and men – as well as children and disabled people, in unofficial detention facilities, in bases serving the BIR unit for operational activity, and even in its headquarters in the north of the country. Torture includes: Beating (by electric cables, wood or metal sticks and rods, chains, Machetes and more), repeated beating of the feet to prevent the detainee from walking, tying the detainee’s arms and legs behind their back together (called “The Goat”), tying the detainee’s arms and legs together behind their back and hanging them in the air (called “The Swing”), asphyxiation by shoving the detainee’s head into a water container, causing burns to the detainee’s body, pulling out nails, electrocution and more. The detainees had to perform their bodily functions on themselves or in a bucket, and they did not receive medical care.
21. Even if the BIR unit was not involved in crimes against civilians in Cameroon, as part of the war on Boko Haram and in general, a special anti-terror military unit, whose task is counter-insurgency, is certainly inappropriate for handling legitimate civil protest by teachers, lawyers, students and others, and the decision to send it to the English-speaking provinces attests to dictator Biya’s true intention – elections will be held in Cameroon this year, and the 85 year old Biya fears that the protest will spread to other provinces, where the political and economic conditions are no less grim.
22. Under these circumstances, in view of the crimes in which the BIR unit is involved across Cameroon, especially in the past year in the British-speaking provinces, and fearing that the grave political crisis in Cameroon may spiral out of control into a full civil war, I would ask you to freeze or cancel all security export licenses to the BIR unit, until one can make sure that it is possible to verify that its soldiers are no longer involved in severe violations of human rights, that the crimes which were committed are investigated and those responsible are brought to justice, and that the crisis in Cameroon is over.
23. This case does not involve “normal” Israeli security exports being used for grave violations of human rights, but rather – a real intervention by the Israeli Ministry of Defense in the political life of another country, in a neo-colonial manner. The citizens of Israel, the State of Israel or the Knesset have never declared war on the residents of the English-speaking provinces of Cameroon, and have never voted to support the eternal reign of an aging dictator.
24. In view of the rapid escalation in Cameroon, I would be thankful for your swift reply.
- https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2017/12/5a38dc054/unhcr-steps-support-cameroonians-fleeing-nigeria.html ; https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2018/1/5a61b3bc4/concern-grows-women-children-fleeing-cameroon.html ; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cameroon-separatists-nigeria/at-least-15000-cameroonian-refugees-flee-to-nigeria-amid-crackdown-idUSKBN1F01Q6
- https://www.makorrishon.co.il/nrg/online/1/ART2/181/108.html ; https://www.alafnet.com/cameroon-biyas-militaryadviser-dies-in-helicopter-crash/ ; https://www.mako.co.il/news-channel2/Channel-2-Newscast/Article-6130775493a7c21004.htm
- https://www.jeuneafrique.com/mag/276021/politique/cameroun-paul-biya-sous-protection-israelienne ; https://www.jeuneafrique.com/183587/politique/mort-du-monsieur-s-curit-de-paul-biya-dans-le-crash-d-un-h-licopt-re/ ; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2017/07/26/in-the-war-on-boko-haram-is-the-u-s-turning-a-;